German Wine Sweetness Categories
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. Many of the best German wines are dry, however. In fact, the largest category is by far the driest. In 2011, over 41% of all German wine was trocken. 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. About 23% of all German wine made in 2011 was halbtrocken.
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. Süss wine comprised about 37% of German wine produced in 2011.
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.