Antidote in diversity and dryness

13 June, 2008

The German wine scene in the UK is a masterclass in the difference between perception and reality. People who love good Riesling - and I would include myself - probably imagine that the wine-drinking public shares their affection for this most elegant of grapes, but they are wrong. I'm willing to believe that Riesling sales from other countries (Australia, France, the U S, New Zealand and Austria) are growing in popularity, but the stuff from Germany lost nearly a third of its volume in the year to the end of January

2008 (Nielsen )

- and Germany is home to more than 60% of the world's plantings.

The Riesling Renaissance hasn't happened here

- at least not yet. It hurts to admit it, but, rather like jazz music, fine Riesling is a minority interest. To put this in an even more alarming context, Germany sold more Pinot Grigio in the UK last year (157,000 cases) than it did Riesling (145,000 cases). If you add blends that feature Pinot Grigio (Riesling/Pinot Grigio, Pinot Grigio/Chardonnay and, for all I know, Pinot Grigio/Bratwurst), the disparity is even greater

In one

rather depressing respect, however, the gap between perception and reality is very narrow indeed. German wine sales in the UK are still dominated by Hock and Liebfraumilch. They are losing ground (down by 5% and 20%, respectively), but not as fast as Riesling. Price is part of the reason. This bargain-basement duo is frequently sold below cost (you try making a profit on something that sells at £2.30) and continues to damage the image of German wine. One supplier told me that if producers and retailers took their normal margins, both would sell at £3.99.

Here in the UK, German wine is hobbled by its cheap and sweet tag. But in other markets - especially the US - its image is very different. The Americans love fine Riesling

and are prepared to pay for it. It would be nice to think that the UK will follow suit, especially given the remarkable quality of the 2007 vintage, but don't hold your breath.

Travelling around Germany last week, I became increasingly aware of how much the local wine scene has changed

- and of how little the UK appears to have noticed. As Johannes Hübinger, managing director of Zimmermann, Graeff & Müller, puts it: "In Germany today

we are making drier wines, using 'new' grape varieties such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and making an increasing percentage of red wines . But the UK hasn't recognised that fact."

To illustrate his point, Hübinger told me the story of a Dornfelder he sells to a supermarket here. In the absence of a German red wine section, the multiple grocer sells the wine within its Bulgarian and Romanian selections.

"We are trying to get people to reassess Germany as a wine-producing nation," he said. "But we have a lot of negative balance to overcome."

How can Germany do this? Part of the answer is to re-establish the reputation of fine Riesling. I attended the tasting of the VDP, an association which includes many of Germany's top producers, in Trier recently, and I was blown away by the quality of the best 2007s.

More to the point, the dry (trocken) wines were just as exciting as the sweeter, fruitier styles that we prefer in the UK. Germany now makes far more of the former than the latter. Dry and semi-dry (halbtrocken) wines accounted for 35.9% of what it produced in 1985; today that figure is 59.8% and growing, especially in areas such as the Pfalz, Baden, Rheingau and Rheinhessen.

But Riesling, a grape that accounts for only 20.8% of German plantings, won't ditch that historical baggage on its own. Other grapes that will help are Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder), Dornfelder and Lemberger for reds and Silvaner, Scheurebe, Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Chardonnnay and Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) for whites. To reverse its decline in the UK, Germany has to emphasise diversity as well as dryness. Together, they are the perfect antidote to its sweet, mono-dimensional image.

It also has to develop more brands to satisfy the demands of both mass market consumers and of the supermarkets that rely on promotions to generate sales. In this respect, Black Tower (now available as a Rivaner, a Riesling, a Dornfelder/Pinot Noir, a Pinot Grigio, a frizzante and a rosé) continues to serve Germany well, selling an estimated 500,000 cases in the UK. The main style (the Rivaner) may be sweet, but most of the other styles are drier and have added diversity to the German category.

Nevertheless, Germany needs a few more brands like it. Of all the big companies, the one most likely to come up with the answer is ZGM. Its Palatium and new Peter & Peter brands both impressed me and have a lot of potential here, with good packaging and wine quality across a range of modern styles.

One name that won't work, if you believe the market research, is Zimmermann. ZGM showed the same set of wines to UK consumers under two different labels. It called the first Zimmermann and the second Carpenter (the English translation of the word). The punters were told that the former came from Germany and the latter from Australia, even though the wines were identical. They overwhelmingly preferred the latter, underlining the gulf between perception and German reality.




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