Wine Labels – an indication of Terroir? #3

Posted by Peter Koff MW on 14th Dec 2018

We have talked about terroir in these pages previously. Briefly, we described terroir to be that “somewhereness” of wine, that specific piece of dirt, that imbues a wine with unique, special and sought after characteristics. So how do wine labels relate to terroir? Do wine labels display a complete belief in terroir, or can wine labels actually help us to develop a more accurate definition of terroir? This article is the third in a series that will relate a country’s or a region’s labeling laws to the lofty concept of terroir, the notion, that like beachfront property, the planet has only a finite amount of fine terroir. If you have it, you are blessed, as it produces the best wines that sell at the highest prices and the land too is worth great sums of money. If you don’t have it, well tough, you are relegated to doing the best you can in the shadow of the revered plots!

Today, I will discuss terroir in the context of German wine labels. I will briefly deconstruct the regulations to see how faithfully they hew to the notion that the wines are imbued with a special “somewhereness.” To be sure, it must be stated that terroir is rarely specifically mentioned in labeling regulations; it is however a powerful underlying assumption. In Germany, the old wine law of 1971 related quality to the sugar levels in the grapes. In a region, so far north, the ability to ripen grapes is key to quality, believed at that time to be the key. German wine law has been changed somewhat, partly to fit into the European Union rules. A distinction is made between Tafelwein and Landwein (table wine), Quälitatswein, formerly Qba (quality wine from 1 of 13 regions, called anbaugebiete in German) and Prädikatswein, formerly QmP (wines with additional quality attributes). Table wines and quality wines may be chaptalized, meaning sugar can be added to increase sweetness and / or alcohol levels. Prädikatswein may not be chaptalized. Wines of every quality could legally be produced anywhere. Of course, terroir is implicit here as the best sites are those that get the most sun and therefore the ripest grapes. However, the option of chaptalizing the lower qualities raises issues of its own because that facilitates high cropping levels, not conducive to quality, although it must be said that over cropping in Germany is not the problem it would be in warmer climates. This will change as the climate warms. A German wine label, conforming to German wine law for a Prädikatswein will typically show:

  • Brand name
  • Grape variety: If stated, must be at least 85% of the named variety to satisfy EU law
  • Riesling Hochgewächs – Riesling High Growth. Qualitätswein,100% Riesling with 1.5% more potential alcohol than required in the region and a higher score in a mandatory tasting evaluation
  • The Prädikat level
  • The vineyard
  • The town in which the vineyard is situated
  • The vintage
  • A statement indicating where the wine was bottled, including if bottled on the estate
  • Classic: Classic is in principle a dry or slightly off-dry Qualitätswein that conforms to slightly higher standards intended to make it food-friendly. It must be made from varieties considered classical in its region, have a potential alcohol of 1% above the minimum requirements for its variety and region, and have an alcohol level of minimum 12.0% by volume, except in Mosel, where the minimum level is 11.5%. Maximum sugar level is twice the acid level, but no more than 15 grams per liter
  • Selection: A dry wine with a must weight of at least Auslese level, from a selected vineyard site or parcels thereof. Grapes have to be harvested by hand with a maximum yield of 60hl/ha. Residual sugar level in a Selection wine is a maximum of 9 grams per liter, with the exception of Riesling wines that can have up to 12 grams per liter, based on the acidity level of the wine.
  • Erstes Gewächs. (First Class Growth), a designation used only in the Rheingau for top-level dry wines (the maximum permitted amount of residual sugar is 13 g/L), hand-harvested from selected sites.

The above, for the most part does not conflict with the pure and philosophical concept of terroir. In my opinion, a true belief in terroir elicits no rules – less is more! So, some of the above legal requirements specify grape varieties, yields, quality levels, alcohol levels. These statements are more a framework for producers and a guarantee for consumers, than they are a commitment to terroir. Nevertheless, German wine law and labeling does a very good job, if not in absolutely promoting terroir, at least allowing producer believers in terroir a great deal of freedom to coax the most out of their dirt.

Lately, as tastes have moved to dryer wines and as producers have sought greater recognition of their wines, some new designations are being used. It must be emphasized that the following designations are not enshrined in the law! An organization, VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter), is a group of some 200 wineries believing strongly in their terroirs and codifying in greater detail their sites and their production. The VDP has identified:

  • Großes Gewächs (great growth), a designation used by VDP members in all regions to designate top-level dry wines from sites classified as Grosse Lage
  • Grosse Lage (Grand Cru), a designation used by the VDP to designate non-dry wines from Grosse Lage sites. The non-dry wines are always of Prädikatswein level with the Prädikat mentioned, e.g. VDP. Grosse Lage Spätlese.
  • Erste Lage (Premier Cru)

I am sure that we will see more of this activity as the taste for dry wines grows and the German producers seek more recognition for their quality. At this stage in the evolution, it is fair to say that German wine law is, if not totally supportive of the concept of terroir, is supportive, and more importantly, does not dictate to producers to the same degree as legal systems I have analyzed thus far. I believe that the VDP is genuine and committed to terroir but I am still pleased that German wine law has not been changed to restrict the freedoms of producers to exploring and maximizing their terroirs unfettered by “we know best” regulations.


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Selected by Peter Koff MW


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