Is German wine still stuck in the Liebfraumilch rut? Fiona Sims and a Caterer tasting panel find out.
The Germans have been doing some image-building of late. The London-based Wines of Germany office rolled out a series of Riesling Revival lunches around the country last year, showing off the delights of Germany's top grape to UK sommeliers. It made converts of them, too - not that this has made much difference to overall on-trade sales, which are actually down by 2.6% by volume since 1998. Most agree that Germany is still a hard sell.
Just to put things into perspective, France still leads the way in on-trade wine sales by volume in the UK,with 42.2% (AC Nielsen). Germany has 14% (down from 16.6% in 1998) and Italy is just nudging in next at 12.8%, with Australia close behind at 12%.
Though 14% seems like a decent enough percentage, it's what makes up that percentage that bothers Wines of Germany. "A significant proportion of that is blended generic wines - the likes of Liebfraumilch and Piesporter," explains Wines of Germany's Tigi Symes. Not what serious German wine is about at all.
So how can they change our opinion? The aforementioned lunches are doing a good job of spreading the word, albeit slowly, and there are a number of other marketing initiatives in the pipeline - such as the one that involves an incentive scheme for wine development in the UK, part of something much larger, called Charter 2005, whose objective is "to incentivise quality contemporary wines in a range of styles to support the development of the whole category in the UK", says Wines of Germany.
Caterer thought it would show due respect with a line-up of quality German wine from one of the country's most interesting and go-getting regions - the Pfalz. But there weren't quite enough to make up the usual complement, so we threw in six wines from neighbouring Rheingau, which is also experiencing something of a face-lift. This took the total to 15, with a mix of styles - all but two Rieslings, with one Pinot Gris and one red, a Spätburgunder (aka Pinot Noir). All wines were tasted blind.
We invited onto the panel Clare Young, wine buyer and wine educator at Young's Brewery, which currently has 215 pubs in its portfolio. Young hasn't looked at a German wine for more than 10 years - "and then it was Liebfraumilch", she says. But her customers, she feels, are looking for something a tad more upscale, and off-dry, so she thought it was time to give Germany another look.
From London's Great Eastern hotel, head sommelier Joëlle Marti and her number two, Loïc Maillet, are both recent German converts and enthusiastically sell as many German wines as they can - offering oddballs, such as the Villa Wolf Pinot Gris, by the glass to lure the punters in.
Chris Galvin is executive chef at London's Orrery and Conran newcomer Almeida. Not only does he have a growing passion for wine ("important for all chefs"), he has a burgeoning fascination for German wines.
The tasting was led by Caterer wine correspondent (and big Riesling fan) Fiona Sims.
The tasting was conducted in the Aurora restaurant at the Great Eastern hotel. Head chef Stuart Turner cooked up a Riesling-friendly meal for the event, kicking off with crab and salmon tortellini with shellfish bisque, followed by a ballotine of foie gras with a Riesling jelly, then turbot with sauce Albufeira, spinach and asparagus, finishing with a lime soufflé with mango and kalamansi (seed from an Asian citrus fruit) coulis.
"I was pleasantly surprised," declared Young. "I had no really big marks, but no low marks either. Does this level of German wine have a place on my pub lists? Well, that's where I'm struggling. I found it hard to put the wines in a context. Do I pitch them against equivalents in New Zealand, for example? I found it difficult to separate the trocken from the halb-trocken. Some weren't sweet enough for me - my mouth became shot with all that acid after the first few. But, yes, I would like to see Germany come back - it's almost considered something new now, anyway. For me, though, I guess it all comes down to price."
Maillet said: "You have to get through people's perception of German wine. Even for people in the trade, Germany is a nightmare to understand - there are so many different styles. In one region, a trocken Spätlese is sweeter than in another, so it can be difficult - as I found here. I agree with Clare - there weren't any absolutely fabulous wines for me in the tasting, but there weren't any exactly horrible ones either. I preferred those that were more forward in style, and aromatic, such as the Mosbacher. Some were just a bit too austere, though they probably would work much better with food." (The Mosbacher fared much better with lunch than it did in the tasting.)
Marti agreed that German wine was a tough sell. "It's best to sell them by the glass first," she said. "People still have this misconception about German wine - that it's all about Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch - which is a real shame, because German wine is really good. I've noticed that the labels are modernising, which is a good thing, and even that producers are changing their style - evident in this tasting. I know some say that they risk losing their tradition, but if it reintroduces people to German wine, then this has to be a positive thing."
Finally, Galvin said: "There were some big hitters there for me. Nice, crunchy, citric wines that I would be pleased to order. Wouldn't mind cooking with them either - maybe a take on choucroute. These wines would definitely take a bit of weight."
Prices are per bottle DPD, excluding VAT, unless otherwise stated
** Very good
*** Best quality around
Dr Burklin Wolf 1998 Wachenheimer Rechbächel Riesling (Pfalz)
£10.25, Laytons Wine Merchants
020 7388 4567
Reichstrat von Buhl 1998 Armand Riesling Kabinett (Pfalz)
£7.33, F&E May Wines
020 7837 1600
Schloss Vollrads 2000 Riesling Spätlese (Rheingau)
£11.35, Liberty Wines
020 7720 5350
Robert Weil 1999 Kabinett Halbtrocken (Rheingau)
£6.95, Heyman Barwell Jones
Lingenfelder 1998 Spätburgunder (Pfalz)
£7.83, Charles Taylor Wines
020 7928 8151
JL Wolf 2000 Villa Wolf Pinot Gris (Pfalz)
£4.78, Walter S Siegel
Georg Breuer 2000 Riesling Sauvage (Rheingau)
£5, Noel Young Wines
Schloss Vollrads 1999 Crest Label Riesling (Rheingau)
£7.15, Liberty Wines
020 7720 5350
Dr Werner 1998 Hochheimer Holle Riesling Kabinett trocken (Rheingau)
£6.10, Adnams Wine Merchants
Dr Burklin Wolf 2000 Estate Riesling (Pfalz)
£6.58, Laytons Wine Merchants
020 7388 4567
Georg Mosbacher 1999 Forster Ungeheur Riesling Sätlese trocken (Pfalz)
£11.50, Howard Ripley
020 8360 8904
We also tasted
Schloss Vollrads 2000 Castle Label Riesling
Lucashof 1999 Forster Stift Riesling Kabinett trocken
Reh Kendermann 2000 Langenbach Riesling dry
Kunstler Estate 1999 Riesling Halbtrocken