German revival

Lists of recommendations of German wine over recent years have been as rare as a quiet day in the England football team’s press office.

But there was one rare occasion, not so long ago, when a published list of favoured wines was dominated by Germany.

The approval of the World Cancer Research Fund might not be every wine marketeer’s dream write-up, but it was an indicator of how things might be starting to turn back in Germany’s favour.

Instead of the usual “don’t drink” message often touted by medically related organisations, the WCRF suggested consumers could cut the risk of developing bowel cancer by switching from high-strength wines of around 14% abv to ones of 10% or less.

To help shoppers on their way it even produced a list of suggested wines available in major British stores, and half that list was German. It included Ernst Loosen Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett at 10% abv, Dr Loosen Riesling at 8.5% and Majestic’s Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Kabinett at 7.5%.

The advice arguably reflected an already growing consumer trend to lower-abv wines, and cooler-climate countries such as Germany could swing back into vogue on the back of it because of their naturally lower alcoholic levels.

Winemaker Franz Michel, of Rheingau producer Domdechant Werner, says: “There’s a definite trend to drink lighter and drier styles of wine and German wine – Riesling in particular – is not a strong wine. It’s a perfect fit for the everyday enjoyment people want from wine without feeling too bad the next day. In many ways, it’s the perfect wine for the modern lifestyle.”?German wine could ultimately be one of the few drinks categories to benefit from the media and political hype over binge-drinking.

Nicky Forrest, director of Wines of Germany, doesn’t doubt the trend will help the country’s wine producers.

“Germany is already producing exactly these styles of lighter wine,” she says, “and has been for centuries. It makes this style of wine like no other country can, and the fact they are racy, thrilling to drink and produced naturally should stand us in very good stead.”?Of course, anywhere in the world can have a go at making Riesling, but Germany’s cool, northern European climate means historically it makes the best.

“Riesling isn’t always the most sensitive grape for the terroir where it is produced around the world,” argues Michel, “but we have the right climate, the right soil and the right landscape for it.

“New Zealand Riesling is often very good but it’s not the same because it doesn’t have the right climate to produce wines with the same sort of elegance.”?Germany’s problem isn’t necessarily in producing elegant wines, but in shaking off years of image problems that have typecast it as a producer of cheap, sweet or over-acidic wines. On the face of it, sales figures indicate Germany is still the refuge of low-priced wines.

Sales in the off-trade were down 7% in the year to January 23 at £133 million. Germany is in ninth place by value in the country league table – some way behind New Zealand, even though it outsells that country by volume.

That reflects a low average bottle price, which, at £3.01, is less than half that of New Zealand and lower than every other country in the top 15, including Bulgaria.

But Wines of Germany also points out that there’s significant growth in wines of £5 and over, up by a third year-on-year and matched only by Spain.

With the £4-£5 supermarket wine bracket stitched up by the big US, Australian and South African brands, arguably Germany should concentrate its growth efforts further up the price scale.

Producers argue that a growing acceptance of premium German wine in the US and other markets offers a pointer to the potential it might have in the UK.

Christian Witte, winemaker at Schloss Johannisberg, says: “German Riesling is the fastest-growing variety in the US. It’s coming from a very small niche but it’s growing quickly.

“People like it because it offers very good value for the quality of wine in the glass. The UK is probably where the US was as a market five years ago.”?Dieter Greiner, winemaker at the Rheingau’s Kloster Eberbach, adds: “Last year, the export of German wine into the US was higher than it has been since 1985.

“It’s taken us a long time to get back there. We’re also starting to sell well in France, Italy and Spain which is very satisfying and almost unheard of for us to be doing so well in other wine-producing countries. It’s not really arrived in the UK but it is starting.”?Winemaker Johannes Eser says UK demand for Riesling is still skewed towards off-dry styles, putting it behind the trends of other markets.

“Domestic consumption is mostly dry Riesling,” he says. “There is very little sweet wine sold, especially for laying down. Export markets are catching up with this pattern – but the one exception is still the UK.”?Forrest says retailers could accelerate the trend and move Germany out of its pigeonhole by “reorganising their shelves and presenting their wines by style rather than country”.

With the political and social world moving in Germany’s favour, the canny retailer could put themselves ahead of the pack.

“Any agenda which has the full backing of the government and the media – and now the retailers – is here to stay,” says Forrest.