Hugh Johnson September 2010 column: Raise the Teutonic!

Hugh Johnson People & Places Articles
  • Monday 2 August 2010

Perhaps they should make it stronger. Or make sure it doesn’t have that give-away taste of fresh fruit. What are the Germans doing wrong to put us off their wine? We drink oceans of mediocre stuff from far-flung countries but turn our noses up at some of the world’s freshest and most characterful. Is it that Germany doesn’t conjure up visions of glorious meals? Or that not many of us go on holiday to its quaint wine towns? Is it the language?

Perhaps they should make it stronger. Or make sure it doesn’t have that give-away taste of fresh fruit. What are the Germans doing wrong to put us off their wine? We drink oceans of mediocre stuff from far-flung countries but turn our noses up at some of the world’s freshest and most characterful. Is it that Germany doesn’t conjure up visions of glorious meals? Or that not many of us go on holiday to its quaint wine towns? Is it the language?

The approved and endlessly repeated answer is ‘Remember Liebfraumilch’. The feeble fluid that used to flow here in vast quantities is said to have put us off German wine for keeps. Did the Spanish Burgundy of the ’70s give us an aversion to Spain, or acid in straw-covered flasks to Italy?

Part of the problem is the confusion between ‘German’ and ‘Riesling’. Is it entirely Germany’s fault that its bog-standard wines were, and are, conflated with its best grape, when actually they are made of (at best) its mass-production substitute, Müller Thurgau, or the many crosses bred to make winemakers’ lives easier?

Riesling is rowing back. After years of repetition (especially by Jancis and me) that Riesling is the best white wine grape of all – or at least equal first with Chardonnay – it’s getting a grudging acceptance in a market super-saturated with Sauvignon Blanc. What Rieslings are we buying, though? Not the crystal-pure, infinitely varied interpretations from its natural home, but strangely typecast versions from Australia, a slightly bizarre blend (or so it seems) of lime juice and kerosene. Does the reason lie, perhaps, in the infinitely varied interpretations? ‘I thought it would be sweet’ is what I hear nine times out of 10 when I trick a friend (yes, it’s that bad) into tasting one of my favourites from the Mosel or Rhine.

My friends have a point about sweetness – as they do with Alsace wines. Some are; some aren’t, and there’s nobody to tell you. German taste has swung firmly in favour of dry wines, yet British buyers still seem to think German wines should be sweet(ish) to appeal to old ladies who daren’t try anything else.

The Germans, these days, know better. So far has the pendulum swung in the nation’s choice of dry over sweet that the best growers are feeling protective about their proudest productions, their late picked, botrytis-rich Ausleses.

What do modern German dry Rieslings offer? An alternative to endless Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon and Riesling are the two great aromatic grapes out there. One can certainly be more than a drink-me-quick thirst-cutter – it can be great with goat’s cheese, and does the Clean Green Land thing perfectly. The other offers an appley freshness modulating to peachiness, with endless mineral undertones, the mirror of its terroir in a range from featherweight to light-heavyweight, alive with fruity acidity, able to mature as well as claret, fabulous when botrytis gives it even more dimensions. How daring is it to give it a try?

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