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Evan Spingarn, our German brand manager, recently returned from a trip to Germany where he spoke first hand with Wines of Germany, one of our importers, Rudi Wiest and a slew of winemakers about the brand new classification system that was just instated by the German VDP. He is now extremely well versed on the ins and outs of the new system and has written a fantastic, detailed explanation of it that I'd like to share with you here. It's not a quick read, but I promise you it's easy to digest.
The VDP Classifikation
(I love that K, don’t you?)
Okay, let’s get into it. I know that German labels have given a lot of people a lot of trouble for a long time. It took me years to fully understand what the labels mean, not least of all because THEY KEEP CHANGING THEM!!! But I have good news to report. In early 2012, the VDP took an extraordinary vote and unanimously set up a new classification system that might actually work. The VDP is a quality consortium of about 200 of Germany’s best growers. It is the world’s oldest association of wine estates. No other country has a national organization of the top winemakers of an entire country. They set the trends for fine wine in Germany and have done so for over a century. The new labeling for VDP producers starts this year and is basically a Germanic version of the Burgundy Cru system. The idea is to move away from the idea that quality = ripeness to quality = terroir. Good idea, right? Here are the four names you will see on bottles (either the capsules or the labels) going forward: • Grosse Lage (literally “great vineyard,” cf. to Grand Cru in Burgundy) A dry wine from a GROSSE LAGE is called a GROSSES GEWÄCHS, almost always shown on labels as GG. ***Remember! A grosse lage is a vineyard. A grosses gewächs is a wine made in that vineyard.*** A wine with natural sweetness (non-chaptalized) from a GROSSE LAGE is labeled with one of the traditional Prädikats: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese. Maximum yields are 50hl/ha. Only approved grape varieties of the region can qualify. • Erste Lage (literally “first vineyard,” cf. to Premier Cru in Burgundy) A dry wine from an ERSTE LAGE is labeled "Qualitätswein trocken". A wine with natural sweetness from an ERSTE LAGE is labeled with one of the traditional Prädikats: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese. Maximum yields are 60hl/ha. • Ortswein (literally “cf. to Villages-level in Burgundy) A dry wine from an ERSTE LAGE is labeled "Qualitätswein trocken". A wine with natural sweetness from an ERSTE LAGE is labeled with one of the traditional Prädikats: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese. Maximum yields are 75hl/ha. • Gutswein (literally “good wine,” cf. Bourgogne régional in Burgundy) Anything goes. For those of you who took the time to memorize the old system: Do not confuse groslage (crappy large growing areas) with Grosse Lage (the best vineyards in Germany). Erste Lage doesn’t mean what it used to (a Mosel term for top sites). Everyone uses Grosse Lage now. Erstes Gewächs is being phased out as a term in the Rheingau. Finally. Grosses Gewächs means what it always did: a DRY wine (under 9g/l RS) from a winery’s top site(s). To visually summarize the labeling, the VDP has tweaked their previous three-tier pyramid and created a tidy, complete four-tier one. Shown here: Below lies examples of what its implementation on German wine bottles will look like. The examples given are all dry wines, called trocken in German (from left to right: Gutswein, Ortswein, Erste Lage, Grosse Lage):
NUANCES OF THE LAW An important rule for growers which continues to be debated at the VDP is this: a grower who makes a grosses gewächs from his/her top site (grosse lage) is not allowed to use that vineyard name again on lesser DRY wines. Sweet wines yes, dry wines no. In other words, he/she can make a fruity Kabinett or Spätlese and label it with the vineyard name, but he/she cannot make a Spätlese Trocken (dry Spätlese) there and use the vineyard name anymore. Why? The reasoning is actually pretty sound; think about the same situation in Burgundy. If you buy a bottle of Le Montrachet, you want to know it’s the best wine of the estate and indisputably grand cru. You don’t want to be confused by a lesser wine labeled from the same site—a “Le Montrachet 1er Cru” or “Le Montrachet-Villages,” for instance. In Germany these days, the best wines are considered DRY. So the best of the best—a grosses gewächs from a grosse lage site—should be the only dry wine to carry that moniker. Any other dry wine from that site will be declassified to an Estate Spätlese Trocken or “R” for Reserve, or something similar, at the discretion of the grower. The exception for sweet wines was mostly a concession to the Mosel producers who have vinified glorious sweet wines for centuries and don’t want to give up the style just because of the modern vogue for dry. Cheers to that, I say. Another point still being tweaked and debated is related to the first. It’s always the dry vs sweet thing that hangs up the rules and regs for German wine! From this point forward, the Prädikats (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, et al) are supposed to be used exclusively for wines with residual sweetness. Specific taste profiles for the Prädikats are to be determined region by region. Members are to refrain from using Prädikats for dry and off-dry wines, “thereby enabling the Prädikats to resume their traditional meaning”, as stated by the VDP. In other words, they are trying to phase out labels that say Kabinett Trocken or Spätlese Trocken. Good luck with that. I know of several growers who are already ignoring this ruling, saying that it prevents them from making more than one level of quality dry wine to sell at different prices. Expect some more back-and-forth on that issue. SUMMARY All of this sounds confusing, of course, if you are not immersed in German wine sales and labeling, etc. Suffice it to say, the system is moving in a good direction. They’re looking to Burgundy and similar internationally familiar classifications for their inspiration, reducing the amount of actual verbiage on the labels, and putting a premium on terroir instead of ripeness as the yardstick for quality. We will see how the details of this system evolve over the next few years, but the basics are now in place for the best growers to make a range of wines that shine a spotlight on their vineyards and allow consumers to more easily identify their wines as sweet, dry, light-bodied, full-bodied, cellar-worthy, modestly made, or what have you. Now, if we can only teach people how to spell “Trockenbeerenauslese.”