What is it with German Wine?

As a wine lover I feel fairly split between the major wine producing nations of Europe. I have an enduring love of Italian wines, with a pendulum swinging every few years between Tuscany and Piemonte. I’ve said emphatically this year that I think Spain is as exciting as anywhere in the world for the wine lover at the moment. Yet like many people, France was the first country to teach me what wine really means. Where does this leave Germany?

Thirty years ago I started to explore German wine. Of course as a student I’d already discovered the delights of Black Tower and Blue Nun, but I mean the prädikat system. I developed quite a taste for the wider Mosel and her tributaries, including the wines of the Saar and Ruwer. I think that would pinpoint my love affair with acidity which may have waned during those later years when we all became enticed by the more voluptuous charms of overt fruit layered with new oak, but which has returned with a vengeance as I have got older and, perhaps, my palate has matured.

If today I am firmly back in love with German wine I find myself still one of a relatively small number of voices in the wilderness. But soon there will be a new online platform for those who love wine from the German-speaking world, called Trink Magazine (www.trinkmag.com). Trink plans to launch in late September, the people behind it being New York wine writer Valerie Kathawala and German-based American drinks writer and translator Paula Redes Sidore.

So far Trink has been online during the pandemic broadcasting six “TRINKTalks”, fascinating discussions with winemakers and wine writers on a diverse array of relevant topics with a theme of “six myths of German Wine”, all available to catch up on via YouTube (they will be back with more talks in The Fall). I recently watched Episode 2, called “What’s the Grudge Against German Wine” with Eric Asimov and Anne Krebiehl MW, and also featuring contributions by Stuart Pigott. Not only was this entertaining and illuminating, it sparked an urge to join the debate. So I would like to expand on some of the ideas raised in the talk, adding some of my own more British-based observations, as I ponder why we just don’t drink enough German wine.

German wine used to be really popular in the UK. We all know that even in the 19th Century the top Rhine wines were as expensive as the top Bordeaux. Even when I began reading about wine in the 1980s our foremost wine writers, like Hugh Johnson, had a passion for German Riesling perhaps above all wines, and his vinous daughter, so to speak, Jancis Robinson, always expressed a similar love of Riesling. It is beyond doubt that German Riesling could famously exhibit that perfect tension between sugar and acidity which, with a rapier-like spine yet a floral sensitivity, can be as close to wine perfection as many of us might get.

However, in the UK there were always two types of German wine drinker (I shall not say “lover”). The first group were those whose preference (and knowledge) erred towards the prädikats and the Riesling grape, whilst the rest guzzled the Black Tower simplicity of Müller-Thurgau. The one grown largely on steep slate slopes, where a man or woman could slip to a nasty injury, the other produced on the plain, where winter feed for the animals was once cultivated. In the UK it was really a class thing, there’s no denying it. Difficult to decipher rules and labels requiring arcane knowledge gained through a certain education versus the marketing efforts of successful large companies.

 

Geisenheim was the premier viticultural college in German. As with other such colleges around the world (Roseworthy in Australia and UC Davis in California spring to mind), the new technology in winemaking was bringing what seemed like much needed modernity to what had been a peasant economy. Synthetic chemical inputs could make yields more profitably sizeable, whilst similar inputs in the winery, including laboratory yeasts, firm filtration and bags of sulphur, could eradicate spoilage, and create a uniform product for the marketing men to work on. Wine as a mere beverage was arriving all over post-war Europe for the masses, and the hard to produce wines off difficult terrain were becoming so much less attractive to winemakers who could earn a lot more in a factory without breaking sweat.

As the Geisenheim gamble began to look as if it was paying off we started to forget those beautifully intricate Riesling wines. Especially when new varieties, like Scheurebe, could produce the sugar levels of a sweet Riesling with far less effort (if with almost zero nuance in some cases). But even within a decade of this 1970s “revolution” many were starting to realise that far from creating a vinous Audi or BMW, the techno wizards had merely created a Trabant. This is all embodied in the infamous 1971 German Wine Law. There isn’t space here to go into the detail, but if any law codified mediocrity, then this is it. I’m sure there are readers who recall lakes of Niersteiner Gutes Domtal and the like on supermarket shelves. Ubiquitous as these wines once were, they are rarely seen in the same locations today, a clear sign of the way one part of the market has declined.

One very clear point made in the Trink Talk was that people tend to have a very narrow view of Germany, one which describes her merely as a great industrial and technological powerhouse. Historically this idea does have a lot of traction. From the moment Chancellor Bismark and Prussia led the unification of Germany towards nationhood in the second half of the 19th Century (1871), her industrial prowess has been phenomenal, built on the back it must be said of great scientists and state investment. But this prowess has always been given a darker reading in the Anglo-Saxon world, through Germany’s involvement in the two great wars of the 20th Century. Advertising slogans such as “vorsprung durch technik” are often spoken with an unnecessary edge here, even as we buy (or jealously aspire to) our German cars, fridges and washing machines.

The sad fact is that Germany very much has another side to her of which we Brits often know nothing, and this is Romanticism. The Romantic movement was dominant in all German-speaking countries in the late 18th and early 19th century. Although it was supplanted by Prussian industrialism it formed a critical contribution to European culture through philosophy, art, music and general aesthetics. Although standing alone as a giant of German culture, it would be remiss not to mention Goethe as well, the German Shakespeare. Perhaps not a romantic in the sense of Beethoven and Wagner, or Heinrich Heine and Caspar David Friedrich, because his genius encompassed almost every discipline, the fact that we Anglo-Saxons don’t study this giant of European culture says a great deal about our understanding of Europe’s most populous nation.

If we look to the romantic side of German culture we are so much better able to place wine within a rural idyll, and within an historical tradition which harks back centuries rather than a hundred and fifty years. We forget that the great estates of Germany were planted with vines by the same monks who planted the great clos’ of the Côte d’Or.

If we are unaware of German culture in the way that we purport to appreciate the cultures of Classical Greece and Rome, Renaissance Italy and Enlightenment France, then we also remained unaware of a wine revolution taking place in that country at the end of the 20th Century. Dry wine! As the market for sweet sugar water manufactured from Müller-Thurgau collapsed, those producers intent on continuing to make world class wines, producers who still believed primarily in German Riesling, began to band together.

In 1984 the Charta group was founded to promote more food-friendly dry wines from the best sites in the Rheingau, which the group began to classify, a kind of Premier Cru/Grand Cru hierarchy. Then along came the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP) which, in 1991, enacted the rules from which we have the Grosse Gewächse classification. Today “GG” denotes a kind of Grand Cru dry Riesling to most informed drinkers, but it faced almost total opposition at first from the very conservative English aficionado who was prone to turn up both nose and palate to this new dry norm.

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It seems common sense now, that to create a wine mythology you need truly great wines from genuinely great terroir, both named and site specific. This is how this land of lakes and forests, of folk tales and medieval mythology, can sell the story of the continuity of her wines to those interested in that story more than the moderate price of the beverage.

Another way to sell German wine is so obviously through regionalism. Anne Krebiehl made a brilliant point in the TRINKTalk which hadn’t really struck me before. I assume you are aware, especially if you read my book review back in January, that Anne wrote a very fine contemporary account of German wine. She did point out on this broadcast that whilst her publisher has on its list books on (inter alia) Chablis, Languedoc, Champagne (and even on Faugères, I would add), her task was to write, in the same number of words, a book on the whole of Germany. Yet Germany’s regions differ no less than Chablis and the Côte d’Or, or Piemonte and Tuscany.

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So Germany, and indeed lovers of German wine, need to push the idea that Germany is made up of very different wine regions. Some specialise in grape varieties and wine styles which are very different from our “German stereotype”, but even in the Riesling heartlands, a Mosel could not be more different from a wine made from the same variety hailing from the Rheingau or the Pfalz.

Germany continues to make wines of great diversity. If you were to think that Germany makes just Riesling, and sweet Riesling at that, then you would be overwhelmed by a diversity of varieties, styles and, very important, philosophies. If Germany has relatively recently become an acknowledged producer of fine Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) across many varied regions, then the Sekt sparkling wine revolution may only have reached your ears and palate fairly recently.

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Yet perhaps one of the great driving forces for change in Germany is, yes you guessed, “natural wine”. Now for me natural wine and classic wine styles both have a place in my German heart, but it is so often those who work at the fringes who move things forward. The great leveller of natural wine is that it entices in younger drinkers, people who lack the prejudices of some of the older generation. That goes for the winemakers as much as the drinkers. Their iconoclasm has shaken things up, not just through the natural wine philosophy but also through labels and grape varieties.

The wine called “Portugeezer” from Jan Matthias Klein’s Staffelter Hof in the Mosel is perhaps the perfect example. The grape blend is Arinto and Ferñao Pires (two grapes originating in Northern Portugal) and the label is wild…and not remotely like the classic gothic script and schloss of old. Why plant these? It is an experiment on the subject of drought induced by climate change. If such a wine is a little scary you can try his Pinot Noir. Both are bottles for young people in a bar, and which certain more conservative palates have clearly told me they would not contemplate drinking.

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I think that through the new generation of producers, some being siblings from classical estates like Jan Matthias, and others totally new to wine, Germany is picking up once more on international markets. The young have been helped, of course, by superstar classicists like Keller and the two Haag-run estates, Wittmann and others, by geniuses like Hanspeter Ziereisen, or natural wine prophets like Rudolph and Rita Trossen.

 

The obvious mirror to stare into is Austria. Why has Austria seemingly been more successful at establishing an exciting modern wine industry, making wines young people want to drink? I think there are two major reasons, and they are very much inter-connected.

In 1985 Austria suffered a terrible wine scandal, one which every Austrian producer I know hates any mention of. It is after all thirty-five years since it happened, and it did only affect a small number of producers. Yet those few destroyed a country’s wine industry literally over night. It was at this point that many Austrian producers lost heart. Thankfully many of their children saw a new way, and created one of Europe’s most vibrant and exciting wine industries (I do so dislike that word) using their own quality focus.

But this success was not wholly left to their own devices. The Austrian government saw the need to step in and help support the wine sector. I think that although Austria is a small country, it has always valued its agricultural sector. In Germany, whilst agriculture is far more important than many realise, it is still somewhat “other”, removed behind EU subsidy and less “sexy” than industrial innovation. Surely the disfiguring of some of Germany’s most important historic vineyards by a massive bridge over the River Mosel, to link cities like Mainz and Frankfurt to a small regional airport, was proof enough of that.

German wine was also so dominated by the Geisenheim mentality that artisan quality was in some ways more a hindrance than something to be cherished and promoted. Natural wine has faced no less opposition from industrial wine in Germany than in France, but perhaps France is further down the road to acceptance.

I think to summarise what I am saying here, Riesling is the best grape variety in the world and for heaven’s sake give German wines the chance their quality deserves without the kind of prejudices that stretch back to a “two world wars and one world cup” mentality. But of course that is merely a facile comment because I know that true wine lovers don’t think like that. No, but we still need to be persuaded to discover a wine culture as vibrant and varied as that of France, Italy or Spain.

TRINKTalks are one way to engage with the debate, and I can tell you that as someone who has become fairly jaded by the Lockdown Zoom culture, these have woken me up from my encroaching slumber. TRINKMag, when it launches online in late September (hopefully, they tell me), will be the platform where we can explore wine culture, not just from Germany but from the German-speaking parts of Switzerland and Italy’s Südtirol, and from Austria. In particular, a firm aim is to bring local writers, who write in German, to English-speaking eyes via translation, which will be particularly exciting for this moderately competent French speaker.

As we explore German wine, and wines from other German-speaking countries and regions here in the Anglo-Saxon world, more of us are exploring them with new eyes and a new understanding. As we look for lighter wines with greater subtlety and more nuance, and as a younger generation of winzer realise the way to make it work is through quality, passion and wines with soul, can there be a better time to reconnect with these wines?

Unusually for me I plan to append a bibliography. The first three books are those I would most recommend on German wine. Those which follow cover wider subject matter. I would particularly recommend the first of those, written by Peter Watson. If you really want a greater understanding of Germany then for me, this is one of the best places to start.

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I recommend the Goethe simply because I love travel and travel writing, and this is a classic. It also shows a great German genius writing with empathy and intuitively, as well as authoritatively, about that most romantic of counties. For a guy that could do the technik as well, it is beautifully conceived and beautifully written (even in translation).

Books on Wine

  • The Wines of Germany by Anne Krebiehl (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
  • The Finest Wines of Germany by Stephan Reinhardt (Aurum Press, 2012)
  • The Riesling Story: Best White Wine on Earth by Stuart Pigott (Stewart Tabori & Chang, NY 2014)

Other Books 

  • The German Genius by Peter Watson (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
  • Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor (Penguin, 2016)
  • Keeping Up With The Germans by Philip Olterman (Faber and Faber, 2012, a fairly humorous approach).
  • Germania by Simon Winder (Picador, 2010)
  • The Iron Kingdom (The Rise & Downfall of Prussia) by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007)
  • An Italian Journey by Goethe (my copy is Penguin Classics, 1962)

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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2 Responses to What is it with German Wine?

  1. Where does that leave Germany indeed. Honored to have returned you a road once wandered! And honestly whether you choose to put the inflection on the first or the second word, “What IS it about German wine?” “WHAT is it about German wine?” that covers all the reasons that Trink has come to be. Thanks so much, David!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark C says:

    The answer to your question remains the same. Dunno.
    I have given up evangelising about German Riesling. (Sure there are others grapes, but as with Jimmy Anderson & his bowling, it’s only Riesling that merits are undying affection). Bit by bit I can come to enjoy dry German Riesling. Plenty of top growers try but do not always succeed with trocken/Grosses Gewächs. It requires a particular skillset.
    As to books – Pigott has always delivered. I have lots of well written old tomes on German wine by the likes of Langenbach, Hallgarten & Schoonmaker.
    Diel & Payne produced two which were my buying guides for a few years. The VdP mini atlas last year is a firm favourite. Freddie Price’s Riesling Renaissance is a very good read, but. after 15+ years, we are still waiting for the book title to occur, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

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