For a long time, the success of German wines has practically been equated with Riesling. But Germany also has other strengths. Some of them are just being discovered. Never before have there been so many business takeovers by such well-trained young winegrowers. Even the climate change seems to play along. But what are the prospects for the wine country?
You lie completely horizontally on the small wagon when it starts to rumble. That alone would be strange enough to get to the top of a vineyard. A few seconds later, however, the wooden cart goes up vertically like in a lift. Only without a cabin. Winegrower Kilian Franzen could have saved his words "hold on tight". One look down the almost vertical slope is enough. Between the small monorail wagon and the Moselle, 200 metres below, there is nothing but rocky slate soil and a few bony Riesling vines. The Calmont in the Moselle village of Bremm can call itself Europe's steepest vineyard. German wine is anything but boring.
This also applies to the quality. For a long time, it was only the late-harvested sweet wines that were sold at the highest of prices in London and New York, but now the authoritative guides are also awarding a hundred points for dry wines, which are the most important image bearer and economic factor.
"The summer days were grand." * Autumn Day by Rainer Maria Rilke
"Up until the turn of the millennium, there were six or seven harvests in a decade that did not mature," recalls Werner Näkel, who discovered Burgundy as a model for his Ahr wines back in the 1980s. Today, sugar levels that are too low are less often a problem than alcohol levels that are too high in light white wines. In 2017, Rhineland-Palatinate was even acidified. This particularly applies to the steeply sloping river banks, but the sites in the hinterland are on the increase.
Growth phases are becoming increasingly more complicated. Early budding and later frost especially cause young plants to be literally left standing out in the cold. Hot in summer and with heavy rainfall, often hail, fungal infestation, then drought, early harvest at high temperatures, under which botrytis can spread rapidly. This or something along these lines is what can be read in many reports.
Throughout the entire year, winegrowers must react quickly to changing conditions - precise prediction models would be highly welcome here. Added to this are extreme weather events: The strongest frost in Baden for over 50 years in 2017, the coldest anyone can remember in April on the Ahr with a loss of up to 80 per cent, the earliest Moselle harvest of all time.
With judgement and insight, winegrowers can usually still achieve good to very good results. However, this does not mean that the all-clear is given. From an economic point of view, fluctuations in volumes are tricky. In 2017 alone, all major growing regions recorded harvest volumes of 15 to 20 per cent below the long-term average. Producers of simple to medium qualities can neither compensate for the losses in yield by increasing prices nor live without certain minimum quantities in the long run.
Stylistically, there may also be some shifts. In the Rheingau region, Riesling is currently produced ten days earlier on average and harvested 25 days earlier than 60 years ago. Thus, the vegetation period becomes shorter and the nights warmer. Especially for Riesling stylistics, however, a long maturing period with cold nights is considered ideal.
It could become really precarious for the prestigious ice wine. The temperature drops less and less often below minus seven degrees Celsius. In 2017, only 24 companies in Rhineland-Palatinate registered 19 hectares of ice wine. In the previous year it was 167 hectares. Because of the early harvest and the later start of winter, the waiting period is getting longer and longer, yields are decreasing and the risk is increasing. The grapes freeze later or not at all.
Test series in Geisenheim suggest that the changes can be controlled with the right fieldwork. However, daring models see Germany to a large extent being stocked with Merlot and Ugni blanc in 2040. Today's mass carriers such as Müller-Thurgau will then have their roots on the slopes of the Alps.
For the time being, Germany remains rather cool towards viticulture. Until the end of the 20th century, some sites were always chaptalised. The law therefore established grape ripeness as the highest quality criterion - and in retrospect it became one of the greatest problems of quality wine. Wine is not good just because it is sweet.
With the 1971 Wine Act, the partly famous names of smaller sites were extended to so-called large-scale sites, which can cover up to 1800 hectares. That is as much as the three winegrowing areas of Ahr, Saxony and Saale-Unstrut together. Since then, many wines on inferior soils have been allowed to adorn themselves with great names.
Overlapping predicates, which are also defined differently in the individual winegrowing regions, hardly allow an average consumer to draw conclusions about quality or taste. In the country that has given the world the German industrial standard DIN, there are hardly any reliable designations for wine.
This is a particular disadvantage on export markets, where consumers are at a loss when faced with the endless consonant-heavy German denomination of locations. Thankfully exports are just starting to rise again after the industry lost half of its exports in the years following 2008. Then, German wine is getting better and better.
The hot years after the Millennium are amongst the finest. More and more mass carriers were cleared for quality grape varieties, and vines were planted again in fallow sites in side valleys. The selection of local grape varieties is not huge, but good, and fits in perfectly with the trends of regionalism and lightness. Without a doubt, Riesling is undisputed. No other grape variety picks up the characteristics of the soils in Germany so sensitively. Its expression cannot be reproduced anywhere.
Burgundy varieties are conquering more and more vineyards. Pinot Blanc makes the most of the soil and a light barrique finish suits it best. The same applies to Pinot Gris. The warmer growing regions of the Palatinate and Baden produce fine Chardonnay qualities. Other regions such as Rheinhessen and Franconia are following suit with success.
Especially Silvaner can still be expected to do more. Less expressive, but with a lot of depth and ideally suited to expressing mineral influences. With its slender nature, Silvaner responds well to longer mash life and oxidative techniques. Silvaner sweet wines stand out with a special brilliance. Regarding bouquet grape varieties such as muscatel - already a trend in the USA and Great Britain - there is still untapped potential. Scheurebe or Sämling 88 in Austria, with its redcurrant and elderberry flavours, perfectly serves drinkers who want an uncomplicated, but not a flat white wine. To some, it is the better Sauvignon Blanc in Germany.
Gewürztraminer, the grape variety with the most concentrated flower and spice aromas, is unfortunately not given enough attention. Sauvignon Blanc does not have it easy in Germany because of its worldwide popularity. The quality is particularly good in Baden, Rheinhessen and the Palatinate. More and more ambitious winegrowers are turning Riesling and Burgundy varieties into very respectable sparkling wines by way of traditional bottle fermentation. Producers are often small and innovative, working with extended yeast storage and barriques.
Germany is the world champion in sparkling wine consumption. But on the domestic market, however, it is difficult for winegrowers to find resonance alongside big brands. The market leader Rotkäppchen-Mumm celebrated "the most successful year in the company's history" in 2016, with a turnover of 271 million bottles. Unfortunately, on an international level the same applies to German sparkling wine between Prosecco and Champagne. However, quality and quantity are constantly increasing.
With their Pinot Noir wines, winegrowers from the Ahr, Franconia and Baden have found their way to the international top and are attracting more and more attention. The price comparison with Burgundy is especially interesting for the British and Americans. Pinot Noir précoce, a Pinot Noir mutation, is not really easy with its susceptibility and mini yields, but it produces very distinct wines. In the past they were mainly found on the Ahr, nowadays in a growing number of regions.
After a boom in the 1990s, Dornfelder has mostly settled down to the level of a good everyday wine. Lemberger, which as Blaufränkisch is one of the main red grape varieties in Austria, is still awaiting a breakthrough. However, some top producers such as Bürgerspital or Philipp Kuhn have discovered it for themselves.
You should take things as they come. But you should also make sure that things come the way you want to take them. Curt Goetz
The beaten path is the safest, but the traffic is terrible. Jeff Taylor
If the bird's-eye view at Bremmer Calmont still needs hard work, it is easier elsewhere. The Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter (VDP) has photographed 771 sites of all members from the air and put them online with interactive texts. President Steffen Christmann proudly calls it "the most comprehensive compendium of locations on the net", or rather catchy "liquid geography". The VDP is undisputedly the leading association of winegrowers in Germany. Standards in production and sustainability as well as the classification of sites according to the Burgundy model are a shining example. However, only about 200 of 17,000 winegrowers belong to the association. In fact, at least some absolute top companies in Germany are not members of the VDP. Thus, in order to achieve a broad effect, the association is too exclusive.
Yet there is a very solid medium-sized sector, which is also very competitive in terms of price. After the technical quantum leaps of the 1980s, these wine estates are state-of-the-art and have a desire for more. The younger generation of winegrowers is excellently trained. The viticultural schools have a good reputation, especially Geisenheim. An internship abroad in a classic European wine-producing country and one more overseas is for many part of the programme.
More than ever before, they work out small soil structures and reflect the differences between a substructure of volcanic stone, limestone or slate, marl or keuper. Many of them play effortlessly with new styles. In addition to the bell-clear Rieslings, there are wines with very dense extracts, others with longer mash contact, matured in concrete egg-shaped tanks or in large wooden barrels. This new bandwidth could benefit from a few marketing tools. There are still too few competitions and awards that effectively increase the reach. Even winegrowers raise their eyebrows when it comes to the old-fashioned "Kammerpreis coins".
Due to the historical division of estates, many areas are highly fragmented. Only in recent years has the urgently needed concentration gained momentum. From 2010 to 2016, the average company size rose from 4.8 to 5.9 hectares. Almost every third company with less than one hectare has disappeared, but small winegrowers still account for a quarter of the total number of operations. The smallest producers are often organised in cooperatives, but they do not achieve all the modern qualities, especially with regard to the basic qualities. In addition, the cooperatives are also too small and would have to merge further. Both would be a prerequisite for developing relevant brands.
One in four Germans did not drink any wine at all in 2016. Still, many people are crazy about it. In the northern state of Lower Saxony, which is particularly well-known for plain schnapps and pork, a small winegrowing area has developed. Hobby winemakers can be found in Berlin, on the island of Sylt or in Lusatia at the tri-border region with Poland and the Czech Republic.
The market is similarly mixed. In Germany, most people consider wine to be more cultivated than beer. According to the German Wine Institute (DWI), the average price of a bottle on the world's largest wine import market is EUR 2.92, while for domestic products it is slightly higher. On the other hand, per capita consumption is quite stable at around 24 litres.
However, wine drinkers are getting older and older and consuming less; especially the baby boomers will probably leave quite a void. The wine industry must therefore open up new sales channels in Germany in the near future. There is still not much going on online either. Young customers expect special offers without shipping costs, which the industry has not been able to afford so far.
79 per cent of all wine is bought in the food retail sector in Germany. The trend is still rising. Aldi alone, which enjoys an almost religiously high credibility amongst German consumers, holds a market share of over 40 per cent. Also VDP-winegrowers sell here.
A country that is well-known for reliable cars, industrial machinery and a certain infatuation with systems of order does not easily evoke associations with lifestyle and enjoyment. This means that the success rate varies considerably. A region like the Moselle area is strong; others have little or no export share. In the USA, sweet wines have grown big, but prices are below those of Bordeaux and Burgundy. This is appreciated.
England is a historically important market that is currently turning its attention towards Germany again. Nevertheless, the image of Liebfraumilch remains very persistent. The recent attempt to revive the brand has initially encountered a mixed response. Scandinavia and the Benelux countries are loyal customers. In Norway, German wine is even the market leader. With the increase in quality, praise comes even from Italy (Gewürztraminer) and France (Pinot Noir).
With 37 per cent growth in value, China has catapulted itself to 5th place amongst the exporting countries with a pleasant added value. Asia, with its billions of potential customers, is rightly regarded as a market of the future. After all, exporters report that it is precisely the good reputation of companies such as Miele and Mercedes that reflects on wine there.
Perhaps that is the key to the right image: solid work and clear standards.