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The ultimate guide to German wine

German wine may use the most complicated labelling system known to man, but buyer Sebastian Payne MW says that buying it needn't be a stressful exercise.

The ultimate guide to german wine

Let's look again at how to buy German wine. 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

The recent move to simplify estate names and origin of the grapes and to remove Gothic script, which made names unreadable and hard to pronounce for linguistically challenged Brits, is welcome. 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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Moselle Sinuosity in Trittenheim, Germany
Moselle Sinuosity in Trittenheim, Germany

Sugar rush

The German home market, which buys most German wine, prefers wines that are totally dry to go with food. A high percentage of the wine that most estates produce is therefore 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.

German wine laws classify the quality of a wine according to the degree of sugar the crushed grapes contain (measured in Oechsle), but this is a pretty unhelpful guide. A wine may be called Spätlese (literally 'late-picked' but in reality, not necessarily so) if the minimum must weight (also Oechsle) is about 80° (a potential alcohol of 10%). But Spätlese wines are often made from grapes with higher must weight than this, and can be fermented out dry to 10% alcohol, or left with some sweetness at 8.5%. Auslese (literally 'a selective picking') has a minimum must weight of about 90° Oechsle with a potential alcohol of 12% if the wine is dry, although in this country we are more used to Auslese being sweet, and around 8% alcohol.

The best guide to sweetness is to look at the sweetness code we give in the List. Remember, however, that a German wine with a sweetness of 4 or 5 (medium dry to medium sweet) will be delicious as an aperitif and with food, because the natural sweetness is always balanced by fruit acidity. Think of a perfect British-grown ripe Cox or Ribston apple.

King riesling

Anyone fortunate enough to have drunk great German riesling knows that it can be the finest white wine variety of all. We say unequivocally that riesling and chardonnay vie for first place, because both can produce such an astonishing range of complex quality and outstanding ageing potential.

Those who underestimate riesling probably pay too little attention to the wine's bouquet. German rieslings have the most subtle perfume of all white wines: fascinating and seductive. It can be reminiscent of fruits, flowers, honey, herbs and spices, and be redolent of the mineral notes from the soil where the grapes ripened.

Riesling grapes
Riesling grapes

Many other grapes are grown in Germany successfully, particularly in the warmer more southerly vineyards, but they produce wines that can be equalled and usually bettered in other parts of the world. Riesling, of course, is successfully grown elsewhere, but nowhere does it produce such delicate, multifaceted results as it does in Germany's great vineyards. The Society lists wines from all over the world; our German list concentrates on what Germany does best. That is white wine made from riesling, with a sprinkling of reds from pinot noir, which also flourishes in cooler climate conditions, though the best cannot be cheap.

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.

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Sebastian Payne MW

Society Buyer

Sebastian Payne MW

Sebastian, our longest serving wine buyer, joined The Wine Society in 1973. He served as Chief Wine Buyer from 1985–2012.

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