On the surface, the classification of vineyards in Germany is a good idea. Based on the Burgundian model, the German system designates top sites that historically have been the source of great wines, calling them “first-growths."
The wines from these sites are made from mostly Riesling, though other grapes are allowed depending on the region, are made in a dry style, with strict yield and production standards. Sweet dessert wines are also allowed from first-growth vineyards.
However, in practice, nothing is black and white. The Rheingau region, the first to designate vineyards as first growths, or Erstes Gewächs, applies the classification to the best part of a vineyard—but not necessarily all of it. Fair enough. Some vineyards are large and heterogeneous, with some parts possessing better terroir. But then there’s always the problem of who, or what, gets excluded.
In the Rheingau, a small region in the state of Hesse, the classification became law in 2000. The other main German wine regions are in the state of Rhineland-Pfalz. They have not yet passed the classification into law. Furthermore, instead of using the term Erstes Gewächs, they call their top vineyard sites Grosses Gewächs, except in the Mosel, where it’s Erste Lage. Got it?
Furthermore, the Mosel wanted to make elegant kabinette, spätlesen and auslesen from first-growth vineyards, rather than strictly dry wines. Reasonable, given that this is their strength.
I am reminded of all this having recently tasted 60 dry wines from the 2005 vintage. The vintage shows potential, especially for the dry-style Rieslings, which need a great vintage to really shine.
But talk about confusing? Those from the Rheingau are labeled Erstes Gewächs. Other regions are not allowed to “officially” call such wines Grosses Gewächs or Erste Lage, but if your estate is a member of the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikats und Qualitätsweinguter) you can use the first-growth logo—a “1” with a stylized grape cluster.
Then there are dry wines from the same producer, some labeled "spätlese trocken" and others with the first-growth logo. There are dry wines from the same vineyard, one labeled "spätlese trocken," one simply with the vineyard's name and first-growth logo. Some growers distinguish their first-growths with gold capsules, not to be confused with those gold-capsule wines that are super selections of auslese or beerenauslese.
Some first-growths are in big, heavy bottles, some aren’t. VDP members can use the first-growth logo, but not all do. Non-VDP members also make first-growth dry-style wines, but these labels and bottles will not have the logo. The first-growth wines use the name of the vineyard only, as in Burgundy, except when they don’t. Got all that now?
I have a lot of respect for the top German estates. They are making some of the purest, detailed and most beautiful wines available to wine lovers today. They are trying to convince consumers in this country to drink dry. But they are not making it easy for us. And wasn’t that the whole point of the classification?