Regional guides

The Ultimate Guide to German wine

German wine is among the most exciting and ageworthy in the world, but it is notoriously difficult to understand. We’re here to change that and explain how to get the most from this enthralling cool-climate winegrowing region.

The ultimate guide to german wine
  • Key grape varieties: riesling and spätburgunder (pinot noir). Weissburgunder (pinot blanc), silvaner, grauburgunder (pinot gris), müller-thurgau. gewurztraminer and dornfelder are also widely planted.
  • Key styles: Production is dominated by dry styles, yet the traditional, sweeter and lower-alcohol wines still exist, and some estates have a cult following.

Most popular German wines

What’s new in German wine?

The rise of spätburgunder/pinot noir

Although riesling maybe synonymous with German wine, it is spätburgunder that is on the rise in terms of plantings but also when talking about quality. Improved practices in the vineyard and winery, most notably the gentler extraction and less new oak adopted has led to red wines competing with some of the best reds in the world. Climate change is also likely to have helped in terms of grapes reaching phenolic ripeness.

Grosses Gewächs – Germany’s Grands Crus

Under the hierarchy created by the VDP (an association with more than 200 German wine producers that aims to highlight the quality of Germany’s unique terroir), Grosses Gewächs (GGs) are termed for Grand Cru, premium-quality sites with wines produced in a dry style. Mentioned on the label, these GG wines are some of the most exciting wines coming out of Germany.

This focus on drier wines has helped open up interest into wine other German wine growing regions outside of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region that had traditionally produced sweeter styles. This has led to wider interest into Germany’s diverse soils and terroirs, which lets them compete with the great wine regions of the world like Burgundy and Alsace.

Health-conscious drinkers

The lower alcohol levels that can be achieved in Germany, especially in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Nahe, are extremely valuable among health-conscious consumers who are increasingly aware of alcohol levels. To be able to produce lighter whites below 10% is a real asset and although the trend is towards drier styles, the Prädikat system at Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese level (explained below), should not be overlooked or ignored.

How to read a German wine label

German wine legislation has done its best to make things complicated. Logical in their way, and designed to be democratically fair to winegrowers, the rules lack a common-sense awareness of what wine drinkers want to know. The four most important pieces of information on a German wine label are:

  • The name of the grower
  • The origin of the grape variety
  • The vineyard
  • An indication of whether the wine is dry or sweet

For an indication of sweetness, it is best to rely on The Society's List, which indicates the sweetness codes 1 to 9 (1 being the driest). Online, sweetness levels are noted in the product details.

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Riesling grapes
Riesling grapes

Is German wine dry or sweet?

A high percentage of German wine is dry. The only grape variety for which this does not necessarily always work well is the one that makes Germany's greatest wines: riesling. The natural balance of wine made from riesling is often made complete by the retention of natural sweetness. The bouquet is enhanced, the wines keep better, and the alcohol level (because not all the grape sugar is fermented out) is lower, which suits the style of the grape.

Under the Pradikät system, quality traditional wines start with Kabinett at entry level and work up through the later-picked, more concentrated Spätlese. These progress to the sweeter Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein. Their intrinsic sweetness at every level very much depends on the vintage. A Kabinett from a warm year is often sweeter and riper than Spätlese or even Auslese from a cooler one. The dry wines, simply labelled Trocken, tend to be noticeably higher in alcohol – say 13% or more – as opposed to 8-10%. This is because the sugars in them have been fermented out completely.

How are German wines classified?

As ripeness in the grapes is no longer as hard to achieve, basing quality levels on this alone no longer makes sense and growers recognised that a system defined by geography was more relevant. The top estates, who are more often members of the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweinguter), an organisation dating to 1910, were behind the initiative to change.

There are four VDP wine classifications. They relate to vineyards, and will often appear on labels or capsules, along with the organisation’s distinctive eagle logo:

1. Gutswein or estate wine. Only from authorised grape varieties and from good vineyard sites.

2. Ortswein: single-village wines but possibly a blend of different vineyard sites. Often the best value for quality.

3. Erste Lage or first-class vineyard. Here the wine must come from a named vineyard. The choice of grape varieties is more restricted and so are the yields. On the label, the vineyard site will be preceded by the village name, as in Piesporter Goldtröpfchen.

4. Grosse Lage: top-class vineyard, similar to Grand Cru, with again more restrictions over grapes and yields. The very best dry wines can be further categorised as Grosses Gewächs (see above) and will usually come in a heavier bottle embossed with the GG logo.

The most exciting winegrowing regions

Map of Germany's wine regions
Map of Germany's wine regions


These are the best low-alcohol wines in the world, with an extraordinary amount of fruit, character and elegance for only 7%–9% alcohol. The most ageworthy wines here have a greater or lesser degree of natural sweetness which enhances the bouquet and flavour. The villages of the Middle Mosel which have the best-exposed sites (steep slopes facing south are privileged this far north) and soil to match (typically, crumbled slate which conserves the sun's warmth) are in the villages of Piesport, Brauneberg, Wehlen and Erden. Very good wines, too, are made in Trittenheim, Dhron, Lieser, Bernkastel, Graach, Zelting and Ürzig, in particular.

Riesling from Saar, Wiltingen, Scharzhofberg, Oberemmel, Kanzem and Saarburg and from Eitelsbach, Grünhauss and Kasel in the Ruwer have been exceptionally good in recent years too.


When the Rhine hit the Taunus mountains it turned west, creating many sunny south-facing slopes on the north bank, the great vineyards of the Rheingau. Church ownership and then proximity to important cities meant the wines have been long famous, and while many have not lived up to their price, they can be extraordinary, both full and racy, invigorating, and long-lived. Most are now dry. Follow the growers first.


A diverse vineyard region with a handful of outstanding producers who are probably more famous than the origin of their wines. Expect wonderfully intriguing aromas, a certain mineral quality, rounded palate, and great length of flavour.


The vineyards of Forst were once the most valuable agricultural land in Germany, and today the four villages of Forst, Deidesheim, Wachenheim and Ruppertsberg have outstanding potential, being fully realised again after a disappointing patch in the 1980s when the vineyards were being reorganised. Full, spicy, essentially dry wines.


This is one of Germany’s largest wine-growing regions that encompasses from Bad Kreuznach in the west to the Rhine river in the east and from Mainz in the north to Worms in the south. A lot of the famed vineyards are close to the Rhine, but the region has plenty of soil diversity that it benefits from. Notable high-quality Grand Cru vineyards can be found in the villages of Nierstein, Oppenheim and Westhofen.

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Fiona Hayes


Fiona Hayes

Fiona Hayes has nearly two decades’ experience in the wine industry, and has worked as a buyer for key regions in Europe and further afield for a number of UK wine merchants.

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