Five or 10 years ago we would have said it was the ghosts of 1970s behemoths Liebfraumilch and Hock that were holding back sales of really good German wine. These days younger consumers are unlikely to know what Liebfraumilch tastes like – let alone how to pronounce it.
Yet German wine is haunted by a reputation for sweetness, and that is putting consumers off.
German wine sales in the UK off- trade fell 3.7% by value and 12% by volume in the past year, according to Nielsen, and now make up just 1.7% of the market by value.
The average bottle price rose from £4.37 to £4.70 last year, but remains well below the market average of £5.34.
But at £8-£9, German wine is growing by a healthy 32% year on year – making it the second fastest- growing country in that desirable price bracket.
Steffen Schindler, marketing director of the German Wine Institute, says: “The German wine consumer is changing as the younger generation taste and get behind German wines. 2014 is all about raising awareness of German wines among trade and consumers alike, and encouraging them to try German wine with an open mind.”
Co-operative Group buyer Edward Robinson is similarly positive.
He says: “Our German range had a great year in 2013, reporting a modest increase in sales in what is typically a sharply declining market. Riesling is selling well, as is Pinot Grigio – and loyalty to Hock and Liebfraumilch is not fading at the same rate it once was.
“German wine still suffers from an image problem in the mass market, perhaps more so than wine from anywhere else in the world. All too often the same customers who refuse to buy Riesling fall in love with it when told the glass in their hand is a New World Chardonnay.”
German wines should target 25 to 45-year-old drinkers who haven’t yet formed an impression of the country’s wines, says Greg Shaw, general manager of independent retailer SH Jones.
He says broad ranges on the company’s online platforms slurp. co.uk and hawksheadwines.co.uk have helped German sales by showcasing the country’s diversity – but warns it is mainly attracting shoppers who are already “wine savvy”.
“Only experienced consumers with considerable wine knowledge will know of the wide range of grape varieties, regions and categories. The average drinker will have little or no knowledge of German wines,” he says.
“Education remains key. Wines of Germany and importers need to support independent wine merchants to conduct in-store tastings and promotions, not only to educate consumers but, very importantly, to aid staff training.
“We have seen sales of a particular German wine estate literally double during a promotion as a direct result of staff training and staging in-store tastings.”
Phil Innes, owner of Birmingham’s Loki Wine Merchant & Tasting House, says he is winning over consumers by having German wines on taste.
Loki focuses on Rieslings and Innes says the New World has had a part to play in bringing drinkers round to dry styles.
“It’s almost as if the stigma is with Riesling, not necessarily German Riesling,” he says.
“2014 is looking very good for Germany. We are constantly pushing it on tasting, and we are starting to do a bit of volume with it.
“I have a really broad range of customers here, from interested students to proper old-timers. For the younger generation, 20 to 35-year- olds, there isn’t that memory of drinking wines such as Liebfraumilch. With my parents’ generation, 40 to 60-year-olds, there is still that stigma. People still say they don’t want German wine because it is sweet. We say ‘try it, because it isn’t’. After that you really can push sales because people are surprised.”
Robert Woodhead, assistant director of online independent Red Squirrel Wines, agrees that consumers think of German wines as off-dry – and wants to change that perception. He cites Pfalz producer Markus Schneider, who makes Bordeaux blends, Syrahs and Chardonnays in elegant modern bottles, as the kind of producer who can help with that.
“We are trying to show that German wines are more than off-dry Riesling – there is a wonderful world of German wine out there,” he says.
Claudia Pech, of specialist importer German Wine Agencies, is also challenging widely-held perceptions.
She says: “The assumption that Germany is home to an odd mix of big brands and top-end niche producers is incorrect – there are plenty of wines at mid-range prices. A new generation of younger winemakers is producing affordable wines with modern labelling and international appeal.”
Reh Kendermann, producer of the UK’s top-selling German wine, Black Tower, says brands are the key to getting over consumers’ fears of complicated names and unknown grape varieties.
It also sells drier styles under the Kendermanns brand, which saw off- trade sales grow 12% in 2012-13.
Export sales director Alison Flemming MW says: “Germany is undoubtedly capable of producing some of the most stunning wines in the world. The key strength of German wines is their versatility. We have created unique blends such as Black Tower Silvaner/ Pinot Grigio and Black Tower Silvaner/Chardonnay that break the norm and give a German twist to international grapes.”
Having said all that, Morrisons has grown its share of the German wine market by focusing on traditional favourites Liebfraumilch and Hock, Black Tower and a range of own- label and branded Rieslings.
Wine sourcing manager Katie Mollett says: “There are two consumer groups for German wine in Morrisons – the more traditional customer who likes the value and sweeter style that German wines offer and those who prioritise fresh food and would like a wine to complement that.”