German Riesling Renaissance

In December 2013, Wines of Germany announced in London that it had officially recognised six Riesling Fellows “for their dedication, passion and love of German Riesling.” Sounds like a bit of PR? If so, it is sorely needed, for German Riesling has been hard to sell. Aficionados may be saying that quality is now high, but the image stays somewhat stuck in the past.

Riesling went from being a favourite tipple of Queen Victoria to being despised by serious British wine drinkers until quite recently. The wine known as “hock”, the word derived from the wines of the village Hochheimer on the Rhine, was extremely fashionable in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After two wars, the name had more or less disappeared from smart wine lists.

It didn’t help that many German winemakers fell enthusiastically on the fertilisers, insecticides, herbicides and “modern” methods of cultivation that came in the 1950s. In regions known for fine wine since the time of the Romans, Müller-Thurgau and other inferior grape varieties were being planted widely. Yields rose, prices and quality dropped.

The Germans managed to put another nail in the coffin of fine Riesling in a crass act of bureaucracy. In 1971 it became legal to add süssreserve, sweet unfermented grape juice, to fermented dry wine. You may well ask why. From where we are now, it seems incredible that this was thought a good idea. Needless to say, it encouraged mass production of poor wine, as described by one of the new Wines of Germany Fellows, Freddy Price, in his book Riesling Renaissance (published Mitchell Beazley, 2004).

Post-war Britain was a class-ridden place, and wine drinking was still seen as an upper-class habit. Few others drank wine at home. Lutomer Riesling, a medium-sweet wine sourced from Yugoslavia and made from an inferior grape called Welschriesling, was served in pubs in the 50s and 60s. This was seen as a drink for the ladies. It did no good at all to the grape variety’s reputation.

Looking for a way to increase sales, in the 1970s wine shippers Sichel created the Blue Nun blend. Riesling was not mentioned on the label, although it was obviously German in origin. Blue Nun introduced many English people, who had previously only drunk beer or tea, to wine. It became the bottle of choice to take to student parties. But as these people grew up they cultivated what they considered more sophisticated tastes.

The public became more interested in wine, but perhaps it was put off German wines by the complex, esoteric-looking labels, with long unpronounceable names. In addition, no one could work out if Riesling was supposed to be dry or sweet. Or medium-sweet, and if so, what were you supposed to serve it with?

For many years, British wine shops had little or no Riesling on their shelves. In Germany things were changing; the Association of German Quality Wine Estates (VDP) began to drive standards up. Biodynamic methods of cultivation started more commonly to be used, mostly by small family wineries. In 2003 strict quality rules for new classifications of vineyards were brought in.

Two influential wine writers, Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, were doing their best to remind the British wine-drinking public of the range and excellence of the wines from the Mosel, Rheinhessen, Rheingau. Both have often declared that Riesling is their favourite white wine grape, and now have been honoured by Wines of Germany in their recent appointments.

Hugh Johnson, in his introduction to Riesling Renaissance, comes close to dismissing all other grape varieties, in particular implying that Chardonnay would be nowhere without “the crutch of oak”. He may have had his tongue in his cheek, as I remember seeing him at last November’s Paulee de Meursault apparently happily imbibing the despised grape, surrounded by oak-barrel-using local winemakers.

Another of the new Fellows is David Motion, a musician with a wonderfully appropriate name (“yes, I chose it myself”). In 1996 he bought a small wine shop in London’s Little Venice district. Wine had become his hobby, rapidly turning into a passion. He was outraged when he found that his nice, local wine shop had been bought by a national chain. He managed to persuade them to sell it on to him.

He had came to London as a classical pianist with a coveted place to study composition at the Royal Academy of Music, discovered the heady delights of the London Scene, had a brief flurry of fame in the pop world, become a recording engineer then a producer, morphed into composing soundtracks for film, TV, and commercials. He knew nothing about business or the wine trade.

A lack of preconceptions may have been an asset. “I swiftly realized that buying from agents within the UK would not work for us and started travelling, sourcing wines directly from small growers. Within three years the entire range was directly imported.”

Childhood holidays with his German mother’s family had started his interest and knowledge. “German wine was in the UK undervalued then and at best consigned to a few dusty bottles tucked in a corner. There was a moment when, whatever the commercial implications might have seemed, that I wanted to drink German Riesling and if no one bought it, we would drink it ourselves. So I set off and came back with a van-load”. He is still doing this, now in a smart van with the shop’s distinctive sign, and his bike rattling about in the back, ready to ride along the Rhine.

How did he buck the trend? “It’s thanks to a lot of Aussies and Kiwis”, he says. The customer base had been typically “old buffers”, male Brits aged 55 years plus. “They wanted claret. That generation thought Riesling was “sweet filth”. But our first pallet went briskly because a more cosmopolitan crowd was moving into the area. Aussies would say “brilliant idea” when we poured them the new wines. There were Americans working in finance who didn’t mind spending money on good wine. Now there are loads of French - we get young French sommeliers looking for something to trick their colleagues with. These people have no resistance to German Riesling.”

The Winery buys from 45 different growers in the Mosel, Rheinhessen, Rheingau, Palatinate and elsewhere -David keeps ferreting out little known German wines. A pallet a month arrives from Germany in addition to David’s trips four times a year – “I love it!” he says, beaming. No doubt Wines of Germany wish there were more like him to spread the word.


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