The Mountain Times

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German and Austrian wines share similar soil but distinct flavors

To list Germany and Austria together could get me in trouble, as the history between both countries has not always been easy. As with most generalizations this is not the full truth. Though Austria and Germany have almost always been separate countries they share a common language and a certain cultural heritage, though there I go getting myself in trouble again. But since this is a column about wine, let's raise a glass and toast: and keep it all in good fun!

What both countries (almost) have in common are the wine laws; Austria, as recently as 2003, introduced an appellation system similar to the French terroir concept. However the old laws are also still valid. In the old system, wines are classified according to quality, ripeness and sugar content (as in Germany) and the region of origin. This makes the labels pretty informative- if you can read them, it will be a challenge to non-German speaking wine consumers.

While not every label will include all of the information, most will list at least the following starting at the top: the producer name, the grape variety (unlike all the other European countries), and the vintage.

Then it becomes a bit trickier as labels often will also list names of the vineyards or villages of origin, as well as wine region, quality level, and sweetness designation (such as trocken - dry).

There are four levels of classification based on ripeness of the grapes at harvest: Tafelwein ('table wine' or 'vin de table' in France). Most of this wine is sold in Germany and is mostly imported bulk wine unless it says Deutscher Tafelwein, when it's made exclusively from German grapes that are barely ripe. This wine, often chaptalized, means sugar is added before fermentation to increase the alcohol level. But German table wine still barely reaches 10% alcohol, usually having as little as 8.5%.
Next up is Landwein ('country wine' or 'vin de pays,') which does list a geographical indication and must be from one of 19 designated regions. It also must be from slightly riper grapes to reach 0.5% more alcohol, and it must be dry or off-dry (halbtrocken), but cannot be semi-sweet.

Most of the wines from Austria and Germany we see here in the US are 'quality' wines called 'Qualitätswein' or in Germany 'QbA' (Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete - quality wine from a designated region - similar to French AOC).

There are 13 specific regions in Germany and three in Austria. Wines are made with approved grape varieties (usually Riesling in Germany, Grüner Veltliner in Austria) that must have sufficient ripeness.

The top level is 'Prädikatwein' ('quality wine with special attributes' - compared to French AOC 'Cru' level), which must come from the same 13 specific areas for 'QbA' in Germany or 15 sub-regions in Austria. At this level grapes must have achieved sufficient ripeness in the vineyards, as chaptalization is not allowed. These wines then are divided in subcategories in ascending order of grape ripeness (and thus sugar content): Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, Trockenbeerenauslese.

Most wines from Germany are Riesling (over 60 percent); the rest is mostly Müller-Thurgau (as in 'Liebfraumilch') and some 10% reds (Dornfelder or Pinot Noir to name a couple).

In Austria more than a third of wines are made form Grüner Veltliner, which makes a crisp dry white. The second most widely planted is the red grape 'Zweigelt', known to display a medium body with cherry flavors and peppery finish. Other Austrian whites are made from Welschriesling, Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Blanc, or Riesling; other reds are Blaufränkisch and St.Laurent.

As a last generalization, one could say the German wines tend to be sweeter with some acidity to back them up, while the Austrian wines tend to be dry.