Hamish Anderson: German Wines

The worrying situation with German wines is symptomatic of the general malaise in the UK market as a whole

Readers of my last column will know that that I had a port moment, not only finding a stash of old bottles but also being reminded what an utterly delicious drink it can be. This time round it’s time for a German moment. Last month I spent three days in the Pfalz, Rheinhessen and Rheingau, tasting wine of ridiculously high quality. Granted, the greatness of the 2009 vintage helped, but every estate I visited was top class. I am sure there are bad ones in all of these regions but Wines of Germany sensibly decided not to show them to me.

I tasted lots of dry Rieslings and reds. The former I know a bit about, the latter I have had only a passing acquaintance with via a few specialist importers in the UK. Both styles of wine impressed me hugely, yet there was one consistent problem. Whenever I asked who sold the wine in the UK, the answer was either ‘no-one’ or ‘we do have an importer, but they have not placed an order for an eternity’.

You might think this was of concern, what with the UK being such an important shop window and one of the world’s largest importers of wine etc. In fact, most of the German producers couldn’t have cared less and were disparaging of both the UK market and its consumers. Admittedly, many were in the enviable position of being able to sell their wares many times over in Germany and exported over 15% of their production. But plenty of other estates around the world are in a similar position and they still feel the need to sell into the UK. More worrying was the belief that the UK consumer is just not interested and does not understand German wine.

Of course, the Germans have to bear much of the blame for this parlous situation. The flood of poor quality, cheap wine in the 1970s and 1980s helped to create the dim view of German wine held by the average consumer. Journalists, sommeliers and importers, too, must shoulder some of the blame for failing to find a way of winning over the general public to wines that we ourselves love so much. But it’s worrying to think that great wine producers from around the world might start to view the UK market as more hassle than it is worth.

Our country’s positive image has been
irrevocably damaged by the off-trade

This country has been an avid consumer and importer of wine for centuries – its population seen as open-minded, knowledgeable and thirsty. But while the on-trade scene is still incredibly diverse and vibrant, I fear our positive image has been irrevocably damaged by the off-trade. One German producer I spoke to knew of the UK’s restaurant scene yet spoke more of the general consumer’s obsession with price and lack of understanding of German wine.

I think he was being polite. What he really wanted to say was that the average British punter is an ignorant oik who is never going to part with more than £4.99 for a bottle. Evidence for this (which it is hard to refute) was provided when he pointed out that the best-selling German variety in the UK is, criminally, not Riesling but Grauburgunder; sold, natürlich, as the dreaded Pinot Grigio.

The best market for many top German estates is Sweden. As all booze is bought from a government monopoly store there is no price promotion: no three for a tenner or cheap cases of Stella. The result is that the average Swedish punter is happy to part with a few krona to get something good. Secondly they have no hang-ups or preconceptions: once tasted, if they like something they buy it.

With new markets opening up all the time for the world’s top wines it seems inevitable that fewer of them will make their way to these shores. We are all at the frontline; educating the consumer and conversing with producers. Now more than ever it is important to inspire the former and reassure the latter.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – November/December 2010

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