What’s going on with the UK wine-buying public and German wine? Why such reticence? Riesling is one of the noble grapes. Sommeliers love it. It’s gorgeous on its own or with a huge range of foods. Grüner veltliner is a lean-white-wine lover’s dream, as crisp and clean as a – well it’s beyond simile. German pinot noir is some of the best in the world. Singingly smooth and fruity with great structure. Gorgeous, man. So why the balls does Germany almost always wallow in some dusty recess of the wine shop with the ‘rest of Europe’? What is that all about?
Is it the dismissive assumption that ‘Ah, it’s all just riesling, isn’t it?’
Is it a Blue Nun thing?
Is it a sausage thing?
Is it a labelling thing – all those long, indecipherable portmanteaus like‘trockenbeerenauslese’? (You’ve got to love the audacity of the German language, by the way, when ‘Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft’ counts as a legitimate single word.)
Let’s have a little look at each of these reasons for our pitiable – and it is pitiable – neglect of Die Deutsche Weine in turn.
‘Ah, it’s all just riesling, isn’t it?’
Well, no. There’s a lot of riesling about (really, really good riesling from Mosel, Rheinhessen, Rheingau, Nahe and Pfalz), but there’s much more going on. Lesser known white grapes after riesling and müller-thurgau (the two most-planted in Germany) include weissburgunder and grauburgunder (aka pinot blanc and gris), gewürztraminer, silvaner and scheurebe; lesser known reds include frühburgunder, St Laurent, dornfelder, portugieser and schwarzriesling (aka pinot meunier, one of the champagne grapes).
The wine regions of this part of Germany tend to have their specialism: Ahr loves pinot noir, in Baden it’s burgunders of all types and Franken is known for powerful, earthy silvaners. Yes, Nahe, Rheinhessen, Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz are biased towards riesling, but even with this single varietal, there is dramatic variation thanks to the regions’ many different soils. Look to Nahe, for example, for a more lean, mineral style and to Pfalz for rieslings with ‘more meat on the bones’.
It’s worth noting, too, that Germany is the world’s third-biggest producer of pinot noir. Pinot from Ahr (Kreuzberg, Jean Stodden and Nelles, for example) or Franken (Fürst, Fürst Lowenstein) counts as some of the best outside of Burgundy.
So no, it’s not all riesling…
Blue Nun is a brand of Liebfraumilch, a sort of semi-sweet wine made mainly from the Müller-Thurgau (aka rivaner) grape. It became very popular in the UK towards the end of our Gastronomic Dark Age (around 30 years ago) – the age of ‘meat paste’, Angel Delight and Smash.
Now Germans don’t drink Liebfraumilch. It’s always been made for export. Why they thought a sickly, semi-sweet white wine sold in garish blue bottles would appeal over here, who knows, but with few other options we lapped it up.
Those dark days are gone, but it looks like Blue Nun has done a job of distorting our perception of German wine. People must still worry that the German wine they see on the shelf is going to be sweet.
We have to get past this. German winemaking is about considerably more than Liebfraumilch. Winemakers in these regions know that nowadays we like crisp, crystalline dry whites, and they make them in glorious abundance.
Wurst case scenario
Sausage, sausage, sausage. Could it be that the lack of an exciting associated food culture – compared with Italy, France or Spain, for instance – leaves us fussy Masterchef types cold when it comes to buying German wines? It’s possible. On my recent trip to Rheinhessen, Nahe and Pfalz, huge plates of sausage, sauerkraut and liver dumplings did feature heavily – even at the height of summer. They’re tasty, and very much complemented by a full-bodied riesling, but I can see how, to some people, they’re not a very inspiring gastronomic proposition.
This needn’t discourage though. One of the most interesting insights I took away from my trip was that German riesling is possibly the most versatile wine there is. Its naturally high acidity and unusually broad range of flavour profiles, depending on where it’s been made, mean it will complement many different foods…
Scandinavia is one of the biggest export markets for German wine. Think of the typical Nordic foods: smoked and salted fish, berries, herbs, very clean, often delicate, flavours; think, as a pairing, the younger, leaner, more mineral rieslings of the upper Rhine – Mosel, Nahe, Rheingau.
German wines are also noted as a pairing for Asian and South-East Asian food, most having the requisite low alcohol, firm acidity and refreshing character to stand up to the spicy, sweet-sour and umami flavours of this part of the world. Steamed dim sum or sashimi? Try a crisp, dry riesling or weissburgunder from Nahe, Rheingau or Mosel. Stir-fry with black bean sauce, sir? You could do worse than a fruity Ahr spätburgunder. Coconut-based spicy curry, madame? Try an off-dry, late-harvest (Spätlese) riesling to cut through the cream but carry the sweetness. Simples.
Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft und so weiter…
Ah, yes, labels. German wine labels are often cited as some of the most incomprehensible. But don’t despair. Once you know what to look out for, you’re fine. Honest.
First things first: ‘weiswein’ means white wine, ‘rotwein’ means red wine. ‘Trocken’ means dry,‘halbtrocken’ means medium-dry/off-dry.
The best-quality German wine is called ‘prädikatwein’. Prädikatwein has various levels depending on the ripeness of the grapes. ‘Kabinett’ is the entry level for quality German wines. By default kabinett wines are semi-sweet, but more and more often these days they’re dry (in which case the label will usually say ‘kabinett trocken’).
Above kabinett you have ‘spätlese’ (late harvest), ‘auslese’ (select harvest), ‘beerenauslese’ (select berry harvest), ‘trockenbeerenauslese’ (select dry berry harvest) and ‘eiswein’ (where the grapes have been left to ripen on the vine so long that winter has come along and frozen them; they’re pressed in this frozen, intensely sweet state).
Generally, the wine gets sweeter the further up the scale (though strictly speaking the scale is of ripeness rather than sweetness) you go, but some winemakers still make dry styles of spätlese and auslese wine – they’re just rarer and more expensive.
Helpfully or unhelpfully, depending on your point of view, Germany also has the Verband Deutscher Prädikats (VDP), the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates. VDP wines are top of the tops. All 200-odd members of this association produce wine according to stricter rules than those set out by German wine law. Consequently their wines are more highly prized. Almost all VDP wines are organic or biodynamic. Look out for the VDP logo of a stylised eagle clutching a bunch of grapes on the label. If it has the eagle, you know you’re on to a winner.
Beyond Blue Nun
German wine has always been of a high quality, though the German people still account for the vast majority of fine wine consumption. That is changing, however, as a new generation of winemakers, who have grown up in a more PR-orientated and technologically sophisticated age, take centre-stage.
In Deidersheim in the heart of Pfalz, where chancellor Kohl used to bring Mrs Thatcher to thrash out foreign policy issues over saumagen and a glass of riesling, a group of enterprising young winemakers have set up an organisation called Wine Changes. They are intent on giving German wine an image makeover.
This group has emerged largely from family-run wineries that have been making wine for generations. But whereas their parents and grandparents worked in competition with one another, Wine Changes members have adopted a collaborative approach, which they see as they best way to promote the region.
The plan is already working. Wine Changes comprises 12 member wineries, five of which currently export to the UK. These young winemakers are definitely more attuned to what consumers want. Generally, the first thing they do when they have taken control of the winery is convert to organic or biodynamic production; they prefer stainless steel to barrel ageing, and longer, cooler fermentations that bring out the grape varietal character better; they’re also keen to find ways around the labyrinth of German wine labelling.
That German wine will win favour with newer generations of wine drinkers in the UK is, to me, beyond question. It may take a little time for the labelling farrago to sort itself out; it may take a little time for groups like Wine Changes to establish themselves in a big new market like ours; it may even take more time to exorcise the demon of Blue Nun; but the riesling revolution is already under way it won’t be too long before German wines emerge from the dusty recesses and are presented as the bloody brilliant wines they are.
I travelled to Nahe, Rheinhessen and Palatinate courtesy of the German Wine Institute.
This is an edit of an article originally written for iLoveMyGrub.com.