The Renaissance of great German Riesling - History

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German wine has for many years been the ugly duckling of the wine world. It seems, however, that the duckling has become a swan. Ask authorities on the subject like Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Michael Broadbent or Stuart Pigott. They will tell you that the finest Riesling from Germany ranks with the finest wines of the world.

Not everyone is aware of the renaissance of German Riesling. This means that the finest from Germany are well within reach. Only the minuscule quantities of Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein are expensive. The price of an excellent German Riesling buys a rather humble bottle of Burgundy.

Like a fine Bordeaux or Burgundy, a fine Riesling from Germany can develop for decades. Through its long evolution, it will appeal to the senses with its fine and graceful aromas. It will reveal the qualities of its terroir. It will develop great complexity with age. It can convey a strong sense of its history and its origins. It can be a wine of the intellect as well as the senses.


Germany is far and away the largest of the significant Riesling producers of the world (the others being Alsace [France], Austria and Australia). Yet Germany managed, from the early 1970s, to almost totally destroy its long-standing reputation for producing great wine. In the process it succeeded in debasing the world image of Riesling, arguably the most classic of all grape varieties. But there is always a silver lining to every dark cloud. Despite the corrupted image brought upon German wine through stupid laws, the finest producers, against all the odds, maintained their own lofty standards. So today we are finally seeing those few determined and courageous people gaining the recognition they have long deserved. A new generation is lifting long dormant estates back into the limelight.

Under the ridiculous (and harshly criticised) 1971 German wine laws (and the even more ridiculous 1994 amendments), the only legal 'quality' criteria is must weight, or sugar level. The quality of the site, the importance of terroir, is completely ignored! These laws have sanctioned the legal ability to have once hallowed names attached to wine of absolutely no distinction. It has sanctioned the production of vast quantities of characterless sugar water and for those wanting their wine dry, semi-dilute battery acid. It has encouraged the planting of vines on totally unsuitable land and a fixation on incredibly high yields.

It goes without saying that the finest producers of Germany pay far more heed to the 1868 Prussian grand cru and premier cru site classifications (which are very similar to those of Burgundy). These old vineyard classifications were from an era when the finest Riesling from Germany commanded the highest prices of any wine on earth!

German viticulture can be traced back to the first century Romans. Plantings reached a high point in the 15th century with four times the area under vine than today! Riesling is first recorded around 1435. Noble rot was 'discovered' in the early 18th Century. Needless to say there were numerous highs and lows over the centuries. German wine enjoyed a golden age during the 19th Century. Then came phylloxera, the 1930s depression and the devastation of the Nazi era.

The post-war boom

Post war Germany saw a rapid recovery in wine production with expansion of vineyards onto flat land easily accessible to machines. High yields and low costs became the order of the day. Output was increased by early ripening, high yielding varietal crossings, combined with chemicals and pesticides and new cellar technology. Average yields rose from 20 hectolitres per hectare, to double that in the 1950s, to double again by 1971, to well over 100hl/ha by the 1980s! The 1971 laws enshrined all this as a lasting monument to political, bureaucratic and economic lunacy.

By the 1980s, an ocean of sugar water, best exemplified by Liebfraumilch, brought German wine to a dead end. During this period, tastes in Germany shifted towards drier (trocken) wines. Where sugar had previously masked a lack of flavour, the dry wines exposed the appalling inferiority of the fruit. It was in the mid-1980s that German wine, even the finest wines from the few surviving great estates, dropped out of sight in many markets including Australia. Only the German 'door to door' operators remained, utilising their 'encyclopedia sales' techniques to push wines that served only to further damage the German image.

However, it seems the gloom is lifting. The handful of producers who had resolutely continued to make outstanding and unique wines through this dark period have been joined from the late 1980s by an ambitious band of small growers bent on revealing once again the superb potential of Germany's finest vineyard sites. Some of the long somnolent great estates are stirring and getting their act together. They have been aided by a remarkable run of 'global warming assisted' vintages since 1988, by a handful of wine journalists and authors, and by some dedicated fine wine importers in various markets around the world.


Reproduced with permission Winepros Archive. First published May 2000. Author: Paul de Burgh-Day

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