Generational bickering between winemakers is nothing new. Sometimes, like the use of barriques in Barolo, it’s a stylistic choice rather than a simple ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing things. Not so in Germany. Due to the older generation making some very poor decisions, German wine remains saddled with an unenviable reputation. They’ve had to put up with it for years: no wonder the new generation is pissed off. One 20-something winemaker I met told it straight: “my father made terrible wines”.
The 1960s, 70s and 80s saw a lot of changes as producers tried to increase yields. Excellent old vine Riesling was pulled up and replaced with highly productive clones. Sometimes the Riesling would be replaced with poorer quality varieties entirely. Hell, they even INVENTED some really awful hybrid grapes and crossings and planted them too. On top of this, many put their faith in the chemical advances of the era and soaked the vineyards in herbicides and pesticides.
In the short term, yields were high and there was a lot of wine to sell; but it was not the right choice for long-term wellbeing of the plants or the industry. Peter Winter, owner of the Georg Müller Stiftung estate in the Rheingau sums it up: “My generation still looks for quantity… but the younger generation looks for quality”. It has been down to their sons and daughters to pick up the pieces, but their hard work is now paying off.
I asked Alf Ewald, the young incoming estate manager at Müller Stiftung what he changed – his answer: “one hundred percent”. Organic methods, hand picking, crop thinning, yield reduction, barrel fermentation… he initiated a lot of new practices when he arrived, but now the wines are winning international competitions. Eva Fricke (pictured above), further west up the Rheingau’s slate cliffs has just established her own estate, snapping up tiny parcels of old vine Riesling where she can find them and converting them to organic methods, possibly soon to biodynamics. Her best wines are so stunningly pure and fresh they make you inhale, blinking.
She says there has been an increasing “awakening of awareness to nature” in the past couple of years and of “sustainable ways of running a winery”. Many of the new generation of winemakers have spent time making wine in other countries, and there is a strong spirit of collaboration where once winemaking practices were closely guarded. One increasingly widespread practice in the cellar is the use of indigenous yeast to create spontaneous fermentations (a.k.a. ‘sponti’) instead of using cultured yeasts. Some winemakers claim it can give unexpected results or unwanted flavours, but more and more are prepared to gamble with it in the search for complexity and a more terroir-driven style.
This more carefree approach is also thankfully being applied by some to the Pythonesque labyrinth of German wine classifications. Robert Eymael, owner of the classically-styled Mönchhof estate in the Mosel admits half-jokingly that “the rules are so difficult even I don’t understand”. A number of producers I spoke to such as Fricke and Dr. Bürklin-Wolf in the Pfalz are looking to Burgundy, and using a four-tier system to describe their wines: varietal wine; village wine; premier cru and grand cru. Although this currently has no basis in law, at least it helps to clearly explain quality levels in a language winelovers are familiar with.
What it doesn’t do is tackle the vexed issue of how to express sweetness levels. But the reality is that the majority of estates outside of the Mosel make only a tiny, and declining, proportion of sweet wine anyway – commonly between 5 and 10% of production. Many of the younger generation are turning their backs on sweeter styles altogether and concentrating on making dry wines, which are more food friendly and increasingly popular at home and abroad.
Luckily, if it’s dry Riesling you are looking for, they are easy to identify: they should state ‘trocken’ (dry) or ‘grosses gewächs’ (dry wines from certain excellent vineyard sites) on the label. These are the wines you need to know about: they are the most exciting thing happening in German wine. In fact they are some of the best value white wines on the market today.
This new sense of relaxed optimism coupled with sustainable methods in the vineyard and modern practices in the winery is giving rise to some amazing wines. But with German wines still so poorly represented in supermarkets, it will be a while yet before the average UK drinker’s damaged perception of German wines catches up with the reality. It’s a shame that so many are missing out, but the benefit for those in the know is that these wines are hugely undervalued. Some of their fathers may have made ‘terrible wines’, but the new generation is setting things straight, and reminding us why the white wines of Germany – dry and sweet – are some of the best in the world.
Some excellent dry German Rieslings
2011 Bettenheimer Ingelheimer Riesling trocken (13%, not yet available in UK, guide price £11.00)
Perfumed yet gentle aromas of peach and apricot. Medium-bodied, with good fruity acidity. Well balanced with a long, firm finish. 88 points, good value at guide price.
2011 Familie Flick Morstein Riesling (13%, Not yet available in UK, guide price £14.00)
Peach aromas with a hint of tarragon. Round yet dry and quite full-bodied but enough acidity to balance it out. Some grapey flavours too. Intensely flavoured, with a long finish. 89 points, good value at guide price.
2011 Eva Fricke Rheingau Riesling trocken (12.5%, £11.78
Spicy. Lime skin with a hint of flint. Very dry; light spritz and keen acidity. A hint of grape and green apple, but mineral is the main impression. Not hugely long or intense but pure and mouthwateringly fresh. 88 points, good value.
2011 Flick Victoriaberg Riesling trocken (12%, £16.99 The Winery)
Super fresh citrus nose, lots of satsuma and kumquat. Medium-bodied with a lovely silky texture, and more citrus (lime). Concentrated, pure and extremely long mineral finish. 92 points, good value.
2007 Schafer-Frohlich Schlossbockelheimer Felsenberg Riesling trocken (13%,
£23.99 The Winery)
Petrol and lime, floral yet savoury. Dry, but with some honeyed elements to the fruit. Natural feel. Keen acidity, very mineral, very long. Complex. 92 points, good value.
2010 Von Racknitz Traiser Rotenfels Riesling trocken (12%,
£26.99 The Winery)
Rich stone fruits (peach, nectarine) and strawberry. Medium-bodied with bright acidity and mineral grip. Compelling and intense. Keen, lean and very long. 91 points, fair value.
2011 Mönchhof Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spätlese trocken (12.5%, Not yet available in UK, guide price £15.00)
Kiwi, lime, green apple and spice. Dry and intense with bright acidity, but a round mouthfeel. Clean, pure and mineral. Concentrated but elegant and light on its feet. 91 points, good value at guide price.
2004 Martin Mullen Krover Letterlay Riesling Spatlese trocken (11.5%, £16.99 The Winery)
Lime, rubber and petrol aromas but not overbearingly so, at a delicious stage of development. Fresh and fruity still, dry but balanced. Very drinkable, with a long finish. 91 points, good value.
2011 Willi Schafer Graacher Himmelreich Grosses Gewächs 2011 (12%,
£21.48 Howard Ripley)
Smoky slate and lime. Dry, medium-bodied, alcohol not too high – overall a light impression but with fizzing acidity and great minerality. Incredibly pure, persistent flavours. Very long, very drinkable. 92 points, good value.
2011 Karthäuserhofberg Tyrell’s Edition Riesling trocken (12.5%, £21.00 The Wine Society)
Fruity – lemon, lime, satsuma and mandarin. Dry, but only just. Full-bodied, intensely flavoured, fresh, pure and clean. Punchy, explosive flavours. Intense tangy lime and long, dry, mineral finish. Brilliant. 94 points, very good value.
2011 Dr. Bürklin Wolf Wachenheimer Gerümpel PC Riesling (13%, £17.00 The Wine Society)
Apricot, herbal and a touch yeasty. Medium-bodied, very pure and fresh, with a dry impression. Tastes somehow wholesome. Long, with delicious fruity acidity. 90 points, good value.
2011 Reichsrat von Buhl Deidesheimer Herrgottsacker Riesling trocken (12.5%,
Not yet available in UK, guide price £19.50)
Powerful, punchy aromas of grapefruit and lychee, with some earth and petrol. Very dry, powerful and intense. Some herbal (marjoram) notes and a long finish. 92 points, good value at guide price.