How can I read a German wine label?

Short of actually learning German, that is.

I’m trying to branch out from French/Italian/Californian wines and I’d like to educate myself a bit about German wines, but I’ll admit I’m stumped by the labels. I have been clicking about on the 'net trying to learn, but haven’t had much luck so far. I saw a David Rosengarden show on FoodTV years ago in which he discussed the meanings, but I wasn’t interested at that time and didn’t pay attention. I have a vague memory that “Trocken” or “Spatlese” had something to do with dryness, but when I try buying a bottle of Riesling, I always end up with a honey-sweet wine, which I don’t like.

I guess I could go and buy a book, but all I want to know is how to judge dryness and quality.

Is anyone out there an expert in this field? What should I look for on the label to tell me if a wine is dry or not? And what do those other confusing terms refer to?

Here’s a good site.

I’ve found that American made Rieslings and Gewurztraminers vary quite a bit in sweetness, but they are all going to be sweeter than, say, a chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.

I haven’t seen much of a selection when it comes to German wines in most stores here in California.

Trocken is dry.

Halbtrocken is semi-dry, which translates to sweet, but can also be a bit sour.

Spaetlese means left late, so they leave the grapes on the vines as long as they can, delaying the harvest until the last moment. Grapes stay on the vine longer means sweeter.

Eiswein is very sweet, means they harvest the grapes after the first frost, usually a desert wine.

Oops, just found a link that does this better than I do.

Make that spätlese

psst…it can be spelled “spaetlese.” Umlauts in German can be written out in standard type by putting an “e” after the umlauted vowel.

Everybody, thanks for the input.

cher3, that site is just what I was looking for. I did turn up some sites on my own, but they were just as confusing as the wine labels themselves. This one does the trick. Now, off for K&L Wine Merchants to experiment.

::mumbling:: – Trocken - Spaetlese - Tafelwein - Halbtrocken - Eisvein - Gesundheit -

Of course I know. That’s the original spelling. It’s just that the Germans (as have we Swedes) have developed ä as a shorthand way of writing it, which means you wouldn’t find ae on a German wine bottle.

It’s my understanding, too, that the longer the grapes are left on the vine, the better the wine.

Some other terms I didn’t see above:[ul]

[li]Vorlese = early harvest (usually wines of modest price /quality)[/li][li]Spaetlese = late general harvest (already described)[/li][li]Auslese = late harvest carefully selected bunch by bunch[/li][li]Beerenauslese = late harvest carefully selected grape by grape, even better (Beeren literally means “berries”,[/li](i.e. the individual grapes)
[li]Trockenbeerenauslese = late harvest carefully selecting only the driest individual grapes; about the best you can get.[/li][/ul]

BTW I love German wine but can rarely afford to indulge in it. Strong dollar, my eye…at least in the German section of my local wine store!

Also, if you just want to be able to broadly distinguish the better wines, look for the word “Qualitaetswein” on the label. Cheaper wines equivalent to what we’d call jug wine in America is denoted Tafelwein (“Table Wine”).

it’s not necessarily true that the longer the grapes are left on the vine, the better. you just get a completely different characteristic from the wine if it’s a late-harvest wine; generally they are much sweeter and much more “honeyish” in flavor. late-harvest wines generally make good dessert wines. the “ice wine” or eiswein, is one example of this. here in hungary we have a special and famous (at least in europe) wine called “tokaj aszu” which is made with grapes that have begun to rot, basically. actually, it’s a special type of mold that develops on them which gives them a distinct and sought-after flavor. the wine is syrupy-sweet and drunk more like a liqueur, almost. eiswein is similar in flavor, though not as deep.

[small hijack] Botrytis cinerea (“noble rot”) is a wonderful thing - it’s a mold that infects grapes, “deeply concentrating the flavors, sugar and acid.” ( It’s the basis not only of great German, Italian, Hungarian and Austrian dessert wines, but France’s Sauternes, particularly the renowned Chateau d’Yquem. By the time the rot has well and truly set in, the grapes are about 90% of the way to raisins. Thus, in addition to the labor required in picking through the grapes to find those that are rotted “just so” (a process Yquem goes through no fewer than ten times a season), the yield from the grapes is much reduced. An Yquem from a good year can easily set you back $250 for a 375 ml half-bottle. (The wines are so concentrated that a half-bottle is enough to serve at least six.) What an experience, however…

Lately, botrytis wines are emerging from California, the Pacific Northwest and Australia as well.