GERMAN WINES – and why we should all be drinking them

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Germany may have failed to control Europe for a third time but its wines conquered wine aficionados decades ago, presenting those in the know with some of the most delicious wines on the planet at impressively affordable prices. Rising prices of fine wines in France and other countries may soon shift the focus on to Germany and wine geeks fear the party will soon be over.

Alex Hunt MW wrote a highly illuminating article on what he termed the “three peculiarities of wine” an article that was published by Jancis Robinson. Simply, he made the point that unlike whisky, where one in five bottles sold worldwide is Johnnie Walker, there is no equivalent wine brand leader. Anyone trying to make the Johnnie Walker of the wine world comes up with the three peculiarities of wine. The first is that wine consumers, at even the lowest quality levels, care about the origin of the grapes which precludes the necessary volumes demanded by a world brand leader. The second is the cost of growing grapes is broadly similar, irrespective of the quality of the wine, thereby keeping profits very low in bulk wines. Trying to leverage the brand by increasing quality and hence profits then hits the third peculiarity – success at the bottom precludes credibility at the top. Once a bulk wine always a bulk wine (my words). 

Hunt implies that a global brand has yet to be created but Germany did exactly that when they created Liebfraumilch, a sweet, insipid bulk wine, which in the eighties accounted for 60% of all German wine exports. Unfortunately for the German wine industry, Liebfraumilch and Germany were so closely associated that in the mind of the consumer they became indistinguishable and when the third wine peculiarity kicked in (success at the bottom precludes credibility at the top), the whole of the German wine industry was relegated to bulk wine status. Something wine aficionados have been taking advantage of for decades.

By all accounts 2015 is turning out to be a seriously good German vintage and there will be many great wines produced both dry and sweet. Some German regions claim it may well be the vintage of the century. Last week, I tried to order twelve bottles of Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese JJPrum 2015 (£25) from the Wine Society only to be informed that sales would be limited to six bottles per member! Times are definitely changing.

Germany is a cool wine region and its latitude is at the limit at which grapes can be successfully grown. Global warming is helping, as do the sun facing steep slopes and the moderating influences of the Rhine and other rivers. In good years, wines of immense complexity and finesse are produced and with high acidity, they can easily last 50 years or more.

Germany is generally considered a white wine country with Riesling being its grape par excellence, but Pinot Noir is now widely used to make red wines – much of it which is consumed at home.

The best-known wine regions in Germany include the Mosel, Nahe, Ahr and Rheingau but there are other sites mostly clinging precariously to steep slopes. There are several styles of wine – Trocken (dry), Kabinet (less dry), Spatlese (less dry than Kabinet), Auslese (sweet). There are other styles which tend to be very sweet and inevitably, rather expensive. The above terms are relative, and one producer’s Trocken could be as sweet or dry as another’s Kabinet! 

The wine laws in Germany are a bit of a mess and meant to confuse the consumer. Its labels are the most difficult to understand on the planet. Its designations of quality such as Pradikatswein will help you not one bit. Producers have been allowed to use historic vineyard names such as Piesporter in their labels irrespective of provenance – undermining the effort of conscientious producers and downgrading, in the consumers’ minds, brilliant vineyards.

All is not lost and there is a simple way of buying German.

It’s a designation called VDP, a prestigious growers association with self-imposed quality controls including maximum yields, vineyard designation and strict controls on the quality. There are over 200 members who can include in their labels the black eagle designation of the VDP association.

Riesling is not a main stream grape variety but well worthwhile acquiring a taste for and many wine geeks and wine writers consider Riesling as their desert island grape variety.

Hugh Johnson, the well-known wine critic and bestselling wine author, when he retired and had to downsize, lamented when he put his cellar up for sale, that of all the wines he had to sell off, it was a magnum of German 1971 Riesling he was most sorry about. Considering he had examples of all the fine wines in the world, some rare ones going back to the 1800s, it was quite a compliment to Riesling. Most wine geeks would understand Johnson very well.

Many beginners are put off by the slight sweetness even dry wines have in Germany. Wine geeks, on the other hand, will be looking for beauty, complexity and finish and will not even comment on sweetness which is expected with German wines. It’s the high acidity which wines at these latitudes possess that balances the sweetness beautifully.

Some of my favourite producers include Donnhoff, Egon Muller, JJ Prum (available locally), Schafer Frohlich and Fritz Haag. However, any wine with the VDP designation should prove well worth trying.

One of the advantages of living in Gib is the availability of Spanish wines either here or across the frontier. This, however, is a double edged sword as our palates, hijacked by the likes of Ribera del Duero or Ribena – like wines we are now seeing in the Cadiz area, never progress and stay at the equivalent of baby food.

This is a shame as anyone caught in this trap will never experience what wine is all about. So, get out there and start drinking French, German and Italian. Make a point of conquering Riesling. You will never look back.

Wines to try at least once in your life

Von Kesselstatt

Piesporter Goldtropfchen

Riesling Auslese Long

Goldcap 2006 (£29.00)

Sweet, ethereal, not heavy at all, hugely complex with superb finish.

Pour yourself a glass, sip slowly, contemplate, learn and go and resolve the world’s problems.

Annegret Reh-Gartner, the winemaker who propelled this estate to it present standing in the world of fine wine, sadly died in October.  She would have taken comfort in knowing that now and for decades to come, there will be many still enjoying the fruits of her labour and beloved vineyards.

words | Andrew Licudi AIWS