Wednesday, 14 March 2007


Ever since working on a vineyard in the Pfalz in the summer of 1997, I've had a weakness for German wine, particularly Riesling. I don't want to get too much up myself here, but, for me, the Riesling grape produces some of the best (white) wines in the world, the lion's share of which originates from Germany. Fact. Forget the sordid pleasures of Napa Chardonnay or the kinky gooseberry of Hawkes Bay Sauvignon, Riesling is the wine we should all aspire to.

For decades German wine exports were fighting a losing battle for the hearts and palates of discerning international wine lovers. Drowning under a deluge of mass-produced Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch, Germany's elite winemakers were unable to shrug off the unfair stereotype of German wine being the sweet concoction your Nan got tipsy on every year at Christmas. Something had to change, and something did change.

Firstly, some background information. The cause of German wine's ignominious fall from grace can be traced back to the German Wine Laws of 1971. Under pressure from the country's powerful Liebfraumilch-producing concerns, the politicians of the time who drafted this legislation stipulated that grape fructose levels should become the basis for judging the quality of all wines, regardless of where they were grown. What is more, recognised grand cru-standard vineyards were enlarged to include "lesser" terrain - the wines from which could legally be sold under the same name as the wine from the original grand cru site. Or, to cite a famous example, the village name of a reputed Mosel wine grown from a 70-degree, south-facing slope could henceforth also be used on the label of a Liebfraumilch grown on a former potato field on the opposite side of the river. Consequently, a grand cru wine such as Piesporter Goldtröpfchen from the Mosel would be tainted for decades by the fact that a sugary liquid of roughly the same name was (and probably still is) sold in plastic cartons down your local supermarket. Frankly, "Pissporter" would have been more apt.

Despite the celebrated vintages of 1971 (ironic, eh), 1975 and 1976, the Seventies were to mark the beginning of the Dark Ages as far as German wine was concerned. It was not until the 1990s that the worm began to turn. Spurred on by a tentative attempt in the early Eighties among Rheingau wine estates to introduce some sort of quality standard for conscientious growers, a generation of winemakers in the Nineties began to push the envelope a bit further. Under the aegis of the VDP (Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates), producers such as Rebholz, von Buhl (where I spent my summer sabbatical) and Bürklin-Wolf from the Pfalz, or others elsewhere such as Haag, Loosen, Donnhof, Keller or Heger were not only producing world-class wines but were also gaining worldwide international acclaim at the same time.

Weingut Müller-Catoir of Neustadt an der Weinstraße were, however, the real linchpins of this 1990s movement, despite the fact that they were unaffiliated to the VDP at the time. The estate winemaker, Hans-Günter Schwarz, is a legend of the German wine scene. Despite not owning any prime Pfalz vineyard real estate in the communes of Deidesheim, Ruppertsberg, Forst or Wachenheim, Schwarz was able to conjure wines that were arguably the best in Germany and the world. Once the éminence grise of the wine world, Robert Parker, started sniffing out Schwarz's wines (and giving them 90+ ratings), the bandwagon well and truly started. At the same time, the advent of New World Rieslings from the already popular Australian wine market also added some extra sex appeal. However, despite being the home to the world 's best Rieslings, Germany offers some of the best value for money on Planet Wine (© Stuart Pigott). Compare the price of a Montrachet to a Kirchenstück and you'll see what I mean.

With the introduction (by the VDP) of a semi-official grand cru (or Grosses Gewächs) quality system from the 2003 vintage onwards, German wine - and Riesling especially - is now enjoying more exposure on the export markets. Personally, I have objections to the Grosses Gewächs system as I feel that the provision stipulating that only dry wines are allowed to have this designation completely misses the point about what makes German wine so appealing. Jancis Robinson, one of the UK's leading wine writers expresses it better than me:

"One thing worries me. Not all but very many of my favourite wines, the ones that seemed best balanced, had a perceptible level of residual sugar in them. They were off dry rather than sweet, and often no sweeter than many a New World Chardonnay, but I am by no means sure that such wines would qualify according to the recently tightened Grosses Gewächs rules which decree that from the 2006 vintage the wines may have no more than 9 gm/litre residual sugar. In 2005 each region could choose its own limits for sweetness which were as high as 18 g/l in Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, 13 in Rheingau and 12 in Nahe. German wine without rules is of course unthinkable but these ones seem awfully inflexible to me."

Terry Theise, the US wine critic whose German wine catalogue is one of my featured blog links, expresses his disdain for this inflexible approach more outrageously and eloquently than anyone I know (please do click on the relevant link on the right as it will widen your perspectives from both an oenological and ontological perspective). I'll leave you will this following Theise quote:
Subject: why riesling?
A) Because if you grow it where it’s at home, Riesling comes out of the ground already perfect. Don’t need for face-lift, depilating, tummy-tucks or pancake-makeup.
B) Because Riesling exists to make food taste better. Compare with adolescent narccisistic grape varieties that only want to draw attention to their adorable SELF.
C) Because Riesling knows soil more intimately than any other grape, and because Riesling is more articulate than any other grape in conveying soil right into your palpitating palate. Go on, SOIL YOUR PALATE with Riesling.
D) Because Riesling attracts the kinds of vintners who do NOT need to prove to you what throbbing hot-shots they are by how neatly they can diddle technology. With Riesling, nature RULES. In the cellar, less is more.
E) Because Riesling is genuine, organically linked to the ground, whole in itself, resistant to fancy-pants machines, because it survives frost, because it ripens late in the Fall when everything is taut and crisp and golden, because Riesling wines are the afterglow of the contented world.
F) Because YOU will be a deeper, happier person when you drink these wines. There’s no ego and no affect between them and you. They simply display their uncanny complexities in a manner so infectious you can’t HELP responding with your OWN complexity; suddenly your mindheart-soul expands and the world seems like a far more intricate and fascinating place than it was just moments before.
G) Because, take it from me, a lifetime of Riesling drinking will make you a nicer person, a better-informed citizen, a finer lead guitarist, a better hitter with an 0-2 count, a MUCH better lover; you’ll balance your checkbook, avoid Jury duty, change the oil on your car every 3000 miles, never dawdle in the left lane, root for the home team and make bread from scratch.