The Germans have been making wine since the 1st century and the oldest city was located right in the middle of Mosel, the most famous and best quality wine region in the country. Due to the northernly location of German vineyards, German wine makers focuses predominately in white wine, specifically riesling grapes. With thousands of years of winemaking experience and the ideal temperature, German has the world's finest Rieslings.
Then why isn't German wine as popular as French wine?
Before then 1980s, the world was in love with German Riesling, eagerly buying anything and everything the winemakers can produce. Historically, German produces mostly dry white wine which are still consume domestically today. Internationally, they were renowned for their semi-sweet to sweet wines which are very popular even in Taiwan. So what happened?
A serious lack of foresight.
1. Liebfraumilch: Despite their high quality wines, German are still better known for abroad for their cheap, mass produced white wine called Liebraumilch. It literally translated to "Beloved Lady's Milk". The labels would usually fashion a painting of a religious woman with a baby. Not only is the breast milk association unappetizing, this stuff is just plain nasty. Would you ever order a $100 bottle of white wine at an expensive restaurant to share with your date if the wine is made in China?
Confused? It's really expensive. Would you buy it?
2. Marketing (or the lack there of): They should have known that they are in trouble when consumer associate German wine with cheap liquor. Traditional German wine labels often have a profusion of information (all in German). It will take me probably three long winded posts to explain all those things on the labels. These labels are confusing and further discourages consumers who only know Liebfraumilch.
3. Austria's 1985 Anti Freeze Wine Scandal: Before this incident, demand for German wines greatly outstrips supply, so a few Austrian wineries got this great idea to put anti-freeze into wine to make it seem sweeter, fuller bodied, and thus more expensive. These wines are then shipped to Germany to be bottled and illegally blended with German wines, so they can be sold as German wines. Needless to say, they got caught and went to jail. Austrian's wine industry completely collapsed, and German's reputation for fine wine were very tarnished.
Anyway here are the basic information for buying and consuming German wine:
German produces mostly white wines, predominantly the Riesling varietal, and a few Pinot Noirs. Like most of the European countries, they have strict laws and regulation in place to govern the quality and labeling of their wines. Only wines from the designated quality regions can be labelled QbA (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbugebiete). There are only 13 Quality Regions of which the most important for premium quality Riesling wines are Mosel, Rheingau, and Pfalz.
Within the 13 QbA, the highest premium wines is labeled QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat). QmP is strictly regulated EU Quality Category and no artificial sugar is allowed. (Most wine out there, regardless of quality, usually add cane sugar into their wine).
Within QmP, there is a hierarchy of designation that reflect the natural sugar content of the grapes that are used to make the wine. Government officials would visit vineyard right before harvest to determine the sugar level of the grapes and issue the appropriate category to the winemaker. In the order of increasing ripeness and also price:
Kabinett: Wine from this category are usually harvest the earliest. They are the lightest body, high acidity, with green fruit notes (apple, grape). They usually have medium sweetness and light alcohol. Recently, I have found ones that are dry with medium alcohol.
Spätlese: This is hate harvest wine with more body than kabinett and has more exotic fruit note (lemon, pineapple).
Auslese: Wines have even more body and more exotic fruit notes (mango). This is the highest category where the wine can appear as a dry wine, though most Auslese are medium or sweet. This is also my personal favourite category of Riesling.
Eiswein: A.K.A icewine. Sweet wine made from frozen grapes.
Beerenauslese (BA): The last two categories are designated for sweet wines made from noble rots. A fungus growth on grapes that dries the grape leaving it looking like discolored raisin with concentrated natural sugar and acid. Only the perfectly ripped grapes under the perfect climate and weather are able to grow this noble rots, and sometimes not all the grapes are affected. These grapes just be picked and sorted grape by grape, by hand. These wines are low in alcohol, high in acidity, and very sweet.
Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA): This is the sweetest of the sweet wines. Very expensive and very difficult to come by. They only grow on the steep vineyard site above Rhine and Mosel. These vineyards are so steep it is impossible to manage by machine and has to be attended to manually. German labors are not cheap.
Interesting, some Liebfraumilch is QbA, made from a blend of grape varieties grown in the QbA regions. They are not bad, but due to the notoriety attached to its name. These are often labeled under brands, so they can be a little hard to find.