The VDP and its Klassifikation (Part 2) – ‘Legally Trocken’

The VDP and its Klassifikation (Part 1) can be found here.


The Exalted GG!

With quality philosophy that places strong emphasis on the importance of terroir the VDP introduced a classification in the early 2000s that, based on the model employed in Burgundy, placed some of Germany’s most esteemed vineyards at the peak of the pyramid. By 2012 that category was bestowed with the name Grosse Lage* (great site) and trocken wines made from optimally ripe grapes were to be sold as Grosses Gewächs (great growth).

The Grosse Gewächse are made according to a strict limit on yield and hand harvesting is mandatory, additionally they are sold as Qualitätswein and so are labeled only with the declaration that they are legally trocken.** As expected, the wines vary in style from region to region and dependant on vintage these powerful wines can accumulate alcohol levels as high as 14%.  Often austere in youth, they promise exceptional ageing potential and generally deserve at least five years in a cellar.

GG wines from Keller (Flörsheim-Dalsheim, Rheinhessen) have been compared to the likes  of Montrachet and other wines in the same class have been lavished with similar accolades. Although I am critical of the all too common comparison with Burgundy, I suppose it’s fairly harmless. These wines are some of the finest dry whites that Germany has ever produced.

The GG concept is cleverly thought out and has created an immediately recognisable brand that appeals to the modern taste for dry wines. However, one could argue that all this widespread fanfare has left some of the country’s other classic and equally important wine styles forgotten… or at least entirely misunderstood.

Fighting the Law

The Prädikat was introduced in Germany with new laws that came into effect in 1971. In a marginal climate where optimum ripeness was not always easy to achieve, sugar became the yardstick according to which quality was measured. The Prädikat scale begins with Kabinett and ends with Trockenbeerenauslese; each level having its own minimum starting must weight dependant on region and variety. Quality producers regularly well exceed the minimums for each level.

Making sugar (expressed in degrees Oechsle – measurement of must weight, translatable into Baumé and the likes) the sole deciding quality factor together with the widespread planting of a handful of grape crossings (principally Müller-Thurgau) designed by Germans in order to ripen easily and deliver a generous yield led to an increase in the quantity of mass-produced export wine and a marked drop in quality overall. All this served to thoroughly destroy the country’s reputation as a producer of quality wine; a position from which it is still slowly recovering.

The VDP has long stood firmly opposed to the 1971 German Wine Law and its own classification is a direct movement against the Prädikat system. A very convincing argument is that achieving optimum ripeness no longer poses a great challenge in todays warmer climate and that the Prädikat system is now somewhat redundant. The required must weight minimums were slightly raised in the mid 90s but the residually sweet wines made at each level have been made perceptibly sweeter as time has gone by.*** It doesn’t seem that the Prädikat is going anywhere fast, but I think it’s foreseeable that an overall drier style will become more prevalent over time in regions like the Mosel.

In my last piece I mentioned an icon of dry Riesling that had left the VDP as recently as 2014, joining fellow icon Georg Breuer (Rüdesheim, Rheingau). This producer was Koehler-Ruprecht of Kallstadt in the Pfalz. Koehler-Ruprecht has traditionally bottled dry wines with a Prädikat, using the system to give an indication of corresponding wine style; Kabinett for the most delicate wines and Auslese for the ripest, most complex and fuller-bodied etc.

This practice is not at all unique and, though it was once more commonplace, it is still in use. Since 2012 the VDP has urged its members to cease bottling trocken wines with a Prädikat and to reserve terms like Kabinett and Spätlese for residually sweet wines. Additionally, members are to bottle and market only one trocken wine per site bearing the site name (yes, Ernst Loosen has repeatedly been asked to releasing GG Reserve wines… to no avail). Koehler-Ruprecht would be forced to market a sole Saumagen GG and then de-classify the remainder of their fruit from that site and perhaps the Erste Lage Steinacker site into VDP.GUTSWEIN and ORTSWEIN. Good bye Kallstadter Saumagen Kabinett trocken!

What about the rest of the sugar?

What about regions in which trocken wines are of significantly diminished importance? Consider the Mosel where delicate and fruity wines are a unique specialty… and the Rheingau too which has a long history of producing noble sweet wine. In fact, harmonious wines with varying levels of residual sugar have always been produced.

Peter Lauer (Ayl) and Heymann-Löwenstein (Winningen) are two Mosel producers that focus on ‘dry tasting’ wines without necessarily concerning themselves with fermenting to legal dryness (and they are both members of the VDP). Both Lauer and Löwenstein work largely according to their own rules and allow their gifted palates to guide them in their winemaking.

Residual sweetness in the wines of the Mosel is a matter of balance; the long and cool ripening period allows for the retention of high levels of acidity whilst the grapes develop a near-impossible depth of flavour. The resulting wines are capable of maturing into some of the most complex and compelling on the planet. The fact that a great deal of them are under 10% alcohol adds to their appeal considerably. Delicate and elegant wines both dry and sweet are historically important and unique to the Mosel.

To conclude, for now…

It’s not hard to appreciate what the VDP hopes to achieve with its classification. As far as wine is concerned Germany has a very stubborn worldwide reputation for producing sweet and cheap ‘shit’. It stands to reason, therefore, that promoting quality dry wine and doing it in way that non-German speakers can understand is the best recovery option… if only it weren’t occasionally at the expense of authenticity.

*not to be confused with the Grosslage, a term that under 1971 law denotes a large area composed of several Einzellagen.
**put simply, this means up to 9g/l of residual sugar.
***at least that has been the observation made by people, much older than myself, who have been drinking Riesling since before I was born.