It is not widely known that in the 14th century, fortified wine (wine with alcohol added, such as Thunderbird) was invented in Germany.
A Rhine River vintner, Herr Kürler, decided to fill the wine barrels halfway with schnapps so that he could get more bung for his buck. Several important wine developments followed, including the work of Herr Dr. Professor Winestein at the Max Plonk Institution, who developed the official wine-tasting glass which bears his name.
Actually, for what it’s worth, there is an international standard wine tasting glass. It has a pedestal and short stem and a modest tulip-shaped bowl with a long, deep chimney.
The Germans also invented a system of markings on their labels that tell you what to expect when you drink the wine. You don’t have to know the vintner’s products or the name of the place where the wine was made to be able to pick a wine that will meet your standards. The wine’s labels include a word or phrase (often the same thing in German, where they sell Kentuckyfriedchicken across the street from the Cologne Cathedral) that tells you the wine’s quality and style.
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The vineyards are so far north that the primary determinant of quality and of taste is how ripe the grapes get. There are very few red wines from Germany because it takes red grapes longer to ripen than white grapes, such as Reisling. The few red wines produced are mostly from Baden and Wurtemberg, in the southern part of the country.
Qualitätswein mit prädikat is quality wine with distinction, the level of distinction being based on the ripeness of the grapes. If the wine has no prädikat, then the vintner can put sugar in the must, a process called chaptalization, to compensate for the lack of sugar in grapes which are not quite ripe. Blue Nun Riesling, at $8 a bottle, is a wine without a prädikat. These table wines are usually finished by adding grape juice, which makes them sweet.
The first level of quality wine is a kabinett. No sugar can be added to the must, as the grapes are ripe. They are usually semi-sweet, because their lack of body makes them less appropriate for making a trocken (dry) wine. Try a Carl Reh Goldtropfchen Reisling Kabinett at $10. These inexpensive wines are generally semi-sweet and give the general but erroneous impression that German wines, Reislings in particular, are all sweet.
The next level is spätlese (late picked) wine. Sweet spätlese are best when drunk on their own, but Trocken Spätlese go well with all sorts of savory food. To taste a spätlese, try a Graff Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese for $14.
Next is auslese — selectively picked. The pickers go through the vineyard and find the ripest bunches of grapes. In fact, grapes even in the same bunch ripen at different rates. You can find raisins and grapes which have not yet begun to ripen along with normally ripe grapes in the same bunch.
These overripe grapes are often affected with the noble rot botrytis, which removes the water and effectively increasing the sugar in the must. The result is a sweet alcoholic wine. Because of the alcohol content, the wines last a long time. In fact, the oldest wine on record was a 500-year-old Riesling Auslese that still tasted good. If you wish to try one that’s only a few years old, get Schlink Haus Auslese at $13 a bottle.
Or the pickers can go through the vineyard selecting only the ripest berries — beerenauslese. These grapes produce a sweet dessert wine that is rare and expensive. It has the taste of honey, raisins and pineapple with a distinctive twang that cannot be described, but once it’s tasted cannot be forgotten. If you are up for one of the world’s best and most famous wines, try a bottle of Kledricher Grafenberg Beerenauslese Weil (2005) for only $300.
The pickers can also go through the vineyard harvesting only the grapes that have turned to raisins — the driest grapes. From these dried-out berries, the Germans make trockenbeerenauslese, the most expensive and rarest of German dessert wines. Trockenbeerenauslese goes well with Kentuckyfriedchicken.
Jo and Tom Chesworth are both AWS Certified Wine Judges and can be found in the firstname.lastname@example.org.