How to Choose a Bottle of German Riesling – How Sweet?

I have started writing about German wines and have already finished two parts which can be found here and here. I attempt to explain everything very short and easy in the hope that people with no clue about German wines will learn something and start to look around and try some. So in case, somebody has started already, I think it might be good to write something on how to pick a bottle of German wine. Since Riesling is the most important grape and German plants two third of the world production, this post will only focus on Riesling.

Spectrum of Sweetness

Riesling is a grape  of many facets. It can be used to produced a wide range of wines, from bone dry to super sweet and this broad spectrum of taste find its peak in Germany. Here it is typical to find more than ten different wines from just one winery in one vintage. On my last visit to Weingut Doennhoff, one of the best winery in Germany, I got to taste around twenty bottles from just the 2011 vintage. (And actually this is where and when I got the inspiration to write this post, as a friend of mine, who were with me on the visit, told me an interesting, yet so obvious, way to tell the sweetness of a bottle of Riesling.)

Doennhoff off dry wines

This is really a special character which is hardly matched by other varieties and it is the one of the good thing about Riesling. Like one of my wine fellow has told me what he once read in a book. If I remember it right, he said something like,

“Not every Riesling is for everyone but there is a Riesling for everybody. If you haven’t liked Riesling, you probably haven’t tried enough.”

Sound good right. But this strong point is also Riesling’s weakest point. The problem is, it is no easy task to really tell how sweet a bottle of German Riesling is. And if you buy one and expect dry, then after the first sip it taste sweet, it is unlikely that you will be impressed. So the first important ability you need is to be able to tell the sweetness level o f the Riesling you are holding in your hands.

First, How to Tell How Sweet?

This is definitely tough if the only way to find out is to understand all the german words on the label. German minds are complicated, believe me, and there are loads of information on a German wine label. The good news is you actually don’t need to go and take a course on German. All you need is to find the alcohol content on the scrolls of information and to know only some German words.

Doennhoff Labels

The Alcohol Content, 11% and 13%

For the alcohol content, if it is high, you can expect a drier Riesling and vice versa. Everything under 11% is off dry and everything above 13% is dry. Between 11% and 13% lies the gray zone where you need to dig deeper. The 13% mark is a really good limit for dry Riesling unless the global warming is doing too much to Germany so that we begin to see wines at 16% or even 18% like in Australia.

Before going on, it is worth to point out that telling the dryness depending on the alcohol content is also related to the quality level of the bottle at hand. The higher the quality is, the higher the alcohol content has to be for the wine to taste dry. The reason is easy since the higher quality grapes are normally more ripe with more sugar that has to be fermented into alcohol. So an everyday Riesling can begin to taste dry at just 12%.

The 8 Keywords

Next is the most important keyword you need to remember, Trocken. If you see this word, you are holding a dry Riesling and if you cannot find this word anywhere on the label, you are probably holding an off-dry one. Now how sweet? You either have to rely again on the alcohol content or to search for other keywords. There are two words which say that the Riesling are sweet, Feinherb and Lieblich, the former means off-dry while the latter means semi-sweet.

The above three words and the alcohol content are more than enough to differentiate between dry and off-dry Rieslings. There are however another two set of words that tell you that the Riesling you are looking at is sweet or super sweet. Belonging to the first group are Spaetlese and Auslese. If you see this two words without the word trocken, you are holding a sweet one. Now for the second group, we have Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein. These are super sweet dessert Riesling. So there you are, alcohol content plus 8 words. Not so difficult right? Next is how to tell how good, so stay tune!

8 Responses to “How to Choose a Bottle of German Riesling – How Sweet?”
    • ponotet says:

      Thanks. I have been thinking a lot lately about the problem of German wines and I really think that one of the most obvious problem is the many styles of wines esp. in term of sweetness. For people who know about German wines, it is a good thing. But for those who want to get started, it is like walking blindly in a bomb field. And sweetness in wine is a crucial thing for one’s appreciation. 😉

      • I agree. I have tried to help out some friends but they seem quite lost with German labels. And rightly so. I plan on writing something about reading a label soon…I understand how frustrating it must be to be looking for a dry riesling and then not really knowing what the label is trying to tell us. That is why I liked your article.

  1. Very nice and informative article. You might also be interested in reading German Wine Basics: How does a sweet German Riesling become sweet? on schiller-wine

    • ponotet says:

      Thanks very much. I have followed your blog for quite some time now and I admire your posts. I have already read this article before and have also shared it as well as a lot of your posts on my facebook fanpage. Most of my fans are Thais and I’m thinking about writing my posts also in Thai. Do you mind if I pick some of your articles, translate them and repost in on my blog?

  2. Bruce Savage says:

    So if you see the word trocken the wine is dry, yet Trockenbeerenauslese is super sweet. I guess that means if the word trocken appears by itself the wine is dry. Interesting that the word that indicated dry is used in the title of a super sweet wine.

    • ponotet says:

      Thanks for the comment!

      So “trocken” means dry in German. Moreover, “Beeren” means berries and “Auslese” means picking. Together it can be translated to “Dry berries picking” which explains why the wine is super sweet.

  3. Zack says:

    Once of the produce I like is , perfect well info

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