Riesling is one of the most Noble of grapes (if not the most noble). This cool climate grape is responsible for the driest of white wines to the sweetest of dessert offerings.
Grand examples of Riesling are produced in Germany, France, Austria, Australia and even here in Michigan. They are wonderful wines to pair with a variety of dishes and because of their acidic nature, can age for decades.
For us, Germany produces some of the best Rieslings in the world. The issue with German Rieslings though, is their labels. They can be very intimidating, even to the most educated wine enthusiasts. How do you know what they say?
We are here to help diffuse the German labels and how to determine what type of Riesling is in the bottle and best for you.
Step 1: The Regions
While there are exceptions, here are each region’s general flavor profiles.
Mosel and Saar: Thrilling, with peach, mineral and sometimes floral notes as well as spine-tingling acidity.
Pfalz: Full bodied, with ripe, clean-cut fruit and a firm backbone of acidity.
Nahe: Crystalline and clean, with mineral and possible steely notes.
Rheingau: Statuesque, sleek and some-times austere.
Rheinhessen: Fresh fruit with stone, mineral and occasionally steely tones.
Step 2: Determine its Quality Level
In France, quality level varies from Premier Cru, Grand Cru and Vin de Table. In America, “Estate” wines and “Reserve” wines unofficially distinguish better quality wines.
For German Riesling the following levels of quality are quantified:
There are four quality levels. The most common in the U.S. are the two top categories: Qualitätswein, or QbA; and the theoretically higher-quality, Prädikatswein, or QmP. (The other two categories of Deutscher Wein and Landwein -- Germany’s simple “table wine” classification) These are terms you should look for in choosing German Wines.
To determine whether the wines are sweet or dry, follow the following classifications:
Step 3: Ripeness level for Qualitätswein or QbA
This classification is determined by a minimum ripeness of grapes in Qualitätswein-level wines commonly using terms on the label to indicate the wine’s level of sweetness:
Trocken/Selection: A dry wine. The term “Selection” is specifically for the wines of Rheingau that have been hand-harvested.
Halbtrocken/Classic: A “half-dry” or slightly sweet wine
Feinherb: An unofficial term to describe an off-dry wine similar to Halbtrocken
Liebliche: A sweet wine.
süß or Süss: A very sweet wine - dessert style
Step 4: Ripeness Level for Prädikatswein or QmP
Pradikatswein Riesling wines are traditionally sweet and this quality-level is commonly used in the Mosel of Germany. Pradikatswein has an additional level of classification based on the ripeness of the grapes when they are harvested. The sweeter the grape, the higher the potential alcohol and/or sweetness in the wine. The classification also has a category for ice wine (aka eiswein).
Kabinett: Wondrously light, with weightless structure, big fruit, pronounced aromas and very restrained alcohol.
Spätlese: Spätlese means “late harvest”. More textured, rounded and full-bodied than Kabinett. Spätlese wines are rich and usually sweeter than Kabinett, although if you see “Trocken” on the bottle you can assume it’s in a dry style with higher alcohol.
Auslese: Meaning “select harvest”. More body and substance, often muscular and textured, but never fat.
Beerenauslese: Meaning “berry select harvest”, these wines are much more rare because the grapes are basically raisinated with “noble rot." These are dessert wines and usually sold in half bottles.
Trockenbeerenauslese: Meaning “dry berry select harvest” and the most rare wine of the group made from raisinated grapes that dried out on the vine.
Eiswein: When grapes freeze on the vine and are pressed when frozen (usually in the middle of the night) this can be classified as a true ice wine.
To sum it up; choose a wine from one of the regions listed -- determine the wine’s quality level -- Qualitätswein or Prädikatswein -- and then use the dryness/sweetness designations to determine the style of Riesling you prefer.
If still confused, a “tip” for you: look at the alcohol level (ABV) of the wine-- above 11%, the wine is most likely dry.
Go out and explore German Rieslings. Use this information and talk to your favorite wine retailer for more help. You will not regret jumping into this wonderful wine world!