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Germany: Hard Words, Easy Wine

Nothing in the world of wine is much more daunting than the German label.

The language is polysyllabic and agglutinative, and not only that, it uses jaw-breaking words that are hard to read even if they aren't printed in old-fashioned Gothic type.

But it would be a shame to let a few big words keep us from discovering German wine.

Because it almost invariably has an edge of sweetness and its alcoholic content is typically low, German wine can be an attractive change of pace from dry, acidic table wines. Don't expect a wine that tastes like Kool-Aid, though. At its best, German wine balances natural sweetness with tart acidity that keeps the taste from cloying.

Because Germany's Rhine and Mosel valleys are among the world's most northerly wine-producing regions, growers run a constant race against the weather. Long but cool summers allow an extended growing season, with the harvest sometimes coming as late as November. Grapes ripen slowly in this climate, acquiring subtle qualities from the soil.

In a good year, such as 1983 or 1985, fully ripened grapes produce lush, succulent wine with exceptional complexity and finesse.

In poorer vintages, though, the grapes don't ripen well and wine makers must add sugar to the green, acidic juice. It's not a formula for excellent wine.

Most German wines are submitted to a government panel for tasting and laboratory tests to verify their origin and sugar content.

Wines that pass the examination receive the designation "Qualitatswein eines bestimmten Anbaugebietes," often shortened to "Qualitatswein" or "QbA."

The finest, made from grapes so ripe that no additional sugar is needed, receive the designation "Qualitatswein mit Pradikat" or "QmP." These wines are further categorized, in order of increasing sugar content and (usually) price, as "Kabinett," "Spatlese," "Auslese," "Beerenauslese" or "Trockenbeerenauslese."

German wine seems like it ought to be a natural for Americans with its light, sweet flavor and low alcohol content. Don't let the label scare you. Give it a try!

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