Wein auf Bier, | Wine after beer,
das rat’ ich dir, | Nothing to fear.
Bier auf Wein, | Beer after wine,
das laß sein. | that’s not so fine.
— Anonymous German advice to beer and wine drinkers
At a small Weingut (winery) set in the middle of a lovely vineyard not far from Freiburg in Germany’s southwest Baden region I learned a lesson about wine, and German wine in particular. We had driven the short distance from Freiburg to the small town of Endingen and the Schneider Weingut. A German friend wanted to buy several cases of his favorite wine, and we were on our way to do a little wine tasting. (Not being sufficiently bankrolled, I was merely along for the ride—and a few sips of good wine.)
Shortly after our arrival, Herr Schneider, the proud proprietor of this moderately sized winery, gave a little impromptu lecture on what he considered to be the curse of German vintners—especially in Baden: too much quantity and not enough quality (“Masse statt Klasse”). Someone asked about the word Lage and what that actually meant. Herr Schneider explained that the location (Lage) where the wine grows is much more important than the actual grape variety. He explained that the same grape variety in different soil (Boden) could taste quite different, and indeed, the Müller-Thurgau-Kabinett that we were drinking would have to be distinguished by its location only, because each sample was from the same Müller-Thurgau grape, but grown at different locations or Lagen in Herr Schneider’s vineyard. The year made some difference, too. The “younger” taste of the ’91 was obvious when compared to the ’90 harvest. Sun makes little difference, explained the dedicated vintner, unless there is some drastic weather situation or the grapes grow in extreme shade on a northern slope. In fact, he said, one of his best wines came from a northern exposure, and it had more to do with the soil than with the sun. It is the soil that gives a wine its distinctive taste. In fact, no other single factor is as significant in determining a wine’s character and taste as is the Lage or location (similar to terroir in French).
German wine labels
Herr Schneider went on to tell us that, under German law, a vintner could not even indicate the Lage on a wine label. This thwarted any attempt by a wine connoisseur (Weinkenner) to ascertain the particular Lage of a wine. In stark contrast to the Reinheitsgebot, or purity law that protects German beer drinkers from any adulteration of their suds, wine lovers are unprotected from vintners who choose to blend wines (a common practice in Germany and in California). While the beer law favors the consumer, the wine classification law leaves the consumer in the dark as to the actual origin of the vintage.
I learned later that Germany, under a 1971 law, classified its wines according to sugar content rather than by region, as in France. (See the wine links below for more about classifying wines.) Defenders of the law (usually members of the German Wine Institute and some winegrowers) claim that it democratically allows all German vintners, even those not fortunate enough to have been born into a family with a superior vineyard, an equal opportunity in the market. The law’s detractors (usually wine connoisseurs and consumer advocates) claim it misleads consumers and has helped create the rather dismal reputation of German wines today. They point out how German wine drinkers often unpatriotically prefer French and Italian wines over domestic varieties.
2006 Change in the Wine Laws
In 2006 the German federal cabinet changed the old 1971 laws and the term “Qualitätswein mit Prädikat” to “Prädikatswein.” This new simplified labeling took effect for the 2007/2008 vintage in Germany. At the same time, the wine region formerly designated “Mosel-Saar-Ruwer” will now be called just “Mosel” (“Moselle” in English)
Personally, I think a little more competition and a little less democracy would be a good thing for both German wine drinkers and the German wine industry. In this I am not alone. A transplanted Briton, now living in Berlin, has been much more vocal about the matter. In his several wine books, most controversially in Life Beyond Liebfraumilch (1988), wine critic Stuart Pigott has railed against the German wine industry in general and a few well-known winemakers in particular. As a result, Pigott has had to fend off counterattacks by German vintners (once literally by an umbrella-wielding winegrower who did not care for his comments). Because he doesn’t always confine his unfavorable criticism to just wines, he has also been sued for libel. There was even an unsuccessful attempt to ban his books. Undeterred, Pigott teamed up with another British wine critic (Hugh Johnson) to specifically attack the German wine classification law in press releases.
The crusading wine critic Pigott thus confirms what I learned that day in a vineyard in Baden from a humble but conscientious winegrower. The three most important factors in choosing a wine are the same as in real estate: location, location, location.
Back | Beer and Wine
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Dining Etiquette – German table manners
- Dining Out in Germany – Ordering, tipping and more
- Beer and Wine – A guide to imbibing in Deutschland
- Cultural Differences – USA-Germany – Cultural comparison charts
ON THE WEB
- The German Wine Page by Peter Ruhrberg. This site is one of the best I’ve seen for info about German wine. Everything from reading labels to wine regions. Do you know the difference between a German “QmP” wine and a “QbA” wine? Neither did I until I visited this site.
- Germanwine.de is in German and English. Wine tips and information about wine varieties from various regions.
- WeinG Weingesetz – The German wine laws (in German), as last revised in Dec. 2012
- Prädikatswein – The German Wikipedia’s explanation of wine classification (in German)
- German Wine Classification – Wikipedia’s English explanation of wine classification in Germany
- Stuart Pigott’s Planet Wine – Pigott’s website is in English and German.
- The Wine Spectator website has info on wines and restaurants in Germany and elsewhere.
Legal Notice: We are not responsible for the content of external links.