Just for information sake I thought I would update & re-post something I did a few years ago. This is an important primer on the prädikat system (e.g. kabinett, auslese, trockenbeerenauslese) that is critical to understanding German wine labels.
I do not pretend that this is comprehensive, but it's a start:
A primer on the prädikat system of German Riesling.
Note 1: In the somewhat bizarre world of German wine there are separate ripeness requirements for every single approved grape variety. So what’s kabinett for Riesling is not necessarily kabinett for Scheurebe (in fact it is not if I recall correctly). The same goes for Muscat (each kind of Muscat…), Kerner, Spätburgunder, etc. So the numbers quoted below are for Riesling unless otherwise stated.
The prädikat system:
Developed as part of the 1971 wine law (which also rewrote the boundaries of a number of vineyard sites), the prädikat system was meant to codify and clarify (?) the ripeness requirements for various levels of German wine. Prior to 1971, terms such as Cabinet (generally meaning a wine meant for keeping) and Feinste Auselse (roughly translatable to today’s gold capsule auslese) were used with little or no regulation. Certainly 1971 was an auspicious year to start such a system, as the exceptional vintage meant a full usage of the system, from QbA to TBA in its first year out of the blocks. Since 1971 there have been some revisions to the system, most notably the addition of the Eiswein prädikat in the ‘80s, but the majority of the system remains as imposed in 1971. (As an aside, there have been some more recent additions with the advent of Grosses Gewächs, Erste Lage, Selection & Classic labeling rules, but that is another set of rules for another post.)
On to the system.
There are essentially three levels of wine in Germany. The first is tafelwein, equivalent to vin de table in France and actually controlled in its regulation through the European Union, not German wine law. With the exception of certain “experimental” lots (e.g. untraditional use of barrique) this category is not worth considering here.
The second category is Quälitatswein eines bestimmten Anbaugebeites, hereafter referred to as QbA. While not actually a prädikat, QbA (translatable as “quality wine from a specified region”) still has legal requirements on grape variety and ripeness. In that way it is frequently, and incorrectly, considered as a part of the prädikat system (even though the wines must pass the testing process and receive an AP number…more later). This does not mean that QbA is inferior wine. In fact many QbA wines are excellent and can represent remarkable value. QbA has also recently been used as the opening for the new styles of dry wines in Germany, with wines legally entitled to a prädikat instead being sold as QbA or with a new designation of Grosse Gewächs/Erstes Gewächs. This primer will not delve into the Grosse Gewächs discussion. That will have to come later.
The third category of wine is Quälitatswein mit Prädikat. This is the heart of the matter. “Quality wine with distinction” (or attributes) is the translation, and it opens up the world of fine German wine, and a whole lot of confusion for those who are first faced with a German wine label.
First off there are six levels of pradikat, though one (eiswein) is not really a separate level, just a specification of production tied to other levels. The levels are:
Kabinett: The first level of prädikat, and normally the lowest in alcohol
Spätlese: Literally meaning “late harvest”, and required to be harvested at least one week after the main harvest has started
Auslese: Meaning “selected harvest”, but with no requirement for late picking
Beerenauslese (BA): Meaning “berry selection”, and normally affected by botrytis. This is also the minimum level of ripeness required for a wine to be officially classified as an Eiswein.
Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA): Meaning “dried berry selection”, and normally affected by significant amounts of botrytis.
Each of these prädikats carries with it certain requirements for the “ripeness” of the grapes (actually the sugar content of the unfermented grape must) that vary by region and grape variety. This is specified by the öchsle scale (a measure of specific gravity of the must), and does not in any way indicate the amount of sugar in the finished wine.
Limiting this discussion to Riesling, and the six most famous wine regions of Germany, the minimum öchsle requirements are:
QbA: 51 (approx. 12.6 degrees Brix!!) for the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Mittelrhein; 57 for the Nahe and Rheingau; 60 for the Pfalz and Rheinhessen
Kabinett: 70 (approx. 17 degrees Brix) for the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Mittelrhein and Nahe; 73 for the Pfalz, Rheingau and Rheinhessen
Spätlese: 76 (approx. 18.4 degrees Brix) for the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Mittelrhein; 78 for the Nahe; 85 for the Pfalz, Rheingau and Rheinhessen
Auslese: 83 (approx. 20 degrees Brix) for the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Mittelrhein; 85 for the Nahe; 92 for the Pfalz and Rheinhessen; 95 for the Rheingau
Beerenauslese & Eiswein: 110 (approx. 25.8 degrees Brix) for the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Mittelrhein; 120 for the Nahe, Pfalz and Rheinhessen; 125 for the Rheingau
Trockenbeerenauslese: 150 (approx. 34 degrees Brix) for ALL SIX REGIONS
There are a couple of things to note here. First is that the ripeness requirements overlap. For instance an auslese in the Mosel may only legally be spätlese in the Pfalz. This is based on the climate in the various regions, and the likelihood (prior to the recent warmer years) of ripening grapes to the specified requirements. Second is that there are no requirements for the use of gold capsules, stars or any other special identifier. This is a loophole in the 1971 wine law that leaves everybody confused.
Again, the requirements listed above are for the unfermented grape must, and do not necessarily give an indication of the final residual sugar in the wine. The terms Trocken (dry) and Halbtrocken (“half-dry”) do have legal definitions, and when placed on the label indicate residual sugar content ranges. For trocken the range in 0-9 grams per liter of residual sugar, and for halbtrocken the range is 10-18 grams per liter. For about half of the trocken range the allowable residual sugar range is below the human detection threshold (commonly around 5 or 6 grams per liter), and given the acidity of most German Riesling, the average trocken wine will taste dry. Halbtrocken is completely within the detection threshold, but can end up tasting fairly dry due to the acidity. Even wines with higher residual sugars can taste dry if the acidity in the wine is high enough. (Tried any 1996 kabinetts folks?)
So it now seems perfectly clear. Right?
Heck, this is where it gets fun!
There are a whole bunch of things that can happen to totally confound the wine lover. Let’s take them one by one.
1. Why is my kabinett so sweet?
Well probably because it’s not really kabinett. More than likely these days (2005 is perhaps the latest ultimate test case) the wine labeled kabinett is actually spätlese. It’s been declassified. So you’re getting a bargain right? Well yes, but if you’ve come to expect the light, fruity, just off-dry refreshing kabinett of yore (those of us who started drinking these wine prior to say 1998) then you are likely to be disappointed. Many of today’s kabinetts are monsters sold as kabinett because people buy kabinett. The $15.99 kabinett is a staple of the wine trade (at least the niche that is German wine), and without it the genre might actually flounder. So producers are “forced” to make something called kabinett. If they pick the grapes earlier (lower sugars but unripe skins/seeds) the wines can be green and nasty. So some take their lightest spätlese (or even auslese) and call it kabinett, while others do a careful selection in the vineyard to try to craft something that resembles kabinett.
Don’t get me wrong. I love some of these “declassified” (there’s a loaded word for you) bargains. As an example, the 2005 Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett is legally an auslese. It was harvested at 99 öchsle (remember 83 is the minimum for auslese in the Mosel). Now it does not taste like an auslese, but it certainly does not taste quite like kabinett. I’m cellaring it with anticipation that it will react in much the same way as a good spätlese. If I want a kabinett I grab a bottle of 1997 Willi Schaefer Graacher Domprobst or a Merkelbach wine. (Both of them are likely legal spätlese, but at least they taste like kabinett.)
So with a series of very hot years the genre of kabinett is a somewhat endangered species. What is a wine lover to do? You can drink QbA, but the alcohol content is likely to be higher. Most QbAs I run across are around 10% alcohol by volume, where kabinett hovers around 8-9 percent. I guess until (if?) we have a cooler year we will be drinking a lot of spätlese and auslese but not knowing it from the label
2. What do the stars/capsules mean?
Oh another one of my favorites. This is widely discussed on the wine bulletin boards every time a new vintage of Christoffel (stars), Selbach-Oster (stars), J. J. Prum (capsules) or Dönnhoff (capsules) is released. All the stars or capsules are is a way for a producer to designate selections of a certain pradikat. Unfortunately they don’t use them consistently. They have no legal requirement to do so.
And please let me stress that the “no star” wine is not a bad wine. It’s just a different wine, usually priced lower and thus a lovely bargain for the discerning wine geek. For what it’s worth, my favorite 2005 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Auslese is the no star, and I have tasted them all multiple times.
This gets even more complicated because some producers (e.g. Dönnhoff) use gold capsules for all of their auslesen. It’s only by knowing the AP number (that cryptic code number on the bottom of the label) that one can determine if the bottling in hand is the regular or gold capsule release. I have two versions of the 2001 Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Auslese. They have two different AP numbers. One is the “regular” bottling (my wife’s favorite wine in the world by the way), and the other is the gold cap.
Stars can represent a stylistic choice as well. J.u.H.A. Strub has released several Niersteiner Paterberg Riesling Spätlese wines with stars. The 1998, 2001 & 2005 have three stars, while the 2002 version has two stars. They basically denote an auslese level wine with no botrytis. So we have another variation on the theme, with the number of stars being some indicator of the overall concentration of the particular wine.
Stars and capsules can be discussed till the proverbial cows come home.
There’s a whole lot more to talk about, but this is probably long enough for one post. I’ll do more based on comments/questions.
There behind the glass lies a real blade of grass. Be careful as you pass. Move along. Move along.