Monday, 16 May 2011

Riesling & Co World Tour 2011

Last week saw the London gig of the "Riesling & Co World Tour 2011" - a trade event put on by Wines of Germany to try to generate more interest in German wines and Riesling in particular.

The event started with what was announced as "the wine trade's first ever question time".  It was a bit like Question Time I suppose, with a panel of German Wine experts fielding questions from the audience on their specialist subject.  Whether or not it was the first event of its kind I don't know - I doubt it - but it was a good format that bravely tackled the problems that blight German wines.  A few stats that were announced during the Q&A succinctly highlight what these problems are:

  • The average retail price for a bottle of wine in the UK is £4.47

  • The average retail price for a German bottle in the UK is £3.58

  • 60% of German wines in the UK retail market sell for less than £3

  • 80% of German wines in the UK retail market sell for less than £4

  • A mere 10% of German wines in UK retail market sell for more than £5, but this figure is increasing.

Not pleasant reading that.  When you look at a previous post I wrote on the problems of sub £7 wine you realise the extent of the problem.  At £4.47 the average UK bottle price is clearly lower than quality minded people in the wine trade would like, but the German average of nearly a pound less at £3.58 is a truly frightening figure.  There can be almost no money for wine in these bottles at all.

Now you could argue that if German wine is the lowest common denominator and supplies cheap Hock to those who don't appreciate proper wine, you know, French stuff, then what's the problem?  Well you could possibly argue that if it weren't for one key point that pulls all of these stats into perspective:  German Riesling is one of the greatest wines in the world.  No question.  This is the paradox.  The variety ripens very slowly (especially in the very marginal German climate) and is harvested at various stages of ripeness, producing a range of styles from bone dry and very serious food wines, through fabulous off-dry and wonderfully refreshing low alcohol wines (8% to 10%), onto sweet wines that are arguably the greatest stickies in the world.  Regardless of the style, all of the wines are characterised by Riesling's very high natural acidity, which balances any residual sugar and leaves the wines very refreshing.  The variety also has a naturally rich and complex character, which is at once recognisable but is also excellent at transmitting a sense of place.  On top of this it has an excellent ability to age; high quality Rieslings at around 10 years of age are truly magnificent wines.

So if German wines are so good, why are they so hard to sell at higher price points and why have they got such an image problem?

What was interesting at the Q&A was that they tried to tackle this question head on instead of ignoring the problem.  Various ideas were touched upon, not least that all the very technical information on the front should be put onto a back label, leaving the front labels clearer and more to the point.  Furthermore, the Gothic script should go!  It was also mooted that the classic flute-shaped bottle could go, but I personally think this would be a shame.  These are all good points; understanding the arcane world of the German wine label is an article I have coming up soon, but most people just don't need to know half of the facts presented, which must surely put them off.  The labels are simultaneously quite daunting and also horribly old-fashioned.  At first glance the consumer really just needs to know a) that it's German Riesling and b) how dry or sweet it is.  Those wanting further info can then find all the legal and technical stuff on the back.

These problems aren't going to go away overnight, but it's encouraging to see the German wine industry is at least looking to deal with some of the issues that are preventing the wines getting the recognition they deserve.  The Q&A also looked at some of the positive images Germany has that could be used to its advantage; its high quality engineering (which could imply well-made and reliable wines) along with its good green credentials.  If they could address all these problems, giving a modern, smart label combined with a marketing campaign based on German quality and environmental friendliness, then just maybe it could start to turn around its image.

The tasting that followed the Q&A showed exactly the sort of wines that should be getting into the UK market but are struggling to do so.  There were some really excellent wines were on show, mainly from producers who were "seeking UK distribution".   I hope they manage to get it, for their sake and mine, as it's criminal that there aren't more of these high quality German wines on the shelves.

In the meantime, here are a couple of tips for selecting good German Rieslings and interpreting the labels:

  • Remember to look for Riesling on the label!  There are other really interesting varieties from Germany but Riesling is King.  the cheaper wines are usually blends of lesser varieties.

  • Price is a reasonable marker - look for wines between £6 or £7 at the bottom end and go as high as you dare.

  • Wines marked either Kabinett, Spätlese or Auslese and NOT marked trocken are generally medium-dry light alcohol wines (look for the abv, typically between 8% and 10%) in increasing order of grape ripeness and richness (from Kabinett through Spätlese to Auslese).  A nice £8 Kabinett wine at 8.5% alcohol will be  medium-dry and wonderfully refreshing - a great aperitif.

  • Wines marked trocken are dry and much more austere.  These are food wines, often of a very high quality, but are quite severe if you're not used to them.  Try one with a fish or chicken supper, but don't have them on their own.

So I urge you to support German wines and pick up a couple of bottles of Riesling following the above pointers.  Supermarkets are an OK source (Sainsburys and Waitrose both supply wines by the excellent producer Dr. Loosen) and most independents should have a couple of interesting bottles worth a try.



  1. I found your piece on German Riesling very interesting.
    I believe much of the current prejudice goes back to an earlier period from 1950s through to the 60s and 70s when German Riesling on the UK market was simply too sweet and no amount of fresh acidity could make it acceptable.
    There has been a big change in recent times characterised by a drier and fresher style and I have found those around the 8% alcohol mark a revelation.
    It seems to me that the quality of wine making in the supermarket price range has gone up, the acid/sugar balance now works, the quality is higher and the wine delicious.
    One must hope that these factors will gradually erode the old prejudice but, as you say, some wines sold are sold so cheaply that it just isn't helping the situation.

  2. Thanks Oswald. Yes, most of the German wines in the UK were and still are awful! They are made from the very inferior variety Müller Thurgau, from extremely high yields of very dilute grapes. Müller Thurgau has none of the interest of Riesling and also doesn't have the hallmark Riesling acidity. It's a variety you almost never see on a label, but it's what accounts for the vast majority of Liebfraumilch and sweet branded wines like Blue Nun or Black Tower. Terrible sweet stuff.

    This is why there's such an image problem for Riesling, which couldn't be further away in quality, but to the uninitiated could look the same in the bottle. Always make sure it says Riesling on the label!

  3. Don't you hate it when people use the word "average" without qualification - it's as if they've never done maths...


  4. Well, I think it's fair and usual to take the 'average' as the mean unless otherwise qualified. I was quoting the statistics verbatim but I'm certain they meant the mean and not the mode or the median!

  5. In California, German wine = good Riesling. Not sure if the dreaded boxed Liebfraumilch ever made it over here but there seems to be no confusion. Quite the opposite (to the other extreme) which means German Rieslings are not cheap ..8 dollars upwards with most being between 10 - 20 dollars. Hence you tend to see (cheaper) Californian Rieslings everywhere.

    Talking of Dr Loosen (I'll ignore some bad puns) we drank Dr Loosen Riesling Spatlese Erdener Trepchen and Riesling Spatlese Wehlener Sonnenuhr which were both excellent but pricy. Do you have any Riesling recommendations?