At our last wine dinner, I served a wine classified as “Grosses Gewächs.” This obviously prompted the question, “What in the world does Grosses Gewächs mean?” The answer to that question is quite interesting and starts with the VDP.
Will this new system actually change people’s perceptions towards dry, German wines? I think it will. Imagine a person wandering into the German wine section at his local wine shop and asking the salesman what “Spätlese Trocken” means. The salesman would have to give a brief explanation of the pradikat system and must weights. Before he finishes, the customer’s eyes glaze over and he buys a bottle of French wine. If that same bottle of wine is labeled “Grosses Gewächs,” the classification explanation is much simpler. This wine is of the highest quality from a top vineyard. It is the equivalent of a Grand Cru from Burgundy. The customer buys the wine and is forever addicted to German Rieslings.
VDP stands for Verband Deutscher Qualitäts-und Prädikatsweingüter. This roughly translates as The Association of German Quality and Prädikat Wine Estates. The VDP is a winegrower’s association with around 200 members. The requirements for membership include adherence to an internally imposed standard of quality that regulates everything from cellar facilities to yields to must weights. The membership list reads like a “Who’s Who” of the German wine world. In the Mosel, members include Dr. Loosen, Grans-Fassian, Von Hovel, Egon Muller, Joh Jos Prum and Fritz Haag. In the Nahe, members include Schlossgut Diel, Emrich-Schonleber, Donnhoff and Schafer-Frohlich.
The VDP attempted to change the German Wine Law of 1971 that established the Prädikat system that we all know and love. The VDP wanted the classification system to place a greater emphasis on the vineyard than on must weight. Their attempts were unsuccessful so they bypassed the government and created their own classification system.
They unveiled their new classification system in 2002 and it has been a work in progress. The system was overhauled in 2006 and then revised in 2012. I will skip the 2002 version and start with the 2006 version since this is largely the system they are using today.
The 2006 model is the “Erste Lage Classification” and it divides German wines into the following three tiers:
Erste Lage – This designation indicates a wine from the best vineyards of Germany. A dry Erste Lage wine from the Rheingau is labeled Erstes Gewächs and a dry Erste Lage wine from all other regions is labeled Grosses Gewächs. A sweet Erste Lage wine will have Erste Lage on the label followed by a Prädikat designation.
Klassifizierte Lage – These are wines from classified sites of superior quality. They can be dry or sweet.
Guts-und Ortsweine – These are high quality, regional wines.
Of course, Erste Lage wines level must meet criteria that are much more comprehensive than the just the quality of the vineyard. An Erste Lage wine must meet yield restrictions, comply with designated harvest procedures and even has to follow certain marketing guidelines.
This 2006 classification model should look familiar to any wine lover. The system is similar to some of the French classification systems and the 2012 modifications go even further in that direction. The 2012 modifications create a four tier system that is based on the Burgundian classification model:
1. Grosse Lage (comparable to Grand Cru in Burgundy)
This top classification retains the Grosses Gewächs and Erstes Gewächs designations for the dry wines and a Prädikat designation is added for the sweeter wines.
2. Erste Lage (comparable with Premier Cru in Burgundy)
Dry wines will be labelled Erste Lage and the sweet wines will carry a Prädikat designation.
3. Ortswein (comparable with Village in Burgundy)
The sweet wines will have a Prädikat designation
4. Gutswein (comparable with a regional wine in Burgundy).
No Prädikat designations are used.
This new classification system represents an interesting development in German wines. Is this new system better than the Prädikat system? I think so and I also think that this system may help popularize German wine. Most oenophiles like to drink dry wine with a meal. If you are having a juicy steak for dinner, you reach into your wine cellar and grab a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Now, imagine opening the Châteauneuf and sipping it only to discover that it was sweet. You would be horrifed and would either open a different bottle of wine for your meal or, gasp, open a beer.
Of course, this would never happen – Châteauneuf-du-Pape are quite obviously dry. However, if we change the scenario so that you are buying a Kabinett to go with your oysters, you could not be certain that it would be dry. The Prädikat designation is simply not a reliable indicator of sweetness. So, needing a dry wine, you buy a Chablis instead.
Instead of throwing out the Prädikat system, German winemakers could place a greater emphasis on the terms trocken, halbtrocken and feinherb to indicate that a wine is dry. However, I think there is a very simple reason why the VDP did not go this route. People tend to view the Prädikat system as a pyramid of quality. The higher pradikats are seen as “better” than the lower Prädikats – a Spätlese is better than a Kabinett, an Auslese is better than a Spätlese, etc. While you may not know whether a Kabinett or a Spätlese will be dry or sweet, it is fairly safe to say that Auslese, BA and TBA will be dessert level sweet. Thus, the Prädikat system appears to favor the dessert wines over the dry wines. Under the VDP classification system of 2012, the great, dry wines are now in the top category along with the great sweet wines. The sweetness bias has disappeared.