German Wine Needs You
I will never stop trying to convince you to drink more riesling.
Upon arrival in Germany, I was picked up by a Wine Queen. We got into her custom Mini-Cooper, emblazoned with “Weinkönigin Sophia.” The Wine Queen had packed a picnic basket full of sandwiches and fruit and pretzels, and off she sped toward the Pfalz region (aka Palatinate in English, though I have never actually heard anyone use the English term). In the Pfalz, the Wine Queen and I (along with another journalist) would spend a couple of days traversing the Deutsche Weinstraße, the historic wine trail, tasting a lot of wine. It sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale—and, indeed, some of the villages in Pfalz, with the half-timbered homes and wine taverns, surrounded by beautiful sloping vineyards, feel like something out of a fairy tale.
But before we talk about my time in the Pfalz, I want to deal with the less fairy-tale aspects of German wine, including how it is perceived and understood in the U.S. By which I mean how misperceived and misunderstood German wine is by most American consumers. And I’m not even talking about the hackneyed idea dreaded by every German wine lover: Riesling is always too sweet. It’s not. Learn how to look for the word trocken (dry) on a label and understand that a riesling with 12 percent abv or more is likely going to be dry. Sweetness, however, is just the beginning of the misperception.
My main reason for being in Germany this spring was to attend a big tasting called VDP Weinbörse in Mainz (the first since before the pandemic). It’s put on by the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP), an association of around 200 wineries that promotes strict quality standards, including the classification pyramid of Germany’s top vineyard sites: Gutswein (the basic, value wine); Orstwein (labeled by village); Erste Lage (from “premier cru” vineyards). At the top, wines from the “grand cru” VDP vineyards are called Grosses Gewächs, or “GG” on the label. A Grosses Gewächs always must be a dry wine.
Okay, so already some of you reading that last paragraph are probably thinking, WTF is he talking about? There’s already umlauts…I’m lost. Well, it’s partly due to this type of thinking that German wine hasn’t done so well in the U.S. for the past decade. In fact, between 2010 and 2020, German wine imports to the U.S. dropped by about half. And this was during a time when they were heavily promoted during the whole “Summer of Riesling” thing.
But American consumers can only take some of the blame. For decades, the older generation of importers and sommeliers loved selling “off-dry” (aka sweet) wines to Americans and then trying to convince them they were actually dry, using something like a Jedi mind trick (“you see, the acidity balances the sweetness”). If I had a euro for every time I heard some wine professional tell a person that kabinett wines were “the driest German wines” I could buy a fairy-tale winery in the Pfalz. (For the record, kabinett wines are just the driest of the sweetest wines).
My stance has always been: German wine terms are not as confusing as people pretend they are. If we can learn terms like crianza or vinho verde or spumante or barrique or sur lie or a hundred other foreign wine words…we can learn trocken and Grosses Gewächs. (If you would like to read my earlier paean and plea on German wine, you can read it here.)
Fortunately, things seems to be changing. My colleague Valerie Kathawala, who co-publishes TRINK, a magazine about “German-speaking wines,” believes 2021 was a real turnaround for German wines in the U.S. The value (if not the volume) of wine imports from Germany soared last year, which suggests that more of the pricier, top wines are gaining traction (and hopefully less of the sweet and cheap). Kathawala previously chronicled a “huge generational shift” in importing, a “historically important moment” for German wines in America, with importers like Vom Boden, The German Wine Collection, and Schatzi leading the way.
“U.S. drinkers are finally recognizing Germany for its high-end, world-class wines. German producers now have the confidence to price these wines with their true value,” Kathawala says. “U.S. importers and retailers are getting better at telling the story behind these wines and why they deserve to be in collections that might once have been the exclusive province of Burgundy.”
Ah yes, Burgundy! As we talked about earlier this spring, as Burgundian prices continue to skyrocket, almost every top white-wine region in the world is positioning itself as the “next Burgundy” for collectors and high-end restaurants. The B-word came up quite often during my time in Germany. At the VDP tasting in Mainz, the association’s president Steffen Christman invoked it in his opening remarks: ““Of course,” he said, “we benefit from the fact that our friends in Burgundy have rising prices.”
There is still a lot of work to be done with German wines in the U.S. Over and over during my travels, I tasted amazing wines only to find out the producer did not have a U.S. importer—and this was among the top 200 wineries in Germany! Sure, there are plenty of well-known producers you can find in the market, such as Leitz, Keller, Dautel, or Eva Fricke. But for every one of those, there are three others that are not available.
How, for instance, can a producer like Weingut Winter in Rheinhessen not currently have an American importer? (Or more precisely, was dropped by his importer, so you can still find remnant bottles.) I visited Stefan Winter and tasted through his 2018 GGs, Geiersberg (complex, stony, full of tension) Kloppberg (seamless, elegant, open), and Leckerberg (beautiful, lithe, haunting). But it was his 2020 Kalkstein Riesling, which would likely retail for around $25 here, that showed just how much value is sitting on the other side of the Atlantic.
Likewise, for the first time I tasted the wines of Knewitz, and 25-hectare estate in Rheinhessen—one of the newest member wineries of the VDP (accepted in 2021). The rieslings made by Tobias and Corina Knewitz, along with Tobias’ brother Björn, are some of the most remarkable and exciting wines I’ve tasted over the past few years. Knewitz’s 2021 Hundertgulden GG and 2021 Steinacker GG rieslings are as complex and inviting as anything happening now in Rheinhessen. Locals know it, too. At Laurenz, my favorite bar in Mainz, the sommeliers always recommend Knewitz. But, as of now, they have no U.S. importer.
Knewitz and Winter are just two examples among many others. Note to importers: If you need help or advice, I’m here!
Full German tasting notes and recommendation coming for subscribers only in the next two issues.
Outside of the big cities, this new shift with Americans and German wine is still not very apparent. When I returned home, I went to a shop not far from my home called Martin’s Liquors, in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. Martin’s is mostly a typical suburban liquor store. Oddly, though, they once had a huge selection of German wine. In fact, during the early days of the pandemic, I wrote an ode to opening an aged bottled of Rheingau riesling I’d bought there.
When I went to Martin’s last week, I was deflated by what I saw. The once-huge selection of German wines had been winnowed down. There were still a lot of bottles, but most of the vintages were 2015 to 2018, and so whoever was doing the buying seemed to have stopped stocking German wine. I bought a few choice bottles (including a 2018 Eva Fricke Rheingau riesling that was stunning, even more so for $19.99). But by and large, Martin’s selection was tired. And I knew the reason why: Joe, who had been the wine buyer, died in 2020.
Joe had also been a ringleader of the German Wine Society, Delaware Valley Chapter, of which I am a member.
Before the pandemic, our the German Wine Society chapter used to meet underground—one evening a month, at 7 p.m. sharp, in the basement of an Italian restaurant in South Jersey, a swanky joint on a busy commercial strip with a glass façade, valet parking, and a neon marquee that announces the specials in all caps—SOFT SHELL CRABS; DOVER SOLE.
To get to our meeting spot, we’d walk through the blue-lit dining room, where people ate entrees stuffed with lump crab meat and huge plates of veal saltimbocca and drank from giant martini vessels. We’d quietly dip behind the service bar and descend downstairs, into the wine cellar. About a dozen of us would gather, seated around one large white-tableclothed table.
We were a mix of men and women, black and white, with ages ranging from 30s through 70s, united mainly by our shared geekiness. Most members of the German Wine Society (save for Joe, Wine Chef Tony, and myself) were not wine professionals. The rest of the members were simply lovers of German wine: a man who travels often to Germany on business; a lawyer who writes a wine column for The Barrister, the county’s bar association newsletter; a doctor who tells us stories about her volunteer medical mission to Guatemala; a retired IT professional from West Philadelphia; a young couple who work in real estate and collect German wine.
There was little chitchat or fanfare before our featured guest would begin pouring and speaking. We might dive right into the esoteric end of German wine: a Darting Durkheimer Muskateller Trocken or a Kuhling-Gillot Scheurebe Quinterra or a Borell-Diehl Müller-Thurgau. We’d move through the various German sweetness levels, sekt brut to trocken to kabinett to spätlese, and usually end with a spätburgunder, eight wines in an evening. As we tasted, servers brought decidedly non-German plates of antipasto, grilled vegetables, mussels, and orecchiette pesto.
Our speakers—generally an importer’s portfolio manager or occasionally a winemaker—did not pander to the audience. It got super geeky, super quick. “There are 143 hectares of muskateller in Germany,” is how one evening began. Soil was discussed at length: “Kreuznacher Krötenpfuhl is full of granite and quartzite.” People nodded their heads when someone said, “2016 was a fantastic year for the Graacher Domprobst.” Rare was an evening with the German Wine Society when someone did not mention Trockenbeerenauslese.
I teach a lot of consumer wine classes, and usually, by the third or fourth flight, I almost have to shout over the tipsy banter. I find that if I give most people more than three facts about a wine, it will be forgotten before the next glass is poured. Not so at our meetings of the German Wine Society. On any given night there might be an in-depth discussion of the unique red soil of Nierstein’s Roter Hang vineyard or a detailed anecdote about a Mosel winemaking family’s succession plan or an intense discussion about aging on gross or fine lees.
The last time the German Wine Society met as a full group was for the Lunar New Year in 2020, at a local Szechuan restaurant (above-ground for one evening) gathering at big round tables, sharing off-dry rieslings and spicy dishes spun around a lazy Susan. While I will always prefer dry riesling, that dinner underscored just how wonderfully slightly sweet kabinett or spätlese riesling can pair with fiery food.
After that, the pandemic hit, then Joe died. A few of us met for a dinner the following summer, and I missed a dinner last summer. We still have yet to resume the full meetings of our German Wine Society. I miss it.
I’m always hoping the numbers of German wine lovers in America will increase. My hope is that over the next few newsletters, you will join our ranks—if you’re not one already.