Among the most important legally required declarations on a label is a wine's quality category. The German wine law makes far more distinctions within the two broad quality categories mandated by the European Union wine law - table wine and quality wine - than other wine-growing countries.
The ripeness of the grapes at harvest time is a key factor to a wine's quality category. One indication of ripeness is an increasing amount of natural sugar in the grape juice or must. The riper the grapes, the higher the amount of natural sugar in their juice (measured as «must weight» in degrees Oechsle - click «Must Weights» for details) and, hence, the greater the potential quantity of natural alcohol in a wine. The wine law has established legal minimum amounts of natural alcohol that a wine must achieve in order to qualify for a specific quality category. Natural alcohol is of natural origin. It is measured prior to fermentation and prior to implementing cellar techniques to strengthen alcoholic content via concentration or enrichment (see chaptalization below). Existing alcohol reflects yeast performance, i.e. it is the amount of alcohol that is actually produced when yeast converts the sugar in grape juice during fermentation. It is the amount of alcohol in the bottle, expressed in percent by volume on the label - a mandatory declaration since 1988.
Since 1 September 1994, the German wine law has permitted the production of a special type of QbA, a quality wine of guaranteed origin. Qualitätswein garantierten Ursprungs (QgU), is a QbA from a specific district, vineyard or village that has a consistent taste profile associated with its appellation of origin. Such wines are subject to more stringent sensory and analytical requirements. A group of Mosel vintners near the Luxembourg border was the first to make use of QgU status with an Obermosel Elbling trocken (dry).
Qualitatswein mit Prädikat, abbreviated QmP (quality wine with special attributes) must fulfull the following conditions:
- be produced exclusively from German produce from the legally recognized roster of grapes permitted in Gemany, grown in one Bereich (district) within one of the 13 specified wine-growing regions; the region must be declared on the label
- must reach a natural alcohol content as legally prescribed for the region, grape variety and special attribute (level of ripeness at harvest) of the wine
- must reach an existing alcohol content of at least 7% by volume (the minimum for Beeren-, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein is 5.5% by volume).
Chaptalization is never permitted for these wines.
Furthermore, one of the following six special attributes must be identified on the label and the wines are subject to additional regulations concerning ripeness level, and in some cases, method of harvesting. In ascending order of ripeness at harvest the attributes are:
- Kabinett: made from fully ripened grapes. Fine, usually light wines with a low alcohol content. Excellent with or without meals.
- Spätlese: literally means late harvest; made from riper grapes that usually have been picked at a later stage in the harvest. These wines are more intense in flavor and concentration, but not necessarily sweet. Good with richer, more flavorful foods, or by themselves.
- Auslese: made from selected, very ripe bunches. Noble wines, intense in bouquet and taste, usually, but not always sweet.
- Beerenauslese (abbreviated BA): made from individually-selected, overripe berries that usually are infected by Botrytis cinerea (noble rot). These are rarities, harvested only when exceptional weather conditions enable the grapes to ripen to this extent. They are notable for their longevity (can be stored for decades). Remarkably rich, sweet dessert wines, or to be enjoyed by themselves.
- Eiswein: made from grapes as ripe as BA, but harvested and pressed while frozen. Truly unique wines with a remarkable concentration of fruity acidity and sweetness.
- Trockenbeerenauslese (abbreviated TBA): made from individually-selected berries which are overripe (and usually infected by noble rot) and dried up almost to raisins. Rarities. Extraordinary longevity. Rich, sweet, luscious, honey-like wines.
BA and TBA may not be harvested mechanically. The individual state governments have the authority to decide whether or not to permit Auslese and Eiswein to be harvested mechanically.
Kabinett wines may not be marketed prior to the first of January following the harvest; higher Prädikat wines not before the first of March following the harvest.
Deutscher Wein (former “Tafelwein”)
Deutscher Wein must fulfill the following conditions:
- be produced exclusively from German produce from the legally recognized roster of grapes permitted in Germany. Since 1. August 2009 it is allowed to declare the grapevine variety on the label.
- must reach a natural alcohol content (must weight) of 5% (44o Oechsle) in climatic zone A (all German wine-growing regions except Baden) and 6% (50o Oechsle) in climatic zone B (Baden).
- must reach an existing alcohol content of at least 8.5% by volume in zones A and B
- must reach a total acidity of at least 4.5 grams/liter.
The alcohol content of these wines may be strengthened prior to fermentation by concentration (evaporation of grape must under vacuum) or enrichment (adding dry-cane or beet- sugar, or concentrated grape must, to the [still] unfermented juice).
Note: Blends of table wine from different countries of the EU, i.e. Euroblends, must include a statement on the label indicating where the grapes were grown or that it is a blend from several countries. Only «Deutscher» Tafelwein is 100% German in origin.
Deutscher Landwein (superior table wine), a category created with the harvest of 1982, must fulfill the following requirements:
- be produced exclusively from German produce from the legally recognized roster of grapes permitted in Germany, grown in one of the 19 «Landwein» regions (i.e. permitted in all wine-growing regions except Franken); the region must be declared on the label
- must reach a natural alcohol content of at least 0.5% more than simple Tafelwein and show «regional» characteristics
- must be either trocken (dry) or halbtrocken (off-dry) in style.
The alcohol content of these wines may be strengthened prior to fermentation by enrichment, i.e. adding dry - cane or beet - sugar. This procedure is also referred to as chaptalization, named after its proponent, the French scientist Jean-Antoine Chaptal (1756-1832). Its sole purpose is to increase the final alcoholic strength of a wine - the added sugar (along with the grapes' natural sugar) is converted during fermentation. The EU wine law limits the amount of additional alcohol that can be achieved through this cellar technique to 3.5% by volume (28 grams of alcohol per liter) in zone A and 2.5% by volume (20 grams of alcohol per liter) in zone B.
The quality wine category (wines made from ripe, very ripe or overripe grapes) comprises two levels in Germany. These wines are subject to a quality control examination and must bear a quality control test number (A.P.Nr.) on the label.
Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete, abbreviated QbA (quality wine from one of the 13 specified wine-growing regions) must fulfill the following conditions:
- be produced exclusively from German produce from the legally recognized roster of grapes permitted in Germany, grown in one of the 13 specified wine-growing regions; the region must be declared on the label
- must reach a natural alcohol content corresponding to a must weight between 51 and 72o Oechsle (depending on region and grape variety)
- must reach an existing alcohol content of at least 7% by volume.
The alcohol content of these wines may be strengthened prior to fermentation by chaptalization.