Germany’s Bright Young Things
This piece appeared recently in Harpers Wine and Spirit magazine. I’ve posted it here with its original intro (because I like it!):
Sherry is for old ladies, Marsala for cooking, and Chardonnay for footballer’s wives. Reputations are hard to break here in ‘Ol Blighty, particularly if they’re negative ones.
The German wine industry, which has been struggling for the past 20 years to reverse its Liebfraumilch image, has perhaps fallen victim to the British obstinance the hardest. But 20 years is a long time, and today the regions most responsible for producing the cheap sickly sweet plonk we all try hard to forget, seem a far cry from where they stood in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Enter a new generation of winemakers who are well educated, well travelled, and bucking the winemaking trends of their fathers’ day by making wine for a new kind of German wine drinker. Here in Britain we also have a rapidly growing group of younger consumers. Utter the words Blue Nun in their presence and most would think you’re referring to a character out of ‘The Sound of Music’. When it comes to German wine, their slates are clean.
‘People are coming to wine earlier, partly through social media,’ winemaker Jens Bettenheimer told me. ‘Sites like Facebook and Twitter bring like-minded young people together. They meet up and have tastings and pair the wines with food. These are people who are health-conscious, who eat organically and are aware of where their food is coming from. This wasn’t happening several years ago.’ This shift is taking place in Britain too, but in Germany there is a name for it. ‘LOHAS’, Bettenheimer says with a grin. ‘Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability.’
Bettenheimer is a member of Generation Riesling. Formed in 2007 by a handful of young winemakers wanting to join forces to promote a new, youthful image of German wines throughout Europe, Generation Riesling, with the support of the German Wine Institute, began by visiting British universities to talk about their wines. The group, which touts itself as ‘Young, innovative, and open-minded’ now consists of over 300 German winemakers and merchants, all 35-years-old and under, who travel Europe hoping to bring more awareness of their wines.
These winemakers are switched-on self-marketers, but they are also listening when it comes to making wine, responding accordingly to a new focus on quality and provenance.
Bettenheimer took over the winemaking at his family’s estate in the Rheinhessen–Germany’s largest wine region and original home of Liebfraumilch–after working with Hätsch Kalberer at the boutique New Zealand winery Fromm. Since returning home, he’s made some big changes to the winemaking.
‘I have lowered yields, I pick more gently, and take more care with the vinification.’ Bettenheimer works with biodynamic philosophies in the vineyards and uses mostly native yeasts in the winery with extended lees contact–practices becoming more common in Germany.
‘It’s trendy to work organically or biodynamically and to spontaneously ferment,’ says Bettenheimer. (Later in the Pfalz, Tom Benns of Dr. Bürklin-Wolf winery adds to this by saying, ‘It’s a trend, but it’ll separate the men from the boys.’)
South of Bettenheimer’s estate, 28-year-old Alex Flick, along with his 24-year-old sister Katharina, took over the winemaking at his family’s winery, Winzerfamilie Flick, in 2008. He has since modernised the winery and the wines.
‘The first thing I changed were the labels,’ says Flick, proudly waving a bottle in the air. Flick travelled through New Zealand, Australia, and California learning the winemaking techniques of the New World before returning home to take over his family’s estate.
‘In my father’s generation everyone wanted soft, fruity wines. My generation wants acid. We want freshness. I pick earlier and try to avoid doing too much in the cellar. Each year I try to go a step further.’
While the style is certainly fresh, when compared with the laser-sharp wines of the Mosel, the Rheinhessen, along with many in the Pfalz and Rheingau, are generally making more fleshy, round, textured wines, which can be quite an approachable style particularly for blossoming young palates.
Flick, like many of Germany’s young winemakers, studied at Geisenheim, one of Germany’s leading universities for oenology. ‘At Geisenheim they apologised for the last forty years when they relied heavily on technology. Now they’re encouraging winemakers to go back to the land. Modern technology helps but the move is back to nature.’
Across the mighty Rhine River in the Rheingau, the mindset is similar. A bright young star of the region is the passionate and curious Eva Fricke, one of the few winemakers not to inherit a family winery, but to have ‘fallen’ into winemaking through an internship at a South African winery. After working in several well-known wineries around the world, she eventually ended up at the acclaimed Rheingau winery, Johannes Leitz. While there she gradually began acquiring plots of her own old vines. In 2006, with 2000 square metres of vineyards, she began making her own wine. Today she works with a still-tiny 4 hectares total. It is Fricke’s vineyards that receive the bulk of her devotion. She farms half her land organically and is converting the other half next year. She is moving towards working biodynamically as well.
‘There is an awakening–an awareness of nature [in Germany]; of sustainable, ecological farming’ Fricke told me as we sipped her salty 2011 Lorcher Riesling perched on the steep slopes of the same vineyard brimming with wild herbs, strawberries, and rocket leaves (this is a wonderful quality of young German winemakers—they want you to taste their wines while in the coinciding vineyards). ‘I knew hardly anyone working organically when I first started making wine in Germany. Over the past six years, winemakers have opened their minds.’
In the Pfalz, Reichsrat von Buhl are making colourfully labelled Riesling that walks a tightrope between spicy opulence and tongue-tingling acidity. Von Buhl farm their Grosses Gewächs (literally ‘great growths’) vineyards biodynamically and are certified organic for the rest. Christoph Graf, von Buhl’s general manager and sparkling winemaker, told me that the VDP (the Association of German Prädikat wine estates) in the Pfalz is encouraging winemakers to work biodynamically, seeing the benefits the wines reap from this kind of attention and care in the vineyards. Echoing the trends in the Rheinhessen, Graf told me that lees contact, while barely used 20 years ago, is on the rise once again. ‘The focus used to be on juicy fruit,’ said Graf. ‘Now there is longer lees contact to bring out more qualities of the terroirs, more flavours and textures other than fruit. Longer lees contact also gives better potential for the wine to age.’
While the winds of change in many of Germany’s wine regions are palpable, in the Mosel, the story is different. Home to Germany’s most prestigious long-lived wines, tradition still rules (Liebfraumilch was never produced here after all), and winemakers insist that techniques have not changed today. The charismatic Robert Eymael at Mönchhof winery told me with a grin, ‘We are very boring. We’ve been making wine the same way for thousands of years.’ This sentiment was echoed by iconic Mosel winemakers like Willi Schaefer and J.J. Prüm, however others, including St. Urbans-hof and Karthäuserhof, claim they have made some changes, including reducing yields, and using more native yeasts.
They may have come leaps and bounds in 20 years, but German wine still has room for improvement. The young wines are often over-sulphured, and red wines, in my opinion, still have a long way to go—many are over extracted with clunky oak, achieving exactly the opposite effect the wonderfully balanced whites do; and the endlessly confusing wine laws (most winemakers admit they don’t fully understand the regulations themselves) still get in the way of selling these lovely and unique wines abroad. But in all regions one thing is clear: The Liebfraumilch days are gone in Germany, and as Britain’s new generation of wine drinkers grows, the memory of them will fade, leaving Germany’s youngest winemakers to carve out a new reputation for their wines in the UK.