“Grosses Gewachs! We are marching again!” Thus spake Ernst Loosen of the grand estate Dr Loosen. Grosses Gewachs, or GG, refers to wines made from Grosse Lage or Grand cru vineyards. Unlike their French counterparts, the term does not exist within any part of wine law. Producers that make wines with such a distinction must be one of the 200 members of the Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter, or VDP.
The VDP is an invitation only organisation, founded in 1910 that bases their own classification on early, indeed many are pre-federation, classifications. Due to the fact that the VDP is not a government organisation, there have been changes and clarification to the GG sites over time, an almost impossible eventuality within other European classification systems. The last update was in 2012. Many of the new GG sites have been carved from large vineyards where there are differences in aspect, slope and soils. In other words, small sections have been identified to produce wines of GG quality and have been elevated as such.
What grapes are planted in a Grosses Gewachs site?
Over 50 per cent of GG sites are planted to Riesling. It is up to the regional associations to identify the varietals that they deem appropriate, so you will find Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and even Blaufrankisch in the mix. All wine classifications have procedural, growing and vinification stipulations and the VDP is no different. To bear the designate GG, the grapes must be fully ripe, hand harvested and the vineyard yielding no more than 50 hectolitres. Vinification must be traditional. Furthermore, the wine must be dry, or trocken, and tasted by regional members of the VDP before the “quality stamp” of GG can be applied.
How do I know I’m buying a GG wine?
The wines are filled in unique bottles carrying the embossed mark “GG grape cluster”. Furthermore, the VDP Grosse Lage must be placed around the bottle’s capsule, below the VDP logo. The name of the site must be indicated on the front of the label, but not the village in which it lies. In other words, there can be no mistake that the wine in the bottle is a designated GG.
Many terrific dry wines are made from GG sites that are not categorised as Grosses Gewachs wines. These are usually made from a selection of grapes from younger vines or from what the producer believes to be an inferior segment of the vineyard. Often the grapes of GG sites are blended to make a generic wine, often of superb quality. Many such wines can offer excellent value and enable the wine lover to treat themselves to a GG experience, but without the hefty price tag. But it is important not to forget that such wines, excellent though they may be, do not carry the weight, extract, complexity, structure and intensity of the producer’s GG wines.
Grosses Gewachs – A true and fair mark of quality
Classification systems are designed to establish hierarchies of quality. Grosses Gewachs should ensure the wines are consistent, of high quality and are true to the region’s traditions. Broadly speaking, the best vineyards have been mapped long ago, and the VDP, in setting up their classification, relied on previous classifications. Vineyard maps in Germany, and the classification of vineyards according to their quality, were created to enable authorities to understand which vineyards gained the highest market prices for their product. Henceforth, vineyards of higher quality could be taxed at a higher rate. The logic is without perversity. All wine producers wish to sell their wares at the highest possible prices, and after the classification this could only be achieved if your vineyards were regarded accordingly.
There are some anomalies within the VDP classification system. The argument over which vineyards are Grosses Lage (Grand Cru) as opposed to Erste Lage (Premier Cru) is an obvious one, although without broad consensus the classification would never have worked. Tittle tattle after tasting a particularly glorious Erste Lage may loom large on the consciousness. From my experience, tasting through a suite of a producers wines, almost invariably following the genius logic of the VDP Classification Pyramid; Gutswein (Regional), Ortswein (Village), Erste Lage (Premier cru) and Grosse Lage (Grand cru) is a statement of the accuracy of the classification. There will always be exceptions, but there is no doubt the GG vineyards, and those GGs with greater reverence, produce the best and most profound wines in Germany. The dollars don’t lie.
What does a GG wine taste like?
The concept of dry or trocken is as grey an area as anything in Germany. To be dry, a GG must have under 10 grams of sugar per litre. In Australia that wine would taste somewhat sweet because the level of flavour, power, intensity, dry extract and balancing acidity is not there in our rieslings. I for one have never tasted a GG that tasted sweet. You shouldn’t of course, but I have tasted GG’s that are unnecessarily austere and if they have lacked charm, finesse or balance, it may often be attributed to a lack of sugar. Producers trying to make wines drier than they should be by forcing the ferment to ensure they’re under 10. Musts, the fermenting wine, behave differently, from cellar to cellar, particularly when left to their own devices. They may take up to 8 years to ferment, and when the ferment finally exhausts itself the level of sugar may exceed 10 grams per litre.
Who cares. Riesling made traditionally in Fuder, without additions, will almost always taste dry, if left alone. The combination of fruit, low alcohol (no more than 13% for dry wines) and acidity will always produce a wine of greater balance, elegance, complexity and age-worthiness. The wine suffers if it’s forced. Most traditional cellars in the Mosel for instance never gain a temperature of more than 15 degrees. A beautiful coincidence to ensure unhurried, luxurious ferments, resulting in incomparable wines of power and finesse, richness and weightlessness.
GG production – bending the rules
Tasting the wines of Clemens Busch recently, with the eponymous owner, I asked him why he insisted on ageing his wine on lees, and never racking them off until bottling. “For ageing. The wines live for much longer. But they must be left for at least twelve months, longer. The wines become more mineral and the site is better represented”. This despite the VDP stipulation that GG wines are to be released on September 1 the following year after vintage. This of course can mean other producers, not of Clemens’ standing, “hurry” their ferments and are producing wines that are not exactly traditional, that “dry” issue again, and may fundamentally compromise the wines quality.
In addition, some producers are releasing GGs which have had two or more years on lees in Fuder, after an earlier release of a GG wine from the same site. This is again contrary to the rules of the VDP, which states that only one wine may be released from a GG vineyard in any given vintage. Many producers flout this ruling. Ernst Loosen of Dr Loosen is moving to bottle more wines with the epithet “Reserve”, meaning that the wine has been aged in Fuder, on lees for two years. Despite being reprimanded by his local VDP association for contradicting this stupendous erroneous rule, he told me, “I nodded, and looked down and told them I’m very sorry, it wouldn’t happen again…. I do it anyway!”
Challenges for the VDP
Riesling is a variety whose infinite stylistic poses and incomparably broad spectrum of flavours leads the wine taster down a windy path without endpoint, where one may segway this way, or that. With this is mind, the term and concept of Grosses Gewachs is particularly limiting. The Mosel presents the greatest variety of expressions of any grape variety in the world. This applies to dry wines and the sweeter styles of the Pradikat. With the strictly defined rules insisted by the VDP, there is a risk of losing expressive uniqueness that goes beyond mere vineyard expression. The philosophy behind the ranking of vineyards with the pinnacle being the Grosses Gewachs, was not only to acknowledge or advertise the best vineyard sites, it was to provide a map of unique and great drinking experiences. In other words, the pleasure of tasting was defined by the sensory contrasts between different vineyards.
To take Chardonnay in Burgundy as a contrasting point, producers are in a better position to create and highlight contrasts, in spite of the existence of the Appellation Control. The winemaker has more tools and flexibility at their disposal in Burgundy, such as with vinification and ageing, and hence one producer’s Montrachet can be markedly different to their neighbours. Indeed, most producers make a point of difference, to ensure that they stand out amongst the crowd. Of course, you the wine lover will have preferences, but preferences are meaningless if they are without contrasting interpretations. Thus far, GG wines do not have the sharp contrasts between producers.
Separate to the VDP Grosses Gewachs classification, the grandness of the Pradikat system, that is the designation of “quality” defined by the amount of sugar, is being somewhat overshadowed by Grosses Gewachs. If for example, a wine is made of Kabinett level from the Scharzhofberger vineyard, one of the greatest Riesling vineyards in the world, it is by definition a Kabinett. The wine drinker, with plenty of knowledge, may know of the vineyards reputation and that of the vintage and grower. But however great the wine may be, it cannot be labeled Grosses Gewachs, as the GG wine, must be dry. Many a Kabinett wine from these vineyards has been better than plenty of GG’s, and yet the kabinett wine is at the bottom of the Pradikat system.
The strengths of the VDP
Despite these drawbacks, the VDP pyramid, with Grosses Gewachs at the very pinnacle, and the creation of a system of quality based on vineyard classification has done wonders for the promotion of German wine. The idea of Grand Cru is nothing new, but humans love the certainty of officialdom; names, systems, numbers and ultimately, classification. The success and recognition of GGs is only in its infancy, but due to the remarkable quality and consistency, there is no doubt that prices will rise – to where, is anybody’s guess. The wine industry and wine loving public has largely accepted the correctness of the classification. More importantly, wine producers have acknowledged the veracity of the VDP, with 200 of the countries finest producers being members.
Governments are hopeless the world over and laws are to be obeyed. France has it’s Appellation Control, rigid in effect and consequently without the nuance and pragmatism that a private organisation, such as the VDP, has. Who in the VDP would doubt the magnificence and legitimacy of a wine producer such as Clemens Busch of the Mosel, who’s adherence to tradition, culture and conatus bestows to the world some of it’s finest wines. Clemens in his pursuit of quality, is unable to necessarily adhere to every rule of the VDP. But who cares? The VDP is able to see the bigger picture. I doubt if governments would. Grosses Gewachs! We are marching again!