Rieslings to be cheerful
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when German wines were the most expensive and highly regarded in the world, and the UK their most ravenous consumer. Wine lists from the 19th century price Rhine Rieslings above the most exalted Bordeaux chateaux. Now, of the ten major wine-importing nations to the UK, German wine is the cheapest-per-bottle, and sales decline year-on-year.
The dominant German import by volume is the cheap flute of sugar-water, popular in the 1970s and 1980s, and now dying off as its ageing customer base declines – ‘Hock’, as its loosely termed.
It’s hard to imagine a wine less marketable than Hock. Sweet and floral, only 9% alcohol, served in a Blue Nun-style flute bottle, it is totally at odds with the market’s current success story, Pinot Grigio, typically made bone dry, 12% alcohol, and aromatically neutral. Yet Liebfaumilch, Hock, Piesporter, Niersteiner, and so on, are the sole image of German wine in the eyes of the British public. They are all cheap imitations of one of wine’s most brilliant and distinctive styles – the off-dry Riesling Kabinett – and they have led most wine drinkers to believe that wines of off-dry and medium sweetness levels are always cheap and nasty, when in fact they can be unsurpassably good.
Riesling is Germany’s signature grape, and no other country vinifies it so well, but Germany also makes great Pinot Noir, Sylvaner, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc to name but a few. When fermented dry, Riesling’s lime-scented, unoaked, minerally sheen makes it ideal for the contemporary Sauvignon-loving consumer. Germany makes a lot of dry Riesling, perfect for the UK, but visit the wine aisle of any supermarket and you’re likely to find examples from Australia, New Zealand or Chile rather than Germany. Supermarket German wine ranges are rooted in the styles of the 1970s – lots of own-label Hock, some Black Tower thrown in for good measure, all tucked away, as if in embarrassment, on the bottom shelf. How can perception of German wine change if modern, dry styles are unavailable to the consumer?
To understand why Germany’s reputation has been so defaced, we have to look back to the 1960s and 1970s, when, in the face of difficult economic conditions, the German government made a number of decisions to support the trade in cheap, sweet wines. These decisions, beneficial in the short-term, have ruined the industry’s international reputation and are the reason we see so little in the UK of what modern German wine has to offer.
The worst crime these Blue Nun wines were permitted to commit was to emulate Germany’s great wines, and thereby taint their reputation. Most damaged has been the noble Riesling grape. Surely the most naturally exquisite white grape in wine’s canon, it produces wines from thrillingly dry to unctuously sweet, and even sparkling. It ages effortlessly for decades, has a kaleidoscopic and haunting flavour profile, and transmits the characteristics of its vineyard with chameleon-like transparency. Bottom-end German wines were marketed as close as possible to fine Riesling, with the flute bottle, pseudo-historical gothic-scripted labeling, and a semi-sweet flavour. In fact they were made largely with Müller-Thurgau, a rather less noble grape, bred in a laboratory in the 1920s. Best known for ripening consistently in cold climates – it was the backbone of most undrinkable English wine of the post-war period.
To pile further degradation on Germany’s prestigious winemaking tradition, the industry, in an astonishing act of self-harm, allowed producers of plonk to ‘borrow’ the names of the great winemaking villages which they neighboured, and bathe in their reflected glory like knock-off Prada handbags. Hence villages like Nierstein and Piesport, home to such great vineyards as the Goldtröpfchen and the Brudersberg, became synonymous with Nierseiner Gutes Domtal and Piesporter Michelsberg – wines made in industrial quantities on unsuitable land. As the prestige of cheap German wine declined, so did that of the fine wine it imitated.
The abuses of German bureaucracy have led to the impression amongst most wine drinkers that the country does not produce fine wine. This misunderstanding is compounded by the complex, confusing system for designation and labelling of quality German wine – or Pradikatswein.
Pradikatswein is characterised by the exactitude of its label, which tells you the producer, the grape and the vintage, as well as the region of origin, the village within the region, the vineyard within the village, the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, the approximate dryness of the final wine, even, if you look hard enough, the year of bottling.
For example, a German Pradikatswein label might read: “Kloster Eberbach, Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen, Riesling Spätlese trocken, 2007”. To the experienced German drinker this is mouth-watering stuff: a Riesling, from an historic producer, all sourced from the Wisselbrunnen vineyard in Hattenheim, harvested late and fermented dry. To your average shopper, it’s double-dutch.
Making Pradikatswein understandable without detracting from its history and detail is an ongoing struggle for producers and trade bodies. Navigating between different vineyards, styles and producers is the raison d’être of the Riesling anorak, but is it really necessary that fine German wine labelling should be so much more complicated than that of Bordeaux, Burgundy or the New World?
Germany will never compete with France, Spain or Italy for popularity in the UK. For one thing, its production is one tenth that of any of these countries. But German wine deserves a restoration of its reputation for producing some of the world’s finest and most distinctive wines, both red, white, sweet, dry, still and sparkling. Every wine drinker benefits from a sense of adventure, and in Germany the rewards are as rich as they are unexpected.