Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What's Wrong with German Wine?

Source: Schmitt Sohne USA

Over the past year I have become a big fan of German wines. Not Barry's Spätburgunders - too rare outside of Germany - but those made from their signature grape, Riesling.

I picture my wine buddies right now - is Joe delusional? Who drinks this stuff? Certainly very few of the people I know with an interest in wine - beginners, well-to-do collectors, blog writers - ever talk about it. But sales are growing - German exports to the U.S. doubled every year from 2002 to 2006, and I can't believe all of this is ending up in Lyle's cellar! Somebody is buying, so where is the "buzz"? Certainly it is not for lack of critical acclaim:

"Fine dry German wine must represent some of the world’s best bargains." - Jancis Robinson

"I was struck by how high many (German wine) prices have gotten in U.S. retail dollars ... yet I was also repeatedly amazed at outstanding, sometimes even extraordinary Riesling that still seems under-valued." - David Schildknecht

"I can’t help but think that dry German rieslings are singular in their own way, combining grace, delicacy and power in a way that nobody else’s dry rieslings can do." - Eric Asimov

I could fill a page with critical acclaim for German wine, so my title is misleading - there really is nothing wrong with German wine at all! More than a millennium of wine history and a dedication to quality has ensured Germany's place amongst the world's great wine regions. 

So I guess my real question is, if it is so good, where is the "buzz" beyond the ivory towers of the wine intelligentsia? In my travels across North America, from the high-end restaurants to your neighbourhood bistros, there are few (if any) German wines on the lists, and I cannot recall the last time I heard a sommelier plugging a German wine. And a quick review of most wine shops in North America seems to confirm this - you have to work hard to find anything beyond a smattering of selections (or worse, they are well stocked with the cheap, sugary stuff). 

I guess I should have an answer to my question but, like most of life's important questions, there is no simple answer. Some have suggested the daunting German language labels are to blame, but Italian and French labels don't seem to scare anybody. Another hypothesis I have heard is that Germans make sweet wine, whereas North American palates seek dry white wines. But German wine production and consumption is overwhelmingly dry, so why are they sending us the sweet stuff?

Seems like a "chicken and the egg" problem - we don't buy it so they don't ship it, and the little bits they do ship are hiding behind bottles of cheap, sweet plonk so we leave the store with American, Canadian, Australian, Alsatian or Austrian Riesling instead. The wine world is subject to waves of fashion, and I predict that renewed interest in Riesling will soon lead to a wider "buzz" around German Riesling.

If I've piqued your interest, head over to Lyle or Barry's sites, Germanophiles with a deep knowledge of and love for these wines.


(PS - I have never tasted the cleverly marketed wines of Schmitt Sohne, but I love those "Take Home a Little German" ads)


Shea said...

Well first off, there are great sweet German rieslings too! That said, I personally think it is a problem with branding. Nearly everyone I know associates German Riesling with sweet nasty plonk. Sweet wine is out. This, unfortunately, has meant that a host of amazing wine has gone unnoticed. Sauternes, Rieslings, Sherry, Volnay, to name a few. On the good side, these wines offer tremendous value for money, so I'm not complaining.

Barry said...

Joe...I see the problem dry is dry....recent across-the- board tastings I did of the 2007 vintage..showed great value wines...but you had to know your grower...some Kabinett wines were bone-dry..others with a 'rest sweetness'..making them almost medium dry/sweet. If you have been scared off by a couple of 'bone-dry..heavy on the acidity' wines you are not gonna go back there..if your knowledge goes no further than knowing it is a Riesling.
Same goes for the other way round...if you had a couple of slightly sweet wines.although Kabinett was on the label...(trocken would tell you more)..then, again, you are confused as consumer.So..even if they have a 'little' knowledge of doesn't help...
With all 'amateur' wine drinkers.. a little knowledge is not they want to invest trying to find maybe they stick to safety..their Chardonnays.

I think back to someone in the wine trade years ago...when no-one could sell the wines from Alsace..
He said..they just couldn't sell they drank it....even is still the same..and German Riesling maybe falls into that categorie.
The trade, experienced wine drinkers..and a few adventurers will drink it..and investigate...the rest...need educating and also need a wider selection.
Another 'Riesling' point is...consumers saying they drink 'dry' wines...very IN maybe..but in reality they want it slightly again..confusion reigns.
Back to the growers..a few years ago it was clearer...but now..due to the previous sentence...some are changing their styles...
After all that I need a glass of Dönnhoff

Edward said...

Blame it on the grape - riesling. Riesling is more loved by critics and wine tragics than the general public and no matter how superb the wine there will only ever be a niche.

Australian rieslings though totally different share a similar fate. Year in year out local critics praise and promote them, but still they are largely ignored by the sauvignon blanc drinking public.

Shea said...

Which is sad when you can get great aussie riesling for less than $20! My only problem with German R's is that they are a little expensive in this market (hard to find a good one for under $40).

Joe said...

Hi Shea - no slight to the great, sweet, German wines - I love those as well. Branding probably has an influence, but you would think that so much good press would overcome that? Anyway, I think you nailed it - sweet is out. Pricing is probably more of a BC issue, as we have some decent deals here. Any thoughts on BC Riesling?

Hi Barry - you are right, even when I think I know what I am doing I open up a sweeter or drier wine than called for! I still remember an embarrassing German wine moment, opening a very (delicious) sweet riesling when a dry was called for - my guests just looked at me with a strange, befuddled look...It is not just labeling, as the very diversity in sweetness amongst wines with similar labels mean you need to know all of the German wine rules plus you need to know the house "styles"?! No wonder consumers retreat to the safety of a cheap wine with a label that simply says the grape...I guess there is no substitute to a good wine merchant to work with you when you want to explore. mmm, Dönnhoff...

Ed - Wine tragics? I love it. The silver lining is that the rest of us can walk right past that overpriced NZ SB and find some very good deals in the Riesling section.

Shea said...

I need to get some Donnhoff - they just released 6 different bottlings here in limited quantities.

Joe, the pricing is a BC thing for sure. We get way better prices on Aussie wine here compared to German. Unfortunate, really. BC riesling - well let me put it this way, I've tasted the Tantalus (which people rave about) and found it pretty sub-standard (unless they charged $10). Maybe I need to do a full on tasting, but of the 2-3 I have had, I found them super unpolished, uninteresting and overpriced. But that's BC wine for you :).

Joe said...

Shea - I would say that German wine is more expensive than the Aussie stuff here as well, but the delta is small. As for BC wine, I have enjoyed a fair number of bottlings, but never a Riesling.

Joe said...

Shea - and yes, the Dönnhoff is special.

Shea said...

Which BC wines did you like? I enjoyed the Osoyoos Larose Grand vin and the Occulus, but I think they are way overpriced.

Joe said...

The Osoyoos Larose is probably the best Canadian red I have tasted, but yes it is pricey. I thought Sandhill was making some nice wine at the sub 20$ price point - I remember a vintage of their Cab Franc ($17) about 2-3 years back that was a steal. Quail's Gate has a great Merlot at ~20$, and the mid-price Pinot can be a good deal (vintage dependent). Burrowing Owl whites...(I could never give you a list like this for Ontario wines)