Riesling is one of the world’s noblest, yet accommodating of the “great” white grape varieties because of its wide range of flavors and incomparable food-friendliness. In addition to the well balanced acidity, Riesling has a range of fruit and floral aromas adding to its complexity. It’s this balance of fruit and acidity that makes Riesling so highly prized as a wine grape.

Riesling grapes are used to make many different styles of wines, from dry to semi-sweet to very sweet – even sparkling wines. The key difference is how long the grape is left on the vine and how long it is allowed to ferment. The longer the grapes ripen, the more intense their flavors and aromas become. German Riesling grapes harvested early, say in September, make light, fruity, well-balanced wines. Riesling grapes harvested later are more complex and flavorful.

When it comes to a grape’s natural sugar level at the time of harvest, there are a few factors that determine a wine’s ultimate style and taste.

What Are All These Classifications of Riesling?

Let’s start with what’s known as Qualitätswein. These Rieslings can only be produced from grapes grown in one of Germany’s thirteen official “growing” regions.

Moving up to a higher intensity of flavor you’ll discover wines of distinction, Prädikatswein. These truly represent German wine-making at its finest. The quality scale for these wines is based on six distinct degrees of ripeness.

It’s important to remember that a Riesling’s sweetness depends only partly on when the grapes were harvested. The main determinant is how long the wine maker chooses to ferment the juice. Fermentation is a process by which sugar is converted to alcohol. Thus, the further the fermentation is allowed to progress, the drier the wine.

From lightest to most intense, here’s how
(and a little about why) Rieslings are ranked:

Kabinett (Kah-bee-NET) – Derived from the word “cabinet” which is where winemakers stored their best wines. The grapes are hand-selected during normal harvest, creating a wine that is well balanced in acidity and dry to semi-dry, these are the lightest of the Prädikatsweins.

Spätlese (SHPATE-lay-zuh) – The meaning here is “late harvest” because these grapes are picked a couple of weeks later in the harvest. As a result, they create a wine that has greater body, longer finish and a firmer, fruitier structure.

Auslese (OWS-lay-zeh) – These wines are known as “select” because they are made from very ripe grapes grown in select bunches and harvested by hand. They are sweeter (but never sugary!) in style and more complex in flavor, which tend to unfold slowly.

Outside of the Schmitt Söhne Family Wines brand, there are even more rare (and expensive) Rieslings. You’ll notice a thick German accent to these because, as you may have read elsewhere on this site, the best Rieslings in the world come from Germany.

Beerenauslese (BARE-ehn-OWS-lay-zeh) – Made from select grapes individually harvested by hand, the name appropriately means, “berry select harvest.” These wines are lower in alcohol and deliver a richness of honey, caramel and tropical fruits. They are both rare and exceptional.

Trockenbeerenauslese (TROCK-en-BEHR-en-OWS-lay-zeh) – These are the richest of the German dessert wines. Because the grapes are dried and shriveled they resemble raisins at the time of harvest, their name means, “dried berry select harvest.” They contain so little water when pressed that it can take an entire day to pick enough grapes to make just one bottle. But the intense, complex flavors they deliver make them well worth the effort!

Eiswein (ICE-vine) – Literal translation? “Ice wine.” The harvest of these wines is very rare as it only occurs during the first hard frost that freezes the last of the grapes that remain on the vine. The grapes are then picked and pressed frozen so very little water gets in to the press and only a small amount of highly concentrated juice is extracted. The result is an extraordinary bond between sweetness and acidity.