Knowing the German Quality System for Wines
Now concerning German wines, it is true that the best wines always tend to be the ones made from the ripest grapes, but of course, ripeness is not the only determinant of quality. It is often said that what are called "Auslese" wines are dessert or sweet wines. That is not always so by a long shot. If you define "dry wines" as wines without residual sugar (that is, sugar contained in the bottled wine, as distinguished from sugar in the ripened grapes at the time of picking), then everything up to and including Auslesen (wines made from certain overripened grapes) have been made in what the Germans call a "trocken' (dry) or "halbtrocken' (semi-dry) style. Frequently, but not always, you'll come across these designations on the label. Even though dry or semi-dry German wines may contain little or no residual sugar at the time of bottling, the intense fruitiness of the best of them often makes us forget all about the issue of sweetness. If you read this article, and refer to Peter Jordan's German wine page at www.saarwein.com, you'll come across several references to this issue.
By the way, a note. What I have to say here is directed in large part to Estate-Bottled Riesling wines. Such wines are often marked either "Erzeugerabfullung" or "Gutsabfüllung", roughly "domaine bottled", and of course are more reliable and are often higher in quality than those not so labelled. In general, there are two types of German quality wines, Qualitätswein. The first, QbA, are chapitalized (contain added crystallized sugar) but are still ripe enough to be able to express their geographic origin. The second type of quality wine, QmP, Qualitätswein mit Prädikat, or quality wines with special properties, start the trip up the scale of grape ripeness, and even overripeness. The distinction between grape ripeness and sweetness in the wine should always be borne in mind. The names and descriptions of the "special properties" or categories follow.
Kabinett ('Reserve') wines historically used to be the wines intended for cellaring. Now they usually the lightest, in terms of extract and body, of the QmP wines, and often express a delicate sense of the vineyard's terroir very well. Buy Kabinett wines for versatile purposes. They are usually economical and are good aperitifs as well as matching light foods. They are correspondingly light in alcohol, as well. Their sweetness, if any, is not such as would interfere to any degree to matching them with these light foods, such as the milder Pacific Rim cuisines. Let me be heretical and suggest one of my favorite food matches for a light, inexpensive Kabinett: buttered popcorn. Be warned, however: some of the more ambitious estates look for an extra degree of ripeness in their wines to ensure that they actually will improve when cellared, and of course such wines would be more appropriate with fuller foods in a more serious setting.
Spätlese ('Late Harvest') (pl., "Spätlesen") wines used to be literally made from grapes picked after the main harvest, waiting for an extra measure of ripeness or concentration from unseasonably warm autumns, dry conditions, or "noble rot." Today they are made from fully ripened grapes and give the same impressions as the Kabinett in a somewhat fuller and richer style. It is up to the winemaker whether they are dry or a little sweet. In general, they are the best all around German wines to purchase, and from a fine maker in a good year, will respond quite well to cellar aging. Food matches with richer cuisines, such as white or light meats and fuller Asian dishes, are usually remarkably successful. They go very well with the nuttiness of medium-ripe cheeses, especially those in the Swiss family, such as Gouda and Emmentaler, the cheese flavors doing a wonderful job of enhancing the spiciness and fruitiness of these wines. Higher alcohol and dry extract levels give them a fuller body or viscosity in the mouth. Auslese (Auslesen, pl) ('Select Harvest') wines were formerly made of a technique that was based on the selection of grapes and bunches for especial ripeness out of the late-harvest vineyard. They are decidedly full in extract, alcohol, and sense of terroir when well made. They are made only in the best years, and like the best years in other viticultural areas, are much more expensive. Such wines are also found dry. They perform at table with richer dishes, sometimes even when they have a good amount of sweetness. As "dessert" wines I prefer them as desserts themselves, served alone, or with very light and simple, fruit-based concoctions. Sometimes the winemaker goes out of his way to obtain berries or bunches affected with noble rot, and this adds another flavor dimension to Auslese wines. Some folks like young Auslesen, but some will age the best ones 15 to 20 years and more. There are special Auslesen made, sometimes signalled by special cask numbers, gold capsules, and the like, which can be among the most sublime of German wines, not the most expensive of wines by any means, but worth serving at table with the best wines in the world.
Beerenauslese ('Berry Select Harvest') wines used to be defined as those made by going through the vineyard and picking shriveled or nobly rotten (botrytized) grapes one by one. Both shriveling and noble rot concentrate the grape juice to a supra-normal extent, so that if fermented dry, these wines would be awkwardly high in alcohol, and would even require special yeasts to complete their fermentation.. Therefore, they are almost always finished with quite a bit of residual sugar, and are true dessert wines, but again, wines as a dessert is really what I mean. I have also seen them used at table brilliantly as matches for rich main-course foods: foie gras saute, lobster, grilled oysters, etc., exactly like Sauternes can be, but often with many extra layers of flavor. They are made only in the very best years and at tremendously reduced yields and are so labor-intensive that a choice half-bottle might really shock you with its price.
Trockenbeerenauslesen ('Dried Berry Select Harvest') are an extreme form of the above, which are thick as syrup, immortal, and almost pure flavor. They are perhaps the world's most expensive wines for the above reasons. One should open a TBA only when it can be the center of attention, and savored slowly. They are great rarities, especially when produced by the best makers in classic sites. They are so powerful that they demand prolonged cellaring before being opened, and can be unpleasant or even painful to taste too young.
Eiswein (Eisweine, pl) ('Ice Wine') get their supra-normal ripeness by being frozen during a snap frost while on the vine. While still frozen hard, they are picked and brought to the press and pressed before they can thaw. Only a few drops of highly concentrated must will be expressed, and the ice crystals in the press cake, consisting of pure water, are effectively removed. This technique adds a further element of risk to the low yield and labor cost to the above. Since these wines are usually not affected with noble rot, they give a very clear and pure signature of the style of the vineyard. They are also very high in acid, and so can also age gracefully for many years, almost like a vintage port. Please read the interesting article about the Icewine History contained in Peter Jordan's site, www.saarwein.com.
There are further subdivisions of these styles, but we won't go into that here. The most important thing to remember is that whatever the Prädikat, the most important word on the label is the maker's name. Perfectionistic winemakers rightfully receive more money for their products, and an inexpensive, unknown maker BA or Eiswein can be a bad risk for your money, although of course not always.