To set the scene for further elaboration, I’ve tried to keep this as simple as possible without over-diluting the subject matter. It’s important to note that, like others who share opinion on this topic, I hold the VDP in the highest regard, for all their collective work, as an association of member estates that I have the deepest admiration for…
Though the classification of vineyards in Germany can be dated back at least a couple of centuries (most of this began in the 1800s; the vineyards of Würzburg in Franken were, however, classified in 1644) the concept that has gained traction in the modern age, being borrowed from the French, first appeared in the mid 1980s when the Rheingau based Charta association was established. Charta were to begin promoting dry wines from classified sites as Erstes Gewächs (First Growth), echoing the model used in Bordeaux. Restrictions on yield were imposed and hand harvesting was mandatory for these coveted wines. Though Erste Gewächse wines bearing the Charta logo did not first appear until the early 1990s and the words were not legally allowed to appear on labels until 1999, other regional grower associations began to follow the initiative.
When the VDP was formed in 1910 (as the Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer)* the idea was to promote wines that were natural; in those days referring to unchaptalised wines rather than the natural wine of today. One must appreciate just how marginal the climate in some of Germany’s wine regions was (still is, though to a lesser extent) pre-Global Warming to understand what unchaptalised meant to growers.
Today the VDP has a similarly noble but distinctly different creed. The quality philosophy, also appropriated from the French, places emphasis on terroir and enforces the view that the “narrower the appellation of origin” the greater the quality. It should be noted that there is a strong bias towards the production and promotion of dry wines now, which reflects public favour and modern drinking and dining trends.
The VDP Classification
The VDP first drafted the idea for its three-tier classification in 2001, taking on the form of the Burgundian model and placing regional and village wines (Gutswein and Ortswein respectively) at the bottom, classified sites (klassifizierte Lagenweine) in the middle and then the, single-site, Great Growths (Grosses Gewächs) at the top.
A revision was made in 2006 to iron out some of the creases and the Erste Lage (first site) concept (which had been conceived back in 2003) was written into the classification. Dry wines from Erste Lage sites that met strict criteria would be labeled ‘GG’** and the traditional Prädikat*** scale would still be applied to naturally fruity and sweet wines according to flavour profile.
Note: I should add that VDP classified sites differ from Einzellagen**** in that the demarcated vineyard area referred to by the VDP is usually much smaller than the legally-defined Einzellage itself. Post 1971 wine law many Einzellagen are composed of many historic named sites joined together. This is the subject of an entirely different and very time-consuming study.
With a bias towards dry wines the VDP has encouraged its members to reserve the use of the Prädikat scale for wines with natural sweetness however, particularly in the Mosel, prominent VDP members like Joh. Jos. Prüm and Egon Müller have simply continued to produce delicate and fruity Prädikatsweine with no apparent interest in marketing a GG or even any sort of trocken wine at all. Other producers like Dr Loosen produce outstanding wines in both categories.
In 2012 the VDP proudly announced a refined VDP.classification now with four tiers and a well thought out distinction between what can an only be compared to Burgundy’s Premier and Grand Crus; respectively, Erste Lage and Grosse Lage for single-site wines. Grosses Gewächs holds its place at the peak of the pyramid to denote the top dry wines made from Grosse Lage sites and Gutswein remains at the bottom with Ortswein (theoretically comparable to Burgundy Villages wine) elevated a notch to bridge the gap with the ‘Crus’.
To push the terroir concept further yet, vineyard takes pride of place as the appellation of origin and some VDP members have, with encouragement, begun to omit the village name from labels. To give an example, where you might once have seen “1997 Saarburger Rausch Riesling Spätlese” you now see “2010 Rausch Spätlese” with even mention of Riesling left off the label. Any legally required information is now displayed elsewhere on the bottle. For the Grosses Gewächs the label will simply read “2015 Rausch GG”.
Till next time…
In 2014 Weingut Koehler-Ruprecht of Kallstadt (Pfalz) announced that it was leaving the VDP. The VDP has been enforcing the removal of the Prädikat from the labels of dry wines since the last revision of its classification in 2012 and Koehler-Ruprecht, an outstanding producer of almost solely dry wines, has continued a long tradition of labelling with a Prädikat (Auslese trocken, for example), using the scale to denote varied Riesling styles (Kabinett for the most delicate wines, etc) produced primarily from one site. Furthermore, Koehler-Ruprecht’s use of the Prädikat on labels made a subtle point about their stance against chaptalisation, something that the VDP now tolerates.
For all of the commendable achievements made by the VDP, it is worth mentioning that the the current classification leaves some producers unfairly disadvantaged and could be considered ignorant to some unique and important wine styles.
Read on here…
Anyone interested in further reading, ought to consider obtaining a copy of the book Rheingold, The German Wine Renaissance by Owen Bird.
*The association changed its name in 1971 when new laws banned the use of the words natur, naturrein, or anything alluding to ‘natural’ – the newly created Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (now Prädikatswein) category disallowed chaptalisation anyhow.
**the words Grosses Gewächs can still not legally appear on wine labels.
***Prädikat, the top of the quality pyramid under German wine law. Prädikatsweine are graded in ascending order of ripeness. Grosse Gewächse are sold as Qualitätswein for which (legally) the minimum required must weight is lower, but the flexibility afforded is greater. Chaptalisation is permitted for Qualitätswein, but not for Prädikatswein.
****Einzellage, in German wine law, single vineyard.
*****Steffen Christmann is President of the VDP.