If you were born after 1990 this probably won’t make much sense but German wine used to have a bad rep. Talk to a Gen Xer and you’ll hear plenty of talk about ‘sugar water’ and how they never drink RYE-sling. Things are changing, we’re thankful that Gen Y are a bit more open to new directions in their wine drinking. The point is that good Riesling was always good Riesling, it just got obscured by a flood of ‘fake riesling’. Read on for how that happened…
The Golden Age of Riesling
Riesling from Germany was long considered the white wine equivalent of red Bordeaux and held in high regard throughout the nineteenth century. Especially so in the UK where Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert saw much Germanic influence extend into the finest cellars across the country (and no doubt the rest of the Empire too). Victoria even got a vineyard named after her near the town of Hochenheim, the Konigin Victoriaberg. It’s still got a statue of her there to this day.
At the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 the celebratory drink was not Champagne but Riesling from the Von Buhl estate and the Titanic’s wine list showed still wines from the Rhine and ‘Moselle’ prominent among the various Bordeaux, Champagne and Madeira.
It may be worth noting that in this era the majority of German Riesling would have finished fermenting as dry wines, only the most exceptional vintages stopped fermenting with residual sugar content.
The Fall From Grace Begins
The First and Second World War saw the British wine mercantile class having to take sides in the wines it consumed inevitably damaging the abundance of wines available and allowing a market to develop for white Bordeaux, Burgundy and Loire wines.
Mechanisation & Efficiency
In the post Second World War era Germany, like other nations, struggled economically. Riesling is a grape that requires lots of work in the vineyard. Each vine is typically visited seventeen times per year for work that can only be carried out by hand. Coupled with the extremely steep and precarious vineyards it grows best in it was unsurprising that many growers forsook the hillsides and took up the new hybrid vine crossings developed principally at the University of Geisenheim, which would ripen earlier on flatter land and allow generous crops and mechanical harvesting. Efficiency in these matters was efficiently nailing the coffin shut for great Riesling. So much so that during the 1960s and 1970s Riesling lost its place as the most commonly grown grape in Germany to Muller Thurgau. Dark days indeed.
Deception by Flattery
Riesling was held in such high regard that anyone in Germany trying to market Muller Thurgau or other various inferior wines naturally turned to the signifiers of Riesling to gain customers. Tall, slender flute bottles, flowery labels, even the names of towns associated with the best Rieslings such as Piesport and Bernkastel were appropriated. If it looks like Riesling then it must be Riesling was the thinking on the part of both producers and consumers.
The 1971 Wine Law
It’s always been the case that German wine has an intimate relationship with the patch of ground that the wine comes from. So much so that there were up to 15,000 vineyard names in use across the major Riesling regions of Germany until 1971. That’s when numerous changes were made to simplify the labels. Grosslage labels – wines blended from many different (and inferior) sites – began to appear often bearing the name of famous villages and towns. Who would notice the difference between Niersteiner Gutes Domtal (a catch all Grosslage used for high yielding, low quality Muller Thurgau wines) and Niersteiner Hipping (a single vineyard capable of producing sublime Riesling)? Not many it seemed.
The second change it enacted was the lack of the need to specify the grape variety on the label. Instantly inferior wines could parade themselves as higher quality offerings, deception by flattery again.
Thirdly no attempt was made to limit or restrict the yield of vines. Grow as much as you can and flood the market with inferior wine seemed to be the message. Allied to below par grape varieties grown in below par vineyards and the reputation of German wine tumbled into the abyss. To cover up the shortcomings in the vineyards the addition of ‘zuckerwasser’ – sugar water – was allowed. Sweetness can cover a multitude of sins and make the unpalatable into, at best, the uninteresting. The perceived wisdom for consumers came to be that sweetness equalled naffness thus further damaging the reputation of the famous noble, rare sweet elixirs made in tiny quantities by the best estates.
Greatness Will Abide
Despite a near century of damage to the reputation and sales of German Riesling the best producers and the best vineyards have continued to turn out the best wines. Tomorrow we’ll take a first look at the best producers of fine German Riesling. Prost!
By Colin Thorne