How to read a German wine label

How to read a German wine label

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

When it comes to wine, the golden rule is a simple one: drink what you like. If you live in Germany, congratulations! You live in one of the world’s powerhouses in terms of top-shelf white wine production. And while you can certainly splash the cash to buy top quality bottles from Germany’s most prestigious makers, you’ll no doubt be tickled by the quality of bottles you can pick up without breaking the bank, be that from a supermarket, wine shop or the very winery that turned it out. When buying a bottle for at-home consumption, you can get your hands on good-quality stuff for well under 10 euros, whereas 20 euros can buy you a very special bottle indeed.

But how to find a wine you like? Much of the advice found online or in publications about food and drink assumes one is either a wine connoisseur or looking to purchase a bottle to add to one’s collection. What about that wine you just want to drink alongside tonight’s dinner?

Reading a German wine label might seem daunting at first, but once you’ve established your own likes, it’s actually pretty easy to match up the information on the text to your taste preferences. While not each and every label will match the below description, this basic info should prove helpful in helping you to decipher which wine to decant and when. Beginners take heart, as this information is geared to you.

Producer: Topping the label, you’ll generally find the name of the winery that made the wine.

Type of grape: Next down on the label is generally the type of grape used to make the wine. The most common whites produced in Germany, in descending order, are Riesling, Müller-Thurgau (also known as Rivaner), Grauburgunder, Weißburgunder and Silvaner. The most common reds produced are Spätburgunder, Dornfelder, Portugieser, Trollinger and Lemberger.

Quality of wine: Wine is sold according to categories as follows: Deutscher Tafelwein, (German table wine) wine made of grapes grown in one or more of Germany’s 13 wine growing regions; Deutscher Landwein (German regional wine), wine made from a minimum of 85% of grapes grown within a single wine growing region; Qualitätswein (quality wine from a single wine growing region that meets additional requirements as to sugar content of grapes, cultivation methods, yields and other criteria) and Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (quality wine with distinction), which also indicates the ripeness of the grapes used to make it. These range from the light and dry Kabinett to the extremely sweet Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein.

We can put under the microscope labels of wines within the Qualitätswein grouping.  About 60% of all the wines made in Germany in 2020 fell into this category.

Year: The vintage refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested. 

Color: White, red or rosé? While whites and reds aren’t labeled as such, the exception to the rule is  rosé, which is a wine made of red grapes through a process in which the grape skins, which lend the wine its pigment, are removed after a short period of time. This results in a wine of a pinkish shade. Wines labeled as Weissherbst or Blanc de Noir are types of rosé wines. A Rotling is made from both red and white grapes.

Size: Most wine is sold in 750 milliliter bottles; less frequently, you will see it sold in one-liter bottles.  The German means of expressing the standard size is often written out with a comma: ,75 L.

Wine region: The Qualitätswein label will always indicate which one the grapes hail from. These are, from largest to smallest in terms of vineyard area: Rheinhessen, Pfalz, Baden, Württemberg, Mosel, Franken, Nahe, Rheingau, Saal-Unstrut, Ahr, Sachsen, Mittelrhein and Hessische Bergstraße.

Alcohol content: The percentage figure shows you how much alcohol by volume, or ABV, is in the bottle. ABV will range anywhere from 8.5% to a maximum of 15%. Wines containing no more than 12% ABV would generally be described as light, whereas those over 13.5% would be considered strong or heavy wines.

Dry vs. sweet: Many Qualitätswein labels indicate how dry the wine will taste according to the following scale: trocken (dry) no hint of sweetness, halbtrocken (half-dry) only the slightest hint of sweet, feinherb (off-dry) a little bit sweeter; lieblich (sweet) definitely on the sweet side, and süß (sweet) with full-on sweetness.

Sparkling wines: Wines containing CO2 are categorized according to their degree of carbonation. Perlwein is only slightly sparkling; within this category, Secco is a German take on Italy’s Prosecco. Sekt is full-on fizz. Winzersekt is estate-bottled and made by the so-called traditional method, the same way in which Champagne is made.

Bottler: Not all wineries bottle their own wines. The words Abfüller or abgefüllt von indicate a third-party bottler, who may be located in a town outside the original wine-growing region.

Location: The address of the winery/bottler must be indicated on the label.

Quality control number: This nine-digit number known as the Amtliche Prüfnummer indicates the wine-growing region, village, estate, sequence in which wine from this particular maker was submitted for testing, and the year in which the testing was carried out.

Allergens: Wines with sulfites, a food preservative and stabilizer, must carry the warning Enthält Sulfite.

Of course, not all wines are created equally. The taste of a dry Riesling will vary wildly depending on its region of origin, vintage, the type of soil on which the grapes are grown, the winemaker’s vision and dozens of other factors. Not all wines will win you over, but chances you’ll eventually find one that will rock your world are good. Until then, keep trying and tasting, as learning and discovery count amongst the joys in life.

Care to learn more about German wines? The German Wine Institute offers a fantastic range of educational materials in English.

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