Monday, January 18, 2010

Germany’s Top Wines: Ratings of Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast (US) versus Eichelmann and Gault Millau (Germany)

There is a distinct disconnect between the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast on the one hand, and the two leading German wine guides - Gault Millau and Eichelmann – on the other hand in terms of which German wines and wine makers are top. This should not come as a surprise. Different markets are assessed. What counts for the German wine guides is what is produced and consumed in Germany. What counts for the Wine Spectator and the Wine Enthusiast is what comes to the American market and is consumed in the US. And there is a huge difference between the two.

Take Ernst Loosen’s Dr. L. A hugely popular German wine in the US, which made it to the Top 100 Wine Spectator list this year, one of two German wines. The Loosen wine is very well regarded in the US, but unheard of in Germany. When you go to the web site of the Dr. Loosen Estate in Germany, you will not find it. A wine, produced only for the export market. A Top 100 wine in the US, an unknown wine in Germany. In general, Dr. Ernst Loosen is a rising star in the US, hugely popular, while in Germany the Estate has just been downgraded in the Gault Millau Wine Guide.

To move on, there is a red wine boom in Germany. The share of red wines in terms of production has increased from 10 percent in the 1980s to about 35 percent now in Germany. Of course, given its location, the German red wines tend to be not like the fruity red wines we know from warmer countries, but lean and more elegant, with a lot of finesse. 30 years ago, in the international scene, people would not talk about German red wine. But this has changed. Germany now produces red wines that can compete with the best of the world. The red wine boom has not yet reached the US and it is very difficult to find these wines in the US.

What you can find a lot in the US are the German flagship wines, the noble sweet Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein, made from botrytized or frozen grapes. There is nothing you can do to prevent these wines from becoming noble-sweet. As a result of the noble rot or the freezing of the grapes, the grapes have such high sugar content at harvest, that it is impossible to make dry wines from them. They are very popular in the US and American demand is high. They account for a large share of award winning wines in the US, but do not at all play that prominent role in Germany. They are well known and appreciated, but they are not the wines, people are talking about.

It is a bit like the Lafite effect in China. The Chinese are currently very hot on Lafite Rothschild wines, in America, noble sweet German Rieslings are very popular and high in demand. In fact, the large majority of noble-sweet Rieslings are exported and not consumed in Germany. In Germany, they account only for a small fraction of the wine market. In the US, sometimes one gets the impression that this is all what Germany produces in the top echelon.

Moving below the noble-sweet wines in terms of sugar content at harvest, Germany being located at the northern border of wine making, the grapes that are harvested for Spaetlese or Auslese wines and below all have a sugar content that they can be alternatively fermented in a dry or sweet style. It is the winemaker who decides in the cellar if he or she wants to make a dry or sweet wine, not Mother Nature in the vineyard. Thus, all wines ranging from Tafelwein to Auslese can be alternatively fermented as dry or sweet wines.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller

There are principally two ways for making wine sweet that do not have enough sugar. First, you do not let the fermentation run its course and stop it. As a result, you get delicious sweet and low level alcohol wines. Second, you let the wine fully ferment to a normal alcohol level and then add “Suessreserve” which is sterilized juice to achieve the desired level of sweetness.

These basic facts are not well known in the US and too often, American consumers equate sweetness with quality. In particular the latter category is high in demand in the US and skillfully practiced in the Mosel valley. No wonder that the majority of wines on the Wine Enthusiast list from Germany are from the Mosel region. In Germany, on the other hand, consumers principally prefer dry wines. Thus, there is a large segment of German wines in the American market, which is fermented in a way to please the American market and does not appear in the German market.

Finally, Germany’s wine industry is dominated by small, family-owned wineries that are usually very quality driven, but do not have access to export markets. These often very innovative wines are absent in the US. The US is dominated by wine makers with long tradition and well established trade links.

To conclude, the American wine market for German wines is not at all a reflection of the German market nor is it a reflection of the World market for German wines. It is the American market with all its particularities. The wines included in the Top 100 Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast list represent a very different (and partial) take on top German wines than what you get from the leading German wine guides. But needless to say, all the wines selected by the Wine Enthusiast and the Wine Spectator are from top producers and are top wines.

Schiller Wine - Related Postings:

Wine ratings: One German and No American wine on Jancis Robinson's list of red wines.

Wine ratings: Top 100 of the Wine Spectator 2009 include Wittmann and Loosen Rieslings

Wine ratings: London's Times Top 100 Winter Wines 2009

Wine ratings: Gault Millau Germany 2010

Wine rating: German wine - Eichelmann 2010

Wine ratings: Mosel and Pfalz regions dominate German Wines on Top 100 Wine Enthusiast List in 2009

German Wine Basics: How does a sweet German Riesling become sweet?

German Wine Basics: Erstes Gewaechs, Grosses Gewaechs, Erste Lage

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