German wine law officially regulates three categories which measure the sweetness of a finished wine based on the amount of residual sugar (“restzucker”/rest-tzūk-ur/) and acid (“säure”/zoi-rǝ/) in the finished wine. The three regulated categories are “trocken” (/trō-ken/), “halbtrocken” (/hallp-trō-ken/), and “süss” (/zūs/). When a German wine is either trocken or halbtrocken, it will be labelled as such. When it is sweet, however, usually the label will be blank in that regards.
Trocken is the German word for “dry” and Germans use it in exact same way English speakers do to describe wine. It means the wine is in the category with the least sweetness. Over the last several decades, Americans seem to have developed a notion that German wines, riesling in particular, are characteristically sweet. To be classified as a trocken wine, the wine cannot have more than nine grams of residual sugar per liter (“g/L”) and cannot even have more than seven if the wine does not have at least enough acid to be within two g/L of the residual sugar. So if a finished wine has eight g/L of residual sugar but only has five g/L of acid, the wine is considered halbtrocken.
Halbtrocken literally means “half-dry” in English. As you would expect, halbtrocken wine is slightly sweeter than trocken wine. A halbtrocken wine cannot have more than 18 g/L of residual sugar and can only exceed 12 g/L of residual sugar so long as the wine has acid within 10 g/L of the residual sugar.
Süss is the German word for “sweet” and it is the category for all wines that cannot be considered trocken or halbtrocken. Sometimes, the term “liebliche” (/lēp-lish-ǝ/) is used if the wine has no more than 45 g/L of residual sugar. If a German wine label does not say trocken or halbtrocken, you can bet it is süss.
In addition to the three regulated categories of sweetness, the term “feinherb” (/fīn-herb/) can also be found on German wine bottles. It is an unregulated term but it usually describes wine that is halbtrocken or just slightly too sweet to be called halbtrocken. If you see a German wine that is described as feinherb, you can know that it is neither dry nor very sweet, but somewhere in between.
POPULAR SWEET WINES
RIESLING is grown in Germany, Austria, Alsace (France), New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. It can be either a dry white wine or a sweet dessert wine. For the purposes of a dessert wine, it is harvested very late with noble rot, icewine or chaptalized to add sweetness. Higher in acid and lower in alcohol, sweet riesling pairs very well with fresh fruit, soft cheeses, or with foods containing a high salt content where the sweetness of the wine balances out the saltiness.
MUSCATO also known as Moscato, Muscatel or Muscadel, Muscato is a fragrant dessert wine produced as both a sweet semi-sparkling wine (Moscato d'Asti) or a sweet still wine. Muscato wines are produced in many countries including Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and smaller countries like Greece, Moldova, Lebanon and Slovenia to name a few. The Muscat grape itself can range in color from white to black and are high in sugars and flavonoids (antioxidants) and are used in edible grapes, raisins and sweeter style wines including a slightly fizzy wine style called Moscato d'Asti.
VOUVRAY wine is a very popular, cold climate wine, produced in France's Loire Valley (Appellation Vouvray Controlée). There is not only one Vouvray but several different Vouvrays. It can be sweet, flavored, or full-body and dry. The sweet wine has a golden color, is vigorous, fruity and fresh. Vouvray is made from Chenin Blanc grapes (Pineau blanc de la Loire). Sweet vouvray wines include Demi-Sec (semi-dry), Moelleux (sweet, botrytized) and Doux (sweetest, botrytized and heavy or syrup like). They are higher in acidity than dry versions and often require 4-5 years of bottle aging. Almost never aged in oak, vouvray is produced in traditional steel tank and is popular as both a still wine and a sparkling wine.