- May 25, 2015
What’s Wrong with the VDP Classification Model?
- by Lars Carlberg
The Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP)—which was founded in 1910, and whose members have an eagle bearing a grape bunch on either their capsule or label—is an association of many of the leading German wine estates. For the most part, its various regional associations (including the Grosser Ring – VDP Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) have mostly phased out the Prädikat designations Kabinett, Spätlese, and Auslese for trocken (dry) and halbtrocken ("half-dry") wines. The VDP chooses, instead, to keep the predicates for residually sweet wines. No special attribute is really needed—according to them—for dry and off-dry wines to show the ripeness level or to highlight that no sugar was added to the grape juice during fermentation, also known as chaptalization.
The VDP's focus is on their deluxe dry wines that must come from a VDP.Grosse Lage, or a VDP-only grand cru. (This and other VDP terms are written in all caps.) These high-end dry wines are branded as VDP.Grosses Gewächs, or "great growths," better known as GGs, an abbreviation that is marked on the label and often embossed on an extra-tall, heavy bottle. Any other dry wine from a Grosse Lage—not to be confused, of course, with the large, collective site known as Grosslage—is downgraded to either an Orts- or Gutswein, a village or entry-level estate wine. Moreover, a Grosses Gewächs doesn't have a Prädikat, and thus is a Qualitätswein, formerly called QbA (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete, or a "quality wine from a particular growing region"). In other words, a GG can be sugared during fermentation to raise the wine's alcohol content. In Germany, unchaptalized wines are still important to many growers and customers, so it's odd that the high-end dry wines of the Prädikat Wine Estates—which is the VDP's official name in English—don't even bear a Prädikat, even if chaptalization is normal in Burgundy or even Bordeaux. Supposedly, some members would like to change the name to Verband Deutscher Prestigeweingüter, or Prestige Wine Estates, which is rather pompous.
In addition, a GG has to be legally "dry," and thus under 10 grams of sugar per liter, even though "Qualitätswein trocken" isn't listed on the front label. This means a winemaker often has to find ways to get the wine below this arbitrary limit, whether by adding selected yeasts, heating vats, or blending batches—not to mention sometimes de-acidifying the grape juice or wine. As a result, many GGs lack character and finesse. And to further confuse matters, the Rheingau already had its own category for its top-rated dry Riesling called Erstes Gewächs, which is from a historical vineyard site rated "first growth." An Erstes Gewächs, though, can have up to 13 grams of sugar per liter. Therefore, a Rheingau cellarmaster has more leeway to produce a dry-tasting wine from the best sites. (Since 2012, VDP.Rheingau members produce Grosses Gewächs, rather than Erstes Gewächs. Nonmembers, though, still make Erstes Gewächs. Are you confused yet?)
(In the Mosel region, the Bernkasteler Ring has its own Grosses Gewächs for the top-class dry Rieslings. These are marked with the sticker "Großes Gewächs Bernkasteler Ring." In the recent past, they could have up to 11 grams of sugar per liter, now they can't exceed 9 grams for trocken. Lastly, some producers who are neither in the VDP nor the Bernkasteler Ring have begun making wines that are designated as Grosses Gewächs or the equivalent.)
The VDP's roots go back to the Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer (VDNV), which translates to the Association of German Natural Wine Auctioneers. The producers in the VDNV originally got together to help push "natural wines," or unchaptalized wines—not necessarily sweet ones. (See Kevin Goldberg's short story about natural wine for more on this subject.)
Most of the Grosser Ring members—with some notable exceptions, such as Joh. Jos. Prüm and Egon Müller—produce a Grosses Gewächs, even though the majority of them specialize in the fruity to nobly sweet wines. One of the early backers of GG is Annegret Reh-Gartner of Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt. She is also the only Grosser Ring member that still uses the heavier, taller, 350-mm bottle with the embossed "GG" symbol. The others just have a taller 350-mm bottle for their GGs, although Ernie Loosen of Dr. Loosen has his with an engraved GG symbol, including those labeled "Alte Reben," which come from over 100-year-old vines. Moreover, he has begun to release Grosses Gewächs Reserve wines. These have an extended lees contact of 24 months in large oak casks. The bottles have an engraving of GGR and are topped with white wax capsules. In any event, the packaging is meant to distinguish GGs from other wines.
The VDP, understandably, wants to amend the 1971 German Wine Law, which, unlike France, puts too much emphasis on the degrees Oechsle, or the sugar level of the grapes at harvest, rather than the place of origin. "Terroir is the focal point," says the VDP on their website. "As such, there is an abstention from using the name of a district, a collective vineyard site or a less-than-top individual site. Only wines that reflect the character of their terroir are permitted to bear the name of a vineyard site." But only VDP members' vineyards get classified. And who decides what is a "less-than-top individual site"; how, and according to what criteria? Moreover, the VDP Mosel-Saar-Ruwer is less inclusive than other associations, and thus growers with holdings in top sites not owned by VDP members get ignored. For example, Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg is not rated grand cru, much less Krettnacher Euchariusberg, which was once considered one of the best sites on the Saar, unlike certain Grosse Lagen. (See my critique of Wine Atlas of Germany for more details.)
The VDP wants a Prädikat on the label to indicate a wine with noticeable residual sugar, as many drinkers are unaware that Kabinett, Spätlese, and even Auslese can also be dry or off-dry, as per the 1971 Wine Law. Put differently, the VDP is attempting, among other things, to support the assumption that the Prädikats historically always meant a sweet wine. But the terms evolved, especially after the post-war years. (For more on this, see Eric Steinberg's "1971.")
Although Mosel producers made (pre-1971 Wine Law) feine, feinste, or hochfeine Auslesen and even Spätlesen from around the 1920s onwards, the wines from, say, the 1960s were different from those produced in the Mosel's heyday. In the 1890s, Auslese was the only Prädikat of note and was usually made from botrytized grapes; most other wines tasted rather sprightly and dry. Of course, it's easier for consumers who know less about the history of German wines to remember that a Prädikat on the label means sweet. Besides, the export markets are more familiar with these wines. It should be noted, too, that many producers focused on sweet wines in the 1960s and 1970s. The terms "trocken" and "halbtrocken" came with the new law. For example, Maximin Grünhaus made it's first Kabinett trocken in 1979.
The VDP classification model, shaped like a pyramid, now includes four different levels, similar to Burgundy: Grosse Lage (grand cru), Erste Lage (premier cru), Ortswein (village wine), and Gutswein (basic "estate wine"). The VDP formerly only had three levels, with Erste Lage as the top site—hence the Erste Lage symbol—a numeral 1 next to a cluster of grapes—on the label or embossed on a big bottle for GG. The VDP Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, however, chose to stay with three levels, so Grosse Lage replaces Erste Lage at "the peak of the pyramid."
Although the VDP has spearheaded this movement of dropping the Prädikats on dry and off-dry wines, there were forerunners. In the early eighties, the Charta association in the Rheingau, whose president was the late Bernhard Breuer of Georg Breuer, promoted dry to medium-dry Rieslings without a Prädikat or single-vineyard name. The wines could be up to 18 grams per liter of residual sugar, or halbtrocken.
By this time, there was a shift in Germany from sweet to dry wines. In the Mosel, Heymann-Löwenstein and later Van Volxem, which, at the time, weren't members of the VDP, focused more on single-vineyard dry-tasting Rieslings without Prädikats. These two estates also avoided producing Grosse Gewächse (though Löwenstein has finally begun to bottle some wines as GG).
Over the years, one of the big problems of the VDP classification model are all the changes, which bring with it all sorts of qualifications and complications. The average consumer has no chance to untangle everything, especially with many producers having their own internal classification system.
For the new VDP classification, Grosse Lage should, ideally, be listed without the village name on the front label. Hence no Ockfener Bockstein (from the Bockstein vineyard of Ockfen). It's just Bockstein now. The VDP is trying to emulate Burgundy once again. This is problematic because there are many sites with the same name, such as Kupp, Herrenberg, or Schlossberg. Ockfener Bockstein is considered, along with Scharzhofberg, to be one of the very best sites on the Saar and was historically listed as just "Bocksteiner" or "Bockstein." But most single vineyards included the village or town, with an adjectival -er ending, plus the site name, much like the vintage 2014er (from 2014). This is the possessive form. Other wines were just named after the village. In the 19th century, most wines were listed only by the village, such as "Graacher" or "Saarburger," and had little to do with the current VDP classification model, and some of the explanations that I've heard for the classification are based on a pseudo-history.
Another issue is that certain VDP estates, such as Karthäuserhof and Schloss Saarstein, have only one single-vineyard site, which happens to be rated a Grosse Lage. Yet they can only produce one dry wine with the name of the vineyard on the label.
In a reply to Kevin Goldberg on "natural wine," I mentioned the revised third edition of Frank Schoonmaker’s Wines of Germany (Hastings House, 1969). Schoonmaker includes some endnotes, which the first edition didn’t have inside. In the first note, he writes:
Over the past decade, especially since the uneven and rather difficult 1957 vintage, there has been a steady trend in Germany in favor of a less rigid and more practical attitude toward the sugaring or chaptalization of lesser wines. This has partly been due to an effort to bring the German and French wine laws into closer accord—in the interest, hopefully, of a future Common Market. Since almost all Burgundies are chaptalized, even in great years, and most Bordeaux in secondary vintages like 1956, 1960, 1963 and 1965 (without bearing any indication of this fact on the label), many of the best German producers have come to feel that they, too, might legitimately follow a somewhat similar procedure—sugar and ferment and age and bottle their own lesser wines, especially in poorer years. In the past, instead, they had sold either the grapes or the new-made wine to shippers, for handling and blending.
That’s why Koehler-Ruprecht still keeps to the 1971 Prädikat system and left the VDP, as they want to designate that their wines, including the dry and off-dry ones, are unsugared, or “natural” (see "Koehler-Ruprecht Leaves the VDP" for more on this). The VDP’s new classification model doesn’t differentiate between a chaptalized or unchaptalized dry wine anymore.
The VDP discourages its members from labeling a wine for an Ortswein or Grosse Lage as Kabinett, unless it has between 18 and 60 grams of sugar per liter. It seems many Kabinetts are well above 50 grams. The idea, though, is to keep this Prädikat for those members—especially in the Mosel, Nahe, and Mittelrhein—who are still making "fruity-sweet" Kabinetts. Otherwise, a Kabinett wine is classified as either a Gutswein, if it has less than 18 grams and comes from a Grosse Lage. A Kabinett feinherb can be from 18 to 30 grams. (This means the sweet spot between 9 and 18 grams gets ignored.) If a member wants to use the term "Kabinett trocken," it has to be demoted to a Gutswein without the single-vineyard name. More nonmembers are following along now. This, however, goes against the notion of terroir and the tradition of a dry and dry-tasting Naturwein, or natural wine, especially in the Mosel.
I am neither against chaptalization nor for the 1971 Prädikat system, but why keep Kabinett or Spätlese only for residually sweet wines? The Prädikat system was framed around the then-EC laws of potential alcoholic strength, not sweetness. Moreover, the Prädikats were different pre-1971 Wine Law. But how can a grower now be site-specific and indicate ripeness (in particular, lightness) for a dry or off-dry wine without using some silly fantasy name—often with the word slate, or “Schiefer,” in it—or downgrading the wine to a more generic place? Most producers' top-end dry wines have at least Spätlese ripeness, but what about designating non-sugared, light-bodied, dry-tasting Mosels, which have a long tradition, especially in the Saar? Lastly, village-designated wines were more common in the 19th century. In most cases, villages and named sites referred to the top wines from the surrounding slate slopes, not from lesser vineyards or the flatlands, which had other crops and orchards. ♦
Images courtesy of the VDP.
More on the VDP classification model: David Schildknecht on what's the matter with Grosses Gewächs.
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