On a mission for recognition
For many years German wines were polarised between some of the finest, most expensive whites in the world and cheap and cheerful sweet wines such as Liebfraumilch - but times are changing. Christian Davis reports
27 August, 2008
Germany has its fair share of stereotypes to battle. As Rainer Lingenfelder, a well-known Pfalz producer and exporter, puts it: "Germany is seen as a high -tech country where everyone is an engineer who is obsessed with 'vorsprung durch technik', racing up and down the autobahn. These guys don't eat or drink and only occasionally stop to enjoy a Beethoven concert.
"The fact is , Germany has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants besides France. No-one wears lederhosen, except when urged to do so to provide a tourist picture, and hitting each other over the head with beer mugs is only practised by our Australian friends when they are running wild during the Oktoberfest in Munich," he counters.
Lingenfelder has a point. And on the wine front, while Germany makes some of the greatest white wines in the world and is a significant red wine producer, particularly Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder), it is still, to an extent, saddled with this image of making cheap and cheerful, sweet glugging wines.
This is undoubtedly changing, and while many consumers still have that perception, the trade is starting to wise up. Over the last few years the Deutsches Weininstitut (Wines of Germany) has taken "ownership " of the Riesling grape variety in the same way that Argentina has grabbed Malbec and California has adopted Zinfandel. The Germans were shocked into action when Australia started marketing its Rieslings from cool -climate regions such as Clare Valley and Adelaide Hills at more mainstream prices.
As 60 per cent of the world's Riesling is grown in Germany, its producers were faced with the world's most effective marketer of wines snatching its best variety from under their noses. So, is the job done? What comes next?
WoG export director Steffen Schindler replies: "Yes and no. We have come a long way since the 80s. Certainly when we talk to people in the media, trade and gastronomy, they usually have a high appreciation of German Riesling but the 'normal' consumer still
has to be convinced."
Slightly controversially, the generic body is changing its focus from single-mindedly promoting Riesling, adding Pinot Noir to its message. For the coming year, the strategy is to push Riesling and Spätburgunder to the trade and top -end retailers and consumers, while also adding Pinot Grigio to its mainstream strategy.
The reality is that outside the wine trade, only well -heeled wine buffs will know that not only is Germany a major Pinot Noir producer - the third largest in the world - but that the se are world -class wines. After all, southern Germany is only about two hours' drive from Burgundy, the world's most famous Pinot Noir region. Add to that, serious German wine drinkers are not stupid. They drink most of the red wine produced in their own country.
"When we talk about German Pinot today, it is mainly to connoisseurs," says Schindler. "We first have to spread the good news about our Pinots among these people and, as our budgets are limited, this will take some time. One of our top Pinot producers, Werner Näkel, said it will take 10 years to build a new image for Spätburgunder abroad - that's about the time it took Riesling to get global recognition."
Germany has a number of major producers - ZGM, Reh Kendermann and Langguth to name but three - with some global brands. It is easy for aficionados to sneer at the likes of Black Tower, Germany's best selling and most widely exported brand, and Blue Nun, which is sold in 100 markets, but they are undoubtedly popular and successful. While for older consumers the brands carry "baggage " and are deeply unfashionable, for many younger drinkers they press all the buttons in terms of lightness of style, easy drinkability, slight sweetness and packaging that is easy to understand.
Kendermann and Langguth are using their extensive distribution to get wine drinkers worldwide to re assess German wines.
The Kendermann brand has led the charge in getting lower -priced Rieslings in front of mainstream drinkers. Langguth has its Blue Nun Winemaker's Passion Riesling and Erben brand to push Pinot and that other German red Dornfelder.
Kendermann managing director Nik Schritz says: "Sampling is the way to counter misconceptions about the quality and taste of contemporary German wines."
Langguth's Armin Wagner bemoans the "everlasting misconception" that German wines are "only available with a higher residual sugar level", but he perceives more positive awareness of the lower alcohol content of most German wines with their "easy-going style".
John H übinger, managing director of ZGM, which recently announced a £4.8 million investment in the UK, Germany's biggest export market (861,229 h l ), sees a new generation of consumers who do not associate German wine with Liebfraumilch and will be more open to varieties such as Pinot Blanc. But he also sees German reds as a "big challenge".
All three plus Schindler extol the new breed of winemakers in Germany. Better educated, well travelled and therefore more willing to experiment and consider new ideas - the new mantra is quality over quantity.
Nik Weis of St Urbans -Hof is a small producer committed to getting out to sell his wares. North America is the principal market for his high -class Mosel wines, and he visits the US, particularly New York, seven times a year.
Lingenfelder is excited by the prospect of India opening up as he sees German wines going perfectly with Asian cuisine, while Weis would like to break into the more traditional UK market .
Lingenfelder has concerns , however. "There are too few wine growers and winemakers with a global and professional approach. This is our heritage. We are mostly small growers with a local, or at best, regional perspective.
"Premium German estates have a reputation and can command prices comparable to some of the leading French producers - however only in Germany, with some exceptions. These producers often lack the ambition, professionalism, capital and marketing muscle for the global reach."
Weis is concerned about the over complicated regulations that lead to consumer confusion.
Not only would he like to see the system simplified, but regional characteristics and styles focused to such an extent that, on a rather Draconian note, he'd like to ban dry wines from the Mosel and sweet wines from Baden in the sunnier south.
Anna Reimann, an oenologist at Weingut Markus Molitor, also sees the need for "more premium marketing and more brands/estates that are regarded as luxury brands". Molitor has a thriving export market, stretching to 30 countries - and 94 per cent of the estate is given over to Riesling. To emphasise the natural qualities of the wines, it extols spontaneous fermentation and no enzymes, fining or additives. Fifty per cent of the wine is stored in huge 1,000 to 3,000 -litre barrels, and bottling is left to just before the next harvest to get the maximium character from the wine.
Weis points to better viticulture with more sophisticated canopy management and soil husbandry, for example, to reduce yields and improve quality. He is also a fan of indigenous yeasts to add more character. Lingenfelder says "green " viticulture is no longer "only the domain of old hippies". He also points to a "growing renaissance in natural yeast fermentation".
Weis eulogises about the " chameleon" nature of Riesling wines and how sommeliers love to recommend them as perfect accompaniments to the spicy and exotic dishes that are routinely offered in most medium-to-high ticket restaurants.
Back at the institute, Schindler wants to maintain the move away from cheap sweet wines, particularly in long -established markets like the UK, while looking to new emerging countries such as China and India. Blue Nun is in China and Russia, and Schritz at Kendermann reports that Black Tower has been in Brazil for decades and is still doing well while they are working "intensively" to develop China.
Schindler says: "It is always difficult to export wine to markets which are dominated by national production - be i t the Old World (France, Spain, Italy) or the New World (Argentina, Australia, South Africa). It is just so much easier to market wines where there is a certain openness for and knowledge of them."
One exception is Japan, where German wines are declining. "In the 90s, we all thought Japan was going to be the next big market for wine, but then consumption stalled and is only growing slowly today," says Schindler. "One reason is the general economic crisis, another is the fact that wine has not become an everyday drink in Japanese households."
Nevertheless, it is cheaper wines that are losing out. According to Schindler, sales of top German wines in Japan remain stable.
So the new pyramid of strategy for German wines sees Riesling and Pinot Noir at the apex with Riesling, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir (notice the latter comes third in the mainstream segment) at the broad base.
Wines of Germany has, without doubt, been successful in focusing the trade on Riesling as the way forward and more discerning wine drinkers have responded. The lack of awareness by consumers of German reds will make Pinot Noir a tougher nut to crack and risks the momentum behind Riesling. Pushing its whites - the other Pinots , Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot Grigio/Gris) - may be a safer bet.
Promoting expensive German Pinot Noirs may be a step too far, but if it means more of us get to try them , then nobody loses - except possibly the German consumer. But as we all know, he'll be in his BMW or Porsche on the autobahn, or maybe attending a Beethoven concert.
----=== Plus points of German wine ===== White ==
l Riesling is widely regarded as one, if not the, greatest white wine grape variety
l 60 per cent of the world's Riesling (20,627 h a ) grows on German soil
l Natural lower alcohol levels
l Light, easy to drink style; versatile
l Higher residual sugar and aromatic styles go well with spicy food.
l The Mosel is one of the world's great wine regions
l New plantings: 875 ha of Riesling in 2005/6
l German wines are getting drier, from 16 per cent of total wine produced in 1985 to 36.7 per cent in 2006 (59.8 if you include halbtrocken, or off-dry)
l Exports of Liebfraumilch have dropped from 45 per cent o f total exports in 1 975 to 20 per cent in 2006.
== Red ==
l World -class Pinot Noirs (Spätburgunder)
l Third -largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world
l Almost 40 per cent of German vineyards are planted with red varieties
l New plantings: 333 ha of Spätburgunder in 2005/6
== ... and the negatives ==
l Still saddled with cheap and cheerful image
l Not enough premium brands, prestigious estates
l Lack of supply and awareness of reds - world -class Sp ätburgunders are expensive and predominately drunk in the domestic market
l Complicated regulations make label information difficult to understand unless you have studied wine or understand German.