Of all the Old World countries Germany is the easiest to understand, but the hardest to decipher. Because of the country's cool climate, there aren't many grapes that grow there, so the possibilities of what's in the bottle are relatively few. The bulk of the white wines, for which they are most famous, are made from Riesling with Muller-Thurgau and Silvaner a distant second and third. The only red grown in any quantifiable amount is Pinot Noir. Like I said, simple enough. The country is split into 13 Quality regions with the following regions being the most prominent and important for quality wines.
Why do you need to know this? Because German wine labels are a nightmare and knowing the names of the top villages will keep you from buying inferior wines. The first thing to look for is the term QbA or QmP, which designates quality wines, as opposed to table wines. In addition to that notation there are several other terms you need to know that rank QmP Rieslings by their style and level of sweetness:
- MOSEL-SAAR-RUWER: The region is named after the three rivers that come together that are splayed with the best vineyard sites, over half planted with Riesling. The wines from the Mosel come in green bottles and are the lightest in body with the perfect mixture of flavor and crispness of all the Rieslings from Germany. The wines from the Saar-Ruwer area are in the standard brown bottle and tend to be fuller-bodied with higher acidity. The best wines come from the vineyards of Piesport, Brauneberg, Bernkastel, Wehlen, Graach and Erden.
- RHEINGAU: An area located west of Frankfurt filled with vineyards with slate soils on south-facing slopes to soak up the sun. This region is planted with 80% Riesling with some of the best vineyards in the villages of Rudesheim, Geisenheim, Johannisberg, Winkel, Erbach and Hochheim.
- PFALZ: Stretching north from the French border, this is the most important region in terms of quantity and one of the best for producing Liebfraumilch. The quality villages for Riesling in this area are Wachenheim, Forst, Deidesheim and Ruppertsberg.
- Kabinett: The lightest and driest with high acidity and flavors of green apples
- Spatlese: A late harvest wine with more body and more sweetness with more citrus and tropical fruit flavors.
- Auslese: The last ranking considered to be "dry." The greatest variation in sweetness levels from region to region. Has enough acidity to not be cloying like a dessert wine, but still pretty sweet.
- Beerenauslese: A rare and expensive wine ($100+ for 1/2 bottle) from hand-selected grapes, usually affected by botrytis (noble rot) that makes them a lucious mouthful.
- Eiswein: Another rare wine because the right conditions don't happen every year. Made from frozen grapes, generally not affected by noble rot, so they have a purity of flavor and richness not found in other dessert-style wines. ($80+ per bottle)
- Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA): Only made in the best vintages from the best grapes that have shriveled to raisins. Not high in alcohol, which makes them the ultimate sweet wine. Top quality TBA's are among the world's most expensive and rarest wines.
The three labels above are examples are some of the simpler ones out there, however, they do show the style, region and sometimes even the vineyard designation. Price doesn't always equal quality here but it's a good indication, especially when buying wine in the US which doesn't import alot. So unless you're addicted to Riesling and speak German, there's no reason to learn all the different vineyard names. Other terms to be aware of: TROCKEN = Dry; HALBTROCKEN = Off-dry; CLASSIC = a wine with a minimum of 12% alcohol from one region, grape and vintage.
The best way to understand what these wines are all about is to take a class. That way you'll discover not only how good white wine can be, but which style you like before you spend a lot money on wines that aren't to your taste.