Losing the stereotype

17 October, 2008

Germany's ever-increasing struggle to shake off its Liebfraumilch-tarnished reputation

continues, as Christine Boggis discovers on a whirlwind tour of the Pfalz, Rheingau and Mose

l

Baggage

is a word that comes up far too often when you're talking about German wine. Before I even went there I had made the decision that so much has been written about the country's

Liebfraumilch-tainted past that it will never need mentioning again - but when it comes to the UK market, you just can't ignore the spectre of sweet, cheap and not-so-cheerful Lieb and

hock at the feast.

So it's no wonder

every

producer I spoke to on a recent whistle-stop tour of the Pfalz, Rheingau and Mosel had the same thing to say about the UK market: "It's very difficult."

Germany makes, quite possibly, the best Rieslings in the world. It's also winning top awards for Pinot Noirs, as well as producing a whole array of value -for -money wines from

up-and-coming grapes such as Pinot Blanc and Dornfelder. And it sells more hot-ticket Pinot Grigio in the UK than it does Riesling.

"Germany's one of those funny areas - to an extent it doesn't matter what I do with it, it seems to be in terminal decline," says Tesco buyer Graham Nash. "I do a bit of development and new lines have done well - Palatium Pinot Blanc and Riesling have done quite well, but for every bottle of Palatium Pinot Blanc I sell, I probably sell 100 bottles of

hock

and people are moving into other things. It is a shame.

"I have encouraged producers to do things like Palatium, with modern packaging and dry wines. They should carry on developing new styles, and packaging needs a lot of work generally, but there are signs it is starting to become a little bit more modernised. They have the wines and the styles - they probably just don't have the image," he adds.

Jürgen Keller, of importer the Wine Keller, says: " You don't find

the real wines

which we drink in Germany

in UK supermarkets or even

chains . There are maybe a few independents which are starting to sell them, but it is all moderate or low volume."

Old habits

"The general problem from my point of view is that Germany continues to sell

Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun and all the sort of brands which the UK consumer associates with wine from Germany. I don't think that will see any change - the majority of producers are small, family-run, and probably make

around 150,000-200,000 bottles. They don't have the budget or the volume to create brands in the UK

and they don't need to because they

always

sell out anyway ," says Keller.

ZGM's Palatium, like PLB's d:vine range, is one of a new breed of German wines that studiously avoid ticking any of the "Germany" boxes. The idea is that customers who wouldn't touch Germany with a bargepole will taste them and then get hooked.

Steve Howard, managing director of ZGM UK, says: "There isn't the money to do big above-the-line campaigns to change consumers' attitudes through TV and the press . The way

we can do it is to produce wines that people can try, probably on promotion and away from the German fixture.

"After they have tried it and they read the label they will say, oh, that's from Germany. That is a refreshing change."

Wines of Germany is taking the same tack. This year it ran its biggest ever consumer sampling campaign at summer festivals around the UK, and a number of in-store tastings are planned for autumn and the new year.

A recent Wine Intelligence poll identified two target groups for the body: "mainstream at-homers", who choose wine based on its taste profile and drink it mainly at home,

and a younger, more experimental group that is influenced by wine critics and trends, and is less price-sensitive. The poll found that more 35 to 44 -year -olds are drinking German wine, while consumption among over-55s is decreasing.

Overall sales of German wine have been in serious decline for years, but Wines of Germany points out that, while sales under £3 have dropped 28% in the past two years, according to Nielsen, wines at £4-£5 grew 63% and wines over £5 grew 115% in the same period.

But that could all change if, as feared, the

economic downturn and impending recession drive consumers to lower-priced wines.

ZGM produces

Liebfraumilch and

hock for a number of UK retailers and has seen a steady fall in sales

as shoppers have suddenly tightened their belts.

Howard says: "The actual decline of the German generics increased up until the end of last year. Then the credit crunch came along . We have yet to see it have

a major effect in the

supermarkets.

However, in some of the more convenience-style outlets, volumes have increased quite significantly

and I think the supermarkets may be about to follow."

German generics

ZGM makes

Liebfraumilch and

hock at cost as a "service line" - a way of getting a foot in the door with major retailers for other brands which actually do make money.

Howard says there used to be

20 or 30 producers competing for this market - but now there are just three

and, as production costs rise and the increasingly powerful euro makes exporting more expensive, the business is getting ever tougher.

"It is not a fun place to be," he says. "We do it through covering production costs - we will not do it where we lose money ."

But the supermarkets are likely to keep selling these loss-leaders and, as competition between the major players grows, they could become part of the battle plan. Howard explains: "People who buy German generics are usually very loyal to certain supermarkets and

will buy the majority of their bread, milk, cheese and fruit there - so it is a very strong area of price competition."

Keller is more sceptical. "I don't think it will go down that way, because the majority of British consumers, as far as I know, have switched to drier wines, especially the younger ones. When you see people buying German wines they are more of an older age group."

For specialist importers

such as the Wine Barn and Wine Keller - who put endless effort into sweet-talking sommeliers and educating trade customers about how great German wine can be - a resurgence in the fortunes of

Lieb and

hock could prove catastrophic.

"We have put eight years of back-

breaking hard work into the re-education of the British nation and I feel it is paying off," says Iris Ellmann, of the Wine Barn.

"A

Liebfraumilch revival would be disastrous as we have made gentle steps towards a less tainted image of German wine in the past two years. Sales of top-end wines have not suffered at all

so far.

"People are much more quality orient ed. We are bringing in new brands, all

from our top producers but of a different price point - hence there potentially being more available for a broader audience. We are also trying to offer these wines to the big retailers, but it is tricky to find the right partner with a more futuristic view.

"Why only offer wines that consumers want? One should offer wines that consumers are not familiar with and create a demand. This is much more exciting."

Trends sweeping the industry in Germany

Let no one say that German fashion

is finally moving out of the eighties just as the rest of the world gets back into bouffant hair, mullets and tight-ankled trousers. When it comes to wine, there are plenty of cutting-edge trends to

look out for.

The Pfalz: Otherwise known as the Palatinate, the Pfalz, in central Germany,

is warm enough to produce a number of red wines as well as Riesling, Pinots and more. Tom Benns, of Bürklin-Wolf in Wachenheim, Pfalz, says: "The Pfalz as a region is quite hip, if a German region can be quite cool. There are a lot of young guys around here learning and putting good marketing behind some good products." The Pfalz is also home to red wine specialist Volker Knipser and Gerhard Gutzler, the winemaker

whose dog famously catches wine

after he spits it out.

Spontis: "Spontis" used to be the name for a group of radical left wing political activists in the seventies - but these days it's all about spontaneous fermentation, which has become something of a craze among Germany's winemakers. Clemens Busch winery in Pünderich on the Mosel braves lengthy and even stuck fermentations to stick to 100% naturally occurring yeasts. But winemaker Florian Busch says problems with stuck fermentations have dropped as he has converted to organic farming. He

is happy to sometimes leave a wine with residual sugar if it simply won't go any further, and the results can be excellent.

Being like the Austrians: In the UK at least, Austria seems to have shaken off the 1985 antifreeze scandal and won a surge of popularity that must turn neighbouring Germany green with envy. So it's no wonder that experimental winemakers,

such as Ferdinand K oegler in Eltville in the Rheingau, are starting to emulate their Alpine neighbour. K oegler has

1.5ha of Austrian signature grape Grüner Veltliner, making him Germany's biggest GV producer - and he says it's "running like sliced bread".

Reds: The 16% abv blockbuster Aussie Shiraz is no longer king of the red wine castle

and, as consumers increasingly seek out lighter styles, Germany's cool climate reds are ideally placed to make a splash. The country's Pinot Noirs have already won top awards in recent wine competitions, and the Wine Keller's Jürgen Keller has seen a surge in

demand - especially for Pinot Noir.

But the wines haven't yet found a home in mainstream off-licences. ZGM's Steve Howard says: "The difficulty with German red wines is where to get them on shelf - there is a white section for Germany

and rosé is marketed separately with no country of origin

- so red wines tend to be in with

eastern Eu rope, Bulgaria etc. Our

UK marketing team is talking to consumers to try to find the best way

to develop a German red wine in the

UK marketplace."

Environmental issues:

Germany leads the way in Europe, so it's no wonder there is a big trend among producers to go organic or biodynamic. Even winemakers who don't get organic accreditation often work their vineyards in the most natural way they can and it is common practice to use hormone capsules instead of pesticides . Rüdiger Lind of Ökonomierat Lind winery in Rohrbach, Pfalz - who is also

a partner in the biggest ostrich farm in Europe - has been organic since the

eighties and says his reasons for switching were far from ideological: "I started in 1983 when we had no word for organic production. I always had problems when I went in the vineyards , I got a headache and didn't feel good. I don't know if it was psychosomatic, but I started to produce without any kind of insecticide, and have been accredited as organic from 1995 on."




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