Despite the reinvigoration of the German wine industry by a younger generation, producers have highlighted a number of key problem areas that still need addressing.
The steep, rugged slopes of Gut Hermannsberg in the Nahe
Peter Winter, who bought Rheingau estate Weingut Georg Müller from the town of Eltville in 2003 is clear about the key factor driving recent improvements in wine quality.
“A lot of people realise there has been a revolution in German wine in the last 10 years, mainly because of the young generation,” he told the drinks business. “They have realised they can succeed only if they make quality wines.”
As an indication of how this younger generation – invariably trained at Geisenheim – has moved to improve standards, Frank Schönleber, who took the reins at his family business Emrich-Schönleber in 2005, outlined some of the key changes to have been implemented at the Nahe estate since the turn of the century.
“Today we are a little more selective in the vineyard and the yields are a little lower because we accept more competition in the vineyard from what grows between the vines,” he outlined. “In the first few years of this century we had to reduce a lot of fruit – green harvest was very important – but today we very often have the yields we want naturally.”
However Tobias Fiebrandt, who took over as winemaker at Weingut Leitz two year ago, suggested that the impact of
Tobias Fiebrandt, winemaker at Leitz in the Rheingau
the younger generation is not being felt evenly across Germany’s key wine-producing regions.
“The Rheingau is not changing as fast as other regions like the Rheinhessen and Pflaz, where lots of young people are taking over from their parents and trying to do something different”, he reported.
“In the Rheingau we are close to Frankfurt and Mainz so there are enough customers without needing to change as much. I would like to see more young winemakers coming in and changing the wines, not just continuing the business of their parents.”
In addition to improving the quality of their wines, Fiebrandt also called on the young generation to address Germany’s ongoing struggle to appeal to export markets as a result of its very traditional, complex labels.
Noting that Leitz currently sells around 85% of its production abroad, he remarked: “We really try to focus on what people in other markets really require – of course with the Leitz handwriting.”
As a result, Fiebrandt pointed to the creation of more modern Leitz labels such as “Eins Zwei Drei”, “Dragonstone” and “Magic Mountain”, arguing: “The customer has to be confident to make a decision.”
For Reinhard Löwenstein, owner of Saar estate Heymann-Löwenstein, there needs to be a stronger support system to help the new generation protect some of Germany’s most distinguished but commercially challenging vineyards, especially those on the steep slopes of the Mosel.
Having taken over an abandoned winery and acquired vineyards cheaply at the height of the Mosel’s wine crisis in the 1990s, Löwenstein reported that many of the region’s potentially high quality vineyards remain under threat.
“There are young people with lots of energy but the banks won’t give them a loan”, he observed. “Then we will lose those steep vineyards especially – we’re losing some 500-600ha a year. Plots like Uhlen and Wehlen have a worldwide reputation but even for those in the second class category it’s not easy. It makes me angry – the world is in search of authentic products like these.”
In order to address this issue, Löwenstein argued: “We need bigger estates that can make a bigger turnover so that they can invest in things like a proper press. We should let capitalism run to the point where we have larger estates, but it’s true we need some buffer – it’s cheaper for the government to give people money so that they don’t destroy the industry with more bad wine.”
One of the Mosel’s most prestigious sites, Graacher Domprobst
Highlighting the relatively small scale of improvement required to dramatically improve the Mosel’s fortunes, Löwenstein noted: “We have 3,000 hectares in the Mosel to make real terroir wines – 3,000ha for the world wine market is just a drop.” However, in order to preserve the reputation of these high quality sites, he added: “All the shit from alluvial soils should not be labeled ‘Mosel’.”
Meanwhile Steffen Schindler, marketing director for the German Wine Institute, stressed the diminished threat to these vineyards, assuring: “The slide in the Mosel has stopped now. It’s reached the bottom.”
Instead, he indicated the extent of Germany’s recovery, noting: “Figures were down every year for 10 years, but value is now up.”
Schindler attributed this performance to the fact that “We don’t have any over-production in Germany now.” Since the small harvest of 2010, he noted: “Prices have gone up and stayed up.”
Although this increase meant “we lost a lot of market share in countries where we were delisted, including the UK”, Schindler added: “We have gained at the £5-£7 sector, which is what we were looking for anyway.”
With a strong increase in domestic demand, Germany currently exports just 20% of its total production. “We have a 1%-3% market share in many countries but that’s fine”, remarked Schindler.
While China has been the fastest growing country for Germany over the last five years, the country enjoys particular success in Norway, where German wine accounts for one third of the total white wine market.
Likewise, Schindler highlighted an ongoing surge from the US, “our number one market by far”, where the Riesling Renaissance movement has helped to triple exports since 2000.
As a result of this strong growth and balanced production, Germany is among the countries to have expressed concern at the recent change to the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, which from 2016 will allow member states to expand vineyard plantings by up to 1% per year.