twitter facebook instagram
  • March 16, 2018
  • VDP.Klassifixation

  • by David Schildknecht

Editor’s note: The initially published version of this piece required two small but significant alterations, about which two additional footnotes in the text now inform the reader.

At a late January 2018 press conference led by no less a luminary than Hugh Johnson, the VDP unveiled its interactive map VDP.Vineyard.Online on which you can search for those vineyards (or sometimes, as shall shortly be explained, for unnamed surface areas) classified by the VDP as either “Grosse Lagen” or “Erste Lagen.” For all that VDP President Steffen Christmann candidly and understandably characterizes this site as a work in progress, it must be emphasized that it represents a superbly rendered tool based on a map of exemplary clarity capable of extremely high resolution and accompanied by evocative photos and abundant statistical information. No German wine lover should fail to audition this site, and having done so, most will, like me, find themselves returning to it with regularity. I write therefore less to suggest that you should curb your enthusiasm for this effort to “launch Germany’s best vineyard sites into the digital age” (though some restraint will prove warranted) and more to, once again, place into perspective the VDP’s vineyard classification—a matter on which it is scarcely hyperbole to say that this organization has been fixated—in so doing inevitably pointing to certain limitations and muddled aspects of that undertaking which are inevitably reflected in VDP.Vineyard.Online.

It won’t surprise most readers to learn that the objects of my critical concern are all implied by three just-mentioned words repeated throughout the VDP’s account of their spiffy website and their classificatory project as a whole: “Germany’s best vineyards.” I really don’t blame them for using that expression to promote these undertakings. The temptation would have been irresistible even if no public-relations firm were calling the promotional shots. But whether taken extensionally or intensionally, that three-word expression goes beyond mere exaggeration.

To begin with the obvious, the VDP represents a majority but by no means all of Germany’s top winegrowing estates. Inasmuch as their classificatory efforts are restricted to vineyards in which their members not only have holdings but which those members consider an important part of their production and marketing efforts, the claim that theirs is a classification of Germany’s top vineyards tout court represents unwarranted overreach. As graphic illustration, take a look at the VDP’s huge gap along the Mosel between Lösnich and Pünderich. If fans of Mosel Riesling had any doubts as to whether late-19th-century classification of this long, winding stretch—with its concentration of sites lumped into the Prussian administration's top tax brackets—retains at least some validity, these should by now have been completely banished by wines of Daniel Vollenweider, Martin Müllen, Weiser-Künstler, Olaf Schneider, Immich-Batterieberg, and Thorsten Melsheimer from more than a dozen such sites. (Notably, albeit rather obviously, not even the Maximin Grünhaus vineyards could qualify as “VDP.Grosse Lagen” until, quite recently, that estate rejoined the VDP’s roster) It’s worth pointing out by way of contrast that the ongoing establishment of “Erste Lagen” by Austria’s Traditionsweingüter is not only viewed by that organization as provisional but is also open to non-members. (Last I checked, sites farmed by seven non-members supplement those of the 26 Traditionsweingüter in the roster of “ÖTW-Erste Lagen.”)

Moreover, the marketing structure imposed by the VDP on its members compels them to make decisions or recommendations as to which vineyards should be treated as Grosse Lagen, which as Erste Lagen, and which as unworthy of mention, at least partly from practical and commercial considerations. And to that extent, it cannot be claimed that the VDP classification even of those vineyards in which its members have holdings is based solely on quality potential. An Einzellage as manifestly superb as Zeltinger Sonnenuhr—whether judged by historical classifications or contemporary performance—was only belatedly added to the VDP’s roster of “Grosse Lagen” for the simple reason that the sole member with prime holdings there—Joh. Jos. Prüm—is far more heavily vested in Wehlener Sonnenuhr and Graacher Himmelreich as estate flagships. (As a result of that situation, albeit inexcusably, neither in Hugh Johnson’s 1995 Atlas nor the VDP-centric 2007 Atlas of Braatz, Sauter, and Swoboda was Zeltinger Sonnenuhr classified in the top category.) Had Markus Molitor or Selbach-Oster been VDP members, you may be sure that their interests would have dictated immediate recognition of Zeltinger Sonnenuhr as a VDP Grosse Lage. (More imaginative departures from strictly qualitative principles will be discussed in due course.)

Measuring vineyard potential

Any attempt to classify and rank vineyards faces a fundamental conundrum (or ignores it at peril). A well-founded notion of vineyard potential is essential not only to any useful rating of vineyards but also to any thoroughgoing assessment of grower potential. A quality of wine whose achievement merits hats off to its grower if sourced form AOC-Bourgogne vineyards, deserves censure if that is the best a grower can manage from grand cru-rated vineyards. But on what to base—let alone how to quantify—assessments of vineyard potential? And just as a grower’s abilities must be assessed relative to the potential of the vineyards he or she farms, the potential of a vineyard is difficult if not impossible to assess save through experience with wines that have actually been grown there, and whose quality will be in part a function of the grower’s talents. Since in this way vineyard and grower mutually implicate and serve to test one another’s potential, it is devilishly difficult to isolate either.

As far as I can conceive, evidence of quality potential can only come from three broad sources:

  1. Research of historical assessments. The history of wine prices and tax assessments of German vine acreage, for instance, give us an idea of which sites were valued in the marketplace, in some cases going back centuries.
  2. Analyses of soil, exposure, and microclimate by people who have expertise in geology, soil science, meteorology, and climatology, in collaboration with those who have expertise in viticulture and vinification.
  3. Sensory evaluation of wines rendered from the sites in question.

If the VDP has not just on an ad-hoc basis but systematically explored any of these paths, I have yet to see the evidence.

It is popular nowadays and by no means irrelevant, to point—as I did only a few paragraphs back—to the 19th-century tax assessments of those growing regions that were under Prussian administration. But barring serious study of the methodology employed by those assessors and the detailed, parcel-by-parcel records that led to their classificatory decisions (some of which records were destroyed by Allied bombs during the Second World War) it is inadvisable to take them as an entirely trustworthy and unbiased guide to the late 19th-century potential of named vineyards, much less to their potential after more than a century of human alterations and concurrent climate change. Similar reservations apply to any such historical records. Speaking of vineyard alterations, any vineyards subjected to Flurbereinigung are first categorized by Wertklasse (class 1, class 2, etc.) since, manifestly, grower participants could otherwise not be given any assurance that the surface area they are allotted post-Flurbereinigung is of theoretically equal value to the sum of whatever many (often enormously morsellated) parcels they had going in. And German Federal Law has since the mid-1960s assigned multipliers known as Lagenvergleichszahle to all agricultural acreage. So there exist conscientiously prepared rankings of vineyard land recent enough to still have legal significance. But these granular assessments do not correspond with the Einzellagen of German Wine Law such as constitute the principle units of VDP classification; and if the VDP has nonetheless referenced such relatively recent assessments in the course of their classificatory endeavors, it would behoove them to publicize that fact in support of their results.

Nor are the bases on which government-sanctioned rankings or assessments get made uncontroversial, as witness the wrangling that ensues anytime there is a Flurbereinigung. The ambiguity of those terms used to describe what such land assessments measure already points to their inevitably contentious nature. The Prussian tax ratings, for example, were said to reflect Bonität, which in one technical sense refers to land value. But Bonität more usually refers to someone’s credit rating—and little reminder is required of the precarious and contentious basis on which such things get measured. The 1964 Law establishing the aforementioned Lagenvergleichszahle has as its aim the assessment of Ertragsfähigkeit, literally “yield capacity,” which could rather obviously be taken in more than one sense. And indeed, crop yields rightly figure every bit as much into any assessment of agricultural land value as does the ability to support high-value crops.

It is tempting to say “leave it to scientists to assess which vineyards are outstanding,” but even if there were consensus on what count as optimum vinous raw materials, the study of how site and soil influence wine’s flavor is in its infancy. Most winegrowers would insist on the importance of underlying rock, yet many if not most geologists—even including the gentleman tapped to author relevant entries in the Oxford Companion to Wineexpress profound disbelief in “a[ny] direct geochemical influence on wine flavour” or indeed in any systematic correlation much less causation between underlying rock and flavor. In their initial attempts 1983–1999 to delimit those sites that should qualify for wines with the status Erstes Gewächs (the provisional 1990s name for a top VDP wine category), the Rheingau VDP growers relied on scientific data. But the vinous metric employed was must weight,1 which even then was scarcely an adequate basis for assessment, not to mention its obvious insufficiency—indeed, near irrelevance—in an era of top-heavy 14+% alcohol Marcobrunn and Wisselbrunnen Grosse Gewächse. There is certainly much to be said for a really experienced observer’s—especially a winegrower’s—ability to size-up a site on sight and say at the very least whether or not it’s a promising place to grow grapes. But such intuitions hardly rise to the level of systematic ranking. And, in any case, most of today’s German vineyards have been farmed for centuries, many boasting an unbroken track record, so it’s understandable that even a seasoned assessor is apt to rely substantially on a site’s historical ranking or the evidence of available wines that were and are still being grown there.

Sensory evaluation is rightly viewed by the VDP and its members as an important arbiter of wine quality and the best guarantee that high standards will be maintained within that organization. But for sensory evaluation to be viable as a tool in rating vineyard potential requires that one be able to compare sensory assessments of wines from this vineyard as vinified by a significant range of growers in multiply styles over an extended period of time, since the talent and methods of a grower as well as the vicissitudes of vintage will have a significant, quite possibly an even more obvious influence on quality than will site. Austria’s Traditionsweingüter are conscientiously following this approach, though I know of no comparable effort on the VDP’s part. Each year in late summer, a select group of wine journalists is asked to taste the newly released range of ÖTW-Erste Lage bottlings over a two-day period in flights organized by vineyard and to subsequently submit sensory and qualitative assessments of each wine as well as comments on any common, presumptively site-dependent characteristics. The growers themselves engage in regular double-blind group tastings toward the same ultimate end, namely determining which provisional Erste Lagen justify that distinction—or, at least, which of them will merit eventual upgrading to Grosse Lage status. (The latter category doesn’t yet exist in Austria, but the ÖTW is determined to follow the VDP’s lead.)

Yet, taking the sort of systematic approach just described still leaves major deficiencies in the attempt to get from sensory evaluation to classificatory ranking. The assessment of vineyards farmed by only one or two growers will inescapably be subject to data-point deficit, since a really adept grower can manifestly make as good or better wine from grapes in a decent site than a so-so grower can render from a site with outstanding potential. And to mention this is to point to an even graver methodological problem already adumbrated. Ideally, assessment of vineyard potential should go hand in hand with assessment of grower potential. But even leaving aside the aforementioned “devilish difficulty” presented by the mutual implication of vineyard and vintner assessments, what organization of winegrowers will be willing to rank one another’s performance level on the basis of rigorous, systematic tastings of base-line Gutsweine?

In lieu of an attempt to rigorously define or to explicitly enumerate their criteria for assessing vineyard potential, the VDP, hiding behind that hoary, much-abused term “terroir,” offers us the following:

The classification statute of the VDP defines the quality of a wine not only by the sugar content of the grape at the time of harvest, but also by its terroir [which] is determined by three components, a “magic triangle” that includes (1) the overall quality and character of a vineyard site; (2) the skill of a grower; and (3) the quality of a vintage. ... The quality of a vineyard is defined by its soil (topographical position, climate and microclimate). Our knowledge about the best sites and the most suitable grape varieties is based on centuries of experience.

I find it hard to decide what is most irksome about this account of terroir: its muddle, its vacuity, or its hauteur. Granted, the above is offered in the context of self-promotion, and considering how it reads, it may well have been authored by a PR agent. Still, it’s what the VDP has given us to go on.

Terroir, or technicalities?

I won’t rehearse here in any detail my suspicion that every VDP member is going to inevitably be accorded at least one Grosse Lage—otherwise, how can that grower participate in the VDP’s marketing and promotional plan?—with the consequence that many a vineyard whose name is not even allowed on a member’s label in one region is superior to certain vineyards classified as Grosse Lagen in other regions. (Other regional disparities will be addressed in due course.) And apropos long experience, suffice it to say that by no means every VDP Grosse Lage can boast centuries of excellence with the same grape variety that is planted there today. I will, however, detail two recent examples from adjacent communes to illustrate those sorts of considerations, having nothing to do with terroir, that increasingly enter into the VDP’s classificatory decisions, especially now that Erste as well as Grosse Lagen are being designated, and that growers have recently acquired authorization from their Federal States of residence to register and label wines with any site names (Gewannnamen) that appear in the official cadastre.

Traiser Rotenfels is a VDP Erste Lage while Mühlberg is a VDP Grosse Lage within the Einzellage Traiser Rotenfels. Why? Because Peter Crusius, given his long-standing, successful marketing practices and his extensive holdings in the Rotenfels, wished to avoid being limited henceforth to marketing only a single dry wine labeled “Rotenfels,” as he would have been if Rotenfels were a Grosse Lage and hence that one wine a Rotenfels Grosses Gewächs (GG). So his Grosses Gewächs is now named for the Mühlberg. But this classification should scarcely be taken as an indication that all the rest of Rotenfels is inferior to Mühlberg, especially considering that some exceptional non-dry Crusius wines issue from and continue to be labeled for Traiser Rotenfels.

Same neighborhood, same grower, second example: Since Norheimer Kirschheck is officially a VDP Grosse Lage, a dry wine labeled for that site must be tendered as a Grosses Gewächs. In order to get around that consequence—since Crusius has established Kirschheck Riesling trocken as a merely mid-priced wine and already draws on three other sites for Grosse Gewächse—he has registered the applicable Gewannname “In der Kirschheck,” which applies to a portion of the Einzellage Kirschheck and it is now considered a VDP Erste Lage. But this classification should by no means be taken as an indication that In der Kirschheck is inferior to the rest of Kirschheck. On the contrary, the cadastre name points to this being the core vineyard that gave its name to the Einzellage, strong evidence that when the 1971 Wine Law was devised, it was the place held in highest repute and its name thus deemed most worth perpetuating. And for all of this convoluted accommodation to VDP regulations, no member-grower even produces a Kirschheck Grosses Gewächs! (The other member-landholder in Kirschheck is Helmut Dönnhoff, who happens to believe that this Einzellage—or, at least, his share of it—is best suited to a wine with residual sweetness.)

Granularity and recognition

To the extent that a vineyard classification purports to be based on terroir, it should employ vineyard designations that reflect surface areas small enough to insure a considerable degree of homogeneity. But the VDP was saddled from the outset by the smallest unit then legally recognized, namely the official Einzellage. And many Einzellagen are notoriously heterogeneous. One response to this—pioneered by the VDP Rheingau in what were the earliest attempts at VDP classification—was to limit the portion of an Einzellage that would be permitted classified status. Another was to make exceptions allowing member-growers to utilize names that referred to portions of an Einzellage in which they had holdings. Now that registration of Gewannnamen is permitted under the statutes of individual German States, the VDP and its local chapters have understandably welcomed consideration of certain such site designations as a solution to the problem of overly large, heterogeneous Einzellagen, and especially as a way of designating monopole Grosse or Erste Lagen. At the same time (and as will shortly be dramatically illustrated in the case of VDP Rheinhessen) there is reluctance to accord cru status to an enormous number of small sites in the belief that this will bewilder consumers and detract from the focus on a small number of ostensibly top vineyards.

Caught between often undesirably large, heterogeneous Einzellagen and relatively homogeneous Gewanne each one among hundreds per growing region, what’s the VDP to do? First off, there’s this difficulty with attempts to play Goldilocks: a name that is neither that of an official Einzellage nor of a Gewann is not legally permitted on a grower’s label—though, in practice, this comes down to the regularity and rigor with which the local Weinkontrolle (inspector) scrutinizes grower’s labels for infractions. Nevertheless, in numerous instances, Grosse or Erste Lage status has been conferred on surface areas that represent subsets of a given Einzellage, yet incorporate more than one Gewann. This applies to nearly all instances (prominent especially in Rheinhessen) where only part of a given Einzellage has been classified as a VDP Grosse Lage—but then under the same name. No question, there is some risk of confusion here, given that growers who are not VDP members will use the same vineyard name to refer to a larger area. And if non-member-growers choose to register Gewanne that lie within or overlap a VDP Grosse or Erste Lage, they may be utilizing an entirely different, legally registered name to refer to that same surface area.

Currently, most VDP-classified vineyards are either coextensive with eponymous long-standing Einzellagen or represent portions of those Einzellagen classified under the same name. A significant number, however, represent portions of Einzellagen classified under a name chosen by the grower-vineholder (or vineholders) from among historical place-names.2 And a steadily-growing minority of VDP Grosse and Erste Lagen represent Gewanne that members have recently registered with state authorities as well as with the VDP. And although the VDP has with good reasons crusaded tirelessly for decades against those deceptively named children of Germany’s 1971 Wine Law namely Grosslagen, the organization capitulated to the widespread practice (shared by its members) of labeling as “Bernkasteler Badstube” wines grown in one or more of Bernkastel’s several small, little-known Einzellagen. So now, not only does “Bernkasteler Badstube” continue to designate one of Germany’s stubbornly resistant Grosslagen, it’s also the name of a VDP Grosse Lage! (You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you? Incidentally, in order to compare the VDP’s classified vineyards with the official German Einzellagen, you’ll need to toggle back-and-forth between VDP.Vineyard.Online and the German Wine Institute’s vineyard map.)

Prior to the admission of Gewannnamen on labels, it was not uncommon to hear conscientious growers complain that “we can use any fantasy name we want but the one thing we aren’t allowed to do is tell the truth about where our wine grew!” (Mind you, many a VDP member can still be heard voicing an analogous complaint if his or her wine grows in a site that this organization does not recognize as worthy of vineyard designation.) But while one can understand what it was that frustrated such growers, it’s important to recognize that no one level of granularity represents “the truth,” any more than only one of the following can be true: that I live in Mount Lookout, in Cincinnati, in Ohio, or in the US.

When it comes to vineyard nomenclature, growers or organizations will choose the level of specificity they deem appropriate to their purposes, which may be to achieve homogeneity of soil and microclimate, but will certainly also be with an eye to marketing. And as has already been illustrated, the dictates of terroir and marketing sometimes diverge. Still, one might treat Gewannnamen as having a certain priority, inasmuch as they are the smallest officially recognizable units—the building blocks of official land records. And the laws that now allow registration of Gewannnamen for wine-labeling purposes come with a bonus feature: you may utilize those names solely in conjunction with that of the applicable Ortschaft (i.e., commune, village) or, you may refer to the applicable Einzellage as well. So if your holdings are in an Einzellage whose name has marketing cachet, then you can have that—and display your preferred “truth in terroir” too. The VDP and individual members of its executive have indicated on past occasions that they not only want to carefully scrutinize any Gewannnamen that members propose for VDP classification—lest these excessively proliferate—but also that their attitude is: if you think it’s so important to register this new name, then don’t ask to retain the name of the Einzellage. That having been noted, one learns from VDP.Vineyard.Online that the VDP Erste Lage Ziegler—located within the famous Einzellage Forster Ungeheur—is now officially “Ungeheuer-Ziegler,” and classified sections of Ayler Kupp retain “Kupp” as part of their names.

One other aspect of granularity and vineyard recognition should not be lost sight of—as I think the VDP often does. Insofar as classification and labeling are tools for marketing wine, and marketing success by definition means having success in the marketplace, it’s essential to realize that “the market”—which ultimately means consumers—cannot value what they cannot recognize. Specifically, consumers can only choose to pay a premium for wines based on their origin in a certain place if they are aware of that place of origin, which means, effectively, if it is identified on the wine’s label. The problem with restricting the place-names permitted on labels to those vineyards that your organization, region, or wine law has predetermined are those worth mentioning, is that you’ve just kicked away the ladder by means of which those favored vineyards ascended into the elite circle in the first place, namely thanks to countless consumer choices. Leave the ladder firmly in place and what do you risk? A thousand lieux-dits, or place-names, bloom and the consumer determines which to value, while the rest fall away. (That approach hasn’t turned out badly in the Côte d’Or, the very place that inspires today’s classifixation.)

In Germany, the countless consumer choices to which I just alluded may go back a century or more. But if you think this means that the identity of all German vineyards worth mentioning on a label should by now be well established or that a vineyard, having once been rightly recognized as high-value, will never be forgotten, then not only have you overlooked several decades of brouhaha surrounding vineyard classification (aren’t you lucky!), you must be unfamiliar with the vicissitudes of German viticultural and wine-drinking history. Even in as ancient a winegrowing country as Germany, there are places worth rediscovering—possibly even (especially in view of climate change), places worth farming for the first time in recorded history. Just as the VDP officially recognizes and nurtures a constantly changing pool of Spitzentalente, young “top talents” who are likely candidates for future membership, it would, I think, be wise to sustain a pool of vineyards that, while not classified as either Grosse or Erste Lagen, retain visibility on labels, and thereby in the marketplace. Neither idiosyncratic fantasy names nor endless re-iterations of “Schiefer,” “Muschelkalk,” “Rotliegendes,” “Selektion,” etc.—byproducts of VDP restrictions on vineyard-designation—are going to cut it if what matters is place of origin. (And the VDP insists routinely that Herkunft is really where it’s at. I’ve elaborated on these issues often and in many places, but the only online link I find to one of them, is to a column in German.)

Three classifications in one

Contemporaneous with the January 2012 renaming of “VDP.ERSTE LAGE” as “VDP.GROSSE LAGE” (yes, that’s the organization’s preferred cyber-style punctuation) the VDP introduced a new Erste Lage classificatory tier. Given how many marketing minutiae are dictated to member-growers by VDP-central, it came as something of a shock—to me, at least—when the announcement made clear that each regional VDP chapter would decide whether to adopt and choose vineyard candidates for this new, effectively premier cru tier. Some decided to do so, some not to, and at least one region adopted a unique approach. As a result, the meaning or significance of the terms “Grosse Lage” and “Erste Lage” (and, in one instance, arguably, even of “Ortswein,” or village-level wine) varies depending on the growing region in question. So using these terms as though they possessed a common, trans-regional significance is highly misleading, and, in effect, there is not one single classificatory model for VDP growers but at least three.

Before taking a look at these models it should be noted that, generally speaking, vineyard designations other than those applicable to Erste or Grosse Lagen are disallowed. (My attitude toward that approach was expressed already above.) In the Ahr and Mosel, where the category Erste Lage is not recognized, that means the only vineyard designations that a member-grower is allowed to display on his or her label are those of the Grosse Lagen. But then, the Mosel has outfitted itself with 50% more Grosse Lagen than the next “grand cru”-rich Riesling-dominated growing region—no wonder they decided not to attempt Erste Lagen! In Rheinhessen, for the time being, a site designation other than that of a Grosse Lage is allowable by petitioning and obtaining the agreement of your fellow members.

Nor is the abundance of Mosel Grosse Lagen the sole immediately evident discrepancy among regions over and beyond whether they have elected to add an extra classificatory tier. In the Mosel, Rheinhessen, Nahe, and Pfalz, the total percentage of vineyard surface classified as Grosse and (where applicable) Erste Lage varies between 8–14%. In the Mittelrhein, by contrast, it’s 22% and in the Rheingau 61%! Granted, there are a lot of fine vineyards concentrated in the Rheingau (a region just over one-third as large as the greater Mosel and 12% the size of Rheinhessen), but that statistic alone prompts suspicion as to whether, representing 21% and 45% of regional surface area respectively, “Grosse Lage” and “Erste Lage” can really be said to mean the same things in the Rheingau as elsewhere.

The ratios of Grosse to Erste Lagen in those regions that recognize both, show similar disparities. While in the Pfalz, Rheinhessen, Mittelrhein, and Rheingau 2–4 times more surface area is classified Erste as Grosse Lage, in the Nahe the two are about equal. But if you imagine that this translates into comparable ratios in the number of sites in each classificatory category, you would be mistaken. In the Nahe, there are far more Grosse than Erste Lagen; in the Pfalz and Mittelrhein, it’s the other way around; in the Rheingau, the numbers are nearly equal; and in Rheinhessen ... well, we’ll get to Rheinhessen in a moment. Granted, this is all by the VDP’s own admission a work in progress. But it would require substantial re-classification to significantly iron-out discrepancies of this magnitude, and it would be hard to imagine, for example, the VDP Mosel growers collectively agreeing to a “demotion” to Erste Lage status of selected sites now established as Grosse Lagen. (Austria’s Traditionsweingüter avoided huge headaches by not immediately following the VDP’s lead and re-naming their Erste Lagen “Grosse Lagen.” Of course, since they don’t have Grosse Gewächse, there was not the glaring incongruity in nomenclature. They have now announced that—as in so many other matters—they do in fact plan to follow the VDP’s lead and establish a top classificatory category to be known as “Grosse Lage.” But it will be a question of eventually determining which Erste Lagen get upgraded—and that task should be politically manageable!)

Confining attention henceforth solely to Riesling-dominated growing regions, as already noted, the Mosel VDP retains a three-tier classification while the Pfalz, Rheingau, Nahe, and Mittelrhein have each classified a group of vineyards as Erste Lagen. The third model is Rheinhessen’s. The category Erste Lage is recognized there but only as applying to certain surface areas, without any vineyard names being applicable. And there’s a wild card: The VDP-Rheinhessen growers have agreed that their Ortsweine will be sourced entirely from surface areas classified as either Erste or Grosse Lage. That’s quite a quality statement! But it also has the consequence that Ortswein too, doesn’t really have the same significance in each growing region. (Update, January 20, 2020: Subsequent to the publication of this polemic, the Rheinhessen VDP elected to identify village-designated wines—including on their capsules—as “Aus Ersten Lagen,” and thus not officially Ortsweine at all.)

The tentative VDP-Rheinhessen plan is for wines grown on those surface areas to be permitted, on approval, to bear the name of the village plus the inscription “Erste Lage.” I pointed out to VDP-Rheinhessen board chairman Philipp Wittmann the oddity of having a category of Lagen let alone specifying “Erste Lage” on a label without permitting site names. He’s right that some Burgundies are labeled according to the formula village + 1er cru but the notion of “cru” is less strictly tied to surface area than is “Lage,” and in any case Burgundy wines are generally only so-labeled if they represent blends across several 1er cru vineyards or declassified grand crus (like de Vogüé’s Chambolle 1er cru or Bizot’s Vosne-Romanée 1er cru). But, like several other VDP-Rheinhessen growers with whom I discussed classificatory matters in detail, Wittmann expressed this regional chapter’s collective concern not to detract from the emphasis on Grosse Lagen and, in particular, on Grosse Gewächse. This is—or, at least, has become—a very tolerant, forward-looking VDP chapter: they reversed themselves and now permit Kabinett labeled from Grosse Lagen; they have embraced Grosse Gewächse of under-12% alcohol. Similarly, they are open to approving supplemental vineyard names on request. It simply seems as though few VDP-Rheinhessen members feel the need to label wines other than with the names of their Grosse Lagen. “If we were to systematically classify the Gewanne currently represented by our Erste Lage surface area,” notes Wittmann, “there would have to be at least 50 new label names,” which, he assured me, would also entail upgrading some to Grosse Lage status while trading-off by downgrading certain current Grosse Lagen. And it’s pretty clear that this, too, is something for which the membership currently has little appetite. Addressing the regional discrepancies on which I have been focusing, Wittmann emphasized that VDP classification is a work in progress and expressed the hope that eventually all regions would adopt the same model.

The narrower the thinking, the more trivial the result

The VDP has made much of a so-called classificatory pyramid, in conjunction with the principle “The narrower the place of origin, the higher the quality.”3 (Update, February 16, 2022: This dictum has now been enshrined as an alleged lynchpin in Germany’s new 2021 Wine Law.) Such memes have become influential in many— especially European—winegrowing nations and regions. But, as a factual assertion, the aforementioned principle founders on myriad counterexamples. That Gérard Chave believed in blending across the many distinguished, named sites in which he had holdings and thus bottling what is in effect a village-level wine, hardly prevented Chave Hermitage from becoming an icon not to mention a methodological inspiration to growers from other winegrowing regions and countries. And speaking of Syrahs called “Hermitage,” the fact that Grange Hermitage was broadly sourced did not diminished its cult status, not even after Penfolds introduced a single-vineyard bottling from the tiny vineyard that was effectively the cradle of the Grange. That Champagne’s prestige cuvées—and, indeed, Champagne in general—traditionally reflected synergies among widely sourced grapes and base wines, is a commonplace. But the surge in recent decades of interest in village- and vineyard-specific Champagne has by no means resulted in such bottlings dominating the apex of portfolios, even among the ambitious grower-bottlers who have driven this revolutionary rethinking of their region’s wine. Rather, the top echelons are at some addresses dominated by vineyard-designates, at some by blends, and frequently by wines of both sorts. The reason for this is obvious: Why should growers feel compelled to favor site specificity over freedom to explore all available options for achieving results that excite the imagination and delight the palate?

So not only is the VDP’s favorite dictum false if taken as a factual assertion, to treat it as an aesthetic or (heaven forbid!) some sort of moral imperative is ludicrous. I have yet to hear any cogent answers to the question “Why should every grower be constrained by this principle?” save for ones that reveal it for what it is: a marketing prescription. Whether growers, including non-members, by following VDP dictates and marketing in lock step will achieve greater commercial success and wider international recognition is a matter that only they can assess and consumers determine. But there is ample reason for skepticism. As I like to remind readers: if the DRC were in the VDP it would be instructed to declassify a significant portion of its holdings into premier cru, village and generic ... unless, of course, it were willing to purchase a whole lot of lesser vineyards to serve that purpose. Moreover, as I have argued for years, following VDP-marketing prescriptions not only promulgates an inapt, elitist notion of terroir, and an equally incongruous dichotomy between trocken and all other Rieslings, it fundamentally limits the freedom of a winegrower to exercise his or her imagination and talents in the service of personal vinous ideals. And, if such a price is to be paid, there had better be some enormous upside, commercial or otherwise, which I cannot perceive.

Regardless of their marketing merits, the VDP’s pyramidic rigmarole and allegedly profound attendant principle are strictly speaking irrelevant to the issue of vineyard classification. As conceived by the VDP (in contrast with Côte d’Or practice) regional and village-level bottlings aren’t even allowed to identify a vineyard. And in those regions whose VDP growers recognize by name a distinct group of Erste Lagen, these are generally comparable and often significantly smaller in surface area when compared with their companion Grosse Lagen. It bears recalling that no premier cru in Chambolle is any larger than the grand cru Bonnes Mares, none in Gevrey any larger than Charmes Chambertin and, by a considerable measure, none in the entire Côte de Beaune larger than Corton. As especially obvious contraventions of “the narrower ... the better,” consider VDP Erste Lagen such as previously discussed In der Kirschheck, which, just as its name suggests, is located within the larger Grosse Lage Kirschheck, or Forster Ziegler, a VDP Erste Lage within the Einzellage Forster Ungeheur, whilst the rest of that Einzellage comprises the eponymous nearly nine times larger VDP Grosse Lage.

The VDP has had enormously valuable influence on the quality of German Riesling and its international repute; but I remain unconvinced that its long-standing classificatory endeavors and overwhelming emphasis on creating and promoting a luxury category of dry Riesling represent that organization at its best. Whether the VDP’s classification and its cherished category Grosses Gewächs will long prevail, or that much-loved pyramid follow in the footsteps of its Egyptian namesakes, I am content to place in the lap of history. Much will depend on the extent to which both VDP practice and German wine law can be reconciled with emerging EU wine regulations, and on how rigorously or vigorously the latter are enforced. About those matters one can as yet only speculate, but readers may rest assured that they will be the subject of much impending discussion. (Update, January 20, 2022: That Germany’s new 2021 Wine Law leaves so much to the future deliberations and determinations of regional Schutzgemeinschaften underscores how complicated, even by prevailing, depressing standards the comprehension of German wine regulations and labeling practices could soon become.) ♦

1The title of Geisenheim Professor Dieter Hoppmann’s 1999 account of the map that resulted from these early classificatory endeavors gives the game away: “The map of potential must weights for the Rheingau Wine Region as an objective basis for characterizing [its] vineyards.” (Having been reminded of Hoppmann’s account, I deleted the qualification “primary vinous metric” that previously appeared in this piece, and I also inserted precise dates for the period of classificatory endeavor in question). When Rheingau classificatory pioneer Bernhard Breuer broke rancorously with the VDP in 2000 over the latter’s first official roster of Rheingau Erste Lagen (which was based on the aforementioned map and conspicuously excluded Breuer’s monopole Rauenthaler Nonnenberg), an over-reliance on must weight was among the methodological charges that he lodged against the VDP’s list. In Professor Hoppmann’s defense, it should be noted that in the summation of his article, he mentions that “must weight alone does not determine quality.”

2In the initial version of this piece, mention was made here of the seemingly odd case of Silberberg as a VDP Grosse Lage consisting of two Einzellagen. I have now removed that after Max von Kunow has written to explain (see his comment on Lars’s Silberberg article) that this was simply a graphical error in the new online map, which he has already taken steps to have corrected. (I had sent Max an inquiry two weeks prior to publication concerning this apparent oddity, but somehow my note did not come to his attention.)

3Je enger die Herkunft – desto höher die Qualität.“ This is actually quite tricky to translate, and the VDP’s own attempt to render it in English—“the narrower the appellation of origin, the higher the quality of the wine”—not only sacrifices the simplicity and snap that make the German original sound deceptively profound and convincing, it simply mis-translates.

Image courtesy of the VDP.

David Schildknecht has been tasting his way through Germany annually since 1984. He covers its wines for Vinous and is responsible for the entries on German wine in the 3rd and 4th editions of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

  • Jérôme hainz says:

    This project, Weinlagen Online, is worth a mention here… it has been existing for quite a while before VDP went online. The interactive map is by far not as sophisticated, but much more matter-of-factly. And its going far beyond Germany.

  • rikhard sjöberg says:

    It’s a very good point he is making.

    Additionally, I’ve wondered whether the GG movement should be seen as training wheels or as dogma? I fear the latter.

    In the Mosel, Ernie Loosen has already surpassed the GG with his GG Reserve (for which he even had the GG emblem updated with the extra letter R!) and the Hommage (a GG with 3 years of sur lie) he has in the works. Although Markus Molitor was vetted for VDP membership recently, it’s hard to imagine how his 1-3 star wines in three sweetness levels from the same top vineyards could ever fit the VDP pyramid. Koehler-Ruprecht in Pfalz took their R and RR wines and left the VDP a couple years ago for sort of the same reason: making up to seven top dry wines in different intensities from Kallstadter Saumagen isn’t compatible with the rule of one dry wine per vineyard.

    I also found it ironic that last year’s best GG in the Weinwisser magazine was Klaus-Peter Keller’s G-Max, which is not officially a GG!

    The VDP Rheingau recently decided to switch from Erstes Gewächs (max 13g/L residual sugar) to making trocken VDP.Grosses Gewächs, thus ignoring the nice balance some residual sugar gives to Rheingau wines. This, among many things, led to Peter Querbach handing back his Traubenadler to the VDP.

    If the VDP doesn’t loosen its dogmatic approach, I believe that they run the risk of promoting the GG as a ”fairly good wine from fairly good producers” instead of Germany’s Top Wine that they are trying. Good producers will either leave the VDP; or stay and make their best wines outside the VDP pyramid.

    • Thanks again for your comment, Rikhard. I forgot that you were already a subscriber to my website.

      I’ll let David reply to your question, but I agree with you.

      Dr. Loosen has special extra-tall and heavy GG bottles, like the standard ones for this high-end category, but his have an engraving instead of an embossment. In an older article, which you might have seen, I reported about Koehler-Ruprecht leaving the VDP.

      • rikhard sjöberg says:

        Yes, I remember reading your article on Koehler-Ruprecht – I believe it’s the best piece available on this issue. Around that same time, also Tesch from Nahe handed back their VDP spurs. Apparently bottlings such as Unplugged and those for the group Die Toten Hosen and the Wacken festival were ”incompatible”.

        I also remembered another ”Beyond GG” wine. The Wagner-Stempel EMT comes from the Siefersheimer Heerkretz vineyard but is labeled as just Rheinhessen Qualitätswein, as there is a separate Heerkretz GG. To add insult to injury, the EMT has been sold at the VDP auction in 2016 & 2017 with a hammer price over twice that of the regular Heerkretz GG.

        • Thanks, Rikhard. Koehler-Ruprecht did the right thing and got out of the VDP. It was a poor fit for this estate. While the VDP calls itself the Prädikatsweingüter, they only want Prädikats (which indicate no sugar added) for sweet wines. I also like Koehler-Ruprecht’s caps with the stylish “KR” much better than with the VDP eagle.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Thanks for your comments, Rikhard. I have not encountered too many Riesling lovers who seem even more concerned about the long-term consequences of the VDP’s GG-focus than am I! As I mentioned in my piece, the Rheinhessen VDP has become quite encouragingly liberal and thoughtful, to my evidence in support of which I might well have added their equanimity concerning Daniel Wagner’s EMT. But given that the VDP’s insistence on forbidding “lesser” dry wines labeled for the same vineyard as a Grosses Gewächs conspicuously took the form “thou shalt have no other gods before me,” it would seem that for a dry bottling to challenge the prestige and primacy of a grower’s Grosses Gewächs would be treated as an even greater threat – as I suspect it will be, if such bottlings proliferate.

    It bears emphasizing – since you explicitly addressed the issues of dogma and control – that nowadays VDP inspection teams pour over the wine lists and promotional materials of member estates to insure that these align with their organization’s marketing policies. Some of the instances of censure that growers have brought to my attention are downright funny. Too bad that they are simultaneously irksome and ominous. I’ll offer just one. (Some growers who have supplied similar anecdotes have asked that I not disseminate them, even anonymously.) One especially innovative and successful VDP member was required to remove reference to a certain wine as issuing from his “beste Parzelle.” Because? … don’t you see? “Gross” is the highest approbation any member is allowed to bestow on a classified vineyard.

  • Matthew Cohen says:

    So the VDP is a marketing association and only includes the vineyards where it’s members make wine as among the “best in Germany.” This is not a rigorous, objective classification system.

    Essentially, to sum up, people in marketing lie.

    I guess the larger question is, “who cares?” And by that I mean does the lack of a GG designation depress the ability of growers to sell their wines? Do consumers fixate on those 2 capital letters?

    From my experience as an importer/retailer, I can’t say that it does. We do have a fairly well educated customer base that is aware that all classifications (even the French) have significant deltas in quality and price in any grouping (if you doubt me, go try and buy some Arnaud Ente Bourgogne Blanc). There are very well made and expensive “entry level” wines as well as some spectacular Grand Cru duds. We all know this.

    Honestly, I’d way rather have a high score from a well respected critic like Mr. Schildknecht or Mr. Reinhardt than a bottle festooned with GGs.

    As an example, Martin Muellen’s wines sell quite well. He is not in the VDP and there appear to be no VDP approved vineyards in his region at all. Notwithstanding his wines sell quite well even though we also sell a large number of very good GGs.

    While the VDP’s classification system may not be an accurate barometer of quality vineyards in Germany, it really might not matter that much.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    See above for my mention of Müllen and the excellence of vineyards in his sector of the Middle Mosel, where, as I mentioned, between Lösnich and Pünderich no VDP members have holdings. (The February issue of Wine & Spirits carries my feature article on the growers who have restored the sites and revived the reputation of the five-mile hairpin loop centered on Traben-Trarbach.)

  • rikhard sjöberg says:

    I would highlight David’s comment about young producers aligning themselves with the VDP pyramid. Had Herr Müllen done so in the 1990s, he would not make 5-6 different Hühnerberg bottlings in varying degrees of sweetness. Similarly, Stefan of Günther Steinmetz would not make his lovely, “smaller” off-dry wines from obscure or forgotten old vineyards, but would perhaps turn all those grapes into a dry Ortswein. This is also the case with Markus Molitor, as mentioned earlier (I think Molitor released 60+ different rieslings this year). What I’m saying is that aligning yourself with the VDP might put you at risk of making one great wine and many boring ones.

    • rikhard sjöberg says:

      It’s true that people are smart and might know that there are great wines and producers outside the VDP. However, the more the GG becomes a heavily-marketed product – and good producers leave or bottle “rogue” top wines – the more the GG is at risk of becoming a top-level supermarket wine. After all, the supermarket it the ideological home of heavily advertised mass-market products.

      (It was Lars who said young producers align themselves with the pyramid; my bad)

      • It’s no problem. In David’s text, I was also the one who added “including non-members” in the following sentence: “Whether growers, including non-members, by following VDP dictates and marketing in lock step will achieve greater commercial success and wider international recognition is a matter that only they can assess and consumers determine.”

        Some of the top talents—Julian Haart, A.J. Adam, Günther Steinmetz (see below), and Vollenweider—follow the VDP classification model. I would include Weiser-Künstler, too. But they still make a single-vineyard bone-dry Kabinett—namely, Trabener Gaispfad or Wolfer Sonnenlay Kabinett trocken.

    • To a degree, Günther Steinmetz follows the VDP classification. Stefan makes a Gutswein, an Ortswein from Brauneberg, and GG-style Rieslings from various top sites. Of course, these don’t always ferment under 10 grams of sugar per liter. He also uses Prädikat designations only for residually sweet wines.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Great point about those “what if”s Rikhard, thanks for making it!

  • Al Drinkle says:

    David and/or Lars: I have a query about the restrictions of the VDP.GROSSE LAGE classification based on a bottle that was presented to me this week. Part of a lineup from Maximin Grünhaus that I tasted with their new Alberta importer was a “feinherb” wine called “Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg Riesling Superior”. What confuses me is that this wine seems to be classified as VDP.GROSSE LAGE, an honour that I thought was reserved for either Grosses Gewächs or Prädikatswein; in fact, I don’t understand why they’re even allowed to list the vineyard on such a wine. Might either of you have any insight into this?

    • That’s a good question. Zilliken labeled its Diabas (feinherb) from Rausch with the VDP “Erste Lage” symbol pre-VDP.GROSSE LAGE. But recent vintages of Rausch Diabas don’t seem to have VDP.GROSSE LAGE on the label.

      (Both of these high-end off-dry wines, like their GGs, have been packaged in the extra-tall 350-ml dark-green bottles from the get-go. Although Maximin Grünhaus changed its look and now bottles all its wines in this taller longer-neck bottle. I wrote about this new look in a separate piece.)

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Thanks for your inquiry, Al – and if YOU are confused about this, imagine the state of confusion that prevails among most Riesling-loving consumers!

    Your question touches on one of those matters I find irksome and mildly ridiculous about the entire VDP “classificatory” edifice. There can only be a single dry wine named for a Grosse Lage as Bacchus forbid there be another pretender to the deity that is Grosses Gewächs. But once you introduce 10 or more grams of residual sugar, the VDP’s lack of regulation suggests that they don’t collectively care if – as many Mosel or Saar growers conspicuously do – you bottle two, three or more eponymous Spätlesen or Auslesen or for that matter multiple eponymous halbtrocken Qualitätsweine sans Prädikat. (Admittedly, even if elements in the VDP did wish that there were restrictions on this practice, would they dare go up against long-established precedent at such iconic residually sweet Riesling addresses as Egon Müller, Fritz Haag, Joh. Jos. Prüm or Willi Schaefer, and indeed against the general practice within the Grosser Ring of offering special auction lots otherwise eponymous with non-auction bottlings?!)

    This incongruity as regards wines permitted to carry the name of a “Grosse Lage” is one of the many ways in which the VDP’s classificatory system betrays its having been an outgrowth of the determination to secure and profit from a luxury category of dry German wine, with matters arising from but not essential to the establishment of “Grosses Gewächs” having been dealt with on an ad hoc basis, often seemingly as an afterthought. And that included even a matter as essential to justifying the description “vineyard classification” as establishing a style-independent concept of “Erste-“ – later “Grosse-“ – Lage.” (I tried to illustrate this aspect of VDP regulatory evolution in a painfully detailed account in The World of Fine Wine 31/2011, and also touched on the subject in a critique of the VDP’s Grosses Gewächs concept that Lars published on this site.)

    Further restrictions on labeling wines for “Grosse Lagen” can be placed by regional VDP chapters. So, for example, there can’t be a Pfalz Riesling Kabinett named for a Grosse Lage, and VDP-Rheinhessen observed that same restriction for a couple of years, until Keller and Schätzel lobbied successfully for them to foresightedly rescind it. And while a VDP grower can still label a wine as “Kabinett trocken” or “Spätlese trocken” provided the wine in question is strictly speaking an Ortswein, he or she can’t attach any vineyard designation whatsoever to such a wine, so perforce not that of a Grosse Lage. (Nationally, the VDP would like to see its members entirely avoid the designations “Kabinett trocken” or “Spätlese trocken,” and the vast majority of them already do.)

    Lars and I have heard from several member-growers about significant further restrictions on VDP labeling. I was aware of a movement in those regions where VDP members still bottle residually sweet Kabinetts to observe an upper limit of permissible residual sugar for that Prädikat. What we’re now hearing about is the ominous concept of “Geschmackskorridore” (“taste corridors”) to be established for non-trocken wines of each Prädikat and even for wines labeled without Prädikat. This is all tied up with the familiar (albeit, in my view, already dangerously overdone) notion that a wine’s name should tell the consumer as much as possible about how it is going to taste. If these corridors, as they have been described to me and to Lars, are applied to Kabinett, Spätlese, or Auslese the typical non-dry Rieslings that were bottled under those Prädikats 30 or 40 years ago would no longer qualify, as they would not be high enough in residual sugar! (Mind you, many of the Kabinetts common early this century would be disqualified as too high in residual sugar, and I do at least somewhat appreciate the sentiment that lies behind desiring such a restriction.) One grower intimated to us that employing the name of a Grosse Lage for a non-Prädikat wine would involve additional restrictions.

    Circling back to the way I commenced this response to your inquiry, Al – and with apologies to anyone who takes the following remark as arrogant – if I can’t tell you what’s up with “VDP-Geschmackskorridore” there can’t be all that many observers of the German wine scene outside the VDP growers themselves who can clarify the issue. And speaking of “ominous,” two growers whom I recently pressed for details insisted that the precise taste corridors and attendant regulations are INTENTIONALLY not being publicized much less published anywhere and that members are being discouraged from discussing them with the likes of us. I certainly hope that’s not the case.

    Naturally, I am trying to find time to follow up on this matter of so-called taste corridors and their possible relevance to authorized use of certain site names. But would it be too much to ask one of the responsible VDP executives who read Lars’ site to save me a lot of effort and clarify the matter HERE as a courtesy to the rest of us subscribers?!

    P.S. I can’t explain the elimination of “Grosse Lage” on the label or price list description of Zilliken’s “Diabas,” and, in fact, I hadn’t even noticed that development until Lars called my attention to it.

    • The Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP), or Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates, makes the argument that “the traditional connotation of the Prädikats as attributes [was] reserved for wines with natural, ripe sweetness.” But they fail to mention that an unchaptalized wine (with no other additions) was designated as naturrein or Naturwein and wasn’t exclusive to sweet wines. On the contrary, most of the wines fermented dry or off-dry when the association was established as the Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer (VDNV), or Association of German Natural Wine Auctioneers. Even many of the great Auslesen from the turn of the last century were most likely what is today feinherb.

      I wonder why von Schubert’s Superior is designated as coming from a VDP.GROSSE LAGE but not Zilliken’s Diabas. Both are feinherb from VDP-designated top sites, or Grosse Lagen.

    • Al Drinkle says:

      Amazing. Thank you for such a thorough answer.

    • On April 30, I attended the annual VDP(.)Weinbörse in Mainz. A number of Saar producers pointed out that their dry “VDP.Ortswein” was essentially a Kabinett trocken from a specific site, but they are not allowed to state this on the label. The same goes for Kabinett feinherb. The wine author Joachim Krieger, whom I ran into at the tasting, says that a few of these producers are pretty upset about this restriction. I heard the same complaints. Joachim also agrees that this light, dryish style of Mosel Riesling, with no chaptalization, hence a Prädikatswein (formerly a Naturwein), is what made Mosel wine famous at the turn of the last century.

      At Dr. Wagner’s vintage presentation on April 29, I spoke with Christiane Wagner, who confirmed that she has to label one of her wines as 2017 Saarburger (Kupp) Alte Reben (Spätlese) trocken. She no longer can indicate the specific site nor that it was unchaptalized. In addition, she has begun making GGs from her top-rated sites of Bockstein and Rausch—which have some prefermentative maceration and thus a somewhat fuller style—since the 2016 vintage.

    • On Facebook, Dorothee Zilliken of Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken just wrote me that the off-dry and sweeter wines from a VDP.GROSSE LAGE don’t have their own symbols like the GG category does. That’s why the 2010 Rausch Diabas has an Erste Lage symbol on the front label but the 2015 or 2016 Rausch Diabas has none for “VDP.GROSSE LAGE.” This mandatory wording is just a strip on the VDP capsule with the eagle.

      • David adds to Dorothee’s explanation: “Since the sites formerly designated as ‘Erste Lage’ are now known as ‘Grosse Lage’—not a change in status but only in nomenclature—the only reason that the formerly-employed symbol is inappropriate is because it happened to feature the Arabic numeral ‘1’!”

  • Andrew Bair says:

    Back to the topic of VDP.Vineyard.Online: Recently, I found a couple of wines from Drautz-Able in Württemberg (a VDP estate) at a local retailer. It’s quite rare to find anything from Württemberg in the Boston area, so I snapped up a couple of bottles – a barrique-aged Lemberger and a Sauvignon Blanc Auslese.

    The Sauvignon Blanc Auslese came from a site named Heilbronner Stiftsberg. I went to VDP.Vineyard.Online hoping to learn more about the soils and history of this piece of land, but the VDP hasn’t added Württemberg to Vineyard.Online yet. (Currently, Hessische Bergstrasse and the two East German regions are also missing, so it’s safe to say that this project was rolled out to the masses before completion.)

    I was able to find the Heilbronner Stiftsberg on Weinlagen – rather than being a single site, it’s really a group of four non-contiguous parcels. Information about the makeup and the history of a site is beyond the scope of what Weinlagen covers, however. On the other hand, Vineyard.Online does provide a brief overview of all of the Grosse Lage and Erste Lage sites that they currently have indexed.

    One other drawback with Vineyard.Online is that the Mosel(-Saar-Ruwer) has not adopted the Erste Lage system yet, so even supposedly “1er cru” sites from VDP members aren’t listed or profiled. Of course, many great sites owned by non-VDP members are completely ignored – which is to be expected here.

    On a completely unrelated matter, I finally had one of the Loosen GG Reserve wines for the first time last month, the 2012 Ürziger Würzgarten GGR. There did seem to be an additional layer of smoothness finesse beyond the “regular” Ürziger Würzgarten GG that I had tried a year or so ago. I do like the laser-etched GGR logo on the bottle, which fits well with Ernie Loosen’s more modern label (perhaps less so for the Prälat label, though).

    • Thanks, I didn’t know that Württemberg and those other regions were missing on the VDP’s interactive map.

      I doubt the VDP Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (Grosser Ring) will include Erste Lage, or “first class,” in its classification. It had a chance to do this before. Why now? (For those who don’t know, Erste Lage was once the designation for the VDP’s top sites, before they decided on Grosse Lage as the highest category, which is close in spelling to the inferior Grosslage.)

      • Andrew Bair says:

        Baden has been added since my original response, so let’s hope that Württemberg is soon to come. For those of us outside Germany who rarely have an opportunity to try wines from less-imported regions, it’s really helpful to be able to learn more about the terroir.

        Although some VDP members’ websites provide considerable detail about the sites that their grapes originate from, many others do not. This is where VDP.Vineyard.Online has the potential to become a great resource, even while many of us here will continue to debate the classification.

        Will the MSR ever adopt the Erste Lage model for sites that are very good, but not quite elite? I, for one, would certainly argue that Kinheimer Rosenberg or Brauneberger Juffer are not on the same level as the Scharzhofberg or Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr, and should be classified at the “premier cru” level. It looks like the Ahr has not adopted the Erste Lage model, either.

        Something that I didn’t notice before: the One Good Großlage, Bernkasteler Badstube, is classified as a VDP Große Lage…

        • Thanks for the update. It’s good to know that VDP.Vineyard.Online has maps for Baden.

          I would argue that there are parts of Brauneberger Juffer that are as good as Juffer Sonnenuhr, which also has drought-prone areas (see “Brauneberg“). Likewise, there are sections of the Scharzhofberg that are less good than the core hillside (see “The Nearly Forgotten Scharzberg” for more on this).

          David mentions in his article that Bernkasteler Badstube is rated as a VDP.Grosse Lage.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    I ought perhaps to have mentioned that a few regions were not yet incorporated into the VDP’s on-line work-in-progress but since the Riesling-dominated regions all were, I didn’t.

    I might perhaps have made it clearer in what I wrote originally, but given the sheer number of Mosel(-Saar-Ruwer) sites classified as VDP Grosse Lagen and that VDP branch’s thus-far avowed disinterest in instituting a middle tier of Erste Lagen, it’s fair to predict with high degree of certainty that the Mosel (-Saar-Ruwer) will always have one less level in their classificatory hierarchy than will the majority of regions. If the Mosel got serious about adding that additional level, the results would likely be numerically very oddly lopsided in favor of “grand-” versus “premier”-crus, and/or a great many of the former would have to be seriously considered for demotion in the ranks, and one can only imagine how that would go over with growers politically. As I might also have made clearer, the meaning of “Grosse Lage” whether viewed intensionally or extensionally can hardly be considered the same when used in the context of a hierarchy in which “Erste Lagen” are not even envisioned (as they weren’t until chronologically well-along in the VDP’s classificatory endeavors) as when used in the context of a hierarchy that incorporates both Grosse Lagen and Erste Lagen.

    So long as Austria’s Traditionsweingüter’s tendency to imitate the VDP doesn’t extend to denying vineyard names a place on wine labels unless they are classified as “top,” then I’d say their approach will prove to be a decent model. Austria federally is in the process of explicitly delimiting its recognized vineyards. These will cover the entirety of the country’s vine surface area and have to be preceded on labels or lists by the word “Ried” to indicate that what follows is indeed the name of an authorized vineyard. (In an arguably regrettable act of overkill, any wine names that allude to geographical place names or landmarks but aren’t official vineyard names – eg. “Rotes Tor” – are being disallowed by the Weinkontrolle; and even generic geographical features – “hill,” “terrace,” etc. – are being disallowed unless the grower can demonstrate that the description fits. (Some of the vineyards referred to until now on Austrian labels lacked explicit boundaries; some will be amalgamated or renamed; possibly – this is controversial – some will be nested, i.e. Sub-Riede within Riede.) Within Lower Austria and Vienna, a subset of these newly certified vineyards will be classified by the Traditionsweingüter as Erste Lagen. Eventually (at least in theory), a subset of those Erste Lagen will be upgraded to Grosse Lage status. A likely source of contention will be trying to achieve federal recognition of this classification so that the terms “Erste-” and “Grosse Lage” are permitted on labels. Otherwise, the Traditionsweingüter will be limited to the use of an icon (just as the VDP has to be content with the initials “GG”).

    Speaking of contention, the Traditionsweingüter, like the VDP, would have every merchant, restaurateur and wine writer identifying wines from its members in “complete” form. One must refer to a Grosses Gewächs as such since that is the name of a wine category, i.e. implicates a certain style. But personally, I am no more inclined to start adding “Grosse Lage” or “Erste Lage” to my inscription of an applicable wine’s name than I am to add “1er cru” or “grand cru” to my inscription of a wine name from Chablis or the Cote d’Or. I have tried unsuccessfully to convince my long-time friend and Traditionsweingüter chairman Michael Moosbrugger that the only thing to be gained from writing “2016 Kamptal DAC-Reserve Riesling Gaisberg Erste Lage” as opposed to simply “2016 Riesling Gaisberg” is glazed-over eyes.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Just to complete my thought, I should have added: Once (assuming) Austria’s Traditionsweingüter establish a category of “Grosse Lagen” and populate it with former “Erste Lagen,” the very meaning (i.e. significance as well as extension) of the term “Erste Lage” within that organization will have changed.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Let me make a few more observations, first as regarding the use and significance of “Kabinett” generally and then as regards any purportedly inherent relationship between “Kabinett” and vineyard-designation.

    I have written often in recent years to advocate that the Prädikat “Kabinett” be perpetuated as a designation for a non-chaptalized, relatively low alcohol style of wine, that is to say low by both international standards and by standards nowadays prevailing in Germany for dry Riesling. Precisely today, there is increasing demand worldwide for wines of modest alcohol, coupled with a recognition – at least, among serious oenophiles – not only of how few dry wines are available internationally under 12% much less under 11.5% alcohol, but that this is because only certain grapes, growing regions and approaches are any longer amenable.

    My advocating the value of employing “Kabinett” as a sign of levity was not to suggest that standards should be codified beyond those that already exist under German wine law. Of course the minimum level of Oechsle permissible for Kabinett is too low to insure high quality under most vineyard conditions and of course the de facto determinant of whether a grower labels a wine as “Kabinett” is simply his or her whim, assessment of marketing potential or winery-internal convention. But what I was suggesting is that a) the trend promoted (and internally codified) by the VDP of employing the term “Kabinett” solely for residually sweet wines should be rejected; and b) that growers voluntarily consider restricting the use of this term for wines relatively low in alcohol, i.e. not (as often happens in the warmer German growing regions) labeling a wine of 12.5-14.5% alcohol “Kabinett” simply because a certain segment of German consumers treat that Prädikat as an imprimatur of quality. (In the regions I have in mind, such as Baden or the Pfalz, the notion that one should look for “Kabinett” on the label to insure that the wine has not been chaptalized has pretty much been overtaken by circumstances of global warming. Chaptalized wines from those regions are nowadays extremely rare. Although, the notion of “natural alcohol” has a new significance in today’s marketplace: namely one that has not be de-acoholized!)

    I fear it may be too late for what I have advocated to get traction. “Kabinett” was traditionally associated in export markets with slightly (or sometimes not-so-slightly ;- ) sweet Riesling. And VDP regulations now solidify those connotations in the German domestic market. Meanwhile, as long as non-VDP estates and coops in the warmer regions continue to employ “Kabinett” for full-bodied or even for decidedly high-alcohol wines simply to milk whatever marketing potential may remain in a term very vaguely understood by an aging segment of German consumers as approbative or as equivalent with somehow “unadulterated,” the way is being prepared for “Kabinett” to become an anachronism among Germany’s dry wine drinkers. I should add that the term has been all but abandoned in Austria as well, where in the late 20th century it was still being widely treated in something like the sense in which I have advocated it as worth saving, namely as a sign of alcoholic levity. Of course, some Saar and Mosel growers especially perpetuate a winery-internal convention of using “Kabinett” in this way. But if German wine law ever does finally come in for wholesale re-writing, I fear that the lobbying clout of the VDP combined with widespread change in the de facto usage of “Kabinett” since the turn of the millennium will be sufficient to see that “Kabinett trocken” becomes a legal oxymoron.

    As regards rejecting the employment of the Prädikat “Kabinett” in connection with vineyard-designated wines – even if, as is now the case within the VDP, this Prädikat applies solely to residually sweet Rieslings – my attitude has always been that the reasons offered are completely bogus. Anyone who asserts – despite how often one hears this sort of thing – that vineyard character is perforce less recognizable or done less justice to in a wine from musts that do not meet the legal minimum for Spätlese or in a dry wine if it harbors less than 11.5% alcohol has simply not chosen to taste fairly and critically German Rieslings from across many regions rendered throughout the late 20th as well as into the 21st century. The real reason for objecting to the conjunction of Kabinett with vineyard designations has been that “Kabinett” is also associated with the least expensive wines in many growers’ portfolios and one of the ideas behind VDP classificatory thinking is that the consumer should have to pay a premium for any wine said to reflect the character of an individual vineyard. We can’t undo the unfortunate late-20th-century cheapening of the name “Kabinett.” But growers like Gillot, Keller and Schätzel have demonstrated in Rheinhessen that “Kabinett” by no means precludes high prices. First, they lobbied successfully to remove the regional VDP’s prohibition on vineyard-designated Kabinetts. Then they began pricing the best of these on a par with their Grosse Gewächse and or bringing selected site-specific Kabinetts to auction where they achieve sky-high prices. (And then of course, there is the example of Egon Müller at auction, even if he insists that “Kabinett” has a different winery-internal meaning for him ;- )

    • Thanks for your observations on Kabinett! I’m glad that some non-VDP producers, like Weiser-Künstler and Martin Müllen, still designate a light, dry Mosel from a specific site as “Kabinett trocken.” I also think that it’s still important to highlight if a wine has been chaptalized or not, especially for an association that was founded on unadulterated (unsugared) wines. Of course, there is much more than the addition of sugar to the fermenting must at the winemaker’s disposal.

      For more on this, read my two-part piece “Unlocking the Kabinett.”

  • David Bueker says:

    And of course (though I understand why you don’t mention it) Kabinett Trocken from Falkenstein.

    • That’s true. I also could have mentioned Kabinett trocken or, even better, halbtrocken from Selbach-Oster, though the estate’s dry Kabinett is labeled as “Zeltinger”—i.e., without a specific site.

      • David Bueker says:

        The Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Himmelreich Kabinett Halbtrocken is one of my all time favorite wines. David Schildknecht told me to buy the 2004 many years ago, and I was hooked. Granted I don’t buy it as often these days, but that’s because of the extraordinary Selbach-Oster Feinherb wines.

        • Thanks for the tip. I haven’t tasted recent vintages of Selbach-Oster. Christian Vogt, the former estate manager and cellarmaster at Karthäuserhof, is now the winemaker at Selbach-Oster. It’s interesting to note that the single-vineyard Riesling feinherb old-vine bottlings, including the “ur” alte Reben (“very” old vines), no longer have the Prädikat “Spätlese” on the redesigned label and the Kabinetts are all under screwcap.

          Maximin Grünhaus, on the other hand, has gone back to natural cork for all its Kabinetts since the 2016 vintage, which is when the elder son, Maximin, (sadly) chose the new look with the extra-tall bottles and redone labels. (He has officially taken over the reins of the estate not too long ago.) Willi Schaefer also seems to have moved back to natural cork for its Kabis, but maybe certain markets, like the States, still get these under screwcap. Both took a lot of flak for using screwcaps from certain clients and critics (John Gilman comes to mind).

          By the way, I was impressed with the quality of Willi Schaefer’s 2017s when I tasted the lineup at the estate a day after Terry Theise was there. Because of very low yields, Andrea and Christoph Schaefer only produced residually sweet wines in 2017. Mosel Fine Wines had high praise for Willi Schaefer (and also Julian Haart). Terry seemed less enthusiastic. In his Germany 2018 catalog, he really likes Carl Loewen for the second year in a row. I’m happy for Christopher Loewen. And, no surprise, Terry favors Selbach-Oster (and Dönnhoff) once again. He also admitted having issues with the relatively high acidity of A.J. Adam’s 2017s. Tastes differ, but I thought Barbara and Andreas Adam made a stellar 2017 collection.

  • rikhard sjöberg says:

    Let’s throw a curveball, as the americans would say. The VDP released its new VDP.SEKT.STATUT classification last week, ranking its sparklers henceforth into VDP.Gutssekt (estate sekt), VDP.Ortssekt (village sekt), VDP.Erste Lage (premier cru) and VDP.Grosse Lage (grand cru). Additionally, there is a minimum requirement for Erste and Grosse Lage sekts stating they must spend at least 36 months on the lees. It will be interesting to see how this single-vineyard sekt thing will take off in the Mosel region; at least in Pfalz we will probably see very high-quality Forst single-vineyard sekts from Reichsrat von Buhl. The big question of course is: are the same Grosse Lage vineyards equally good for producing both low-ripeness fruit for Sekt as well as Auslese-level ripeness fruit for Grosses Gewächs dry wines? If they are, we might see pre-pickings and fruit from younger plantings going into sekts instead of kabinetts and orts/gutsweine in the future.

    • Yes, I received the VDP press release on classifying sparkling wine last week. And you bring up a very good point about top sites and low must weights. One of my favorite Mosel Sekts is from Weiser-Künstler. It’s from the single vineyard Enkircher Zeppwingert.

  • Dorothee Zilliken replied to my latest newsletter on Facebook. I added her explanation about Diabas (i.e., a feinherb wine) and VDP.GROSSE LAGE in a comment higher up the thread.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Thanks for the heads-up, Rikhard, as I had not seen these new Sekt regulations.

    I agitated from time to time in my columns for Vinaria on behalf of some Austrian regulation to distinguish Sekt rendered by growers serious about sparkling wine from the much-too-much anonymous bulk and branded stuff. Eventually, the Austrians legislated, though I think they may have made their regulations overly-complex and unnecessarily restrictive. (If the VDP follows suit in that regard, they will be acting from strong precedent ;- )

    It’s fascinating to me how many outstanding sparkling Rieslings originate in top vineyards considering that these acquired their traditional cache in large part precisely on account of their ability to generate grape sugar. That this is the case can, I think, be chalked-up primarily a) to Riesling’s remarkable versatility; b) to its proclivity for acid-retention even as must weight rises and ripe flavors develop; and c) to the fact that the sites in which it most memorably ripens are still, from a global perspective, relatively cool.

    A few observations and predictions about German (or Austrian) Sekt and how it reflects its places of origin:

    Despite what I wrote just now about Riesling, it is worth bearing in mind that several of the most profound German sparkling wines to date (Diel’s and Rebholz’s are the first that come to mind) aren’t from Riesling but rather from blends of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (sometimes also Pinot Blanc).

    What one notes about the more successful German sparkling wines generally – whether from Riesling or “Burgundian” grapes (and this is even more the case among Austrian sparklers) – is that they do not at all illustrate the paradigm familiar from Champagne of grapes picked at a mere 8-10% potential alcohol and even after chaptalization and champenization resulting in wines of just 11-12% alcohol. Rather, the German base wines are typically 11-12.5% in potential alcohol and the finished sparkling wines, generally without chaptalization, weigh-in at 12-13% alcohol. Top-notch German and Austrian sparkling wines – even, it would appear, those from grapes also utilized in Champagne – are going to require letting grapes hang to a point where must weights are significantly higher than those at which Champagne base wines are typically picked.

    Some great Riesling sites that might have yielded outstanding sparkling wines twenty five or more years ago probably today promote must weight too aggressively to serve as sources. I think particularly of the Rheingau including sites that sourced some of the once-remarkable sparkling wines of Schloss Reinhartshausen. If keeping a Grosses Gewächs from Marcobrunn or Wisselbrunnen and other sites immediately along the Rhine shore from being alcoholically top-heavy is a challenge (and that strikes me as manifestly the case), then it’s probably no longer a good idea to attempt sparkling wines in those vineyards.

    Many great Riesling sites will serve for outstanding sparkling as well as still wine; but figuring out how to enhance ripeness of flavor sooner and at lower must weights will probably be critical. (That’s the assumption on which Matthieu Kauffman at von Buhl is proceeding.)

    One can expect many of the best places for growing sparkling wines to be ones where cooler temperatures and greater air movement prevail – thus, not so often places the VDP would classify as “Grosse Lagen” – A Forster Musenhang as opposed to an Ungeheuer, Deidesheimer Paradiesgarten as opposed to Kalkofen. A good example of this is the outstanding though now defunct sparking wine tradition at Henninger in the Pfalz (whose holdings were acquired by Koehler-Ruprecht when Walter Henninger retired in the late 1980s). The top source (and the subject of Henniger’s top bottling) was the Kallstader Annaberg, whereas the Saumagen was (almost surely correctly) deemed too fast-warming and must-enhancing to support outstanding sparkling wine, something that is almost certainly even truer today.

    • Located next door to Keller in Flörsheim-Dalsheim, Raumland is considered by many German critics as the top producer of Sekt. I’ve never tasted their sparkling wines, most of which are made from Burgundian varieties.

      On the Saar and Ruwer, it’s still possible to have base wines from ripe grapes at under 11 percent alcohol. Both tributaries were better known for Riesling Sekt production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As you also know, today’s Dr. Wagner estate, in Saarburg, once specialized in making sparkling wine, and Adolf Wagner even went to Reims to learn the techniques of Champagne production and later built the medieval-style Schloss Saarfels in Serrig in 1912/14.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    I have heard so many excellent things about Raumland that I am truly remiss in not having visited with them or at least tasted a range of their wines.

    Of course it’s still possible on the Saar and Mosel – and maybe even in a few other places in Germany – to have and make sparkling wine from delicious Riesling grapes of under 11% potential alcohol. (Notice, I was speaking only of POTENTIAL alcohol.) But the fact is that very few top-notch growers nowadays pick (and leave un-chaptalized) Riesling at under 11% potential alcohol, as witness how small is the number of those with any inclination to bottle Kabinett trocken of 10-11% finished alcohol, notwithstanding how delicious such wines can be. Even Weiser-Künstler, one of those few who (along with Hofgut Falkenstein, Müllen, and Stein) excel in 10-11% alcohol trocken Riesling, render Sekt (and a terrific one it is) that ends up at 12%.

    Just to make sure I am not misunderstood, this was not meant as criticism, but simply to point out that the relationship prevailing in Champagne between grape flavors, must weight and eventual méthode champenoise success – and which implies picking at well less than 10% potential alcohol – is very different from that which prevails or is likely in future to prevail in Germany (just as prevailing conventions in Champagne seem in my limited experience to be very different from those prevailing in any other sparkling wine producing region save for Southern England). Of course, there are some champenoise estates that have adopted a different model and characteristically harvest base wines at over 11% potential alcohol (Ulysses Collin and Henri Giraud, to name two conspicuous and justifiably prestigious examples) not to mention a steadily increasing number of instances where vintage- and site-specific circumstances leave Champagne growers feeling compelled to pick at significantly higher must weights than they used to – or even still do – consider ideal. But at this point in the course of global warming, we can still speak of these as exceptions to the norm.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    It’s an excellent question Lars, to which I do not have an answer. (Peter Leim would probably be able to clarify the issue, but I don’t see off-hand where he has addressed it in his recent book or on his website.) My suspicion, though, is that – just as with Riesling in Germany – yields vary considerably and don’t always track inversely with potential alcohol. And I suspect, too, that yields on Pinot Noir need to be lower than those on Chardonnay to achieve the same quality of flavors, just as is the case if one is producing still wines of 12+% alcohol from those two grape varieties.

  • Leave a Reply