Germany has a history of winemaking that dates back to 100 B.C. when ancient Romans began producing wines there. It was the Romans who recognized the potential of sites like the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen and who cultivated grapes there. Today it is hard to imagine, but at one time Germany was considered with France as one of the two great wine producing countries in the world.
German Riesling is labeled using regulated terminology and like other German wines is categorized as Tafelwein or Landwein (lowest quality), Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA) (good quality) and Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) / Prädikatswein which translates as “quality wine with distinction” (best quality). Beyond the quality ratings Rieslings are broadly described as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese. Although there are exceptions, each of these terms implies progressively sweeter wine.
Kabinett wines are picked during the normal harvest time and are usually light to medium bodied, well-balanced in acidity and dry to semi-dry in style. The term Kabinett is derived from the Cabinet in which the best wines were stored.
Literally translated as “late harvest,” Spätlese is picked about two weeks after Kabinett. The grapes are now fully ripened and have a greater body, longer finish and more intensity of fruit than the Kabinetts. Spätlese are semi-dry to semi-sweet in style.
Translated as “select harvest,” Auslese is made from very ripe grapes, which come from individually selected bunches that are harvested by hand. Auslese is typically done in a sweet style and marks the beginning of dessert-style wines.
Beerenauslese (abbreviated BA) is translated as “berry select harvest.” Individual grapes are selected and harvested by hand. Similar to Sauternes BAs are typically the product of botrytis cinerea (noble rot).
Translated as “dried berry select harvest,” Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) is the sweetest and richest of the German wines. TBAs have an overwhelming intensity and complexity of flavors and are known as König (King) of German dessert wines.
Rieslings are very versatile with food. The dryer (Kabinett and Spätlese) styles are superb with sautéed, broiled or grilled seafood, most pork, poultry and veal dishes and many Asian dishes. The sweeter (Auslese, BA, TBA) styles can be considered deserts in themselves, but also compliment moderately sweet deserts that contain tart fruits.
German wine got a black in the 1960s and 70s, when large quantities of sweet blended wines were created for export to the United States. These include the infamous Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun that anyone who was of drinking age in the 60s has probably consumed. Most Germans have never heard of either of these wines. There are some very good German wines made today, some of which are finally finding their way to the United States.