There is a private organization comprised of many
top level German estates called the VDP: Verband Deutscher
We have sometimes described the VDP as standing for Very Difficult People.
They are certainly well-intentioned and have attempted to change, to some
degree, the notation for quality to include a bit of a geographical hierarchy or
For decades the sole labeling notation for quality, apart from the name of the
winery, was the sugar level of the grapes when they were harvested.
There are perhaps 200 members and we understand the
participating wineries account for less than 5% of German vineyard lands.
The group was founded in 1910 and it's changed over the course of time. A
winery cannot simply join the organization but has to be vetted as there are
quality constraints which preclude many producers from becoming a member.
But apparently some former members found the various stipulations and
requirements to be burdensome and unhelpful.
One winery departed because the VDP permits, apparently, just one bottling of a
wine from what is considered a "Grosse Lage" site as they seek to
limit, to some degree, the quantity of the top bottlings made by various
Further, chaptalizing (adding sugar to the grape must (juice) is permitted
for these lofty Grosse Lage/Grand Cru bottlings and some quality-oriented
vintners oppose this winemaking option.
They have tried to simplify the labels so consumers would have less difficulty
in understanding the supposed quality of a bottle.
In addition, the group imposes stricter limitations on the quantity of grapes
cultivated in the vineyard and they seem to be more environmentally conscious
than industrial wineries.
This is somewhat based on the hierarchy found in France's Burgundy region:
The Grosse Lage is akin to a Grand Cru caliber vineyard
Yields are capped at 50 hectoliters per hectare or roughly 3.7 tons-per acre of
If you don't see the familiar terms of Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese
or Eiswein, then you can be sure the wine is dry.
And the idea is that the wine hails from an elite vineyard site. Typically
you would find the letters "GG" emblazoned on the glass bottle or, at
the very least, prominently on the label.
If we understand the current regulations for these, only the vineyard site would
be noted on the label and you would not have a notation of the town. As in
Burgundy, for example, the label reads: Richebourg. The village name, Vosne-Romanée
does not appear on the label.
To be labeled as a "GG" wine, the grapes at harvest need to be of the
minimum sugar level as a Spätlese wine, having a potential alcohol level of 12%
Then you can understand why a "GG" wine is not eligible to be a
Kabinett level wine.
And it is supposed to be dry, that is, having less than 10 grams of sugar per
So if you make a wine using native yeasts instead of commercial yeast and the
wine stops fermenting, leaving 11 grams of sugar, then the wine cannot,
according to the VDP group, be called a GG wine.
Maybe an unintended consequence of this is that winemakers are encouraged to
make wines which may be less exceptional in order to get that vaunted GG
indicator on the bottle?
What happens if the growing season is warm?
Suppose the sugar level at harvest is in the range of an Auslese wine but the
fermentation sticks or stops before getting to below 10 grams of sugar...then
that wine is not eligible for their Grosses Gewächs status.
Or should the winemaker push the wine, by some means, to continue to ferment to
hit the parameters of the VDP?
German wines, dry or not, are prized for their often-pinpoint balance.
Sometimes a wine which may be over the 10 grams' threshold for sugar could have
a high level of acidity, achieving good balance, but as it would be outside the
boundaries for "GG," the wine loses a bit of prestige???
Is the idea here to encourage high quality winemaking or is this solely about
marketing and achieving a high price?
Now, as usual, things can get a bit twisted and so this protocol of "GG"
wines has not been adopted by the German government. It's a dynamic for
the VDP wineries, so they cannot (yet) legally put the words Grosses Gewächs
on the label, so the letters "GG" is, to use a phrase popularized
by Monty Python's Flying Circus, a wink, wink, nudge, nudge to this
vaunted quality level.
But you can find VDP member's wines with a vaunted vineyard name on them and, of
course, you can find non-member winemakers using the same geographical
designations with somewhat looser cultivation protocols and winemaking
So while, yes, the VDP wines may be of really good quality, you will find
exceptional wines from non-member wineries, too.
This is why trying to understand German wine labels will give you a headache.
Erste Lage wines come from what in Burgundy would be a Premier Cru vineyard.
You would expect these to be dry unless they carry the traditional notations of
Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese or Eiswein and
the label will typically have this notation of the wine being a "First
You will hear someone speak about these wines as being Erstes Gewächs or
Ortswein would then be something like a "Village" wine taking the name
of the bus stop or town name.
These might be dry wines if there's the word Trocken on the label,
although off-dry to sweeter versions would be noted using the traditional
designations of "Kabinett," "Spätlese,"
"Trockenbeerenauslese" and "Eiswein."
The vineyard yields
And Gutswein is simply a wine made from Estate Grown vineyards, not purchased
fruit and these are usually the entry-level wines from a particular wine
These can be dry, but if they do have some residual sugar the winery is allowed
to use the traditional terminology to designate the level of ripeness of the
fruit at harvest. Thus, these wines would be labeled as
"Kabinett," "Spätlese," "Auslese,"
"Beerenauslese" and "Trockenbeerenauslese."
Additionally, there are unofficial designations found on
German wine bottles.
Sometimes you will find a gold capsule or foil on the bottle to distinguish that
bottling for the so-called "normal" bottle of a wine.
Some producers utilize an asterisk to signal special quality...so you might find
a single asterisk, a double asterisk or a triple asterisk.
Germany has something like 2,600 Einzellagen or
individual vineyard site names.
While the VDP group has tried to highlight vineyards by quality, in reality the
best indicator is by the winery name and their designation as to the quality of
the fruit at harvest.
Americans know only wines from Piesport (easy to pronounce), J.J. Prüm (a famous Mosel
winery), Zeller Schwarze Katz (with a black cat on the label), Kröver Nacktarsch (with
kids being spanked depicted on the label) or branded wines such as Blue Nun or Black Tower
(which are names of Liebfraumilch, a relatively meaningless designation of
rather modest quality).
This dynamic has improved greatly since the turn of the century. In the
late 1990s it was rare to find dry wine from Germany.
These days, though, there are many "trocken" wines coming to the US
Further, Germany has become increasingly famous for its red wines, especially
There are good bottle-fermented Sparkling wines, too.
So the bottom line is if your perspective on German wines is from the Dark Ages,
it's time to become enlightened and discover today's Germany.
Another curiosity is that many
customers come in and ask for "Spätlese wines" and will buy these without the
slightest clue as to where they come from (Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinpfalz, etc.) or as to who
made the wine! Imagine customers in other parts of the world buying California
Zinfandel and not caring whether its label is "Turning Leaf" or "Ridge
So then, a "chicken and egg" situation arises: Is it that smart
people know German wines or are German wine drinkers simply smarter than the
The door to a German winetasting room.
Sometimes these are meant more for social gatherings and selling wine by the glass and
snacks more than for "serious" wine evaluations.