Pick up a bottle of Ürziger Würzgarten and what
have you got? It is a potentially superb wine, depending on the producer and vintage, as this vineyard (the Würzgarten or spice garden vineyard in the town of Ürzig, on the Mosel) is one of
Germany's most renowned sites, and for good reason. From an estate such as Joh. Jos. Christoffel-Erben or Dr Loosen these wines define what German wine is all about. So would one assume,
therefore, that a bottle of Ürziger Schwarzlay would be of comparable quality? The name of the vineyard is not so familiar to us as the famed Würzgarten, but it is a single vineyard wine (it
seems), and it can't be that far from the great spice garden, surely? After all, Ürzig is only a small town, with just a handful of vineyards, isn't it?
The German Wine Laws
Sadly, this is Germany's first great deception fostered by the 1971 Wine Law; the creation of the Grosslagen, which facilitate the legal dressing up of a label to look very much like that of a single vineyard wine. In the various wine regions of Germany, as is the case in all large wine regions, there are naturally generic wines; wines blended across sites, lower in quality than the single vineyard wines, but nevertheless serving a useful purpose. This is the function of the Grosslage category, which I suppose is analogous therefore to AC Côte de Nuits or similar subregional French appellations. But unlike the appellation labelling for Burgundy, which makes clear the generic nature of the wine (it is not very likely that you will confuse AC Côte de Nuits with AC Griottes-Chambertin Grand Cru), this is not the case with the Grosslage wines. Firstly there is no legal requirement for Grosslage to appear on the label, and secondly the Grosslage name appears after the principal village or town. The Grosslage around Ürzig is entitled Schwarzlay, and hence wines blended from perhaps dozens of possible sites, which may be miles from Ürzig, are sold as the attractively named Ürziger Schwarzlay. I am not aware of any other wine producing country with a labelling methodology that confuses the regional and single vineyard wines so deceptively.
And it is the same for every Grosslage, of which there are many across Germany's principal wine regions. The only way to know whether it is Piesporter Michelsberg or Piesporter Domherr for which you should be paying a premium is to remember which one is the top ranking vineyard, and which one is the generic, blended wine.
Whilst discussing great vineyards such as Piesporter Domherr (Piesporter Michelberg is much more likely to be found at £2.99 in the local supermarket, which gives a clue as to its Grosslage status), it is appropriate to move onto deception number two engendered by the 1971 Wine Law. The rationalisation of the Einzellagen (individual vineyards) from a total of approximately 30 000, as mentioned in my introduction, to a more manageable 2600. The rationale behind this process I find incomprehensible; the action seems wholly at odds with the concept of great vineyards and great wine. The process involved extending the boundaries of established Einzellagen to incorporate neighbouring vines; this is a simplification designed by simpletons, akin perhaps to amalgamating a slew of Grand and Premier Cru vineyards in Burgundy as if terroir played no role whatsoever. Imagine the reaction if the INAO suggested lumping together under a single name the Clos de Tart Grand Cru with the Premiers Crus Les Ruchots and La Bussière, and why not throw in the village-level vines of Morey-St-Denis Les Porroux as well for good measure? It is inconceivable (although some would argue such a vineyard already exists at Clos de Vougeot!), and yet that describes, in a nutshell, exactly what the 1971 Wine Law entailed. The vineyard boundaries swelled dramatically, with an average of twelve pre-1971 Einzellagen incorporated into a single post-1971 vineyard.
It was over thirty years before there was an opportunity for the German authorities to rectify the inadequacies of the 1971 law. In 1994 a new Wine Law was passed, but it failed to address any of the shortcomings of its predecessor. The Grosslagen remained and the requirements for labelling went unchanged; if there was to be any putting right it seemed that it would be down to the individual estates rather than the authorities. Perhaps an independent vineyard classification system, or perhaps some new designation for individual wines, as a means of communicating clearly to the end-consumer, was the way forward?
The German Wine Classifications
Well, either sounds like a step in the right direction. The concept of a classification for Germany's top vineyards has been around forever, though, and as you would imagine it is not as easy as it might sound. There are inevitably too many people with vested interests too close to the process for it to run smoothly. Nevertheless, the Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter (VDP), an association of the leading wine estates, published in 2002, after years of careful consideration, its first official vineyard classification. It was driven into action by the new official Selection and Classic categories for wines, which the VDP collectively perceived as inadequate. I'm not convinced, however, that the VDP classification doesn't simply just add to the confusion, one reason being that there is no broad agreement on the terminology to be used. The VDP has settled on the term Grosses Gewächs for the 'great growths'; this only applies to some regions however, as the Mosel estates have opted for Erste Lage (literally 'first sites'), a term more related to the vineyard rather than Grosses Gewächs which relates more closely to the wines. And in the Rheingau they will continue to use the pre-existing Erstes Gewächs (first growths). And then there is the ludicrously titled Lusciously Sweet Wine category. What does that mean?
Whatever the descriptive term used, wines bearing the accolade all originate from eligible vineyards and are deemed worthy; wines to be designated Grosses Gewächs (or equivalent) must meet the following criteria:
The grapes must originate from specified, classified sites.
The choice of grape variety is restricted.
The maximum yield is 50 hl/ha.
The techniques used are traditional.
The vineyards, cellars and, perhaps most significantly, the wines are subject to additional strict inspections and examinations.
The minimum must weight must be at least equivalent to Spätlese.
Harvesting is performed by hand.
The wine must be aged prior to first release.
Wines from Classified Sites (the second tier) and Gutswein and Ortswein ('estate' and 'commune' wines, the third level) are less stringent.
As well as being a confusing system, it has also been suggested that some vineyards are notable for their exclusion rather than their inclusion, and it is questionable that all included vineyards have joined the list purely on merit. The classification is in fact inherently flawed, as it only applies to VDP members and means nothing for the estates that lie outside the body of the organisation. Taking all of these issues into consideration, it seems unlikely that the VDP classification will ever have any real impact on the end consumer, but time will tell. All such classifications have teething troubles as a few noses are put out of joint, but as it is refined perhaps it will become more significant. In the meantime brace yourself for further expansion in the classification maze; the most recent creation is Riesling S from the Mosel, indicating the wines are dry and from specific sites, and have passed a taste test. This only provides more evidence to support my notion that the Germans seem more interested in developing a confusion system than a classification system.
There is a solution to the problem of classification systems; ignore them. Just as with other wine regions, it is the name of the producer on the label that is paramount when seeking out a good wine. Nevertheless, putting aside the Grosslage, Grosses Gewächs and the VDP, there is one classification system in use which is very apparent to the consumer on the majority of labels, about which it is worth having some knowledge. This is the Prädikat, which I explain in detail in the next instalment.