Understanding the German "AP Number"
Every German quality wine (Qualitatswein mit Prädikat (QmP), Qualitatswein bestimmtes Anbaugebietes (QbA)), and every Sekt, must have an "Amtliche Prüfungsnummer" (L AP nr) ("Official Testing Number") before being bottled. No such number is required for Tafelweine or Landweine, however. The government requires this number to be printed on the label, but it may be very tiny and difficult to find and read, let alone interpret. At times it may even appear on other than the main label. Here is an outline of the process for assigning an AP number, together with some information concerning its meaning. The AP number is not the same as a bar-code stock number or UPC code, by the way. That's a separate process.
Three samples of each wine to be bottled are submitted to one of nine local control centers. Along with these go an analysis protocol giving alcohol level, must weight, residual sugar, bottle acidity, free sulfur dioxide, and sugar-free extract. Data concerning the wine such as yield and bottling date are also required. One sample is given to a tasting panel who examine it primarily for conformity with the local style in bouquet, taste, and balance, and the rest are retained for later examination if necessary. Wines are rarely rejected for quality but if they seem atypical they have a fair chance of being sent back. Most wines that are rejected are passed upon appeal, and only a couple percent are not allowed to be marketed as the grower requests.
a bcd efg hi jk (where each letter stands for a single digit, often but not always grouped as shown)
a is the testing center, which subserves a specific region. These regions do not correspond exactly with the 'Gebeite' (Regions) listed on the label, but are for identification only.
There are nine possible centers, and these are the ones that I've been able to identify:
bcd is a code number for the village in that testing region
efg is a number assigned to each bottler in that village
hi is the serial number of the sample submitted by that bottler, starting from 01, 02... . If this number goes beyond 99, another digit may be added.
jk is the last two years of the year the sample is submitted, NOT the vintage year.
[Some regions do not list a separate region and village number; e.g. Baden, Franconia, Sachsen, Saale-Unstrut, Württemberg]. This may be because their wineries are much more scattered and fewer in number.
Each bottling from the classic Riesling regions therefore bears a unique AP number. If you identify the estate accurately by its full name, and the region is known, then all you have to specify is the last four digits. This works well for the better known estates. Less famous estates need the entire number. A series of tastings can be identified by the whole number for the first, and the last four for the subsequent samples.
Some makers will put an additional number on the label, called a Fuder number (cask number) or equivalent barrel designation in other regions. This indicates a small lot of wine kept separate from the rest of the product because it is believed to have special qualities worth preserving. A well-known example of this practice is von Schubert's Maximin Grünhaus in the Ruwer valley.
Sekts use a slightly different system. Some estates which are aggregates of smaller estates will use an additional digit to indicate this, for example the Bischofliche Weingüter.
Since many producers make several different versions of wine, labeled either identically or very similarly, because of the common practice of multiple pickings through a single vineyard, it may be almost impossible to tell what wine a person has tasted unless the AP number is quoted. Not quoting the AP number frequently leads to confusion. That's why I'm often asking for the AP number if it's not given. It's good to make a practice of recording the AP number on any tasting notes made from German wines. Austrian wines have a similar system, and that number should be noted too, for the same reasons.
Although this system serves to uniquely identify each bottling, it has been criticized, and I believe rightly, for having standards that are much too low. The proponents of this system point to its influence on the quality of German wine, which now passes AP testing in almost every instance, either originally or on appeal.
Critics point to these same numbers as showing that almost anything that is liquid can pass the system.
There is a proposal being aired in Germany to eliminate the testing and recordkeeping inherent in this system as too expensive for the value it brings. If this proposal passes, estates and other producers will in effect be allowed to coin their own AP numbers. I have no idea how much cost this system adds to a bottle of wine, but as a consumer, I'd not be happy with the elimination of the tasting panel. At least one knows that the wine hasn't been contaminated with some noxious substance!
The Atlas of German Wine, 1986 edition, by Hugh Johnson, Simon and Schuster, New York, which is sadly out of print, contains extensive additional information about all this.
© 2001 John H. Trombley, Jr.