With the 1971 vintage, a sweeping revision of German wine law became effective. In addition to a number of fairly technical amendments, the new law contains two changes very important to the consumer of German wine.
First, the number of vineyard names was reduced from roughly 30,000 to 2,500. This was accomplished by requiring that all vineyards (with a few exceptions) be no less than 5 hectares (12 acres) in size. Vineyards under 12 acres were merged with one or more neighboring vineyards so that the resulting new vineyard had the necessary size. The total acreage planted with vines didn't decrease at all -- in fact, it's growing every year -- but the number of vineyard names was significantly reduced, although the new law may have changed the name of some vineyards that remained.
This is a mixed blessing for the consumer. Now there are only 2,500 vineyards to deal with -- about the same as Bordeaux chateaux. However, even if your favorite vineyard's name survived the cut, the odds are that its wine won't be exactly the same, because of the shifts in boundary lines. "Know your bottler" was good advice before 1971. It's even more important now.
The second change of particular importance to the consumer was the creation of the grosslage. Before 1971 you could buy German wine with only a place name on the label, e.g. Piesporter, Johannisberger, Ruppertsberger. Because a wine was labelled Piesporter, however, didn't mean that it came from Piesport. That would be too easy. Wine could be given a famous wine-town name if it came from anywhere within a 15 kilometer radius of the town.
Although misleading, this practice served a purpose for the small winemaker. A grower who owned comparatively few vines spread among several vineyards could only bottle his wine with this sort of generic site name. Although a lot of mediocre wine was bottled with site labels, some pretty good wine found its way into these bottles, too. Recently a Ruppertsberger 1921 Riesling Spatlese was opened, and found to be interesting wine -- not as fruity as recent spatlesen, but still good, nevertheless.
When the generic sites were eliminated, something had to be done to replace them -- thus the creation of the grosslage system. The German word for vineyard translates to "single site." Grosslage translates to "greater site." It is exactly that. The 1971 law provides that all vineyards that produce wines of equal value and equal taste may be grouped together under a grosslage name, which in no way affects their status or identity as individual vineyards.
There are several reasons why a winemaker might want to bottle his wine under a grosslage name:
He may have to. The law requires that to be vineyard-labelled 85 percent of the wine in the bottle must come from the vineyard (excepting Trockenbeerenauslesen wines). The small bottler might not make enough wine to qualify for individual vineyard labeling.
A bottler might have very young vines in one vineyard and be able to make marketable wine only by blending the juice from those young vines with that of other, older vines.
The grosslage name may be much better known than that of the individual vineyards it contains.
The grosslage system helps the small grower more efficently bottle and sell his wine. Unfortunately there are problems. The 1971 law is supposed to foster Wahreit and Klarheit -- truth and clarity. The grosslage provisions do neither.
First, the form of the label is misleading. Bernkasteler Kurfurstlay is a grosslage and Bernkasteler Doctor is a very good vineyard, but there is no way to tell the difference by looking at the label. The law assumes that the consumer knows the difference. Most consumers don't know the difference, and to assume that any but the most dedicated student of German wine will learn the nearly 150 names of the grosslagen in Germany is to stretch credibility. The law should be changed to cause grosslagen wines to be so labeled.
Another problem has to do with the names assigned to the grosslagen. While a number of vineyard names were eliminated, the most popular were used for grosslagen. Thus a 1970 Bernkasteler Badstube was the wine of a good vineyard, and a 1971 Bernkasteler Badstube was that of a grosslage and from the label you can't tell the difference. In addition, if a grosslage contains vineyards of more than one village, any of those village names may be used for the grosslage wine, even if none of that wine came from that village.
Scharzberg is the grosslage name for all the wines from the Saar River Valley. A Wiltinger Scharzberg may, therefore, come from anywhere in the Saar. It also may quite legally be called Ockfener Scharzberg, Ayler Scharzberg, or any one of 15 other village-Scharzberg combinations. Wahrheit und Klarheit indeed.
A grosslage may be very large or very small. Scharzberg contains 3,888 acres. On the other hand, the Beerenlay grosslage in Lieser in the Mittlmosel contains only three vineyards, which total 135 aceres, and the Badstube grosslage in Bernkastel contains five vineyards totaling 152 acres. There are literally hundreds of single site vineyards in Germany larger than 152 acres. Size has nothing to do with the creation of grosslagen. They are simply marketing tools.
This, then, is the grosslage.
If there are so many problems, why should consumers waste time with them? The reason is simple. Grosslagen wines include some of the best buys in German wines. Again, the reputation and ability of the bottler is very important. If you don't know who the most successful bottles are, ask. You're paying good money for your wine and you have the right to know everything you can about it.
Almost every wine encyclopedia has a section listing individual vineyards and grosslagen names. Most stores have at least one such book available. Take a look at it.
Finally, even if you ask all the right questions, and read all the right books, there's still only one way to know for sure. Take a bottle home.