Markus Schneider is a thorn in the side of those classic German producers with their double-barrelled names, gothic-scripted labels complete with coats of arms and a product name of more than 100 characters.
With his radical redesigning of the German wine scene ditching kitsch for the contemporary and dumping unnecessary conservatism for simplicity, he has achieved massive success over the years. Within Germany, he has provided both the wine-affluent with an alternative and those unfamiliar to wine with a name they can trust for both individuality and consistent high quality.
With names like ‘Black Print’ and ‘Ursprung’ (Origin), his cuvees are uniquely labelled: rarely does a varietal appear on the label and rarely do the (to outsiders) complicated vineyard names either. Of course, the winery is legally obliged to share certain information and it does this on the back label rather than on the front.
Catering for changing tastes in the German wine-drinking world, Schneider jumped on the bandwagon early: producing fuller red cuvees at the time when a number of wine drinkers (and even non-wine drinkers) were switching to Spanish Tempranillo and Australian Shiraz. Black Print caused a stir because it was just so different to what everyone else was doing: no German vintner in their right mind would have produced a cuvee with so many varietals, some of which were rather unknown and yet this is exactly what Markus Schneider did.
In certain wine circles, Schneider’s wines are still observed with suspicious eyes: the old elite of German viticulture together with the majority of the VDP wineries aren’t much impressed with Schneider’s unique approach to winemaking: they are firm believers that the future of Germany’s wine industry lies in its past: dusty, complicatedly-named Riesling, Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau or Pinot Noir creations with what looks like the kind of label you might find on a pencil sharpener bought at a country museum. Of course, traditionalism sells wine like nothing else: the wineries who stick to the age-old and yet proven techniques will always have their fan-bases: these companies still produce Germany’s best wine and, without a doubt, are able to express the fantastic German winemaking skills and varying terroir better than someone producing wines as a pioneer or partially to appease changing wine-drinking habits.
And yet, whilst so many are keen to tear into Schneider’s approach, deeming it purely a success of marketing and pretty paperwork, they cannot deny the effect Schneider has had on German viticulture. Alongside a whole host of copycats, many traditional wineries - even some with legendary VDP status - have experimented with varietals that, thirty years ago might as well have been a crime: we’ve seen Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and even Syrah growing on some of Germany’s most prestigious and celebrated estates: whilst many of these vines may indeed have been planted before Markus Schneider’s taking of the reigns in Ellerstadt, without this new approach which he and a handful of others pioneered, it’s unlikely that anything would ever have happened with them. Chardonnay is permitted as a Großes Gewächs in Baden and, I’m sure that Sauvignon Blanc is likely to make an appearance in the list of permitted varietals at one point or another. Some of Germany's most expensive and sought-after wines produced at the moment aren't from single vineyards or at least this isn't mentioned on the label at all (see Keller G-Max or Wegeler's Geheimrat J).
It’s not just the approach to winemaking but the marketing which has been influenced: thanks to Schneider, some olde-worlde estates have swapped black and white for a whole host of colours on their labels, we've seen websites as flamboyant as some Silicon-Valley efforts and social-media drives by even the stuffiest of traditionalist wineries. Unthinkable a few years ago.
So whilst the efforts of Markus Schneider and co. aren’t likely to destabilise the entire world of German wine which almost certainly wasn’t his intent anyway, they are a valuable addition to the exciting portfolio of wines attributed to Germany. Yes, Mosel, Saar, Nahe and Rheingau Riesling is what the majority of consumers want when they set out with the word ‘Germany’ on their lips but if a winery is able to consistently offer up good quality, bold reds from the same country: that is in no way a bad thing.
Of course, not everyone is going to agree but the fact remains: if the wine is good and people demand it, that producer is doing a good job no matter how much the old-world wants to complain about it. There are parallels between this and the rise and rise of the Supertuscans: the protests of the boards of Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano tried to ridicule the Sassicaias, Solaias and Ornellaias of this world and whilst I don’t think that Schneider’s ‘modern’ wines are ever likely to steal the prestige and appeal away from VDP Riesling, they deserve to obtain a considerable market share and, at least to the drinkers of wine rather than those who talk about it, are an attractive choice and indeed a sensible one.