A group of more than 200 wine producers in Germany, including some of the best estates in the country, has passed a resolution to adopt a new national wine-classification system. The three-tier classification model approved by the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates (VDP) resembles the grand cru, premier cru and village system used in France's Burgundy region.
"It's not yet a legal classification passed by the German parliament, but a classification within the VDP," explained Michael Prinz zu Salm-Salm, president of the association, which passed the measure with only one dissenting vote at its annual summer meeting.
Under current German wine law, wines are classified by quality levels that are based on the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, rather than by the location and attributes of the vineyard sites. (The Prädikat levels for the top wines, from lowest level of ripeness to highest, include kabinett, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeernauslese, or TBA.) The new system will retain the Prädikat levels, but creates a hierarchy of vineyards based on climate, soil and historical significance.
With a vineyard-based classification, the VDP members are seeking to make consumers aware of the best vineyards in Germany, by equating them with the top wine designations in prominent regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy in France. The national association will enforce the standards, although each regional VDP association may impose stricter regulations.
In order for the new classifications to be used on wine labels, the system must be adopted by each state government and then the national government. This process could take up to 10 years, according to Prinz zu Salm. The classification system is already legal in the Rheingau -- a small, relatively homogenous winegrowing area in the state of Hessen -- where vintners received approval for the "first-growth" concept in 1999. But other German regions, most of which are in the Rhineland Pfalz state and show more diversity in wine styles, have yet to reach agreement on classifications.
Under the VDP resolution, each region has up to three years to complete its vineyard classification and to work out the details of its wine styles; for example, the Rheingau allows only dry wines and late-harvest sweet wines to carry the top designation, but the Mosel produces more sweet styles of wine and may want to recognize those. "I'm happy we could agree on this classification because we need a national law, but each region must do its homework and determine its own style," said Prinz zu Salm.
Unfortunately, once the details are finalized, German wine lovers in the United States will be faced with yet more new German terms on the labels, which many consumers already find confusing. Furthermore, those terms may differ by region.
The basic level of quality, similar to Burgundy's village designation, is called gutsweine or ortsweine. This designation applies to estate wines labeled with a proprietary name or the region and varietal, such as Rheingau Riesling. The maximum yield permitted in the vineyards is 75 hectoliters per hectare (about 4.3 tons per acre).
The second level, the equivalent of Burgundy's premier cru, is called Klassifizierter Lagenwein. It consists of wines from classified vineyard sites that express specific traits and includes only grape varieties that are traditional to the region. (This means the wines will primarily be Riesling, with some exceptions; the Rheingau permits Pinot Noir, for example.) The maximum yield allowed is 65 hectoliters per hectare (about 3.7 tons per acre). These wines will be labeled with a vineyard designation, along with the region and grape variety.
Top, or grand cru, wines will carry only the classified vineyard name. Yields cannot exceed 50 hectoliters per hectare (about 2.8 tons per acre.) and grapes must achieve a minimum ripeness at the spätlese level. These wines must also undergo additional bottle-aging prior to release. The top level is called erste gewäch, or first-growth, in the Rheingau, but other regions will use either the terms gross gewäch or erste lage, or great growth.
Until the German parliament passes legislation allowing the new system, the VDP plans to distinguish the grand cru—style wines with labels that show the vineyard name, along with the VDP eagle logo.
Fritz Hasselbach, co-proprietor and winemaker at Gunderloch in Rheinhessen, was one of the original proponents of a vineyard classification, and he has been making a grand cru—style wine from his Nackenheim Rothenberg site since the 1997 harvest. Although he did not attend the VDP meeting and said he is not familiar with all the details of the resolution, he generally thinks the new system is a good idea. However, he cautioned, "Not every VDP member has the vineyards and capability to make first-growth wines."
Read past news articles about German wine classification:
To learn more about German wines, read Bruce Sanderson's recent tasting reports: