Rhine and dandy

21 March, 2008

Britain finally seems to be embracing German wine. Natasha Hughes reports positive news

It's become

a truism to say that although German Riesling is beloved by the UK wine trade, it is desperately unpopular with the British consumer. On a recent visit to Germany, most producers, when asked about their prospects in the UK, sighed, shrugged and said words to the effect of "It's tough".

But figures recently published by Nielsen suggest that there's light at the end of the tunnel for Germany's winemakers. Even though volumes of exports to the UK are growing only slowly (up 3.7% on the previous year in 2007), the value of the country's sales is really on the up. In the £4-5 category, Germany is the second fastest-growing country in the UK market, with sales up by 22%. In the over £5 category, Germany's sales are up 31% - the third-fastest growth, after Italy and New Zealand.

"I think the market is changing," confirms Tesco's product development manager Graham Nash. "Entry-level generics are hugely popular, but what's really shifting is the mid-level market. It's partly due to the current interest in wines with lower alcohol levels, but it's also indicative of consumer trends towards the consumption of light, fresh, crisp wines, and Germany is suited to them."

Back in December, Nik Weis, winemaker and proprietor of St Urbanshof, a high-end property in the Mosel, confided that he'd all but given up on the UK market in favour of exports to the US, which are rising fast. However, it would seem that, three short months later, things have moved on.

"I have to say that I'm changing my mind," he says. "The recent orders I've received from my UK importer show that interest is picking up, especially in the on-trade. I think it's similar to the way the market developed in the US, where sommeliers in top restaurants led the way and the market followed. I'm very sure that within the next five years, the UK consumer will be actively looking for high-end German Riesling."

In the interim, though, there are still barriers to be overcome. To begin with, it's widely acknowledged that Germany's QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat) classification system is difficult for all but the aficionado to understand. In an attempt to address this issue, the "Classic" and "Selection" classification was launched with the 2000 vintage.

However, consumers have failed to take to it with any enthusiasm, and, by and large, this labelling is now used exclusively in Germany's domestic market.

"For us as a specialist independent importer, Classic and Selection haven't worked at all," says the Wine Barn's Iris Ellmann. "I was convinced that the classification would confuse matters, and it has. As a result, we don't list any of the Classic or Selection wines."

"If you stick to a certain level of sweetness associated with the Prädikat system," says Weis, "you have a clearly defined style that everyone can recognise. The problem is that there have been several new quality levels used by German institutions, including Classic and Selection, as well as Grosses and Erstes Gewächs [which are similar in concept to a French grand cru]."

But, Weis maintains, producers have come to understand that consumers don't want to be overwhelmed with information, and as a result fewer producers are opting to put too much fine print on their labels.

"There are certainly examples within our range that aren't as Germanic as they were five to 10 years ago," says Nash, "but although the top end is still very Germanic, that doesn't necessarily need to change. I think any country should stay loyal to its roots, and our customers want that - especially at certain price points."

One company that's certainly benefited from simplifying its labelling is Reh Kendermann, whose Black Tower range sells nearly three times better than its nearest competitor.

"Our success is down to a number of factors," says Reh Kendermann's managing director Nik Schritz. "One is our contemporary labelling and packaging, and another is the fact that it's a very modern style of wine. Finally, we go to a lot of musical events and fine food fairs, among other events, with the aim of getting as many people as possible to sample our wines."

One other factor that may work in Black Tower's favour is the so-called British paradox - although we Brits claim to prefer dry wines, when we vote with our palates it would appear that most of us enjoy at least a little residual sugar. This may end up working in Germany's favour as even wines labelled "dry" often contain as much as 10-15g of residual sugar per litre. (Each region imposes its own definition of dryness via a regulatory framework.)

"In Germany we have the word trocken, which is translated as dry," says Weis, "but these wines can contain as much as 8g of residual sugar. And, at that level, some of them simply don't taste dry. Right now there's not much we can do - we're constrained by law to describe wines as being trocken or halb-trocken and not dry.

"But I would like to see a five-level system implemented that would classify wines as bone-dry, off-dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet and then a noble sweet dessert wine category. At the moment, there's no discussion of implementing that, so maybe it's something producers could think about putting on the back label."

By and large, though, such fine definition mainly relates to the top-end German wines. It could be argued that such wines are only ever going to be sold in the on-trade or specialist independent merchants, where advice is usually part of the service.

As Ellmann explains: "We want to spend time talking to consumers, finding out what kind of style of wine they like before we put a case together for them."

And with hand selling we return, full circle, to Weis's conviction that the development of the UK's appetite for German wines is going to start with a trickle-down effect from the on-trade. If he's right, German wines may finally be on the cusp of their long-awaited revival.

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