German Wines: Evolution and What to Keep

The only way to comprehend German wine,’ according to Anne Krebiehl in her book about German wines Wines of Germany, ‘is contextualized in its past, taking ripeness, Riesling climate, tradition, and site classification into account.’

This was the result of an excellent book that spans over 300 pages. So I’m hoping to be excused if I leave out some of the nuances when trying to convey something in the least, a sense of where German wine is now. I’ll say this, but Anne Krebiehl says, “It’s only today that Germany is finally emerging from the shadow that was cast by the 20th century’. Perhaps she meant shadows since it’s not just one shadow that German wine is coming out.

“It’s only today that Germany is beginning to emerge from the long shadow imposed by the 20th century’, wrote Anne Krebiehl¬†

A paradigm shift to the choices and quality

Like tectonic plates that constantly shift to cause explosions, the conflict between quality and style in German wine is at the forefront of a gradual shift towards the better, both in perception and actuality. In essence, founded on great vintages in a cold climate, the emphasis of German wines has changed from a notion that sweetness is the center and final criteria to a new golden age that sees dry wines, which now include sparkling and red wines as well as white are now the main focus. In addition, a warmer climate, the improvement in winemaking and viticulture, and the flexibility of a younger generation of winemakers have triggered an evolution in the quality and selection of German wines.

GERMAN WINE WAS EASILY DISMISSED when I first started as a wine reporter at The Independent in the late 1980s. Sussreserve sweetened sugar, sweet, unfermented grape must, or wines such as Blue Nun and Black Tower were the most popular on supermarket shelves. At the severe end of the consumer spectrum, a few independent wine merchants sold almost exclusively higher quality sweet Rieslings, from off-dry Kabinett, through medium-sweet Spatlese, to sweet Auslese, onto the land of honey of Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. In a climate with cold temperatures that made it challenging to reach ripeness, dry wineries were greater than Knochentrocken (bone dry) and were undrinkable battery acid. The sweetest wines were tasty but harkened back to the past and were not suited to a dinner table. The sweetness was sour if you were at the commercial or the high-quality final stage. Unorganized German wine laws and cryptic Gothic labels in the script made German wine more difficult to be loved and sold.

The oldest Riesling bottles come from Mosel Valley. 

This is the classification.

The crucial shift between sweet and dry began in the late 1980s but wasn’t accompanied by an immediate increase in quality. Two leading lights in the move towards dry wines, Bernhard Breuer and Schloss Vollrads’ wonderfully-named Graf Erwein Matuschka-Greiffenclau championed dry German Riesling as a style that could be matched with food. It was eventually adopted by the VDP (Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter), the nationwide association representing German wineries founded in 1910 and today containing 200. The VDP was able to grasp the problem in dry German white wines, which are made of Riesling specifically, and formulated it in the context of a system for classification founded not on sweetness but on the quality of the vineyards. As with Burgundy, It created four different levels of quality: Gutswein (approachable light wines with a regional flavor), Ortswein (village level higher quality, premium high-quality), Erste Lage (premier cru, classed vineyards with high-quality) as well as Grosse Lage (grand cru, most classified sites, best quality). Grosses Gewachs, dry wine that comes from Grosse Lage.

The Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter (VDP) is the nation’s association of Premium vineyards. Established in 1910, it has grown to include 200 elite producers committed to producing high-quality veins that reflect their Terroirs. (Photo taken from https://medium.com/)

German wine region

This is based upon the foundation on which German wine styles and quality are built in the present. In the 13 regions of wine, top vineyards in Germany’s many areas for growing grapes tend to be either south or south-west facing, which allows the grapes to develop slowly throughout a long time with the most exposure to sunlight in a primarily cool climate. Improved vineyard management and the advantages of ripening due to climate change have led to an impressive improvement in the quality of the grapes. Many of these sites can be found along the banks of rivers, including those of the Rhine and Mosel, that aid in ripening the wine because they reflect sunlight onto the vineyards. The qualities of the different soils in each region can also influence flavors and aromas, which is the reason for the wide range of distinct styles of wine derived from one grape variety, namely Riesling. The golden triangular’ in the north of the Rheingau as well as is the Mosel, as well as the Nahe (someone whispers in my ear: “Don’t overlook Rheinhessen’), responsible for the most well-known varieties of Riesling as well as the south, which is the warmest part region of Germany, Baden, opposite Alsace geographically, is more focused upon Pinot Noir and white wines made from Pinot Blanc and Gris.

Mosel is one of the 13 German wine regions (Weinbaugebiete) that produces high-end wines.

What do you think of the German wines?

Before Covid could descend on our parade, I had great luck in the past few years of going to the”sneak preview” of the upcoming season of Grosses Gewachs wines put on by the 200 wine estates that belong to the VDP in Wiesbaden. Incredibly, more than half their vineyards are made up of Riesling as opposed to a German average of only 23 percent Riesling. Savoring their Rieslings as well as other white wines that are dry and reds that are mostly Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir), Three days of tastings have provided me with an entirely new perspective, not only on every vintage but the wide variation in style between one region and the next. In addition, it has established a quality consistency that I had never thought possible with German wine. Every year, I try to purchase several of my most loved wines to store for a while inside my collection. As stunning and powerful in their dominance as VDP estates can be, we should recognize the numerous estates that produce excellent wines that aren’t part of the VDP, and not the least, since their wines can be of great value.

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