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Wineland Germany:
A new generation of vintners combines technology with tradition
by Rudolf Knoll "Deutschland Magazine" No.5 October 1997

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Less is more: This is something the new generation of German vintners has come to recognize. But ten years ago German wine had a really bad name, not only because of a number of scandals but due to the mass production of cheap, sweet brands and the spread of unsuccessful cultivations of grape. Liebfrauenmilch dominated the export market, leading to the impression that it was typical for wines made in Germany.

Liebfrauenmilch still exists, but much has changed over the past few years. A new generation of vintners has arrived, highly trained at colleges and further versed in the ways of the vineyard through practica in other countries. This international experience, together with innovations in cellaring as well as a return to more traditional methods, has all combined to produce extremely positive developments. Those who began to swim against the tide earlier now see themselves confirmed in their decisions and are small getting a real return on their hard work. There is now even a range of top producers wait) - inasmuch as they only have small vineyards - have had to learn how to market their wines cleverly, without losing their customers. Classic types of grape are once again on the up, interest in more exotic cultivations is decreasing. The authorities are now granting permission for the planting of grapes which have an international reputation. Almost anyone is free to plant chardonnay grapes, while controlled exercises are being carried out with cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, and merlot.

But the real boom can be seen when it comes to red wine grapes. In the 1960s, officials were still recommending that redwine grapes be avoided because they were convinced at the time that German red wine could not stand up to the competition coming from outside Germany. Back then, vintners were planting some 11,000 hectares of red wine grapes, mostly for less important wines such as portugieser, spätburgunder, and trollinger. In the years following, such grapes accounted for only 12% of the total wine-growing land area of 74,000 hectares. But the media then began to discover the potential in the market and started to foster it. Excellent vintners in the Palatinate (Pfalz), Kaiserstuhl, and Ortenau, as well as Ahr, began to invest more effort, and with success: Today, some 20,000 hectares are planted with red wine grapes, and despite prices of 40 marks for the best, buyers are snatching these wines up.

The red wines' scarcity is not the only factor contributing to its acceptance in international society. A lot of this also has to do with the use of new, small oak barrels, what the French call barrique. Vintners began to order such barrels some 10 years ago, but they are now also manufactured in Germany. Nonetheless, the first wines to come out of them were rarely pleasurable to drink. For the most part, there was a lack of innate feeling on how to handle the new wooden barrels which imbue the wine with well over 150 aromatics. The wines sometimes stood in the barrels too long, and sometimes not long enough. But the vintners soon learned that it was what they started with that had to be of good quality. Time in the wooden barrel could only refine it. It was useless to store a mediocre wine in a wooden barrel in the hope that it would somehow become better simply because it was in there. Vintners swapped information and experience with each other, and this became an invaluable means to progress along the path to better wines. Now, a number of vintners produce excellent red wines, with the new wooden barrels playing an intricate part in that process. The stars of the scene include brothers Werner and Volker Knipser from Laumersheim in the Palatinate, Werner Näkel from Dernau from the Ahr vineyard region, Joachim Heger from lhringen in Baden, and Karl Heinz Johner from Bischoffingen in Württemberg.

Some vintners are also storing white wines in barriques. The most important element in this process is that the wine should ferment in the barrel and be allowed to yeast a little afterwards. This makes the wines finer, more elegant, and reduces the element of wood in the aroma and taste. White burgundies are especially suitable for this sort of treatment.

Many winemakers are also making changes in the overall process of vinification in their cellars, reducing the level of technology involved. "Many people outside Germany accuse us of having more technicians than vintners," says Professor Dr. Monika Christmann, head of the collaring department at the Geisenheim Research Unit. In her classes, she pleads for a reorientation towards more traditional methods. "The wine producers cannot allow themselves to be dicatated to by machine manufacturers when it comes to the question of how to make wine." But Christmann has nothing against a proper use of specialized processes and equipment. This includes the complete grape pressing technique in making white wine. This is more labour intensive, takes more time, and reduces must shake-out, "But the effort is worth it," says the professor. "It gives us a very clear, fruity wine with an excellent acidic structure."

Hans Günter Schwarz, operations manager at Müller-Catoir in Neustadt-Haardt (Pfalz) is also a master of his trade. Schwarz doesn't use any additives, and this makes the white wine much more aromatic. Taking a lead from internationally renowned producers, Schwarz made his 1996 spätburgunder without filtration. "A wonderful red wine, my best so far," says the vintner of his result. "A guest from Bordelais thought it was a Grand Cru."

German vintners are making an even bigger impression with their sweeter wines. We are not talking here of the normal, sweet, everyday wines, of which there arc still plenty. Even the growth in dry wines (including semi-dry wines) cannot change anything in this regard. No, what is meant here are the noble sweet wines. They derive from botrytis, the noble rot which visits grapes in the autumn. In the case of eiswein, the effect is brought on by the cold. Eiswein (ice-wine) is a German specialty, with 1996 being an especially good year. Vintners were able to harvest plenty of grapes frozen on the vine between December 24th and 26th. This was a great reward for the willingness to take a risk; it's not every year that it gets so cold that the grapes freeze as hard as bullets. The winepressing immediately after the grape harvest doesn't yield a lot of juice, but what juice there is is incredibly concentrated. Fruit, sugar, and acid then produce a fine, deliciously spicy wine with a typical sweet-sour aroma, as long as the grapes were healthy in the first place; green rot and mould can spoil the aroma. Eiswein is the result of nature's caprice, as are both beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese, wines made from overripe grapes, which in fact need a moulding fungus. Autumnal mists and moisture encourage their favorable development. The withered grapes look unappetizing but, when treated properly, they can produce a noble, creamy, sweet wine. Such wines are especially prized on the international market. The prices - even the youngest wines are frequently sold only in auction - are often enormous. The world record paid for such a wine was 2,645 marks for a 1992 Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese from the renowned Weil vineyard in Kiedrich in the Rhine Valley. Some vineyards in the Mosel and Saar regions come close to producing such fine wines. New premier labels from Egon Müller of Wiltingen, J.J. Prüm of Wehlen, and Wilhelm Haag of Brauneberg have fetched prices at auction of well over 1,000 marks. But such prices are rare.

Meanwhile, a number of old, well-established vineyards are having their problems. When Michael Prinz zu Salm-Salm - lord of Schloss Wailhausen, Nahe, and president of the Verband Deutscher Prädikats und Qualitätsweingüter (VDP), the leading vinters' association - hears that vintners are "wealthy beyond belief," he simply points to the walls of his castle, which are expensive to maintain. Vintners often have to go without making necessary investments in cellaring. Such neglect, and the belief that the place will do, often produces less than sparkling results.

Many vintners rely on investment from outside the world of winemaking. These include the famous Rhine Valley vineyard of Schloss Johannisberg (which is mostly owned by the huge Oetker company) and Schloss Reinhartshausen in Erbach. The former property of the princes of Prussia was bought in 1987 by the Willi Leibbrand concern and, complete with a hotel, was brought back to new life.

Vintners see the classification s stem for wines as one way of helping them in the market place. But such a legally established system - such as the Grand Cru in Alsace and Burgundy or the valuation system in Bordelais - would not really be viable under the law in Germany. Nonetheless, some vintners in the Rhine Valley and Palatinate have taken it upon themselves to name their best wines "First Harvest," for example. Criteria for assuming such an appellation include a low yield, high levels of minimum must weight, a concentration on riesling, and monitoring by palate, as well as the philosophy, "less is more

This text has been reprinted from the Deuschland Magazine No. 5, October 1997.

copyright 1997 Deutschland Magazine

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