What German Wine Needs is one of the wine trade's favourite games. As exports of wine from Germany slide apparently remorselessly, those who can bear to take their eyes off the much more fashionable wines of, say, Australia and New Zealand occasionally throw a crumb of advice to benighted German wine producers.
Readable labels, less tapered bottles, less complicated quality categories, articulate figureheads – all these and more have been suggested.
But what I think would help, quite frankly, is a new set of German wine importers to supplement the uphill efforts of the old guard. All over the world is a tiny group of stalwart fans of fine German wine (we all hate the sugarwater labelled as Liebfraumilch, Niersteiner Gutes Domtal and Piesporter Michelsberg, it goes without saying). But too many of them are too set in their ways.
They can appreciate the unique qualities of great German wine – its delicacy, its refreshment, its lacy fruit, its ability to transmit terroir – but they are wary of Germany's new, drier wines. Most of them are still concentrating on the traditional sweeter styles which can be incomparably delicious but are far more difficult to sell to modern wine drinkers than the dry, food-friendly styles that are so popular in Germany.
The problem is that when in the late 1970s German wine producers first floated these Trocken and Halbtrocken ('half dry') wines, they were pretty ropey. Like all new fashions it rapidly went to one extreme with fruitless wines, seeringly high in acidity. It was no wonder that wine importers outside Germany dismissed them in favour of the charmingly fruity ferments they were used to.
But things have changed enormously – not just the quality (and quantity) of drier wines made in Germany, but also the taste of the average consumer. In fact average consumers today, wherever they may be, have been taught to despise even a trace of apparent sweetness in wine – probably because they were introduced to wine via a slightly sickly commercial blend of Chardonnay or Merlot, or even Liebfraumilch.
Dry, or almost dry, Riesling is no longer viewed as a strange beast in the UK or US, thanks to thoroughly modern exports from Australia and New Zealand which can go beautifully with food, particularly such fashionable cuisines as Thai (a popular generic term throughout Britain's pubs now, it would seem) and other Asian delights.
As the dynamic marketeer behind Franken's large Staatlicher Hofkeller Würzburg estate (and the recently revived Schloss Vollrads in the Rheingau) admitted, 'getting people from Australian Chardonnay to German Riesling is like swimming across the Atlantic'. He has accordingly come up with an aromatic, off-dry, Kerner-dominated halfway house of a blend in a beautiful bottle modelled on a 19th-century Burgundian-looking flask. Cuvée Franconia 1999 deserves to succeed at under £6.
I went round the annual wine-tasting put on in London by the Deutches Weininstitut at the end of last month. Time and again the producers themselves expressed a desire to expose the British public to more dry wines. The ex-head of the Deutches Weininstitut, Dr Michel of the trustworthy Domdechant Werner'sches of Hochheim admitted, 'our dry wines are better now. The Japanese are starting to import them. My rules for good dry wines are that they must have body; they must be very, very clean because they are so transparent; and the acidity must be well-integrated.'
Well I'd go along with that – I am certainly advocating only well made, well balanced dry German wines – and here are some specific recommendations of such wines that have somehow managed to escape from Germany. Enthusiasts for German wine-labelling minutiae should note that many are labelled QbA because they have, like most French wines, been chaptalised to give them more body. All are Riesling unless stated otherwise.
Loosen Bros QbA 2000 Mosel
Ernie Loosen has done wonders for modern German wine – not least by making great Rieslings in Washington state that have reminded America of the greatness of this grape. This wine with just 8.5 per cent alcohol is all zip and refreshment, though look out especially for his drier wines.
UK importer Walter Siegel on 01256 701101.
Pinot Gris QbA 1999/2000 J L Wolf, Pfalz
Loosen's other estate broke down barriers with this full-bodied, oaked Pinot Gris in 1999. The 2000 is rather too oaky now but should settle down towards the end of summer.
£5.99 Waitrose, Booths
Lingenfelder 'Bird' Riesling QbA 1999, Pfalz
Rainer Lingenfelder turned to Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon's label designer for suitable packaging for this thoroughly appetising introduction to lively, dry modern Riesling. Students of German quality-designation minutiae may like to know that the fruit was of Kabinett and Spätlese ripeness when picked.
No 1 Oestricher Lenchen QbA 1999 Vollmer, Rheingau
A lively chaptalised Kabinett that should sell for about £6.
UK importer Richard Spiers of Guildford on 01483 537605.
Frank & Frey Müller Thurgau Trocken 1999 Horst Sauer, Franken
Now if a winemaker can make this trollop of a grape taste good, he must be very talented indeed. This is a fine, full-bodied off-dry wine just perfect for drinking with a hearty first course.
£7.99 from Noel Young on Trumpington 01223 844744
Riesling QbA 1999 Kruger-Rumpf, Nahe
The Nahe is a region which should have a great future for its crackling drier wines can be fantastic, as Hermann Dönnhoff (imported by Walter Siegel) has proved.
About a third of this offering in a bordeaux bottle has gone through a softening malolactic fermentation 'which makes wine the market likes even if we winemakers don't', Stefan Rumpf told me. (He has also made some extremely good traditional 2000s.)
Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Kabinett Halbtrocken 1999 Emrich Schönleber, Nahe
Another exciting producer in the Nahe making wines with real vivacity.
About £9 from Montrachet of London SE1 on 7928 1990; case orders only.
Deidesheimer Kalkofen Spätlese 1999 Bassermann-Jordan, Pfalz
Real density and purity with racy acidity.
Both 1999 and 2000 Riesling QbA from Waitrose at £6.49 are also good, though the 2000 needs a few months in bottle.
Jean Baptiste Kabinett 1999 Gunderloch, Rheinhessen
Racy, lively proof that the Rheinhessen is so much more than Gutes Domtal. Look out for Wittmann's wines too.
UK importer Walter Siegel on 01256 701101
Hochheimer Hölle Spätlese Trocken 1999 Künstler, Rheingau
Lots of hidden power here. No hurry to drink it.
ngsteiner Herrenberg Spätlese Trocken 2000 Pfeffingen/Furhmann-Eymael, Pfalz
Yes, a nightmare of a name, but a glorious wine – and the Weilberg Kabinett Trocken is pretty smart too. No problems with 2000 here. Smokey, gutsy and many-layered. Great with food.
von Blauem Schiefer 1999 Heymann Lowenstein, Mosel
If any bottle should convince a doubter, this is it. It is just so concentrated, mineral-laden, exciting, and dry. As the name says, it was grown on blue slate.
£11.80 from Morris & Verdin of London SE1 on 020 7357 8866
The leading German wine importers in the US are Rudi Wiese of southern California (tel 760 753 4244) with a very pretty site on www.germanwine.net, and on the east coast Terry Thiese (tel 301 562 9099).