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Hung Out to Dry

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 12, 2006 4:07pm ET

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?

William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  December 12, 2006 4:54pm ET
Spatlese trocken? Is there a Spatlese halbsuss or suss? It sounds like I'll have to forget everything I ever learned about German wines.
Thomas A Mobley Iii
Tallahassee, FL —  December 12, 2006 6:43pm ET
Bruce, I agree that Germany is getting much worse in its communication with the consumer. Clearly, no one is in charge. Politics and terrior just don't mix. All politics are local, anyway, right?
Patrick Frenchick
Germany —  December 13, 2006 3:30am ET
Even in Germany very few of the customers understand what is going on.One interesting thing on German wines, that unfortunately gets lost on import or in the blinded tastings is that most wineries provide the alcohol level, residual sugar and acid levels at their shops. For those who like certain styles, like Kabinet vs Spatlase trocken this inofrmation really helps picking wines to try. Even this gets jumbled in years like 2003 when the sugar at harvest system was ignored because almost all the wine ended up in the Spatlese category. Some of that wine ended up in the Kabinet out of necessity.
Brad Coelho
New York City —  December 13, 2006 12:08pm ET
Why is it so difficult for the Germans to simplify labels? They have to realize a fundamental reason that their wines haven't received nearly as much consumer demand as they merit is due to the convulated labels they have. Even their own domestic consumers are left w/ nothing but perplexed faces when trying to decifer the acronym codes and labeling inconsistencies.Is there some massive political agenda underneath that seems to blatantly disrupt any plan to simplify the labeling schemes? Don't they want to increase revenue on exported products? Not only are German wines undervalued (which, don't get me wrong, I love) but, w/ the trends of global warming, their land value will most likely exponentially increase in the coming decades w/ cooler climates being at a premium. Not the best way to prepare for it, huh?
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  December 14, 2006 12:00am ET
Wow! ...and to think that I thought the French system of identification was difficult.
Martin Diehr
December 18, 2006 8:38am ET
Brad, not sure why you are concerned about the value of the land and what global warming has to do with the labeling of German wine, but most German wines are smaller production wines and stay in Germany anyways. To answer your question if they want to export - I don't think so, the best stuff stays in Germany and we buy the "runner-up" here in the states and get all excited about it. In my eyes, it seems like that they are doing it right.
Patrick Frenchick
Germany —  December 19, 2006 4:53am ET
Martin, a little of the "good stuff" does leave Germany for the US. some goes to the UK, but the demand in the US was, I think, ruined by the big advertising push on the "Liebfraumilch" wines in the dark ages. After that who would think of German wines as quality. And the Germans are not as good as other wine regions on wine tourism. Try driving around France, with all the degustation signs, and then come to the Rheingau or Nahe...not the same.And think of moving from MSR (which will now be only Mosel)wines to Nahe, a little cheaper and different texture but pretty nice. And wine Spectator has had a few of these in recent issues to give you a base of info.
Gary W. Zinn
Rancho Cucamonga —  December 24, 2006 12:29am ET
I recently built a wine celler under my stairs and the contractor gave me 5 bottles of 1975 Ch¿au Latour Grand Vin and 1 bottle of 1978. Does anyone know the approx value of this wine?Gary Zinn
William Fyke
NYC —  December 25, 2006 11:47am ET
Maybe i'm alone in this but a label that says NOTHING like most cali labels is less telling that a german label. if you dont want to read the test of the info - dont. you know its a riesling and thats all. i am not sure how a label thats says CHARDONAY from SONOMA tells you its RS content or style or anything else... as far as the "best stuff" - actually most great wines do come here, their demand in germany is rather small. Germans prefer dry wines and not the noble sweet ones.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  December 30, 2006 7:14pm ET
I don't know how else to contact you, so I thought I'd try here in the blogs.Back in the Nov 29th Insider you rated the JOH. JOS. CHRISTOFFEL ERBEN Riesling Sp¿ese* Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ¿ziger W¿rzgarten 2005 at 93 points with a drinking window from 2008 to 2020.A month later, on the website you rated the same wine a 95 and noted: "Beautifully balanced and elegant, this offers the richness of 2005 and the raciness of Mosel Riesling. There are layers of lime, peach, vanilla cream and mineral notes and the profile changes like a chameleon. The well-integrated structure brings vivacity and length. Drink now through 2020. 109 cases imported. ¿B.S." Even the number of cases imported differed by a factor of 2. Am I missing something?
Henry Kibler Sr
Casa Grande, Arizona —  January 1, 2007 10:54pm ET
When will you be tatsing additional 2004Cote De Beaune whites? I have two bottles of Gagnard Delagrange 2004 Batard-Montrachet and three bottles of Paul Pillot 2004 Chassagne-Montrachet La Romanee and would love to know how you would rate these two wines.
Craig Wilson
Ben Lomond, CA —  March 17, 2007 8:44pm ET
James: Greatly enjoyed your article on the 2005 German vintage and am ready to try some Ausleses. Do you have any recommendations as to where I might locate a decent selection, either locally in Northern California or on the internet?Incidentally, we also recently had a vacation in Argentina - Buenos Aires and Mendoza - and were blown away by the wine and food scene.

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