Think Germany’s all about Riesling? Well, you’d be right in thinking that – the majority of its success does originate from this one grape. However, Riesling and other varietals you probably haven’t heard of outside of Germany aren’t the only wines made here.
Not every wine label has an ancient coat of arms or a moodily etched drawing of a Schloß on its label – not every wine is a varietal. Some of Germany’s young wine makers are chucking out the rule books, ditching the Riesling, Dornfelder and Rivaner in favour of new, internationally popular, modern winemaking.
Theres nothing wrong with traditional German wine – although the rise and rise of Riesling looks set to once again become the white wine trend of the decade, the other varietals and styles are feeling the effects of, well, being a bit old-fashioned. Old-fashioned has never affected Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy, nor will it ever show its ugly face in Rioja, Chianti or Piedmont. Old-fashioned is a phrase that affects the smaller producing countries and regions the most, whereas Germany's wines are likely to remain popular they are far more at risk that the mega-production regions of France and Italy. Although Germany’s wine industry is constantly evolving and its piggy-back ride on the international popularity of Riesling and the Pinot grapes serves as a striking contrast to the momentary mundane world of Elbling, Scheurebe, Portugieser and other varietals with too many unpronounceable syllables. Although these vines are likely to experience success again one day – the trend in red is very much Pinot Noir and Bordeaux-based whereas the trend in white is all about Riesling, Sauvignon and the ever-resilient Chardonnay.
So Pinot Noir is at the forefront of wine fashion at the moment and that’s certainly not a bad thing for Germany which is, as you’ve probably already heard, the world’s third largest producer of the stuff. But German Pinot Noir is different. Its not as rich and complicated as the wines from Burgundy. The mineral elements and the ground its grown on is vastly different – just like the climate and comparing the German stuff to the French produce is a glorified waste of time – the French stuff is, on the whole, better and anyone telling you the opposite probably hasn’t ever had a geography or chemistry lesson in their life, not to mention actually having tried the wine.
But being ‘on the whole’ better doesn’t incoroporate all of the aspects of being good. A Ferrari is better than a Fiat but not when you’ve three screaming children to chauffeur around. Indeed, fillet steak is better than corned beef but not if you’re spared for cash and are planning to mix it with mashed potatoes, onions and gravy – fillet is a hideous waste of resources. How does this relate to German Pinot Noir? Well, just making it less good than the French stuff doesn’t render it useless – in fact, Pinot Noir from Germany’s thirteen wine-producing regions is anything other than boring, useless and forgettable.
The rise of Spätburgunder (the albeit unattractive German word for Pinot Noir) is all around us. With it slowly creeping into the bottom shelves of supermarkets and the racks of proper wine shops is proof enough that it is, quite rightly, to be taken seriously.
This doesn’t relate entirely uniquely to Pinot Noir. The German wine industry is changing and has been for a long time. Long gone are the days of sweet, sickly wines with less than 10% alcohol in tall thin bottles, long gone are illegible 25-character words on the label with a description on the back that would suit a fizzy drink rather than a bottle of wine.
One of the driving forces behind such change is the marketplace. Although Germany and its companies do over-exaggeratedly thrive in the midst of tradition and rustic-practise, even these companies appreciate a recent need for change – chucking out the old ladies in silly bosom-revealing dresses and chequered tablecloth for active marketing and advertising with brushed steel, simple lower-case fonts and going back to black and white with the help of 21st Century design agencies.
Riesling is ever-popular, just like Bordeaux, but the rest of Germany’s wine climate relies on the inland German wine buyer – those looking for a cheap bottle of something drinkable on a Thursday night. However, these people are slowly creeping away from the “Deutschland” section of the wine rack and starting to make their way over to the more interesting and fashionable “Übersee” sections where the new-world wines are stored. New Zealand is undergoing a massive rise in popularity in Germany and its not long before even the local Rieslings are going to have shelf space taken away in favour of similar wines and the prettier-designed labels of Marlborough.
Death of the German wine industry? No, that won’t happen (thankfully). The Germans are adapting, slowly admittedly, but they’re moving forward. The Schneider winery of the Pfalz is a fitting example: taking the regions heritage seriously with big (expensive) wines based on the (only really) locally and traditionally grown Portugieser being only part of a new range of wines. Big cuvees with a curious blend of Germanic grape must and that of German-grown French varietals line the cellars of Schneider (and many swanky restaurants and wine stores). The unthinkable has become not just thinkable but a popular style – the cuvee has emerged from varietal land number one! Previously the German way of saying Cuvee (always said with a sceptical look on a winemaker’s or drinker’s face) is Verschnitt where the use of the prefix ‘Ver’ usually always meaning something negative. This is changing, the consumer is opening up to the blend, which is a good thing.
The planting of new varietals is also another way the German wine industry is preparing for the forecasted changes. Schneider himself has planted Syrah, Cabernet, Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay in a region where only (sorry for this) bland, white varietals have thrived for centuries. There’s nothing wrong with Silvaner or Müller-Thurgau but, and this is said with a big question mark – one that demands an honest answer, are the wines made really all that good? Are they really as full of character as the more popular varietals? If they were as good, why wouldn't the world drink more of it? If there’s little character, do they make up for that in any other way? Is traditional practise the only thing keeping their roots(theoretically speaking as very few vines in Germany are grown using their own roots) firmly embedded under prime soil that could produce different, better and more-interesting wines? I tend to think so.
This change is happening and, although it’s a shame to bid farewell to an ancient grape varietal within a region, Silvaner, Rivaner and the likes aren’t really offering the best out of the soils they grow on. If a 1950s block of flats doesn’t serve its purpose well enough, it is removed and replaced by something modern made of glass and steel – surely we should swap the flats as the dull grapes in this metaphor for the shining steel beams of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Some of the country’s wineries are doing just that – replacing older, traditional vines with new varietals and with excellent success – Baden’s Sauvignons are fruity and charismatic beautiful wines that will eventually compete with those of the Loire and Marlborough. Chardonnay of the Pfalz is a dream – excellent, crisp, well-made, terroir-specific wines that are popular all over Germany (if not produced in far too small an amount). Even the (sigh) red stuff isn’t all that bad – its certainly a lot better than the Dornfelder or Regent it replaced and, whilst Pinot Noir has been on the scene a lot longer than Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot, Spätburgunder is perfect proof of this!
In fact, all of the Pinot varietals are (possibly excluded the sometimes ubiquitous Schwarzriesling grown in Württemberg) on the rise and with good reason. I’m firmly of the belief that Pinot Gris and Blanc grown in Germany is usually a tad better than the growths just over the border in France and one of the most Easterly and Northerly wine-producing regions in Western Europe, Saale-Unstrut, produces some of this planet’s finest Weißburgunder – a seriously understated varietal that grows best in Germany.
So whatever you may think about Germany and its wine, forget a great deal of it. Germany is evolving and, whilst the traditional practise of its wineries won’t stop just yet, it is slowing down and many of them are rightfully modernising not just their facilities but the assortment of their ranges. Germany’s wines are soon to be back on the rise and they certainly deserve every respect they achieve. People like Markus Schneider should be patted on the back for the work he has done for German wine within Germany and all of those wineries replacing Rivaner with Chardonnay or Silvaner with Sauvignon Blanc hectare-by-hectare will reap the rewards, soon.
I'm not attacking Rivaner, Silvaner, Bacchus, Scheurebe, Elbling, Kerner, Dornfelder, St. Laurent, Regent and Portugieser and the like, I'm simply reflecting on the fact that the world has spoken and it want's the French varietals to be served alongside Riesling.