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German wines are categorized according to ripeness at picking. The minimum levels of ripeness for each category vary by region, but the basic categories are Tafelwein ("table wine"); Qualitätswein, or QbA ("quality wine"); and Qualitätswein mit Prädikat, or QmP ("quality wine with added distinction"). Within the latter category the distinctions are (in ascending order of ripeness) kabinett; spätlese; auslese; beerenauslese, or BA; trockenbeerenauslese, or TBA; and eiswein. Under certain climatic conditions, the grapes may be affected by Botrytis cinerea, a desirable, flavor-enhancing fungus known in Germany as Edelfäule. Although they may contain residual sugar, German wines tend to be richer as one tastes through the categories of distinction; not until beerenauslese is sweetness enough of a dominant factor for a wine to be considered a dessert wine. At all levels German wines are balanced by high acidity, so they do not necessarily taste sweet. Above all, you should look for balance among a wine's components.
Germany produces a compelling variety of mostly white wines from 13 wine-growing regions (including two from the former East Germany). Selecting a German wine appears to be a daunting task, due to the large number of types and styles, and confusion resulting from label nomenclature. By using a few basic guidelines, selecting a German wine is not difficult, given the generally high quality standards most producers uphold. The key factors are finding the appropriate style(s) for your taste and producers you can depend upon.
Undoubtedly the best German wines are made from Riesling. This white grape is capable of developing intense flavors at lower ripeness levels, making it an ideal cultivar for Germany's northern climate. Under the right weather conditions, Riesling will ripen late into autumn, rendering late-harvest styles. When combined with an attack of Edelfäule , these late-harvest grapes produce some of the most stunning and longest-lived wines around. The best values in Rieslings ($12 to $20) are those at lower ripeness levels -- such as QbA, kabinett and spätlese -- and originating from a single vineyard site, such as Piesporter Goldtröpfchen. However, many quality producers are bottling estate Riesling from a number of their sites, simply calling it "Riesling Pfalz" to simplify labeling. Yet others are blends of different sites bottled under collective names, or Grosslagen. A couple of examples are Zeller Schwarze Katz or Bernkasteler Kurfurstlay.
The bulk of the least expensive German wines are usually either table wine (a category that in Germany includes both tafelwein and landwein) or QbA, and may be blends of two or more grape varieties. Black Tower and Liebfraumilch are two examples. German wine law requires a varietally labeled wine to contain at least 85 percent of the specified grape variety. Varieties commonly blended with Riesling are Sylvaner, Muller-Thurgau and Elbling. These wines often cost $10 or less.
Muller-Thurgau is the most widely planted white variety in Germany and is capable of producing good value wines if the yields are low enough to coax some character out of the grapes. Riesling has the next largest area under cultivation. Other white grape varieties include Kerner, Scheurebe, Bacchus and Pinot Gris (Ruländer). Minuscule quantities of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Sylvaner and experimental crossings with exotic names like Huxelrebe and Ortega are also grown. There is some red wine production, mainly from Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder), but the values are more likely to be from varieties such as Blauer Portugieser, Trollinger and Lemberger or blends of the latter two varieties.
With German wines, the region often provides an indication of style. Those from the Mosel tend to be the most delicate, often exuding characteristic lime, apple and mineral aromas and flavors. Rheinhessen wines are rounder and fruity, with the best hailing from the steep vineyards overlooking the Rhine river, while Nahe wines fall somewhere between the two. Rheingau produces firmly structured, spicy wines that often need a few years to shed their youthful austerity. The richest, fullest versions of white German wines come from the Pfalz.
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