Cultivating the king of grapes

Hannah Cleaver
Hannah Cleaver - [email protected]
Cultivating the king of grapes

German winemaking has long outgrown the horrors of the 1970s Blue Nun and Black Tower – these days Riesling is coveted around the globe. But, as Hannah Cleaver discovers, don’t expect to find a good bottle at your supermarket.


Looking for a quality German wine? Some of the nicest whites to be found anywhere are grown here and are available for very reasonable prices – but never make it to the supermarkets.

“There really is a problem finding good German wine on a supermarket shelf,” wine expert Matthias Stelzig told The Local.

“You need amounts in the millions of litres for that and the German producers are not big enough to feed the big supermarket chains. Some growers produce only for export, sending it around the world.”

However, the German wine trade is flourishing, with around 30,000 producers – and what they produce, particularly the white wines, is generally fine stuff. The challenge remains simply how to hunt it down.

Martin Müller, a wine maker from the mid-Mosel region, said as he produces only around 40,000 bottles a year, the supermarkets are not an option. He sells directly to customers.

“People order over the internet for our wine to be shipped to them,” he said. “They may have read about us in a book or on the internet, or have heard about us from friends. But many also come here to taste our wines and take some home.”

He suggested the best way to discover what you like is to go to a tasting at a specialist wine shop, and then buy either from the store or directly from the growers.

Direct buying

This direct approach is certainly one which Stelzig would suggest – but he also said a wine guide book could be useful for ideas. The good ones were only in German, he said, but most of the information they offer can be ignored if language is a problem. Their stars or points systems can be relied upon to take a decent punt, he said.

He suggested the best guides were Eichelmann and Gault Millau, both in book form, although the latter also has a smartphone app.

Although it might be a bit adventurous, even intimidating, to order wine without having tasted it, generally bottles can be bought for between €5 and €10 a bottle, with around another euro on top of the bottle price for postage. He said a crate of six bottles of nice wine can end up costing less than €40 delivered to your door.

“You might get stuff that is not your personal taste but you will never get a bad wine,” he said. “Wine is expensive here – we’re not in Portugal. The labour here is not cheap, everything you do here is more expensive than in Bulgaria or South Africa. It costs a lot of money to produce here.”

But Stelzig said the relatively small amount of wine made in Germany was usually quite good.

“You can spend five or seven euros on a white from France or Italy but you will not get anything special for that money,” he said. “A German Riesling can be very special.”

But Stelzig admitted that German red wines were more difficult for the ordinary drinker to appreciate. “Sometimes you can get a very good Spätburgunder – a late burgundy – for around seven euros,” he said. But much of the German-produced red is rather sweet for international palates.

Stelzig said that a new generation of German wine producers started to change the industry in the 1980s, having been abroad and experienced modern techniques, including a host of technical innovations which allowed them to control temperature and oxidation, and produce more consistently good wine.

“If you look at the CV of any wine producer here today, they will have studied abroad, in France, Australia or South Africa. The driving grape variety in, for example, the Mosel region is the Riesling, although in Baden-Württemberg there are some Burgunder (pinot) too. But generally in Germany it is all about the Rieslings.”

Riesling – the king of crisp

A decent Riesling basically differs from most other white wine varieties in its lightness and crisp taste, which Stelzig said should be acidic but a fine, pleasant taste, not a sour one. It has fruity and some floral notes to the taste, but its main and unique characteristic is its lightness.

But the less-known Silvaner grape is also popular among German white wine fans. It has similar properties to the Riesling, and can be even slimmer on the palate than that.

“Germany is on the edge of what is possible with wine – this is probably due to climate change,” he said. “More sun means more mature grape and that has led to great vintages over the last 10 to 15 years.”

Drink wine, and you will sleep well. Sleep, and you will not sin. Avoid sin, and you will be saved. Ergo, drink wine and be saved. – A mediaeval German saying


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