Wednesday, May 9, 2012

German Wine 101: An AOC Interview with Christian Schiller

I was interviewed by AOC Fine Wine - Local Wines from Around the World - in New York City. In the month of May, the AOC Fine Wine Blog features a series of postings on German wine. Here is a reposting of  German Wine 101: An AOC Interview with Christian Schiller.

AOC was lucky enough to catch up with writer and wine aficionado Dr. Christian Schiller for this illuminating interview.  Christian is a member of the Weinfeder, German Wine Journalists Association) and the FIJEV (International Federation of Wine and Spirits Journalists and Writers), be sure to stop by his excellent blog.

AOC Fine Wines: Is Biodynamic winemaking a strong trend among artisan winemakers in Germany today?

Christian Schiller: A few words on “among artisan winemaking” first. Germany’s wine industry is dominated by small producers. Germany’s top winemakers all make between 5.000 and 15.000 cases only. Doennhoff, for example, makes 10.000 cases. And they all grow their own grapes. Almost all of Germany’s top winemakers I would call artisan winemakers, by international standards.

Turning to biodynamic winemaking, well this is just one approach of what I would call “green” winemaking, i.e. winemaking with an ecological mindset. As you know, Germany is a very “green’ country with the Green Party a strong force in politics. For many years, Germany was led by a coalition government of social democrats and greens.

Very few German winemakers are certified biodynamic. The group of certified organic producers is larger, but also small. However, the majority of German winemakers – apart from those mass producers who make wine for the discounters and the entry-level segment of the world market – make their wine with an ecological mindset.  In sum: making wine in coherence with ecological standards is a strong trend, but biodynamic not so much.

AOC: Is the market for German wines mostly domestic, or is there a large demand from international markets such as the USA?

CS: Germany produces 7 to 9 million hectoliters of wine annually. Of this, a bit more than 1 million hectoliters is exported. At the same time, Germans consume 18 million hectoliters of wine annually. Thus, about 8 to 10 million hectoliters are imported annually, with the 3 dominant wine producers in the world – Spain, France, and Italy – accounting for most of it.

Of the 1 million hectoliters that is produced for exports, 1/3 is sold in the USA. Half a century ago, Americans liked white German massproduced wines with names like Blue Nun, Black Tower and Zeller Schwarze Katz. But as tastes changed, the American consumer turned to oaky Chardonnays from California and the German wines disappeared from the shelves. With them, unfortunately, went the appreciation of German wines by the American wine drinker. However, since the early 1990s, German wines have seen a renaissance in the US. Riesling is now the fastest-growing white grape variety in the US. American consumers of German white wine like the low-alcohol, fruity-sweet Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese wines.

AOC: What is the biggest factor holding back exports of German wines today?

CS:I think there are a number of factors as to why more German wine is not exported. First, at the low end of the market, German wines have a hard time to compete with the cheap New World wines. Second, as I said earlier, German premium wine producers are small by international standards and almost all of the estates family-owned and managed. Those producers, who focus on low-alcohol, fruity-sweet white wines, tend to be rather active in the export markets around the world as they export  most of their wines. But these wines will always remain niche-wines. Third, most of the premium wine producers are much more pushing for import substitution:  Convince the German wine consumer that the Pinot Noirs from Baden are as good or even better than those from Burgundy. And they are very successful. Take me, for example. 30 years ago I would choose a Riesling from the Rheingau for white wine and a Rioja or Bordeaux for red wine. This has changed. I more and more pick a German Pinot Noir, when I am looking for a red wine.

AOC: How does the world perceive German wines?  Is this perception changing?  If yes, how so?

CS: Interestingly, the structure of German wine that is exported is fundamentally different from the structure of the German wine that is consumed in Germany. To begin with, 30% of the German wine consumed in Germany is red wine; it is close to zero in terms of German wine exports. Second, the world loves the low-alcohol, sweet-style Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese wines, in particular from the Mosel. They account for a large share in German wine exports. But they are niche-wines in Germany as they are in the rest of the world. Germany drinks dry, as the rest of the world. The Restaurant Spruce in San Francisco, for example, has an impressive list of German white wines and perhaps 90% of these wines are low-alcohol, fruity-sweet wines, mostly Riesling. By contrast, Wine Bar Rutz in Berlin has an even longer list, but 90% of the wines are dry that you can drink with your meal.

AOC: What about inside Germany: has the attitude toward wine evolved with the development of high quality German wines?

CS: I do not think that the attitude toward wine has changed a lot in Germany over say the past 100 years. Germany was always been half beer drinker and half wine drinker. Of course, after the 2nd World War, top restaurants were much smaller in number than today. But also, the number of people who would drive Porsche, BMW and Mercedes was smaller. In general, there has been an enormous increase in the living standard in Germany and more money available for good food and premium wine. But my grandfather would go twice a year to the Rheingau to stock up his cellar, my father would do the same and I did too, when I used to live in Germany. And we always had wine for dinner. Germany is an Old World Country with a long wine history. The main big shift in the past decades is the trend towards drinking more red wine from Germany.

AOC: Is Riesling better understood today?  Do you think that German Rieslings are regaining the fame that they enjoyed before the First World War?

CS: The problem with Riesling is that you can make it in so many different styles. The low-alcohol, fruity-sweet Rieslings will always find their buyers in the world, but I do not think that they will regain the fame that they enjoyed before the 1st World War. Today, the German elite wine makers are pushing their dry grand cru wines (Grosses Gewaechs), which are very popular in Germany, but have not yet found the big audience in the rest of the world that they deserve, in my view.

AOC: Has the quality reputation of Rheingau wines fallen off recently?  Are there winemakers trying to fix this perception?

CS: The Rheingau is known for making outstanding wines, in particular Riesling. I do not think that the quality reputation of the Rheingau wines has fallen off recently. But what is happening is that you find the young, innovative, dynamic winemakers in Germany in other wine regions. Rheinhessen is a prime example. 30 years ago, my wine friends would not touch Rheinhessen wines. Now, you find there many young winemakers who produce very interesting and innovative wines, often reaching and sometimes surpassing the quality level of the Rheingau and – this is very important – often at a much lower price.

AOC: Who supports the German wine law system?  Who would like to see it changed? 

CS: Germany is a cool climate wine producer. At the center of the German wine law is the sugar content at harvest. This, however, has nothing to do with the sugar content in the final wine, which is not well understood by many wine consumers. 95% of German wine would be bone-dry, if you just leave it to Mother Nature in the wine cellar. A German Spaetlese and Auslese, for example, would be bone dry, were it not for the skillfull intervention of the winemaker in the cellar. But then we would not have the delicious low-alcohol, fruity-sweet Mosel Rieslings. The Grosses Gewaechs wines I was talking about earlier are all Auslese wines in terms of sugar content at harvest, but fully fermented and thus bone-dry.

The German elite winemakers, notably the VDP, want to move away from a classification system where the sugar content at harvest is the decisive factor in the quality ladder to a system that is terroir-based, like the classification system in the Bourgogne. They indeed have developed their own classification system with four layers: Grosses Geweachs (Grand Cru), Erstes Gewaechs (Premier Cru), Ortswein (village wine) and Gutswein (estate wine) and are implementing it. Many non-VDP members are following them.

AOC: Why has Baden had so much success with Pinot Noir, while Alsace only produces a small quantity of Pinot Noir?

CS: Both in terms of climate and in terms of terroir, you find a lot of similarities in Baden with the Bourgogne, but not in Alsace. Baden has always been a major producer of red wine in Germany, whereas Alsace is famous for its crisp, fresh white wines. However, in line with the general trend, Alsace produces quite a bit of Pinot Noir now, because the demand in Alsace for locally produced red wines is so strong. Red wine production in Alsace accounts for about 10%, but it is all consumed in the Winstubs in Alsace.

A special thank you to Christian for his time and photographs.  Be sure to visit his blog.

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