From Insipid to Inspired! 5 myths about German wine we smash.
Deutschland. We love their beers, their cars, and their sausages. Yet, for some reason, we are not entirely sold on German wines. The sugary headache inducing plonk of the 1970s left a bad taste in our mouths, blemishing the country’s wine reputation. Blame it on the damn nun.
Blue Nun, an unsophisticated, cheap, flavourless semi-sweet wine, targeted the export market, primarily the UK. To facilitate sales abroad, Blue Nun was advertised as wine that could be quaffed throughout an entire meal, thereby eliminating the often-intimidating dilemma of food and wine pairings. Not only was the wine touted as food-friendly, it was user-friendly as well. The label was easy to read in contrast to the indecipherable gothic scripts, hard to pronounce names and complicated labels that steered many away from German wines. In the 1980s, Blue Nun turned into a flying nun; sales flew through the roof in the UK, the USA, and Canada.
The fruity, one-dimensional flavour of Blue Nun (as well as Black Tower and Piesporter) was popular among novice wine drinkers, such as myself. When I was 16 years old, I bussed tables at my parents’ restaurant. The tall, thin bottle, with a blue and white clad nun on the label, sat snugly in the bar fridge alongside her friends, Mr Mateus Rosé, and Miss French Piat D’or. Patrons dined on Ginger Beef and Kung Pao Chicken, and washed it down with a glass or two of Blue Nun. On some occasions, after the customers’ departure, I would discover a partially consumed bottle of wine on the table. After my clean up duties, I would promptly bring the unfinished bottle to the back area where all the “empties” were stored. We all know the saying, “one person’s trash [literally in this case] is another person’s treasure.” Curiosity got the best (or worse) of me, as I “emptied” out the bottle and sampled the leftovers. As a teen, my taste buds favoured Shirley Temples (the virgin kind) and Fun Dip (flavoured sugar eaten with a sugar stick). Now this sickly sweet glorified grape juice was added to the list.
The perception that German wines are sugar-water concoctions suited only to the taste buds of newbie wine drinkers (and 16-year-olds) has been difficult to shake. But it’s time to debunk the stereotypes that German wines have unwillingly been assigned.
myth #1: sweet wine equals bad wine
“There is a certain false corollary that since so many bad wines are sweet, that all sweet wines are bad. Well balanced and well made sweet wines are one of the great treasures and legacies of Germany as a wine producing region,” explains Andrew Hanna (the Director of Sales and Marketing) of fine wine importer JH&S. “Off-dry or semi-sweet expressions of Riesling, like Kabinett and Auslese, represent some of the most profound drinking pleasures you’ll find anywhere,” he continues. “It should remain a benchmark for what well balanced Riesling should taste like. Certain folks are promoting a ‘drier is better’ message to drive sales, but I believe this is an oversimplification and a misguided strategy. In my opinion, dryness as a virtue does not make wine more drinkable, saleable or food-friendly. Residual sugar in wine is often a required element to balance the acidity and should be celebrated and embraced.”
The sweet wines of Germany should be celebrated and embraced, especially if it’s a bottle of Trockenbeerenauslese (dried berry selection), Beerenauslese (selected berry harvest) or Eiswein (Icewine). Germany has a long tradition of high quality and well balanced sweet wines. These delicious dessert wines have great aging potential and are usually very rare and expensive and should not be confounded with the “budget” sweet bulk wines. Just like the saying goes, “don’t let one bad apple [or in this case grape], spoil the bunch.”
myth #2: german winemakers are not in sync with today’s consumers
There is a new crop of young, passionate, artisan winemakers producing wines that showcase the terroirs of Germany. Hailing from century-old wine industry families, they have the desire and appetite to travel the world and gain skills to better craft their wines. And the focus is definitely on quality over quantity.
“Old vines produce smaller yields, resulting in grapes that are complex and deeply concentrated,” Hanna notes. “The results from these plots are electrifying; this is truly the next level of wines in Germany. Over-yielding has done more harm to Germany’s reputation as a quality wine producer than the stylistic choice to bottle some Rieslings off-dry.”
The new breed of winemakers is producing “Old-New” German wines, applying modern winemaking techniques to great old vineyard plots. And they are concentrating on promoting the terroirs of Germany.
According to Constantin Richter, winemaker at Weingut Max Ferd Richter, “the different regions in the country can be remarkably different in climate, elevation and soil makeup. Wines produced from the Mosel and Rhine regions can taste bone dry as a result of the acidity and minerality. In contrast, wines with the same level of residual sugars from Baden and Pfalz would taste syrupy.”
The biggest challenge Richter and his peers face is bringing the existing high-quality wines to the attention of the general public, while simultaneously increasing the quality of the “budget wines.” And they want to show the world that there is another side to German wines.
myth #3: germany does not produce red wines
The “other” side of Germany does include red wines. German red wine? Isn’t the climate too cold for red grapes to ripen? Up until the 1980s, that assumption was valid. Red grapes accounted for just 12 per cent of Germany’s vineyards. The red wines produced were, for the most part, light, thin and sour.
These days, German winemakers are applying their knowledge of cool climate viticulture to dark-skin grapes. Global warming and climate change has allowed Germany to have much success cultivating red wine grapes, such as Dornfelder, Lemberger, and Spätburgunder. In fact, Spätburgunder is gaining a reputation in Germany and the rest of the world. The new rising star may be hard to pronounce, but you can always call it by its less tongue-twisting moniker: Pinot Noir.
According to the President of HHD Imports, Harry Drung (a veteran importer of German wines in the Ontario market), “Pinot Noir is the most widely planted red grape varietal in the country, and it’s the world’s third-largest producer after France and the USA.”
German’s light and earthy Pinot Noirs are more like modest French Burgundy than the fruit-bomb Pinots of California. Günter Zimmermann (from WG Königschaffhausen Winery) reveals that the wine regions of Baden, Ahr, and Pfalz are producing incredible versions that can stand up to and against the greatest French Burgundies. “It’s an exciting time for German winemakers. German Pinot Noirs have won several international competitions against Burgundies.” Indeed, this may well be the next big wine of Germany.
German winemakers are also vinifying Spätburgunders to make Pinot Blanc de Noirs (white from black). As Zimmerman points out, “the process is like making white wines; the skins of the grapes have little contact with the pressed grape juice. Blanc de Noirs are unique and complex, they have more body and are more fruit driven than white wines, and they are more refreshing and acidic than the red wines that these grapes would make.”
myth #4: germany is just riesling
It’s hard not to associate Riesling with German wine. It’s the grape that truly put Germany on the map (over 50 per cent of the grapes grown in the country are Riesling). However, the new generation of winegrowers wants the world to know that Germany is much more than Riesling.
Let me introduce to you Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau from Franken. Prost! to Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) or Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) from Baden. In fact, there are over 140 grape varietals grown in Germany. Due to global warming and climate change, the country has had success growing Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot.
myth #5: german wines are mostly average quality
Blame this misconception on the 1971 German Wine Law. Under this law (legally speaking), the sweetest grapes by definition made the best wine. Sugar content at harvest was all that mattered. Not the terroir, not the grape variety, and not the yield. The sugar-forward law was a horrible tragedy for many of the country’s greatest winemakers. They fought an uphill battle to resist these sabotaging winemaking techniques. Instead, they stuck to their guns and continued growing Riesling on steeply sloping German vineyards. Sadly, these top-notch Rieslings were all but washed away by the flood of cheap mass-produced wines hitting the market.
During the 1970s and ‘80s, Liebfraumilch and its variations (Blue Nun, Black Tower, etc) lined the shelves of wine stores. These unsophisticated wines (not made from Riesling) garnered much popularity for novice wine drinkers. However, they left a bad taste in the mouth of many wine connoisseurs and stigmatized all German wines. Sales declined in the ‘90s as the world turned to drier styles.
“Those brands were created for the export market and were unknown in Germany. Wine made and sold in Germany is dry. While there are commercial brands in Germany, the majority of German wines come from small or famous international estates,” explains Drung.
Now, more than 20 years later, German Riesling is firmly on the rebound, as quality conscious winemakers impose yield limits and usher in improvements in viticulture. However, popularity does have some downsides for consumers. “As vineyard demand and production in other markets increases, too much of a good thing can only lead to higher prices. Get into German wines while they still represent excellent value,” advises Drung.
It’s time to expand our viticulture horizons. The next time you are shopping for wine, don’t snub past the German section. In fact, I want you to erase the words Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun and Sweet Plonk from your vocabulary. Forget about them; bury them in a deep dark place along with shoulder pads, Shirley Temples, and Fun Dip.
From the emerging top-notch Pinot Noirs to the Riesling-based whites that are now reaching new heights thanks to the talents of a new generation of winemakers, modern-day Germany offers wines of diversity and quality unprecedented in the country’s history. If you’ve yet to discover what she has to offer — or if you’ve been blindsided by long-standing myths — there’s no better time than now to discover Germany’s vinous charms.
Fünf Riesling, Rhein ($10.40)
“Fünf” translated from German means 5. As in “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” and time for an après-work drink! Off-dry and fruity with subtle aromas of peach, Meyer lemons and honeydew. A slight tease of minerality in the palate ends with a lively bitter finish. Even the frosted white bottle with a cobalt blue label is cheerful; the German umlaut over the “u” resembles a smiley face. Nothing complicated, but an easy everyday (after work) drinking wine that will put a smile on your face. Perfect with “happy hour” snacks such as red curry chicken kebabs and Thai crab cakes.
Königschaffhauser Vulkanfelsen Pinot Noir Rosé Trocken 2014, Baden ($13.95)
Prepare your palate for a volcanic eruption of flavours. Grown on the slopes of the ancient volcano Kaiserstuhl, this dry Pinot Noir rosé will whisk your taste buds to the strawberry fields. Coppery pink in colour, this medium-bodied rosé displays aromatic rose petals, ripe strawberries, and sweet Rainier cherries in the palate that finishes with a refreshing, and zippy acidity. Good depth of flavour with a long finale. Terrific value. A perfect companion to a grilled salmon salad with strawberries, goat cheese and pecans.
Re-Think Dry Riesling 2012, Mosel ($12.80)
Still have the stigma that German Rieslings are all overly sweet? This dry white wine will make you “re-think” your attitude towards German Riesling. Pale straw in color with subtle aromas of green apple, ginger, lemon and peach. In the palate, this Mosel Riesling has a refreshing crispness that is rounded out by hints of honeycomb in the finish. The vibrant acidity will make your mouth water making this wine an ideal aperitif sipper or the perfect lunch companion with a ham, gruyere and apple panini.
Schloss Schönborn Hattenheim Alte Reben Riesling Trocken 2012, Rheingau ($28.95)
Since 1349, Schloss Schönborn has been continuously owned by the same family for 27 generations. The grapes are grown from Alte Reben, or “old vines” of Hattenheim and provide a symphony of complex flavours. A serious trocken wine that is lush and juicy. Supple, mouth filling and delicious. On the nose, you will encounter ripe peaches, ginger, pineapple compote and citrus notes. Delicate hints of chamomile linger in the background. The palate is beautifully balanced combining intense stone fruit with a crisp acidity and a chalky minerality kicking in on the finish. An excellent example of Riesling that showcases the terroirs of Germany. A delicious partner with sushi, nasi goreng or even seafood ceviche.
Max Ferd Richter Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett 2013, Mosel ($21.95)
Wow! From one of the most renowned vineyards in the Mosel region, this extraordinary Kabinett Riesling will enrapture your taste buds. A melange of fragrant peaches, ripe apricots and honeyed fruit oozes over every taste bud, filling the pores of your tongue. Firm acidity and lively minerality pushes through on the finish providing a beautifully balanced wine. At just 8.5% alcohol, this enchantingly elegant wine may be low in alcohol but definitely NOT low in the flavour department. Another glass, please!
Reinhold Haart Haart to Heart Piesport Riesling 2013, Mosel ($19.95)
From one of the greatest producers in Piesport, this wine has perfumed aromas of sweet apples and ripe stone fruit that mingle curiously with wet stone mineral notes. The vibrant acidity cuts through the sweetness of this off-dry Riesling and leaves you wanting more. I heart this wine. This is love at first sip. A quintessential “date night” wine, especially if it involves spicy Thai or Szechuan takeout.
Königschaffhauser Steingrüble Pinot Noir 2013, Baden ($17.95)
So it is not Burgundy … but for under $20 you will get a seductive Pinot Noir from Baden’s leading cooperative, which focuses on low yields. Earthiness, juicy wild strawberries and black cherries tinged with smoked meat and spice dominate the nose and palate. The acidity is layered with dried berries and silky smooth tannins. A good “bang for your buck” Pinot. Enjoy it with smoked duck or a smoked meat sandwich.
Königschaffhauser Vulkanfelsen Pinot Gris Trocken 2014, Baden ($17)
Planted on volcanic soils, this is another reliable and great value from Baden’s leading cooperative, Königschaffhauser. Floral scents greet you at first, a mix of orchard fruits and honey. Sunny nectarine, ripe green apples and lively lemon flavours follow, big and full. It is medium bodied with a rich, creamy mouthfeel and a balanced finish. This Pinot Gris is much more interesting than her ubiquitous Italian cousin, Pinot Grigio. An ideal wine for soft rind cheeses or creamy pasta dishes.