Saturday, November 10, 2012

How to Tell if German Wine is Sweet or Dry


German wine, which is primarily made from the Riesling grape, has a reputation for being sweet, but in reality it ranges from fully dry to fully sweet.  But if the bottles don’t tell you how sweet they are (and they usually don’t), how do you find the one you want?  A little background knowledge of the German quality system, the fermentation process, and some simple math.

Sweetness Levels
Wine sweetness levels in general are usually classified on the following scale:
  • Dry – not sweet at all (most wine falls here)
  • Off-dry – just a little sweet (a lot of Rieslings are here)
  • Medium-sweet – pretty darn sweet (Moscato d’Asti is usually classified here)
  • Sweet (or fully sweet) – very sweet, like dessert (non-sparkling Moscato is often here, along with Port and Ice Wine)

Germany and Wine
Germany is the coldest wine region on Earth.  It is so cold that grapes sometimes have difficulty ripening.  Consequently, the Germans label their wines by how ripe the grapes get.  Ripeness is measured by “must weight,” which is just a fancy way of saying how much sugar the grapes have in them at harvest time. 

When the wine is fermented, it’s the sugar in the grapes that turns into alcohol.  So “must weight” can easily be translated to potential alcohol.  We say “potential” alcohol, because here winemakers have a decision to make.  They can let ALL the sugar in the grapes ferment into alcohol and create a dry wine.  Or they can stop the fermentation at any point, leaving the remaining sugar unfermented (called “residual sugar”), and creating a wine with some degree of sweetness (and less alcohol). 

Sugar/Alcohol Levels
Below are some of the names you’ll see on the labels, listed with their potential alcohol levels.  Not every bottle will be labeled with one of these names, but most of them will.  (Note:  These numbers are approximate, since each German wine region has its own unique requirements.
  • Kabinett – 9.5% alcohol
  • Spatlese – 11% alcohol
  • Auslese – 13% alcohol
  • Beerenauslese – don’t worry about potential alcohol – this one will always be sweet
  • Eiswein – always very sweet
  • Trokenbeerenauslese – always very sweet

The Formula!

(  % Potential Alcohol   -   % Alcohol by Volume  )  x 2     =   % Residual Sugar

You know potential alcohol from the list above.  The winemaker is not required to tell you whether his wine is sweet or not, but he IS required to tell you how much alcohol is in it!  You can find the alcohol by volume (ABV) on the bottle.  By subtracting the numbers, you can tell whether the winemaker has fermented all the sugar out of his grapes, or has left some in the wine. 

Sometimes the winemaker will label the wine as sweet or dry, “troken” (dry) or “halbtroken” (off-dry) in German.  Then you don’t have to calculate; you know about how much sugar the wine will have:
  • Troken – dry, with a maximum of 1.8% residual sugar
  • Half-Troken – off-dry, with a maximum of 3.6% residual sugar

But how much sugar does it take to taste sweet?

Perception of Sweetness by Percent
Here is a chart to show you about how sweet a certain percentage of sugar will taste.  I’ve posted it before, but it’ll be useful here.  (Keep in mind that individual perceptions vary.)


Let’s take this formula for a test drive.  You see a Spatlese that says it has 8% ABV.  You know that if this wine is classified as a Spatlese, the grapes had a potential alcohol level of around 11%.  Therefore:  11% minus 8% equals 3%.  3% times 2 is 6%.  6% sugar puts this wine just into the medium-sweet range. 

Pick up a bottle of German Riesling this week and let me know if this helped!  Try it with spicy Asian food! 

Some Riesling producers around the world are starting to put a sweetness scale on their labels to help with this issue, and I’m planning a post on that next week.  

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