I don't understand German Riesling labels! How do you know if the wine is dry or sweet?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I have difficulty understanding Riesling, especially the ones from Germany. I want to be able to figure out how to tell beforehand whether the wine is dry or not, or if sweet, how sweet. The words on the label are so intimidating. I’m usually looking for dry wines, because I have trouble pairing sweet wines with food.

—Ted, Downington, Pa.

Dear Ted,

Those intimidating terms come from the German Prädikatswein classification, and they refer to the weight of the must, or the unfermented juice extracted from crushing or pressing the grapes. The must weight is one of the indicators of ripeness, and the Prädikatswein designation it determines is a good indicator of the style and sweetness level of the wine—the higher the level, the richer and sweeter the wine will likely be.

In order from least to most ripe (and, consequently, usually driest to sweetest as well), the Prädikatswein categories are: kabinett, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese (including eiswein) and trockenbeerenauslese (or TBA for short). Since you like wines on the drier end, you can concentrate on those first two terms, kabinett and spätlese, which will typically feature wines on the lighter, fresher end of the spectrum.

There is one other term you should look out for, and that’s the term “trocken,” which means “dry” (and “halbtrocken,” which means “half-dry,” or what we might call off-dry). You might find a trocken auslese for example, which would mean a wine that started off with the potential to be rich but was made in a dry style, mixing a lusher texture with an unsweet style.

Just be careful not to confuse “trocken” with “trockenbeerenauslese,” since trockenbeerenauslesen (TBA) are very sweet (and expensive). The “trocken” in the case of a TBA refers to dried grape berries (allowing them to dry out on the vine concentrates the sugars).

Finally, you mention pairing sweet wines with food, so I have to mention that some of those off-dry, slightly sweet Rieslings are actually excellent food wines, particularly when it comes to spicy foods, especially Asian cuisines. A small dash of sweetness can really temper chile peppers or fresh ginger, and it's a natural match with soy. Wine Spectator editor at large Harvey Steiman broke some of these suggestions down in his mouthwatering cover story earlier this year, "Wine for Asian Flavors," in the May 31, 2018, issue.

—Dr. Vinny

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