Still Misunderstood

When I was young, there was a hit song by the pop group, The Animals, called ‘Please don’t let me be misunderstood’. Its sentiments spoke to many young men at the time but, subsequently, I’ve thought how well the title could apply to German wine, especially in the UK. “It’s too sweet” and “the labels are too complicated” are just 2 of the more frequent complaints and, as a result most supermarkets and even many wine merchants simply don’t stock it, believing that it will just stick on their shelves.

But, search a little and you can prove many of the common views about German wine wrong – as well as finding some delicious bottles to enjoy.

Trollinger

Take Aldinger’s Fellbacher Alte Reben Trollinger, for example (Wine Society, £16). For a start it’s red! Many would be surprised to know that just over ⅓ of all German wine is red, mainly made with Pinot Noir (or Spätburgunder as its known there), but also Dornfelder, Portugieser and, as in the wine we opened, Trollinger. The grape is a speciality of the Wϋrttemberg region of southern Germany and would make a good alternative to a Cru Beaujolais. It’s a thin-skinned variety so produces quite pale-coloured reds but that in no way reflects the flavour. Our bottle showed all the lovely intensity of a wine made from old vines (alte reben in German) yet is fairly light-bodied, but with attractive bitter cherry fruit and a pleasant spicy bite.

Nothing like the semi-sweet, thin examples that are widely thought of as ‘typical’ of the country’s wines and proof, if any were needed, of how much German wine is misunderstood.

For those local to Bristol who might like to explore further, there are still a few places available on my day course ‘the Wines of Germany, Austria and Hungary’ at the Stoke Lodge Centre on Saturday 7 March. For more details and to book, go to www.bristolcourses.com.

Plain and Simple

I think it was the former US President Bill Clinton who used the phrase ‘Keep it simple, stupid’.  Those who design most traditional German wine labels should take note!  Take the example below:

German Label

It has the producer’s name, the vintage, the grape variety, the region, village and vineyard in which the grapes were grown and even an indication of how ripe the grapes were at harvest.  This is typical of German wine labels and makes them among the most informative in the world.  But that – and the common use of the difficult-to-read antique font – also puts off many wine lovers who don’t want – or understand – all the detail.  “Just give me a clear idea what the wine is going to taste like”!

So, I was pleasantly surprised recently to find a German wine with one of the barest labels I’ve seen:

Grauburgunder

Just the producer’s name, the grape variety (Grauburgunder is the German name for Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris) and the vintage.  Anyone interested in the region (Rheinhessen) or village (Nierstein) could check the back label where you also find, far more importantly, that the wine is dry (trocken) and has, unusually for a German white, 14% alcohol. In some wines, this level of alcohol can taste ‘hot’ or dominate the flavour but not here; it brings a lovely richness in the mouth – closer in style to a good Alsace Pinot Gris rather than a light and quaffable Pinot Grigio.  The wine is quite savoury with a delightful saline character that makes it really food-friendly – a noble fish in a creamy sauce comes to mind. 

From the label to the taste and style, this is about as far away from normal expectations of a German wine as it could be, but it’s really delicious.  And a bargain, too: Louis Guntrum’s Grauburgunder is just £11.50 from the Wine Society.

The Steepest Vineyards

DSCN1357We’ve just returned from a few days in Germany visiting the famous wine regions of the Rheingau and the Mosel. Of course, I’d seen lots of pictures of the area and read plenty about it, but this was my first visit and I was truly amazed by what I saw. Wherever I looked, there were vines clinging to impossibly steep hillsides – some up to 65% elevation. How can people possibly work those sites? And why do they choose to plant there?

The answer to the first of those questions may be obvious: with great difficulty! There are posts at the top of some of the vineyards that workers can tie ropes onto and let themselves down to prune the vines or harvest and, in some of the more high-tech places, you find miniature monorail systems that run up and down the slopes to carry the grapes to somewhere slightly more accessible.

But why plant on these slopes? The area is at the northern-most boundary of where wine grapes will ripen properly so growers have to take every opportunity to help the vines. Using south-facing slopes gives better exposure to the sun and protection from cold north winds. The slopes mean that rain drains quickly so that the vines’ roots are in warmer, dry earth and frosts roll away down the hillside; also much of the ground itself is comprised of decomposed slate which acts like a storage heater and holds the heat.

Even with all these advantages, growers still need to choose a variety that will survive the bitterly cold winters. And, for most, the one that works best is Riesling. It’s a grape that many in the UK avoid but, for me, apart from the very cheapest examples, it’s a variety that can produce some remarkable wines. I’ll tell you more about them in my next blog.

We travelled with Railtrail Tours Ltd. For more information about this and other tours they run, go to http://www.railtrail.co.uk.