There is, among wine drinkers, a love that dares not speak its name. Mentioned in whispered tones in furtive gatherings, it is never brought up in public, except with those who share the passion. Not that most people would dislike you for it, but they would think you odd and question your taste. But the time has come to ask: What do people have against German wines? That Germany produces some of the best wines in the world is incontestable. Winemaking in Germany is actually a much more highly skilled and up-market craft than the mass production wine businesses of France and Italy. German winemakers do not make wine for quaffing; there is plenty of beer for that purpose. They battle steep slopes, cold weather, and low crop yields to carefully produce a distinctive, individual, and refined wine. Most of the better German winemakers, for example, will not mix the grapes harvested from disparate parts of their vineyards, refusing to dilute their best wines. Not even Romanée-Conti or Chateau d’Yquem pursues such triage. Yet these wines languish in obscurity outside their homeland. Apart from a fading enthusiasm among the British for “Hock” (the generic term they use for German wine, after Hocheim, a town in the Rheingau region), there is little international interest in them. In the midst of a raging market for all sorts of unusual grape varieties (Mourvèdre, Petit sirah, Viognier) and exotic locales (Chile, New Zealand, Hungary) the poor standing of the elegant German Riesling is all the more noticeable. I have thought hard about this and decided that there are three possible explanations for this lack of interest, each involving an important figure from Germany’s past–Hitler, Hegel, and Marx.
First, the Hitlerian thesis, which is easily dismissed. Could it be that German wines have been discredited because of Nazism (in the way that South African wines were simply not drunk 15 years ago)? The simplest response to this is one word: Krups. German brand names sell around the world without any trouble. And it’s not as though the German wine industry had any special connection with Hitler’s regime as did, say, Krups and Mercedes.
The Hegelian thesis is more persuasive. Hegel was a brilliant philosopher who expressed his ideas in a rather convoluted way, making them particularly incomprehensible to the Anglo-American mind. German wine labels suffer from much the same handicap: Good product but described in a way that is incomprehensible. German law requires that a mountain of information be heaped onto this small slip of paper. As anyone who has browsed the Internet knows, too much information can be a bad thing–particularly when written in dark Gothic typeface. In 1971, the authorities decided to “rationalize” wine labels. New geographic divisions and subdivisions were created to identify the wines and new terms invented to describe them (Bereichs, which are districts; Einzellage, which are vineyards; Grosslage, which are big vineyards–sort of). The result, predictably, is further confusion.
T he solution to Hegel is to read him with a good Anglo-American guide on hand. (My favorite for beginners is Peter Singer’s Hegel, published in the Oxford Pastmaster series.) This is what must be done with German wines as well. (Ian Jamieson’s Guide to the Wines of Germany, published by Simon & Schuster, does nicely.) In the interim, remember a few key rules. All the wines you will encounter are QmP (“Quality Wine With Special Attributes”). The best regions of Germany are the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (sometimes just Mosel, or spelled in French style, Moselle) and the trio of Rhine areas, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and Rheinpfalz (of which the first is the best). Vintage is important with German wines since the weather is often bad, but recent vintages have been good (1993, ‘95, and ‘96), and for special dessert wines, 1989 and 1990 are superb. Finally, the Marxist thesis. Ask most American wine drinkers why they don’t like German wines, and they will tell you, “I don’t like sweet wines.” Yet this is the land of Coke and Pepsi and sickeningly sweet fruit juice cocktails. Wine is not exempt from this national sweet tooth. White Zinfandel is the largest-selling type of wine sold in the United States. In the past Mateus, Riunite, and Blue Nun were all big mass market wines, selling tens of thousands of cases a year. But herein lies the problem. These wines were (and are) bought by the wrong end of the market and have given German wines a bad name. In a two tier economy, with Wal-Mart on one side and Tiffany’s on the other, it is now important to signal quite clearly where you stand. Many people drink sweet wines, but they are the wrong people. Sweet wine is the Velveeta of the beverage industry. It turns out that class consciousness is the key to our puzzle.
People know it sounds stylish to ask for “a dry white wine” at a bar. Never mind that what they usually get–a rich, fruity Chardonnay–is not really a dry wine. (Truly dry wines such as a flinty Chablis, an austere white Bordeaux, or dry sherry are not actually very popular.) I’m not denying German wines are sweet. But most of them balance sweetness with acidity nicely, creating a soft, delicate product that complements seafood quite well. They ascend a scale that roughly corresponds with sweetness–Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese (the terms refer to the wine’s sugar level). You need concern yourself only with the first three types of wine; the others are only drunk with (or in place of) dessert. Uncork a young Moselle (from any of these three categories), smell its beautiful perfumed nose, and sip it on a warm summer afternoon. As a friend of mine said (of Bernkasteler Doctor, one of the best vineyards in Germany), “This is what God drinks at 5 o’clock in the summer.”
More noticeable than their sweetness is the lack of alcohol in German wines, which is why they taste light (or weak, if you prefer) compared with most other wines. German wines can have as little as 8 percent alcohol. The norm for a French wine is 11 percent, and the level can go up to 13. (The difference proportionally is not insignificant. Two glasses of German wine would have as much alcohol as about one and a quarter glasses of a French white wine.) But this should be its hidden advantage–as a lunch wine. German wines are perfect for the working lunch. They go with a wide variety of foods, including most ethnic foods, and are perhaps the only wine that can accompany a salad (the sweetness can withstand the acidity of the vinegar). Most important, the low levels of alcohol mean you won’t fall asleep in the afternoon. The Germans may take two-week spa vacations, but they have a lovely solution to the post-lunch productivity problem.