The wines from Germany's 1983 vintage are now arriving on the shelves of retailers in abundant quantity. It will be interesting to see if the quality of this vintage, the best since 1971 or 1976 depending on whom you talk to, will win more followers for German wine.

German wine sells well in America, but you would never know that when talking to Hans Joachim Zilliken, a meticulous producer of about 7,500 cases of high-quality, estate-bottled wine. The Zilliken family, which has been making wine at its Weingut (winery) since 1742, is part of a group of high-quality German wine-producing estates known collectively as Der Grosse Ring.

The members of the group feel that American wine enthusiasts, so knowledgeable and attentive regarding the best estate-bottled French, Italian and California wines, know too little about who's who on the German wine scene. Furthermore, they feel that the image of German wines is one of cloying sweetness, and the ubiquitous liebfraumilch. In short, they claim that if the American consumers learned only the wine members of Der Grosse Ring, choosing a good German wine would be simplified immensely.

Der Grosse Ring was formed in 1908 to unite the best estates of the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer wine regions. This growers' association, much akin to Burgundy's Chevaliers du Tastevin and Bordeaux's Union des Grand Crus, was designed to promote the wines of only the very top estates. Its bylaws require that:

(1) The estates must promote and cultivate riesling grapes.

(2) The members must own the best vineyard sites on the steeply sloping hillsides.

(3) The standard of quality must be higher than required by German laws.

(4) The members must have self-imposed quality-control standards on the wines produced in each year.

(5) The producers must make the wines recognizable to consumers by agreeing to place a special teutonic eagle, sporting 13 grapes on its chest, surrounded by the letters V.D.P. for Verein Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter, the German Predika te wine estate.

How have the estates of Der Grosse Ring been doing? Well, their wines continue to fetch the highest prices at the famous Trier auctions, and based on the range of fine 1983 German wines I have tasted to date, the member estates have shown astonishingly well. However, despite the success of the group, there are three notable producers -- Friedrich Wilhelm Gymasium, Von Kesselstatt, and Max Von Schubert's Maximin Grunhaus -- that have refused to join Der Grosse Ring.

In the 75-year history of this association, many of the estates of Der Grosse Ring have become recognized as some of the finest vineyards and wine producers of Germany's famed Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region. Virtually all of the producers offer a fine range of German wines, from the drier kabinett level, to slightly sweet spatlese and sweeter auslese wines, to the very rich and sweet, honeyed beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese dessert and after-dinner wines.

There is no better time than now to experience the highest level of German winemaking. The 1983 vintage produced marvelously balanced wines, and combined with the strong dollar, the prices for these wines have not been lower in more than a decade. However, don't expect them to be cheap. The modest production of these estates is only 250,000 cases, spread about among the 27 current members.

Locally, the two best selections of Der Grosse Ring wines (be sure to look for the 1983s) can be found at Rex Wine & Spirits and Harry's Liquors. Potomac Wines and Spirits, Addy Bassin's MacArthur Beverages Inc., and Eagle Wine and Cheese have also taken respectable positions with regard to the wines of Der Grosse Ring.

The 27 current Weinguts in Der Grosse Ring are:

Rich. Jos. Berres (Urzig), E. Christoffel-Berres (Urzig), Schloss Saarstein (Serrig), Monchhof (Urzig), Dr. Fischer (Ockfen), Le Gallais Kanzem (Wittingen), Forstmeister Geltz Erben Zilliken (Saarburg), Willi Haag (Brauneberg), Fritz Haag (Brauneberg), Graf Zu Hoensbroech (Wittingen), Guterverwaltung Vereinigte Hospitien (Trier), Von Hovel (Oberemmel), Milz Laurentiushof (Trittenheim), Egon Muller-Scharzhof (Wittingen), Thiergarten George Fritz Von Nell (Trier), Kanzemer Berg Maximilian Othegraven (Kanzem), Okonomrerat Piedmont (Konz-Filzen), J.J. Prum (Bernkastel), S.A. Prum-Erben (Bernkastel), Peter Prum (Bernkastel), Studert Prum (Bernkastel), Herrenberg Bert Simon (Serrig), Dr. H. Tanisch (Bernkastel), Werner Tyrell (Trier), Dr. F. Weins-Prum Erben (Bernkastel), Dr. Weins (Bernkastel), and Norbert Weber (Erden).

The German hierarchy of wine quality is complicated enough, but now that you have the names of the 27 members of Der Grosse Ring, there is no longer any excuse to ignore the finest estate-bottled wines from Germany's Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region.