The German wine business has changed out of all recognition in the last 30 years, thank goodness. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s it prided itself on its equipment and administration – a combination unrivalled elsewhere in the world – but somewhere along the line lost sight of the taste of the wine itself. Today, even if the big commercial bottlers are finding the going tough, more and more individual estates are revelling in what makes German wine so special.

The well-intentioned German Wine Law of 1971 neatly assigned a number to every batch of wine, and allowed all but a tiny minority of them to call themselves 'quality wine', or Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA), the same rank as France's appellation contrôlée elite. More disastrously, it ordained that wine quality could be measured with one simple device, the refractometer with which vine-growers check the sugar content of their grapes. To qualify as a higher grade, or Prädikat, of wine (see Understanding German labels, below), the grape juice simply had to be sweeter. The result was a steady invasion of German vineyards by vine varieties specially bred to provide super-ripe grapes (which tend to produce wines which taste as bland as giant, prize-winning vegetables). The major casualty was the difficult-to-ripen Riesling vine, Germany's greatest asset.

Yields, for long unregulated (in sharp contrast to France and Italy), grew so that such flavour as grapes could be persuaded to develop in a climate as cool as Germany's was all too often virtually undetectable in a sea of inexpensive, low-alcohol, medium-dry white shipped abroad at ludicrous prices and sold as innocuous, but hardly vinous, blends labelled Liebfraumilch, Niersteiner Gutes Domtal, Piesporter Michelsberg et al.

Meanwhile, a small band of obstinately quality-minded estates continued to provide evidence of the miracles that can be achieved in German vineyards, which yield grapes with relatively high levels of natural acidity, and cold winters which favour ultra-natural winemaking, relying on long, cool fermentations and minimal wine treatments. The classic wines of Germany may be high in extract, thanks to the soils, but are relatively low in alcohol. Riesling grown on the steep, slatey banks of the river Mosel is the epitome of traditional German wine: aromatic, delicate, racy, long-lived, and unlike any wine made anywhere else in the world!

In the mid 1980s a healthy air of self-doubt refreshed the almost infinitely fragmented German winescape (the average vineyard is an acre or two farmed as a weekend income supplement), so a new generation of wine producers emerged to join the standard-bearers of the old brigade. Climate change has brought warmer summers and riper grapes so that in many regions Pinot Noir and its relatives, and even in some places Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, can be ripened fully and have sufficient substance to withstand ageing in new oak barriques even though the traditional German wine container remains either a neutral large oval barrel or more commonly a stainless steel tank. There is now widespread recognition that limiting yields is the first essential step to producing wines of real interest and flavour.

There has also been a trend towards making much drier wines in Germany than was the norm, so that the average alcoholic strength of German wine has risen (as more of the natural sugar has been fermented into alcohol instead of remaining as sweetness in the wine). This means that those of us who used to regard German wine as incapable of producing a hangover have had a few nasty shocks, but it has resulted in a new palette of wine styles from Germany which are much more at home on the dinner table than their predecessors: relatively full-bodied, positively flavoured racy whites, but always with a backbone of fine acidity which can make them much more refreshing than most Chardonnays, for example. Although Germany does now have its own plantings of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

If Germany's wine drinkers have developed a taste for drier wines, they have nurtured a passion for red wine, encouraging a dramatic increase in plantings of red wine vines, specifically early-ripening varieties such as Pinot Noir, known here as Spätburgunder, which has almost overtaken the dreary Müller-Thurgau as Germany’s second most planted vine variety after Riesling. Today's wine laws, naming and general wine ethos no longer worships sweetness.

Understanding German labels

German labels are some of the world's most confusing. Quite apart from the usual advice that producer is crucial and vintage year can affect quality, look for 1 quality level, 2 grape variety, 3 region.

  1. In ascending order of natural grape ripeness (though not necessarily quality): Deutscher Wein, Landwein, QbA, Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, BA and TBA.
  2. Most German wines are made from single grape varieties, specified on the label. For example, in declining order of importance within Germany's vineyards overall: Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Dornfelder, Silvaner, Portugieser, and so on. Riesling, Scheurebe and Silvaner in Franken tend to be the best bets, although some fine dryish Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) is also produced and is very popular in Germany. Increasingly well-made Spätburgunder and Dornfelder are the best of the reds.
  3. Labels on all but the most basic German wines should carry the name of one of the following wine regions: Ahr, Baden, Franken, Hessische Bergstrasse, Mittelrhein, Mosel (previously known as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer), Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Saale-Unstrut, Sachsen, Württemberg.

These regional names may be a lot more helpful than the often very complicated name of the wine itself. Like burgundies, German wines have tended to be named with a combination of village and vineyard name, although in the case of German a possessive -er is usually added to the village name, as in Berkasteler Schlossberg for the Schlossberg vineyard in the Bernkastel district.

In 1971 the Germans made life even more difficult for consumers than it was already by giving vast zones called Grosslagen a familiar name so that it is extremely difficult even for a professional to remember whether, for example, Badstube is a Grosslage zone or a small single vineyard or Einzellage. Some of the most famous Grosslagen are (Zeller) Schwarze Katz, (Kröver) Nacktarsch, (Bernkasteler) Badstube, (Bernkasteler) Kurfürstlay, (Piesporter) Michelsberg, (Klüsserather) St Michael, (Wiltinger) Scharzberg, (Niersteiner) Gutes Domtal and (Oppenheimer) Krötenbrunnen – how on earth is the poor wine drinker to distinguish these from the genuine produce of a single site?

Some specific terms

Auslese, naturally fully ripe grapes produce what is usually a long-living medium-sweet wine.

Beerenauslese (BA), very sweet rarities usually sold at a very high price.

Classic, official designation for dry wines made from traditional grape varieties. See Selection.

Deutschersekt, German wine made sparking (cf Sekt).

Deutscher Wein, formerly known as Deutscher Tafelwein, this is the most basic sort of German wine constituting less than 5% of an average crop.

Eiswein, ice wine, which often fetches more than Beerenauslese.

Erste Lage, one of the VDP's controversially selected 'first growth' vineyards.

Erstes Gewächs, name for Grosses Gewächs in Rheingau and Hessische-Bergstrasse.

feinherb unofficial term for medium dry wine.

Grosses Gewächs, term for top quality dry wines from top sites as decided by and for members of the VDP.

Gutsabfüllung, estate-bottled.

halbtrocken, literally ‘half dry’, wines which taste medium dry.

Kabinett, the least ripe of the Prädikatswein categories (see below). Such wines can make lovely light-bodied dryish aperitifs.

Landwein, Germany's answer to France's IGP wines, previously known as Vins de Pays.

Liebfraumilch, strictly a creation for export markets. In practice almost any medium-dry vaguely aromatic blend can qualify as Liebfraumilch, once traded savagely as a commodity.

Prädikatswein, wine with one of the Prädikats: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, BA, TBA and Eiswein.

Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet (QbA), by far the dominant category this includes not only all of the Liebfraumilch and basic blends but also some perfectly creditable wines from top producers who decided they needed chaptalisation (which is outlawed for Prädikatswein) to make them balanced.

Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP), the old name for Prädikatswein.

Sekt, sparkling wine. Deutscher Sekt is a member of the elite made from German rather than imported (often Italian) wine.

Selection, official designation for dry-tasting wines made from hand-picked grapes from a specified plot with a controlled yield.

Spätlese means literally 'late harvest'. This category includes many fine, concentrated wines from bone dry (trocken) to medium dry.

trocken means 'dry' and any wine so labelled is designed to be drunk with food. It is also likely to be more alcoholic than wine not labelled trocken because the grape sugar has been fermented into alcohol. These wines are particularly popular in Germany and increasingly so abroad.

Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA), (literally ‘dried grapes that were late-picked’, a reference to the shrivelling effect of botrytis), the sweetest, richest most luscious sort of Prädikatswein which is produced in tiny quantities and usually sells for fabulous prices. Noble rot (Edelfäule) is usually needed to concentrate grape sugars sufficiently to meet the required ripeness levels – although some grape varieties have been specifically bred to ripen spectacularly, if not always sumptuously.

VDP, Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, association of many of the top producers, most of them with a long history.

Winzergenossenschaft, Winzerverein, two common names for co-operatives.

See Deutsche Weine for more information on this region.

In a nutshell

Some of the world's finest, lightest, longest-living whites and increasingly respectable reds.

Main grapes