Many people complain about German wine classification being too complicated, placing too much emphasis on must weight as an indicator of quality, and confusing punters with the introduction of inferior bereiche and grosslagen with misleading names.
To me the text on a traditional label for a prädikatswein is a model of clarity. Here’s one I’ve been drinking a lot of recently: 2000 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett. The information traditionally comes in the same order
- Vintage (2000)
- Village (Brauneberg)
- Vineyard (Juffer)
- Grape variety (Riesling)
- Prädikat (Kabinett)
Somewhere on the label there will also be the region, in this case Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, which gives some indication of the style to expect, and of course the producer - here it is Weingut Fritz Becker Erben.
If a German wine is dry or medium dry, the label will usually indicate this with the EU defined words trocken or halbtrocken respectively. Though you may also find the word feinherb used, which is not controlled by the EU, but roughly means the same as halbtrocken. Otherwise you can pretty safely assume the wine will be sweet, with the prädikat giving some indication of the level of sweetness. And finally, as a special treat for wine geeks, there will be an ID unique to the particular bottling. My wine is AP Nr 2 577 015 5 01.
So what is the problem? You have all the key information. French labels are sometimes criticised for omitting the grape variety and level of sweetness, but that is rarely an issue with German wines.
I suppose having a smattering of German helps a lot. For example you need to realise that Brauneberger means “from Brauneberg”, and you sometimes also see something like 2000er, meaning “of the 2000 vintage”. And some of the vineyard names are awfully long and complicated looking. But they are just names – take them one syllable at a time. It may well be my geeky scientific mentality coming through, but I really like the orderliness of German labels. It reflects the strict word order rules in German grammar.
Of course, if you do treat the prädikat as a mark of quality, you are likely to come a cropper at some point or other. As with all wines, the best indicators of quality are vineyard and producer, and you have that information too. I simply take the prädikat as an indicator of style. As such, perhaps it would be useful if there were maximum as well as minimum must sugar levels specified for each one, but even so it provides useful information.
On the issue of grosslagen, as I see it they should be treated like the any other specified vineyard. Some vineyards are better than others and of course you have to know which are the good and bad ones to make sense of the information. There’s Google, and plenty of references books, to help you out. And of course price is also usually a pretty good indicator. If you see a cheap wine with Niersteiner on the bottle, do you really expect it to be from one of Nierstein’s top vineyards? In that sense it is no better or worse than Burgundy. The most serious charge against bereiche and grosslagen is that they allow a respectable village name to be applied to vines that may be grown beyond the limits of the village. Again, I am reminded of Burgundy. No one seems to get upset, for example, about the name of Beaune being applied to wines from a number of different villages in the southern part of the Côte d’Or. Not to mention the way several villages on the Côte d’Or managed to acquire the names of their finest vineyard leading to, for example, the name Montrachet featuring in the appellations of village level wines from two different villages.
So as you can perhaps now guess, I don’t think there is a lot wrong with German wine labelling.
Or at least there wasn’t. But I find the more recent attempts to give recognition to good quality dry wines unhelpful. How many people really understand what a Grosses Gewächs is? And if they do, could they explain how it differs from Erstes Gewächs and Erste Lage? I have just read an article on the subject in The World of Fine Wine and I’m damned if I can without referring back to the article. There is also a modern trend to simplify labels by omitting information, or using a simplified front label and relegating detail to the back of the bottle. I also find this unhelpful, as removing context makes it more difficult to work out what the remaining words refer to. Is that word the village or the vineyard? Or maybe it is simply a made up brand name?
Anyway, what about this 2000 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett from Weingut Fritz Becker Erben? This year I bought a case of it from Cambridge Wine Merchants for the princely sum of £6.50 a bottle, and I am currently in the process of trying to clear them out of their last remaining bottles, but they may have a few left by the time you read this. £6.50 for a 10 year old wine! I believe there is some bottle variation, the less good bottles being less intense and a bit tired, but the better ones are beautiful. A light crisp wine, with apple and lime aromas, a fair whack of petrol, and sweetness in excellent balance with the acidity. Not a great wine by any means, but very enjoyable if you like that sort of thing. Some bottles maybe should have been drunk a few years ago, but the better ones are in my opinion spot on now and just about merit ****.