Surfing on the Riesling wave

A generation of young winegrowers refreshes the image of German wine inland and abroad

Wine writers, sommeliers and top chefs worldwide agree that German Riesling is a diva, whose appeal is only clear to inexperienced consumers on the second sip – but for those that it has clicked with, there is nothing more to discuss. "I think that Riesling is undisputedly the most magnificent white wine grape in the world", says British wine critic and Master of Wine (MW) Jancis Robinson – "even if lots of people think I am crazy because of it". More and more consumers around the globe agree with the expert verdict of Mrs. Robinson and many of her colleagues. And so they are causing a Riesling Revival, which is helping to restore the old reputation of German wine as a whole. "Generation Riesling" is what the Deutsche Weininstitut (DWI) [German Wine Institute] is logically calling the actively supervised troop of new blood which now has more than 400 members, who are seriously freshening up the image inland and abroad.

Riesling growing has been established in Germany since the 15th Century, the wine growers from the Rheingau and Mosel were the first to cultivate the variety which arose from wild vines. Indeed, until late into the 19th Century the Silvaner was the most widespread vine, yet Queen Victoria's visit to the Rheingau in 1845 and her preference for Riesling from Hochheim had consequences: The Queen made the Hochheim wines into the short form "Hock" – known all over the Anglo-Saxon world – and the "Queen Victoria mountain", not far from where the Main and Rhine rivers meet, bears her name even today. "Good Hock keeps off the doc" remained a fixed expression in Great Britain for a long time. German Riesling was often traded at higher prices that the most expensive grape varieties from Burgundy or Bordeaux up until the First World War. In 1917, for example, a Chateau Latour cost the equivalent of seven Marks – a Riesling late vintage from the nearby prime location of Goldloch on the other hand fetched ten! Bygone times…
Photo: At the wine bar. Source: DWI - Deutsches Weininstitut
Photo: Bopparder Hamm. Source: DWI - Deutsches Weininstitut
Photo: Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr. Source: DWI - Deutsches Weininstitut
Photo: Moselschleife Bremm. Source: DWI - Deutsches Weininstitut
Photo: Riesling. Source: DWI - Deutsches Weininstitut
Photo: Rotenfels Nahe. Source: DWI - Deutsches Weininstitut
Photo: Anette Closheim. Source: Anette Closheim
Photo: Generation Riesling. Source: DWI - Deutsches Weininstitut
Photo: Joachim Fischer. Source: Joachim Fischer
Photo: Susanne Winterling. Source: Susanne Winterling
Photo: Wine conoisseurs. Source: DWI - Deutsches Weininstitut
It took a long time before the German wine pulled itself together again from the depth of the "sweet wave" after the Second World War, with abundantly bearing new varieties, with "Liebfraumilch" and "Blue Nun" as ambassadors in the export markets. But for a good decade now, it is back on the way to its old renown. Quality conscious producers produce Rieslings that express their terroir in a way that no other variety can, with fruit, fine density acids and pronounced mineralogy.

In the past 20 years, Riesling has increased by 5,000 hectares in Germany to 22,600 hectares of vineyard acreage and therefore taken back 1st place in the variety statistics in front of Müller-Thurgau. The most important growing area is now the Palatinate with 5,500 hectares, followed by the Mosel (5,300 hectares), Rhenish Hessen (3,900 hectares), the Rheingau (2,400 hectares), Württemberg (2,100 hectares) and Baden and the Nahe with 1,100 hectares each. More than 60% of the worldwide Riesling cultivation area is in Germany. This is followed far behind by Australia (4,256 hectares), France / Alsace (3,350), the USA (1,700), Austria (1,643), New Zealand (636), Canada (440), Chile (293) and South Africa (276).

The interest in this acidic and fresh, multi layered mineral wine by many younger consumers as an expression of modern lifestyle has been increasing for years. Just like in the home of Riesling, it is also celebrated as the "king of white wines" in the most important export market - the USA - and has equally been a success story. Since 2005, the Deutsche Weininstitut has hosted "Riesling Weeks" in restaurants and in trade, which several hundred partners right across the country are involved in. Similar promotional events now exist worldwide, from Singapore, Hong Kong and China to Canada, Great Britain, Switzerland, Belgium and Holland right up to the four Scandinavian countries Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
Photo: Nahe Riesling 1921. Source: DWI - Deutsches Weininstitut
In the "slipstream" of Riesling the other German wines are now also sailing a good course. The export profits increased by a proud 13% in the first quarter of 2013, as DWI Managing Director Monika Reule reports: "Due to the excellent quality and also quantitatively satisfactory vintages 2011 and 2012, we are confident that the exports will continue to develop positively." The trend is going towards higher quality wines with a better price level for the German wine growers. Even in the home market, Riesling & Co. are more popular than ever: the sale of German wines rose by 6% in the first half of 2013 according to GfK, and in food retail even by 11%.

In the USA, meanwhile, Riesling freaks like the New York Sommelier Paul Grieco, who appeared with a temporary tattoo of his favourite wine variety on his lower arm at "Summer of Riesling", the wholesaler Stephen Bitterolf (New York's Crush Wine & Spirits) or the journalist David Schildknecht (The Wine Advocate) are providing the appropriate publicity. Together with "Wines of Germany", the author Stuart Pigott (Berlin) and the Master Sommelier Chris Miller (Beverly Hills), Grieco organised a nine day "Riesling & Co. Road Trip" in June this year, right across the USA from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Austin, Houston, New Orleans and Washington DC all the way to New York. No wonder then that even the esteemed Wall Street Journal has now discovered German Riesling as the "holy grail of all wine pros" - tremendously complex, suitable for storage and "still very affordable" in comparison to a Chardonnay Grand Cru from Burgundy. Even in Great Britain, according to the wine columnist of the "Sunday Telegraph" Susy Atkins, premium Riesling from Germany is continually gaining in popularity - the time of "cheap and sweet" as a synonym for wine from Germany is coming to an end.

Above all the operations of the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP) [Association of German top wine growing estates], some of whom were already successful on the export market in the golden age 100 years ago, have done a great deal in recent times to give German wine back the image that it deserves. Events such as "A Century of German Riesling" on 26 April 2008, organised in proper style at the Johannisberg Palace, do not only make the international expert world prick up its ears. Rather more and more now - even in international competitions, wine growing estates which do not belong to the elite club and wine growers communities are getting a chance to shine with sparkling clean grape varieties. The peak of quality has become much broader.
Photo: Ilonka Scheuring. Source: Ilonka Scheuring
No one can deny that this has something to do with a new generation of wine growers, who go to work right across all 13 growing areas with a great deal of fun and lots of ideas. Very well educated and in most cases with international experience, from New Zealand to Niagara, from Stellenbosch to South Tyrol, the over 400 members of the "Generation Riesling" have really been polishing up the image since 2009 with DWI support, digitally, using multimedia and in presentations inland and abroad – as "an ambassador of a modern, high quality and dynamic wine production in Germany" as it says on their website. Anyone who wants to join in may not be over the age of 35. The network should serve to make contacts, carry out events together and show individuality under the same roof.

With three large presentations in Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg, the "Generation Riesling" has brought attention to themselves in the past few months. They were the main sponsor of the "Chill out white and red party" in the course of ProWein 2013; guided international visitors to INTERVITIS INTERFRUCTA through the Rheingau and made the young audience at the Surf Cup in Sylt, Norderney and Fehmarn familiar with Riesling, Pinot Noir, white Burgundy and other German grape varieties. Since 16 May, there has been a "Generation Riesling Suite" in the trendy hotel "The Grand" in Alexanderplatz in the middle of Berlin, as a starting point for events - and for the first time also wines from the young, striving operations on the menu. The suite supplements the Riesling Lounges in Cologne, Munich, Frankfurt and the Berlin Grand Hyatt Hotel also initiated by the Deutsche Weininstitut.

Frank Schulz, Head of Communications of the DWI, is convinced that in the future, the "Generation Riesling" can continue to contribute a great deal to "conveying a sympathetic image of Germany all over the world – these are innovative, competent and open minded young people who stand for a positive attitude towards life". Moreover, they make wines that really do not need to hide behind their established colleagues. Ilonka Scheuring (28) from Margetshöchheim in Franconia for example, upon entering the industry, first of all created a young line in a flamboyant design, reduced the range of bottles by half and was selected as the best young wine grower by the Deutsche Landwirtschaftsgesellschaft [German Agricultural Society] in 2010. Far from "the very antiquated image of earlier times", Ilonka Scheuring's motto is "we have ideas, are hungry for recognition and want to get everyone talking about German wine".
Photo: Riesling. Source: DWI - Deutsches Weininstitut
In Württembergian Gündelbach meanwhile, Joachim Fischer shows that you can also produce top white wine in a red wine stronghold. With the "Generation Riesling", the 33 year old has already been on the road giving presentations from Berlin to Sylt to Oslo, and is very satisfied with their success: "I can well imagine that the hype around German Riesling on the home market will overflow and our Pinot noir will also find international recognition in the future." Anette Closheim from Langenlonsheim an der Nahe took a circuitous route from product manager for single malt whiskies and premium vodkas in London, back into her parent's vineyard where after dividing it, she was able to implement her own philosophy: To produce modern premium wines for the top catering trade and discerning consumers. In 2009, she was distinguished as the top wine grower by the magazine "Weinwelt" as the Riesling discovery of the year. For the future, the wine grower dreams of "German wines being just as known and esteemed internationally as those from Bordeaux or Burgundy". The Generation Riesling with their young, innovative concepts could contribute a great deal to this.

Axel Pauly from Lieser an der Mosel (his motto: "Riesling rocks!") has been led to Oslo, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Munich and Hamburg by DWI organised wine presentations: "It is always a lot of fun." The 33 year old is happy to show traders and journalists what it means to be a steep slope wine grower on the Mosel during tours through his vineyard. Pauly describes himself as "unbelievably crazy about wine" – just like almost all of the wine growers from the Generation Riesling". Even in the opinion of the former Palatinate wine Queen Susanne Winterling (26) from Niederkirchen, the young winegrowers are currently surfing "on a breathtakingly dynamic wave", with continually growing recognition from consumers and restaurateurs inland and abroad: "Industry and cars are not the only things that Germany can do - some of the known countries of the old world could learn a thing or two from the quality development in wine."  

Thomas Brandl