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Dear Dr. Vinny,
What’s the deal with sweetness levels in Riesling, like spätlese and beerenauslese? Is it measuring residual sugar or botrytis?
—Chris E., Orlando, Fla.
Neither. The German “Prädikatswein” classification that you’re referring to isn’t a measure of the sweetness in a bottled wine, but of the must weight, which indicates the amount of sugar in the grapes at the time of harvest. You can also think of must weight as a measure of potential alcohol, should all the sugar ferment. In ascending order, the list of must weights go like this: kabinett, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese (or TBA for short).
There’s also eiswein, a type of dessert wine made from grapes left to freeze on the vine, which is sometimes inserted into this group between beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese because of its must weight.
Since winemakers can harvest at one prädikat level and ferment it down to a drier level, keep in mind that the final impression of sweetness of a bottled wine might not exactly correspond to this same scale.
As far as botrytis, or “noble rot,” is concerned, the amount you’ll find in a Riesling depends on the vintage, but you’ll probably notice it most starting at the beerenauslese level. The botrytis will offer rich notes of honey and spice—but botrytis also increases the proportion of natural acidity, so the wines should still be balanced.
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