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‘A drinker’s market’: Germany’s fruity resurgence

For many years, much of the buzz in German fine wine circles centred on the great Grosses Gewächs dry Rieslings – but now the balance has shifted to the country’s sweeter, fruitier wines, especially from the Mosel. Richard Woodard reports. 

Rheingau vineyards on the banks of the Rhine at Rüdesheim

Germany’s presence in the modern global fine wine market may not have quite the significance that it has enjoyed historically, but the country’s great white wines continue to exert a hold on collectors the world over.

Germany’s vinous identity is inextricably entwined with the fortunes of Riesling, and Riesling of multiple styles and levels of sweetness – from searing, bone-dry ‘trocken’ wines from hotspots like the Rheingau to lusciously sweet eisweins and trockenbeerenausleses (TBAs).

The past couple of decades has witnessed the rising profile of Germany’s Grosses Gewächs dry wines – coveted bottlings, many of them Rieslings, sourced from the country’s finest vineyard sites, or Grosses Lages. Although not an official part of German wine law, the presence of the letters ‘GG’ on the label has become a guarantor of quality akin to a Burgundy grand cru.

“I think in the first half of the last decade there was less focus on what I would call the ‘fruity’ still wines from Germany – Mosel fine wines of kabinett level upwards,” says Matthew O’Connell, CEO of the LiveTrade fine wine exchange and head of investment at Bordeaux Index.

“Instead, there was much more focus on the dry wines, on the Grosses Gewächs, at that time. And I think that was reflected in buying activity for the sweeter wines. I don’t think there was a huge uptick for Germany as a whole, but if you were a merchant selling fruitier-style wines, then I think that was a more challenging thing to be doing. It was easier for drier wines from top-quality producers like Keller.”

However, O’Connell believes there has been a shift in the market more recently. “I think that trend somewhat reversed itself towards the end of the last decade, and certainly in the last couple of years,” he explains. “The momentum behind the dry wines is dropping, except for the top end. Meanwhile, the momentum for the sweeter wines is very much on the up.”

Producers to watch include Weingut Willi Schaefer, based at Graach an der Mosel – ironically enough, originally a producer of dry Rieslings but now very much sought-after for its superlative kabinett, spätlese and auslese wines, fermented in large oak and distinguished by the different AP numbers (German wine’s traceability system) allocated to each wine.

However, Schaefer’s vineyards total only 4.5 hectares, limiting volumes and leading to widespread allocations for the top wines. “That would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago,” says O’Connell. “It’s a producer that’s obviously getting the top reviews, and the wines are now very coveted. Julian Haart’s wines are also now becoming tricky to get hold of – so there’s a lot of interest in this segment.”

Numerous factors help to fuel demand and affection for these wines, including being very food-friendly, and having a prodigious ability to age. A series of good-quality harvests – 2021 being a prime example – has also helped. “There haven’t been many poor vintages recently,” says O’Connell. “What we’ve had are vintages with the full spread of wines across the prädikat spectrum. Maybe there have been less of the fully sweet wines, but the uptick in interest has been around kabinett and spätlese.”

That interest has also extended to Germany’s ‘feinherb’ wines – an unofficial classification denoting wine that are off-dry (halbtrocken in more conventional parlance), with residual sugar levels of about 15-25g/litre or slightly sweeter.

“If you had tried to sell someone a feinherb wine a few years ago, it would have been a laughable prospect,” says O’Connell. “I think it’s at this sweet, but not super-sweet, part of the spectrum where there is demand. Auslese and TBA – that’s more of a specialist area.”

The phenomenon extends to the auction arena. At one time, the super-high prices would have been reserved for the top TBA wines, but the reality of restricted supply and rising demand has sent auction prices for kabinett and spätlese wines skyrocketing.

The question is whether this momentum will be maintained, and how long for. Here, O’Connell is positive about the future. “This is a drinker’s market,” he says. “There’s not really much of an investment aspect, so it’s one for the collectors. The prices for the wines are still so reasonable that people don’t really need to trade down – and not all the wines are super-allocated.”

That also means that the market is not particularly active; in other words, when people buy these wines, they tend to hang on to them – which in turn makes it more difficult to acquire more mature wines. “It’s really quite hard to source this stuff five years after release,” says O’Connell. “You really need to buy these wines on release if you want to get hold of them.

“The big question is really about whether the interest in the segment going to be maintained? Probably, because it’s hard to see how collectors who are into these wines will suddenly step away from them.”

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