To fully understand what makes Riesling such a great wine grape, it's necessary to learn a few specialized wine terms. Plus it's also helpful to know how they're pronounced.
Acidity. This is a word we throw around a lot when talking about Riesling. That's because it's the acid that gives a wine it's structure and ageability. There are two types of acidity in Riesling: fruity, ripe tartaric and raw, unripe malic. It's the balance of the two that determines if a wine is crisp and clean or just downright tart. Too little acidity makes for a wine that is soft and flabby.
Anbaugebiet. [ON-bow-ge-beet] The German word for wine region. There are 13 Anbaugebeite in Germany. This is the "A" in QbA.
AP Number. The Amtliche Prufungs Nummer is the German government's proof to you that the wine has been tested and approved. With certain wines and producers the AP number is the only way to distinguish between separate bottlings from the same vineyard and Prädikat level. It's the last two groups of numbers that are important to the consumer. The last group indicates the year in which the barrel (or lot) was submitted for approval. The next to last group is the barrel (or lot) number. The lot number is your key to distinguishing between wines that, based on the rest of the label, would appear to be the same.
Auslese. [OWS-lay-zuh] A German word that means "selected from the harvest." This is the Prädikat level for overripe, late-harvested grapes that are selected cluster by cluster. Often made in the fruity style with residual sweetness, Auslese is considered by most winemakers to be their finest achievement (aside from the rare dessert wines). Top winemakers often make several Auslese from different selections based on botrytis levels. In this case, the wines are distinguished by AP Number, by gold and long gold capsules or by stars after the vineyard name, depending on the winemaker's preference.
Beerenauslese/BA. [BEAR-en-ows-lay-zuh] Adding on to the word Auslese in that inimitable German orthographic style, this means "berry selection." Beerenauslese is a rare dessert wine made from extremely overripe grapes that are fully affected by the botrytis mold. The grapes are selected one berry at a time!
Bereich. [beh-RYESH] A smaller part of a wine region, usually named for the nearest important town, as in Bereich Bernkastel. Bereich wines are usually quite simple and ordinary, although they can sometimes be pleasant beverages.
Botrytis. [bow-TRY-tiss] Also know as Edelfäule in German, or "noble rot" in English, this is the wonderful fungus (botrytis cinerea) that enables winemakers to produce astonishing dessert wines. It draws moisture from the grapes, thus concentrating the sugars and aromatic components that remain in the juice. Botrytis typically adds a rich, honeyed character to Riesling when they are young, becoming more complex with age.
Botrytized. [bow-TRY-tissed] Adjective form of botrytis. Please note that it is not "botrytis-ized."
Chaptalization. A French invention. The process of adding sugar to the must to increase potential alcohol and thus, the body of a wine. Chaptalization is not allowed in Prädikat wines, but can often be used to good effect in an estate's basic wine (QbA).
Charta. An association of winegrowers in Rheingau has created this designation for their dry wines that are specifically meant to accompany food.
Edelfäule. [AYDEL-foy-leh] German word for botrytis.
Einzellage. [AYN-tsul-law-geh] German word for "single vineyard."
Eiswein. [ICE-vine] Quite literally, ice wine. One of the rare Prädikat dessert wines, made from overripe grapes that have frozen solid on the vine. They are harvested quickly and pressed while still frozen, so that only concentrated grape juice is extracted. Most of the water stays in the press as ice, so the resulting wine is very concentrated, but with vibrant, racy acidity.
Füder. [FOO-der] A 1,000-liter barrel in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region.
Goldkapsel. German for gold capsule. These are used to distinguish a special selection wine from it's "normal" counterpart (e.g. Auslese and Gold Kapsel Auslese). Used most often for Auslese. If more than two Auslese were made, a "long" gold capsule is also used. Some producers use gold capsules on all of their wines and, thus, are forced to use stars on the label instead.
GKA/LGKA. Acronyms for Gold Kapsel Auslese and Long gold Kapsel Auslese.
Grosslage. [GROSS-law-geh] A collective vineyard area that includes several single vineyards (Einzellage). For example, Piesporter Michelsberg is a Grosslage, Piesporter Goldtröpfchen is an Einzellage.
Halbtrocken. German for half-dry.
Kabinett. The first of the Prädikat wines in Germany. This is typically the lightest and most delicate style that an estate will produce. Kabinett is made from normally ripe grapes and no chapalization is allowed. In a region like the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Kabinett will be quite light and delicate, indeed, often with just seven to eight percent alcohol.
Lieblich. [LEEB-lish] German for "lovely." Lieblich is the term applied to the fruity style, to distinguish it from Trocken and Halbtrocken.
Lieu-Dit. [leeooh-dee] French for "named place." Used in Alsace to designate a vineyard that has long been known by a certain name but is not one of the 50 official grands crus. Top lieux-dits, however, are often smaller sections within a grand cru vineyard, as with Trimbach's Clos Ste-Hune, which is part of Grand Cru Rosacker.
Malic Acid. The raw, unripe form of acid that is present in wine. A little helps give a wine brightness, as long as it's balanced with a larger amount of ripe tartaric acid.
Monopole. The French term for a vineyard that is wholly owned by one estate. The German word is "Alleinbesitz."
Oechsle. [UHX-leh] The German ripeness scale based on specific gravity of the must. It measures the same thing as the American Brix scale. In the Rheingau, for example, a wine must measure 95 Oechsle/22.6 Brix or more to be considered an Auslese.
Prädikat. [PRAY-dee-cot] Literally the grammatical term, "predicate." Prädikat wines are "predicated" on a certain level of quality. See QmP below.
Qualitätswein/QbA. [kval-ee-TAYTS-vine] German for "quality wine." QbA is an acronym for Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete, which means a wine that comes entirely from one of the 13 designated wine regions. This is an estate's basic wine and can often be a very good value, especially from top-rated producers. Chaptalization is allowed in QbA.
Qualitätswein mit Prädikat/QmP. A wine that has achieved one of the six levels of Prädikat quality: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese. These are the finest of German wines. No chaptalization is allowed, the grapes must ripen naturally.
Riesling. [REEZ-ling] Our favorite white wine grape. Included here mostly for the pronunciation, which still causes problems for a lot of English-speaking wine lovers. Just remember, Riesling and Report are alliterative.
Sekt. [zect] German sparkling wine.
Sélection de Grains Nobles/SGN. [say-lek-shion deh gran no-bluh] Quality designation used in Alsace to denote a wine made from individually selected, botrytis-affected grapes. SGN is equivalent in concept to Germany's Beerenauslese.
Spätlese. [SHPAYT-lay-zeh] German for "late-harvested." Spätlese is the second of the six Prädikat quality levels in Germany. Spätlese has more richness and body than Kabinett because the grapes are allowed to ripen for an extra week or more. Once harvested, the wine can be fermented fruity (lieblich), half-dry (halbtrocken) or dry (trocken), depending on the preferences of the winemaker.
Sulfur. Sulfur has been used for centuries in winemaking to disinfect and to preserve wines by preventing oxidation. The problem is that young Rieslings often show a significant level of sulfur dioxide gas in the nose, which is not really a pleasant odor. These wines are meant for aging and, with time in the bottle, the smell will disappear as the sulfur binds with other compounds in the wine.
Süssreserve. Unfermented grape juice that is used to add sweetness to a finished wine.
Tartaric Acid. The "ripe" form of acidity in Riesling that gives the wine structure and freshness. It is also what causes those white crystals to form as it precipitates out of solution (Weinstein, wine stones). This is not a flaw in the wine, in fact it is a sign of ripeness and careful fermentation.
Trocken. German for "dry." Most wines, except for the rare dessert wines, can be fermented to dryness, if desired. A wine with very high acidity, however, will need a little residual sweetness to give it balance. Otherwise it will taste tart and sour.
Trockenbeerenauslese/TBA. [TRAW-ken BEAR-en OWS-lay-zeh] Germany's greatest and rarest dessert wine, and the last of the six Prädikat levels. Trocken (dry) here refers to the individually selected berries, which have been completely shriveled by the botrytis mold. It does not refer to the taste of the wine, which is quite the opposite of trocken. The minimum must weight for TBA is 150 Oechsle/33.9 Brix.
Vendange Tardive/VT. [van-dawnj tar-deev] French for "late harvest." A quality designation in Alsace for wines that have been allowed to ripen longer.
VDP. Acronym for "Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter." Thankfully, everyone just calls it the VDP. This is the German association of top wine estates. Its members adhere to stricter, self-imposed quality standards than the German wine law requires.