During the four days that I was in Germany in July, our group heard over and over from producers and winemakers that the Wine Law of 1971 marked a body-blow to the German wine industry from which it has struggled for almost 40 years to recover. Indeed, in his chapter on the Wine Law in The Wines of Germany (Mitchell Beazley, 2003), Stephen Brook uses words like “abuse,” villainous,” “terminological rape” and “inanity” to describe the regulations and their effects. While an explanation of German wine label terms and the strictures of the Wine Law could take a semester of seminars and workshops, let me heroically attempt such a feat in one incredibly over-simplifying blog post.

(This post is not a guide to reading German wine labels. For that precise information go here or here.)

And before we leap to the heart of the matter, let me draw an analogy between the vineyard systems of Burgundy and Germany. In contrast to Bordeaux, for example, where the estate and the wine are synonymous, in Burgundy and Germany the villages and vineyards hold the qualitative pride of place, with many producers making wine from the same vineyard, of which they may own a piece or purchase grapes from another owner. In Bordeaux, for example, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild is the name of the wine and the estate, and its vineyards are its own. On a Burgundy label, the words Volnay Le Cailleret indicate (first) the village and (second) the vineyard, just as on a German label the words Nierstein Ölberg indicate the same village/vineyard sequence. Most of the wine world follows the model of Bordeaux, to greater or lesser degree.

O.K., now, here’s how the German Wine Law struck the death knell for the country’s fine wine estates.

First, the committees that came up with the Wine Laws completely ignored the traditions of quality differences among vineyards. Let’s face it: some vineyards are better than others. That’s why, in Burgundy, for instance, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, a Grand Cru vineyard, (usually) commands a higher price than Gevry-Chambertin Les Cazetiers, a Premier Cru vineyard, or why, in California, wines made from vineyards with long histories of producing high-quality wines, such as To-Kalon or Sanford & Benedict, are sought after by collectors. What makes one vineyard better than another is a subject for another post or seven, but, briefly, it’s a matter of the nuances of exposure, drainage and soil/sub-soil composition along with variations in the consistency of warmth and coolness during the day and at night. Such details, both minute and sweeping, of geography and micro-climate can change within a few hundred yards or even from one side of a road to the other. Fortunes depend on such subtleties.

As far as the German Wine Law is concerned, however, the greatest virtue of a wine is not where it came from or the grape variety from which it was made but the ripeness of the grapes.

The whole spectrum of German wines falls under these divisions: 1. Deutscher Tafelwein (German table wine); 2. Landwein (country wine); 3. Qualitätswein bestimmer Anbaugebiete (QbA, quality wine of a specified appellation); and 4. Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP, quality wines with distinction). The vast majority of wine made in Germany is Tafelwein and Landwein; few regulations apply to these levels and little is exported. QbA wines — often signified just by the word Qualitätswein on labels — must conform to regional laws and must be tested by a compliance committee; these wines may have sugar added during fermentation to achieve the required level of alcohol.

QmP wines, which may not have sugar added to them, were codified in the German Wine Law of 1971 as such: Kabinett; Spätlese, Auslese; Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerauslese. The categories are defined by law in ascending order, starting with Kabinett, in terms of the ripeness of the grapes and the potential alcohol content (that is to say, from driest to sweetest) and the specific lateness and method of harvest. The Wine Law clearly implies that the ascending order is one of increasing quality; a Spätlese wine, in other words, is inherently “better” than a Kabinett and so on.

Second, the German Wine Law of 1971 shanghaied the names of well-favored villages and attached them to broad regional designations (Grosslages), thereby diluting the reputation of the village and its often illustrious vineyards. “How many people would know,” Brook writes in The Wines of Germany, “that Piesporter Goldtröpfchen was the name of one of the finest sites on the Mosel, while Piersporter Michelsberg was a Grosslage name that incorporated a vast area of utterly mediocre vineyards on overfertile flat land at some distance from the river?” In other words, it is perfectly legal for a wine designated Piesporter Michelsberg to have no wine from Piesport in it.

Obviously this scheme favors large producers who can take advantage of a famous name to display on labels of generic wine. It also favors wine sellers who can persuade their customers to purchase more expensive Spätlese or Auslese wines because they’re “better” than Kabinetts. (I saw a newsletter from a German wine club that described the principle virtue of QbA wines as “to mix with club soda.”)

However, some of the best wines I tried in Germany were Kabinett wines of classic intensity and authority or Spätleses made in the dry or “half-dry” (trocken or halb-trocken) fashion. Other great wines I encountered were QmP wines declassified to QbA or deliberately made outside the QmP system, just as producers in Italy used to opt for the lowly Vino da Tavola designation to make wines from officially unapproved grapes. That’s one method by which fine estates in Germany are trying to produce authentic and individualistic wines without being hampered by illogical regulations.

Another method is the creation of a self-regulating regional Grand Cru (Grosses Gewächs) system designed by the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates) and legalized in 2006. As admirable, however, as this classification system may be in identifying and supporting Germany’s finest vineyards (though who could say that these choices are not arbitrary to some extent), the VDP’s relentless emphasis lies with dry wines at the Kabinett and Spätlese levels, at the expense of the inimitable dessert wines that are the real glory of Germany’s wine industry. It’s true that in a changing world German wine consumers turn increasingly to dry wines, but the wonderful heritage of that golden nectar must not be minimized or forsaken.