A new book on Germany is a welcome addition to the wine library of any serious wine lover. There isn’t a lot of literature on German wine out there. My previous go-to for a work on the whole country would be Stephan Reinhardt’s 2012 work in the “Finest Wines” series (Aurum Press). It’s an excellent book, but it is more than seven years old now. That certainly doesn’t make it out of date but Germany’s is a dynamic wine scene, and is changing faster than many outsiders might credit.
We also have one more recent and highly valuable addition to German wine literature, and that is the Member Directory of the VDP (by Katja Apelt). This is packed with information, but of course it only covers the VDP member estates, and does not set out to provide a critical analysis (aside from the presumption of quality which VDP membership may suggest).
Anne Krebiehl is an authoritative voice. She is a Master of Wine (2014), for which famously stringent qualification she wrote an important prize-winning dissertation on the future of premium German Pinot Noir, a subject on which I know of no one with greater comprehensive knowledge. Anne’s also a noted wine judge, lecturer and author of articles in pretty much every major wine publication you might care to think of.
She also has youth on her side. Now I’m obviously not arguing that shall we say “older writers” can’t have their fingers on the pulse, because that would be doing myself down, but as I read my way through wine book after wine book every year it does strike me as likely that the new, usually younger, voices will have had greater exposure to those producers pushing boundaries (and are often less conservative and more sympathetic to the kind of iconoclastic attitudes through which lasting progress and innovation is so often initiated).
Not all of those iconoclast producers are young, it should be stated. There are several clear trends in German wine as we enter a new decade (we are way beyond the growth of dry wines here) and some are being driven by established names. I would categorise two as wine style related – red wines (not merely Pinot Noir) and the re-emergence of quality Sekt.
German bottle fermented sparkling wine, whether made from Riesling, Chardonnay/Pinot Noir, or other varieties, is well covered, with plenty of Sekt producers profiled throughout the book. That might, rightly, lead you to imagine that the author has a bit of a thing for Sekt. That would be the correct assumption, but at the same time, Sekt is a major “under the radar” developing segment. If Spanish Cava is due to see a fightback against Prosecco soon in the budget sector, German quality sparkling wine is surely about to take off at premium level.
A few years ago I was staying near Bernkastel and the apartment had a wine rack. The deal was that you could drink the wines and put the money in a jar. There was Sekt for 3€ a bottle (it probably cost the owner 1,50€). I declined, although I did purchase some of the Grünhaus Sekt from a well known wine shop down the road, which cost a bit more, naturally. If you really want good Sekt I suggest getting hold of some of Florian Lauer’s Reserves. Substantially more expensive, but you’ll do well to taste a more impressive sparkling wine all year. They have done more than anything to turn me on to Sekt.
The other two trends relate to producers. As in Austria, we are seeing a major trend as the younger generation takes over at more and more estates, bringing new ideas and trying out new things. We are also seeing people without a wine background turning to wine, often starting out in the less well known regions where a few hectares are considerably cheaper to purchase. The newcomers invariably show a determination to focus on absolute quality.
So now you know where I’ve set the bar. What I wanted was a book that could naturally satisfy the reader buying their first wine book on Germany, so we need history, geology and geography, and in the case of Germany you really do need a bit of wine law. But I was also praying for a book that covered all of these new topics, gave enough space to new growers and winemakers working in what were once less fashionable regions, and a book that covers the new ways of working. I ask for a lot, don’t I. Before I tell you how well I think Anne did, let us first take a look inside her three hundred pages of text.
Actually, first we will start at the Bibliography. You can tell quite a bit about a book by looking through this section. This one runs to eight pages, and lists (if my counting is up to scratch) 135 works. You get the impression Anne has read, or at least consulted, all of them (not a given with some wine books, I reckon). [By the way, who is Daniel Deckers? Eleven of his works are listed from between 2010 and 2018].
The book itself begins with a bit of history, then the necessary disembowelment of German wine law, in particular that of 1971. The best illustration of that law comes, in fact, in one of the very useful text boxes, this time in the Rheinhessen chapter, and it tells the story of Liebfraumilch. The growth of this brand symbolised all that was ultimately negative about German wine in the 1970s and 80s. Anne says…”Supported by advertising campaigns, they treated non-wine drinking cultures to a semblance of continental sophistication. Popularity peaked in the early 1980s. The damage was done: Germany was tainted with the cheap and sweet image and lost market share”. From fine racy Riesling to Muller-Thurgau sugar water in a decade – the story of Liebfraumilch and German wine in general. It has taken almost thirty years to right than wrong.
Next comes chapters on first Riesling, second Spätburgunder, and third, on Sekt. So that ticks some of our boxes. This introductory part of the book ends as it should with a chapter devoted to climate change. As the author states, it is both a blessing and a challenge for German wine as a whole, but climate change has had the greatest single impact on the German wine we drink today, certainly in terms of how the wine tastes and where it comes from. If climate change has arguably been positive on the whole for German producers to date, we must not neglect to ask where it is heading?
On Riesling I think Krebiehl hits the nail on the head when she says “[i]t is likely that our personal predilections for acidity determine whether we become Riesling fans or not…[acidity] pulls everything into sharp focus and illuminates every nuance of flavour, creating precision and clarity”. I have probably never seen it put better than that.
On Spätburgunder, Anne rightly relates its current success to climate change, although she does not dismiss the fine historical place that this variety occupies in German wine. Pinot Noir (as some German producers prefer to call it, though this is a complex subject) comes in so many forms. Clonal selection has a major stylistic influence (Dijon, German, Swiss?), as does terroir, the latter being heavily influenced by geology (slate and volcanic soils making just two nice counterpoints to Burgundian limestone). It is particularly rewarding to find an author who is so obviously on top of this particular subject. Some give scant space at all to red wine, despite the glaringly obvious growth in its importance, certainly on the home market but increasingly in export markets too.
Other grape varieties are not forgotten, and the likes of Silvaner et al are profiled in text boxes in what the author deems the appropriate place (Silvaner naturally in the Franken chapter, Gutedel in Southern Baden, etc).
Each Region gets a chapter. Some are of course longer than others and I quite like the idea of approaching the regions in alphabetical order. If you strike out with the famous regions there is the danger that the later chapters can seem like an anti-climax. I should qualify that by stating the obvious, that the book ends in Saale-Unstrut and Sachsen, followed by Württemberg, which are not perhaps the most well known wine producing regions in the country. But I think Anne has addressed the new things happening here very well, and the preceding chapters, on Rheingau and Rheinhessen, are filled with enough star producers to see us through.
So now we come on to the profiled producers. Each region is introduced over a page or several, before those producers the author wishes to include appear. Each one gets from half a page upwards, and each entry finishes with a suggestion of a wine to try (very occasionally more than one, and in one or two cases the suggestion to “try anything”, which I wholly agree with for star winemakers like Hanspeter Ziereisen).
This is where the book succeeds or fails. Now in my opinion it succeeds massively, from the perspective of someone impassioned by the dramatic steps forward we have been seeing in recent years across pretty much all of Germany’s regions. This is down to the number of newer producers included. There are quite a few entries for estates, or just winemakers, with a hectare or two, where the author finishes with a variant on “we shall be hearing an awful lot more about…in the next few years”.
Of those names I was pleased to read about for their lack of coverage elsewhere I would include Julia Bertram (Ahr), Johannes Kopp, Enderle & Moll and Jürgen von der Mark (Baden), the latter being responsible for the reintroduction of the Gemischter Satz field blend into his portfolio, Steffan Vetter (Franken), Daniel Twardowski (Mosel), Anette Closheim (who beside her Riesling makes, inter alia, lovely Cabernet Franc no less)(Nahe) and Bianka and Daniel Schmitt (natural wine from Rheinhessen). These are but a few of the less well known names. There are others who get coverage here, like Sybille Kuntz, Roterfaden, Toni Jost, Eva Fricke or Theresa Breuer, who are better known but are often neglected by other writers.
The almost inevitable other side to the coin is that there are always people left out. In some ways when you find a reasonably big name missing (Weingut Willi Schaefer might be an example) you can generally be sure to find the information you need elsewhere. In any choice of who not to include there has to be a degree of subjectivity.
Personally I find that wholly acceptable. There are some missing estates whose wines I usually find thrilling (2Naturkinder for example) whose exclusion I can perhaps understand. My only real sadness was not to have seen mention of Rudolf Trossen, not wholly for the wines he and Rita make from Kinheim (Mosel), but as much for his influence on, and the esteem he is held in by, a whole new generation of natural winemakers in Germany. I would say that overall, the thriving German natural wine movement is not covered in detail, but that might be for reasons of taste, space, or perhaps the author’s stance on perceived wine faults, a discussion for some future occasion perhaps.
However, I don’t want those latter comments to give the wrong impression as to my appreciation for this book. Anne Krebiehl has put a great deal of work and scholarship into it. She does not shy away from giving us technical information, but when she can she lets her words convey some emotion too. Of Thomas Haag at Schloss Lieser she says “[i]f acid thrill excites you then this is an estate for you. Purity, precision, luminosity and spine-tingling completeness are the hallmarks of his style”. I think we can sense a little enthusiasm can we not, or, agreeing with her one hundred per cent in this particular case, I certainly can.
I have never met Anne, although we have been in the same room a number of times, but she’s someone I’d love to interview because there’s so much I’d like to ask her. There are points on which we may disagree, including the assertion that Gutedel is known as “Chasselas in Switzerland and Fendant in France” (is it not Fendant in the Swiss Valais and Chasselas in France and French speaking Switzerland, apologies if I’m wrong?). But not much, and I think we both agree that Gutedel is capable of making seriously fine wine, even if it is rarely allowed to.
I should probably mention that there are eight pages of colour photos tipped into the middle of the book. They don’t add a tremendous amount to the package but I’m always pleased to see them for aesthetic reasons, and they are well chosen here. I especially like the last photograph, a line of Riesling berries at every stage of ripeness, every grape picked on the same day in October 2018 in Clemens Busch’s Pünderlicher Marienberg vineyard (Mosel).
There are regional maps towards the front of the book. As with all books in this series, they are perhaps rudimentary, but my guess is that if you are interested enough to buy a book on German wine you may already have treated yourself to a copy of the new edition of the World Atlas of Wine (or own an old one), which contains all the maps you need in their ultimate expression.
The book is published in paperback/soft cover, which as a purchaser of many wine books each year is most welcome. It takes less room on the shelf and is lighter to carry (for reading on the train and taking on the plane), although it doesn’t appear to make it any cheaper unless you seek out discounts. It’s a sad fact that these books are necessarily expensive because of their relatively limited sales. A work on German wine is unlikely to top the best sellers lists.
The Wines of Germany by Anne Krebiehl MW is part of the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library (2019, RRP £30). Note that discounts are available from the usual sources, and there is in addition a 30% discount offer from the publisher for WSET students, alumni and approved programme providers (visit the infiniteideas.com web site). It is the twenty-first book published in this wine library series. I have read a number and of those I’ve read I think it’s the best so far, certainly along with Anthony Rose’s Sake and the Wines of Japan. I commend their choice of author, one with a dynamic outlook and a finger on the pulse of the contemporary German wine scene. I have enjoyed this book, and equally as important, I’ve learnt a lot too.