Impressions of Germany, better late than never

It occurred to me having returned to Germany to work the vintage at a few wineries that after spending about four weeks here back in February, including attending the Prowein trade fair in Dusseldorf, I had neglected to write my general thoughts about wine here. It is a strange feeling returning to wine regions that I visited about seven months ago since travelling to regions all over Europe, particularly the Mosel which was the first region I hadn’t visited before in Europe. In spite of the gap things seem very familiar, and I am often reminded of some of the things I noticed. Now I am better able to compare Germany with other countries I have visited and commented on in Europe, so it seemed like the perfect time to chronicle my thoughts.

A welcome sight in the Mosel Valley

One of the most important things I discovered about wine here is that it is serious business. This doesn’t necessarily mean that wine production is big or that there are a lot of big companies like in Spain or Italy (although this is somewhat true), I mean that the wine business is important to people and they are very serious about it. No better evidence of this could be found than at the Prowein trade fair that is held in Dusseldorf each year. Owners winemakers and other staff make the trip north for three days of intense tasting and negotiating, showing the latest vintages and in rarer cases some older wines. Buyers sommeliers and media from Germany and further afield attend to see what each of the producers and regions has provided before being able to make decisions for the coming year. As Germany is an important market (and is also conveniently located to other countries further north) producers from many other countries make the trip as well, with Italy France and Austria extremely well represented.

On top of the world

They seem less philosophical about wine and have a much more pragmatic approach to it than in other countries. Don’t think that they aren’t romantic about wine, as those involved in the business have an affinity with wines from many places unlike those in other parts of the continent. They also bear little malice towards any other wine producing country, showing no envy or jealousy for countries that may have more varied climates and opportunities for viticulture, or are more associated with wine than Germany. Possibly as a by-product of their pragmatism and business-focus, they are a little less warm and hospitable than in other countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, which may also have something to do with the seriously cold weather they can have here.

There are always treasures to be found in a wine balloon

Germany has a lot of wine tradition and heritage, with some wineries going back hundreds of years. This tradition has been passed down through generations and like in other countries many feel it an honour to continue the family legacy. Wine was introduced to Germany about 2,000 years ago by the Romans, and some of their legacies remain like walls built to stop erosion in steep slopes. The church played a big part in the spread of vitis vinifera over the years and like in other parts of Europe owned most of the vineyards in Europe for centuries.

Schloss Johannisberg, where beerenauslese was invented

In spite of this long tradition there is very little to any wine culture in Germany. Outside of the wine regions themselves (and in some cases inside them), most people have a fairly ambiguous attitude to wine, seeing it is another alcoholic beverage like beer. They do drink a lot of wine in Germany, and actually import more wine by volume than any other country, quite unusual for a wine producing country. The average price of a bottle of wine in Germany is possibly the lowest in the world, as Germans are heavily motivated by price rather than quality. This goes across the board, be it beverages, food, electronics, cars – they are extremely price conscious. Roughly 80% of wine sold in Germany is done so through large supermarket chains like Aldi and Lidl. There is also the fact that typical German food doesn’t really lend itself to the styles of wine.

Different soil profiles from the Pfalz region

Viticulture in Germany is defined by extremes. The largest regions are the Rheinhessen and the Pflaz, with thousands of hectares of vineyards growing a myriad of varieties but predominantly high-yielding disease resistant ones like muller thurgau and silvaner. This is where the behemoth that is liebfraumilch comes from and where Germany got its reputation for high-volume, simple, fruity and sweet white wines came from. At the other end of the spectrum there are some wines being made from very small parcels of fruit. When it comes to the Mosel for example, we are talking about seriously small parcels. The impact that Napoleon had on this part of Europe has been quite profound for wine, as he stripped the church of all of their vineyard holdings during his occupation (which was most of the vineyards), and distributed them amongst the people. A system of inheritance was then put into place which continues today in many places, whereby the vineyard holdings are separated amongst all of the children of the family, which is why you see so many wine producers with the same name.

Prowein 2012

There are literally thousands of vineyard owners in the Mosel Valley alone, probably about four times more than all of Australia, and on average about one hectare of vineyards is owned. Most of these people either sell their grapes/juice/wine to larger producers or make wine as a hobby not for sale. Larger land holders must work across tiny parcels in different parts of the region, much like in Burgundy. The German government has a program of redistribution and consolidation of vineyards in place, attempting to create larger parcels for producers and allowing them to put in new roads at the same time. This program occurs across the country and allows them to determine what is valuable to plant and what is not, but unfortunately the owners foot the bill.

Very common barrels used for riesling in Germany

There are many that are working hard to re-establish Germany’s wine reputation which at one point saw them as the most valuable white wines in Europe. Most of this movement is coming from the small producers with less vineyards but more focus on quality and a sense of place and style. In the vineyards they are looking for naturally occurring low yield vines that produce higher concentration and ripeness in the fruit at harvest, often farming them using biological processes limiting the use of chemicals. In the cellars more traditional approaches are being experimented with, moving away from the technical precision of the past that generally produces predictable but consistent wines. Things like spontaneous ferments, extended lees and/or skin contact, use of large format often older barrels, and in some cases amphorae. In a way they are embracing the past when German wines were some of the finest in Europe.

One of the amazing traditional cellars I saw in Germany

Having had the pleasure of being in Germany at the end of Winter and the end of Autumn, I have also discovered that German wine regions are cold. We are talking about minus temperature cold. Hence the reason that there is so little red wine produced here. It does make the white wines particularly crisp and fresh, but the unique slate heavy soils add a lot of the minerality which help to produce wines that age an exceptionally long time. With climate change has come growing conditions that more consistently produce ripeness and sugar levels to make their famous sweet wines, in my opinion the finest there are.

Snow covered vineyards in Franken
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