German wines – like it light

Lovers of German wines are a continually growing community. The days when German viticulture was considered the “poor cousin” of winemaking seem to finally be consigned to the past. “The duo of Riesling and Pinot Noir have been warmly received, particularly on the international markets,” said Monika Reule, managing director of the Deutsches Weininstitut (German Wine Institute – DWI), summing up the status quo. “Over the past few years, Riesling has formed the basis for outstanding quality and Prädikat (a system of classification according to style) wines from German winegrowers. As a result, interest in German Pinot Noir has also been significantly stimulated. Local Pinot Noir has benefited tremendously from its association with Riesling.” A sense of a new dawn can be felt among the producers of premiere German wines, who like to see themselves as the engine driving change. Steffen Christmann, president of the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (Prädikat Wine Estates – VDP) explained, “All the years of unflagging work focusing on quality are finally paying off in a market which could scarcely be any more receptive to our products. Our business successes and achievements in terms of quality act as a beacon to the entire German wine industry which now, after many decades, is again in a position to invest sustainably in quality.” It therefore comes as no surprise that the mood is upbeat among the winemakers from all 13 German growing regions who will be showcasing their 2008 vintages, among other things, to the oenophiles of the world at ProWein.

2008 vintage: compelling quality and harvest quantities
Although not without its challenges, 2008 with its changeable and wet summer has produced a benchmark vintage. According to the DWI, winegrowers were “more than satisfied” with the abundant harvest of between 10 to 10.5 million hectolitres. The 2008 wines are lean and spritzy. After the early onset of flowering, the summer was changeable and wet in many regions with isolated hail damage – for instance, along the Mosel river where some 500 hectares were affected. With sunny days and cool nights, autumn brought ideal conditions that provided an extended window for harvest, allowing growers to wait until the grapes were perfectly ripe. Late harvest varietals such as Riesling and Pinot Noir benefited particularly from the extra time on the vine. In many places, the vegetative period for the 2008 vintage lasted over 120 days.

“Intense fruit coupled with wonderful tartaric acid,” is the assessment of Württemberg-based VDP winemaker Hereditary Count von Neipperg. Organic viniculturist Philipp Wittmann from Westhofen (Rheinhessen) reported on the very robust and stable health of the grapes, while Ludwig Kreuzberg, who is based on the banks of the Ahr river, expressed “all-round satisfaction” with the results of the vintage. At the Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt estate, the grapes were picked between 13 October and 8 November and proved to be of “excellent quality and ample quantity”. What’s more, the harvest was described as “a classical Kabinett vintage that comes very close to 1988”. The winemakers in the Ecovin organic producers association are delighted with a vintage characterised by “good quality, sufficient quantity, subtle aromas and nicely balanced acidity” that has produced wines which promise to age well.

German wine trends in 2009:

Like it light
The key topic in the German wine industry for 2009 is: Like it light. Traditionally, German wines’ forte has been their low alcohol content. Wines that go straight to your head are passé. As keeping down alcohol levels in times of global warming is a challenge for many wine regions, this is a trump card that German viniculturists intend to play to full effect. The 2008 vintage with its fresh, fruity wines fits the bill exactly. Germany is considered a cool-climate wine region. Just how powerful this term is as a buzzword will be clear at the ProWein tasting zone in Hall 6 where a couple of hundred light, fruity red wines – many of them German – will be showcased.

Organic wines
Organic continues to be a trend that is increasingly taking root in virtually all growing regions. The biggest certified organic winemakers’ association in Germany is Ecovin. At the Ecovin joint stand (Hall 4/D86), a host of viniculturists will unveil their new vintages. What’s more, visitors will also be able to taste the “Ecowinners”, which were selected by jury.

Germany is Riesling country! Especially on the foreign markets, this pretty much sums up how German wines are perceived. Among the catalogue of varietals, this sophisticated white grape easily dominates the rankings with 21.3 percent. In 2007 alone, 500 hectares of wine were replanted with Riesling – equivalent to the size of one of the smaller growing regions. The new plantings indicate that after many years of a red wine boom, a shift is occurring in favour of white wines.

Riesling’s heartlands are the Palatinate (which with 5,455 hectares under vine in 2008 not only out-Rieslings the Mosel with its 5,376 hectares but is the biggest growing area for the varietal in the world), Mosel, Rheinhessen, Rheingau and Württemberg. The highest proportions of Riesling vines are planted in Rheingau, Mittelrhein, Mosel and Hessische Bergstrasse.

Comparing the current distribution of varietals with 2004 clearly highlights the latest trends in the German wine industry. White grapes currently account for 63.2 percent of the area under vines. Classical quality wine varieties including Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc as well as naturalised international ones such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are gaining ground. In contrast, traditional aromatic varietals and the highly prolific Müller-Thurgau, Kerner and Silvaner are on the decline.

For the red varietals (36.8 percent of the area under vine), things are far less black and white. New crossings are playing an important role. Plantings of Pinot Noir are up overall although not to the same extent as Riesling, for one. Other varietals to gain favour are Lemberger and St. Laurent. The area covered by Dornfelder shrank slightly while bigger reductions were made to Portugieser and Meunier. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon made gains but not on the scale of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Plantings of Regent, Acolon and Cabernet Dorsa as well as other new crossings were also expanded by a few hectares.

German winemakers at ProWein 2009
ProWein is the premiere trade fair for the German wine industry. Among the over 3,000 exhibitors at ProWein, 740 estates, cooperatives, wineries as well as joint presentations by regions, organisations and associations will represent the full breadth of the German wine industry. This year, the DWI will step out in Hall 4 (F85) with a showcase focusing on light wines. The stand will feature the new German wine atlas, which for the first time provides an exact overview of all the country’s wine-growing regions, thanks to satellite photographs.
With 147 viticulturists participating, the Prädikat Wine Estates will be making its strongest showing ever at ProWein in Hall 4 (F37, G36, J86). For Germany’s elite winemakers, ProWein is the gateway to the world’s sales markets and the best networking spot for forging international contacts. The VDP stand will offer an ideal opportunity to taste the new vintage as well as to gain an overview of the wines belonging to the highest classification, the Erste Lage – First Site (Grosse Gewächse – Great Growths). Visitors can also look forward to an ancillary programme with a different lineup for each day, bannered “Word on wine” and presented by the Prädikat Wine Estates, the Deutsche Wein- und Sommelierschule (German Wineschool) and the Sommelier-Union Deutschland.

All growing regions represented
Many growing regions will be represented by joint stands. Among the biggest will be those devoted to Baden (4 F26) and the Württemberg winemakers’ cooperatives (4 D33). In 2009, Württemberg viniculturists will be training the spotlight on the grape varietal Trollinger. Their counterparts from Rheinhessen (4 G66) will probably be drawing attention to Silvaner. After all, this region – Germany’s largest winegrowing area – has the highest proportion of plantings of the grape alongside Franconia. Plus, Silvaner is celebrating its 350th anniversary since its arrival in Germany this year. Naturally, the current collection of “Selection Rheinhessen” will also be available for tasting. More winemakers than ever before will be showcased under the umbrella of the joint stand for the Palatinate (5 H142). Franconia (4 F28) will also be celebrating the Silvaner grape this year, which was first planted in Castell in 1659. Other joint presentations worth a visit will include the wine regions Mosel (4 D68), Saxony (4 H06), Rheingau (4 G21) and Saale-Unstrut (4 A06).

But that’s not all – other groups of winemakers sharing joint stands at ProWein 2009 are preparing interesting presentations. For instance, the young, up-and-coming Rheinhessen winemakers of the Message in a Bottle association (4 D81) adhere to a motto that translates as “dialogue instead of resentment”. Member Klaus-Peter Keller (a Prädikat Wine Estates winemaker) believes: “Nowhere are winemakers as eager to learn and as enthusiastic as in Rheinhessen!” The Pfälzer Barrique-Forum (5 J141) is a group of some 50 Palatinate viniculturists who each year put together a collection of great wines based on a blind tasting.

Through their focus on quality, German winemakers have laid a solid foundation for their future. The time has come to give German wines a new, more contemporary image. This is the primary objective that the DWI will be pursuing in positioning German wines in 2009. Managing director of the DWI, Monika Reule, sums up the goal as “raising the profile of German wines as high-quality products capable of competing at an international level”. ProWein in Düsseldorf will be an important step towards achieving this and a baptism by fire.

The author, Dr. Rolf Klein, is a co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the German wine magazine “Weinwirtschaft” published by Meininger Verlag. Today, Dr. Klein works as a freelance wine journalist.