German Wines are categorized by the degree of ripeness measured in natural grape sugar upon harvest. These ripeness categories are determined by the sugar content in the grapes, which is measured in degree Oechsle. In America it is by degree brix. The Oechsle requirements for the respective categories vary by growing region.
Riper grapes have more sugar but more importantly more extract and flavor in the grape, hence a more expressive wine. The higher the ripeness of the grapes used for the wine, the higher up in the pyramid the wine will be categorized. The categories DO NOT reflect sweetness levels in the finished wine. In fact, they are independent of residual sugar (sweetness) in the wine, which is determined by the winemaker guiding the fermentation, which is the process of transforming the natural sugar of the grapes into alcohol in the wine and carbondioxoide. (What they forget to mention here is that riper grapes are generally lower in acid and can contribute to flabby wine). Kind of like drinking a flat beer. This paragraph would take a book to explain.
Hence the dryness of a wine is independent of the ripeness level of the grapes upon harvest. If the fermentation is interrupted before all sugar is transformed, it will result in a sweeter style wine. If the fermentation continues until little or no sugar is left, it results in a dry wine, but also results in higher alcohol. Grapes for dessert wines have so much natural sugar that they will not ferment completely and residual sugar (sweetness) will remain. Grapes classified as Qualitätswein up to Auslese, can become a dry (trocken), dry to medium dry (halbtrocken) or fruity wine. In contrast to the common belief that German wines are sweet, close to 2/3 of the entire production in Germany is dry. Dry is the preferred vinification style consumed by the German wine drinker. Note: Normally a fermentation will convert grape sugar to roughly 53% alcohol and 47% carbon dioxide. Fruity is frequently a synonym for sweet.
QUALITÄTSWEIN MIT PRÄDIKAT [qmp]
(Quality wines with attribute)
The German wine law refers to the following category as "Qualitätsweine mit Prädikat" (quality wines with attributes); these attributes represent graduating ripeness levels, which are in ascending order: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA), and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). These wines are all naturally produced, no chaptalization. Which really means without adding sugar.
Kabinett (this and the next wine are usually what you will find in America)
Usually light wines made of fully ripe grapes. Intended to be a light quaffing wine or to go with light food. Generally light in alcohol and calories. Can be dry, medium-dry or sweet. These light wines are about 2 to 5% less in alcohol than Californian wines but not less tasty.
Spätlese (Late Harvest)
It literally means late harvest. Wines of superior quality made from grapes harvested after the normal harvest. These wines are more intense in flavor and concentration than quality wines and Kabinetts. Good with richer food or by themselves. The later harvest lets the grapes dry and ripen on sunny autumn days which increases the intensity of the fruit and the flavors. Can be dry, medium dry or sweeter style.
Auslese (Select Picking)
Harvest of selected, very ripe bunches. Noble wines, intense in bouquet and taste. Often dessert wines are light and sweet, but they can be dry, medium dry or sweet. Dry Auslese wines are higher in alcohol and can work with many main courses.
Beerenauslese or BA (Berries Select Picking)
Harvest of individually selected, overripe berries. Remarkably rich, sweet dessert wines to be enjoyed as dessert by themselves or with dessert.
Trockenbeerenauslese or TBA (Dry Berries Select Picking)
Harvest of individually selected berries which are overripe and shrivelled on the vine almost to raisins. Rich, sweet, luscious, honey-like wines. The picking of these berries is quite interesting. The vineyard worker actually has a small leather cup on the front of his belt and a curved needle. When he cuts a cluster he will take the needle and pluck the raisiny berries and put them in the cup. It usually take 8 to 10 hours to pick enough grapes to make a single bottle of this wine. Plus, and I personally knew of one batch, that took a year to ferment.
Wines of at least BA intensity, made from grapes harvested and pressed while frozen. Truly unique wines with a remarkable concentration of fruity acidity and sweetness. Note on dessert wines: Dessert wines or noble sweet wines, can be in the Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese or Eiswein category.
Good examples distinguish themselves by high concentration of fruit and acidity in combination with rich mouthfeel and intense honey-like flavors. Wine lovers also refer to them as "nectar of the gods."
QUALITÄTSWEIN bestimmten Anbaugebietes [QbA]
(Quality Wine of a specified appellation) Another wine known in America.
German wine law ensures that the wine is from one specific wine-growing region, is made of approved grape varieties and reaches sufficient ripeness for a quality wine. Nevertheless, these wines may be chaptalized (Chaptalization: sugar is added to the juice before fermentation to increase the alcohol level after fermentation, used in many wine producing regions of the world). The chaptalization adds body to these otherwise lighter wines and makes them great simple food wines, enjoyable on a day-to-day basis also by themselves or as spritzers (mixed with Club Soda).
TAFELWEIN (table wine)
Made from normally ripe and slightly underripe grapes. Primarily consumed in Germany, very little export to the U.S.
Note on sweetness: All wines up to Auslese (Tafelwein, Qualitätswein, Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese) can be DRY (=trocken), MEDIUM-DRY (=halbtrocken) or SWEETER STYLE. By guiding the fermentation, the winemaker decides on whether the wine will be a dry or a sweet wine.
As of 2001 new descriptors for dry German wines are "Classic" and "Selection."
Our author, Jim Wallace, has more than 35 years in wine. He writes, " I have been a guest lecturer at many colleges and civic organizations. In addition to being a start up consultant to many state, national and international wine competitions. I have also been a judge at many of those competitions. When much younger I worked in the vineyards and wineries of Sonoma County, California and studied winemaking (enology) and grape growing (viticulture) in school. I have been in wine sales most of my adult life. I retired to this area about 15 years ago but I can't stop."
He also pointed out that restaurant owners like Barry Barbe deserve notice for the fact that they take the time to provide their customers with good wine rather than what is usually found on wine lists and store shelves. "Without them," writes Wallace, "There would be no wine industry."