Harmony & Balance – Today’s Germany
German wine is a truly difficult subject to approach. At it’s best it can be wonderful; complex flavours, bone dry, crisp acidity and indulgently sweet. At it’s worst, however…
German wine can be savaged, a byword for cheap, nastiness from overproduced, underdeveloped vineyards. Of course Germany has always had it’s fabulous, expensive top-end producers. However, contemporary German vintners are trying desperately to move away from these extremes, and all the evidence suggests they are being highly successful in doing so.
Overproduction on flat, fertile land, using easy to grow varieties had almost destroyed the market face of German wine by the nineties. Despite huge exports from the fifties to the eighties, Germany failed to take into the changes in a growing global market which had come to demand more than feigned sweetness and low alcohol. So much so that by the nineties brands like Blue Nun had become a byword for crass nostalgia, and the favourite wine of Alan Patridge. Could there be a more damning indictment?
But all wine producing nations can be victim to huge consortiums producing the cheapest
wine for greatest global capital. The fightback in Germany, to produce better quality in much smaller quantities, has been magnificent.
What has lead to this transformation? Well firstly we have to think of German wine in a wider context. It is a difficult to climate to master for the vine; being at the very northernmost limits for viticulture. There is a generally cool, continental climate leaving it at risk to the spring frosts and possibly low temperatures throughout the growing season. The best way to offset this is through harnessing the landscape, using areas which are much more suited to growing grapes – even if this is at a greater expense. The greatest vineyards in Germany are on steep, south facing river valley slopes. Here they have the chance to take advantage of an aspect which faces the sun and also receives add light reflected from the river below. The Mosel valley is a prime example of this kind of innovation. However these areas are much more difficult to harvest as no machinery can navigate the slopes. This means that all the grapes must be nurtured and picked by hand – ultimately leading to a better, if more expensive, wine.
Another key development in German wine is the fall of Muller-Thurgau. This hybrid grape was they key component in much of the cheap whites of yesteryear. Instead now we have a greater influx of Riesling grown in ‘harmony’. I talked before of finding an ‘equilibrium’ in German wines and Riesling is the case in point. Left with too much residual sugar the wines can be sickly or confected, but without enough and the naturally high acidity is far too overbalancing. Unless made for a dessert wine, the key to this grapes success is in finding the rich, peachy or floral notes without losing the refreshingly crisp acidity. Success in this can be seen not only in the number of Riesling vines now being planted in areas more usually given over to Muller-Thurgua (such as Rheinhessen) but also in how often these wines are being laid down for ageing, and the substantial price tags they can now fetch.