German wine rises

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Germany makes some of the most appealing light and fruity wines in the world. Sadly, its reputation has suffered from too much bland, over-sulphured,...

Germany makes some of the most appealing light and fruity wines in the world. Sadly, its reputation has suffered from too much bland, over-sulphured, medium-sweet white and, at the other end of the spectrum, from complex labelling that has deterred potential trade. As a wine producer, Germany is seventh in the world league table with 8.9 million hectolitres ­ well behind Italy, France and Spain with 52m, 46m and 31m hectolitres respectively. For sales to the UK, Germany has fallen to sixth place with 7.2% of our market (after France, Australia, Italy, USA and Spain). Between 1997 and 2001, German sales dropped 11.7%. Promotion of German wines is almost a business case study as how not to do commerce. Gaudy gothic labels look cheap. Despite the help of 2002's Big Brother in which Black Tower was the drink of choice and gave it a boost, far too many drinkers are turned off German wines. Aware of the move to drier styles ­ Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon ­ the Germans produced a "trocken" or dry white, but in clear glass that usually means a sweet wine. If they wanted to update their image, a funky blue bottle would have been the answer. Yet a century ago, leading German wines cost significantly more than their French counterparts. Today, the rarer dessert wines from top vineyards secure mega prices at auction. To give Germany a chance, start by looking at the range of grape varietals available. To accompany lamb and quiches, the strawberry-scented Pinot Noir (termed Spaetburgunder) can be delicious. A rosé from the same grape, labelled Weissherbst, is delightful lightly chilled. It is a myth to think that all German wines are white ­ in fact, roughly a quarter are red. Riesling is the main vine, accounting for over 21%. Many find its petrol aroma unpleasant. The Rheingau region is its heartland. Look for off-dry examples (called halbtrocken), for a racy style with oily fish like mackerel, or the rich dessert qualities (Beerenauslese and even sweeter tongue-twisting Trockenbeerenauslese). Try serving in half-bottles with the dessert trolley. In addition to single grapes, Germans excel at crossing vines, starting in the 1870s, to counter cool climate conditions. Mueller-Thurgau, also called Rivaner, is the best known and covers almost 20% of vineyards. It was created in 1882 by crossing Riesling with Chasselas. It is best enjoyed within three years of the vintage. Offering several wines by their grape variety, rather than by the German approach of geographical location (village followed by vineyard on the label) will make them more approachable. Slip in a few historical facts: Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th century encouraged vines to be planted in the Rheingau and Pfalz regions; Rhine wine was shipped to England in the early 13th century to the court of King John and three centuries later to the court of Henry VIII. Two terms that are creeping in are classic: a good quality varietal from one region; and selection: a higher quality from a handpicked single vineyard with at least 12.2% alcohol. For novelty, try a German sparkler, perhaps by the glass. Opt for sekt, not the low grade schaumwein. Deutscher sekt means German grapes have been used and look for "Flaschengaerung" on the label to indicate traditionally made fizz. To learn about the subject, Stephen Brook's The Wines of Germany (available via Mitchell Beazley at £20) has just been published. It gives a good insight and reveals several German practices, such as the fact that de-acidification is legal and "widely practised".

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