Is Riesling so bad?

So the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) just printed an article by Oliver Bock dealing with the Riesling Symposium that recently took place at Kloster Eberbach in the Rheingau. An interestingly infuriating article, as it turns out – from the title to the content and finishing up with the conclusions. Infuriating, and, sometimes, simply wrong. Also, a fine example of German navel-gazing if ever there was one. You can find the original article (in German) here. All translations below are my own.

Niche Product

The title: “Sobering Facts about a Niche Product”. Okay, no idea that it is about Riesling just yet. My annoyance with the title came after I read the article.

But I read the article several times. And I had a few Germans read it as well, to make sure that my impressions were correct, and not the simple result of some embarrassing miscomprehension. And, as you may have discerned, it made me angry. Most of the reasoning is spurious. I’ll go into some of the main points in a moment. The thesis of the article is this: Riesling is a niche product whose quality is not as high as we think, because it isn’t widely-planted and prices for its wines are not high enough.

Here’s the thing. Yes, of course Riesling is a niche product. Moreso than perhaps ever before, in fact. But it most certainly is not alone in this regard in the wine world – not even among the great wines of the world. I’m going to refer to one grape – a grape used to make some of the noblest wines we have – a number of times from here on out, so here it is: ever heard of Nebbiolo? Well I hope you have, since it is responsible for some of the world’s most expensive and most long-lived wines: Barolo, Barbaresco – even Gattinara – but if you haven’t, now you know. Spoiler alert, look at where those three wines are made. Ahem.

But before I continue to build my case on the similarities between Riesling and Nebbiolo, please humour me while I attempt to undermine some of the arguments and statements found in the article.

Let’s Begin

A quote from the article:

“One cannot speak of a global victory march of Riesling. In the vineyards of the three largest winegrowing nations in the world: France, Spain and Italy, Riesling plays no role.”

That’s a load of crap for at least two important reasons.

  • First, it’s inaccurate. Riesling is found in the vineyards of all three nations listed, and is even significant in those of two: Italy and France. If you are going to discount the importance of Riesling in Alsace, then you had better be prepared to lay yourself down in that Procrustean Bed you have just made. Alsace is famous for its Riesling, and with good reason. But also the vineyards of Northern Italy have Riesling planted in enough density to warrant attention.
  • Second, the importance of a grape is not, in fact, dependant on its presence and/or importance in the vineyards of the three largest winegrowing nations any more than a ranking in the top three by production qualifies car making nations as important. Germany, in such a ranking, comes in fourth. Sorry Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen…looks like you’re a bit overrated.

Next…

A complaint from the article:

Riesling is only at 18th place on the world listing of important grapes by planting, with half of the total vine plantings being found in Germany (worldwide 50,000 hectares).

My answer: So what? Since when is quality indicated by acreage? Are we to believe that the grape Airen (of which there are over 250,000 hectares planted and which is responsible for lakes of neutral, dull wine – but which also forms the basis for distillation into delightful brandies) belongs to the highest-quality wine grapes simply because of how much of the stuff is planted? Please. Even if it isn’t mass quantities, Riesling IS planted in many countries – it even does well in some (Austria, France, USA even Australia and New Zealand). However, it unquestionably does best in Germany; the soils, the climate, the expertise and the tradition are all right. You know another grape that is even more limited geographically? Nebbiolo. There, I brought it up. From Australia to California, people have planted it, but the resulting wines aren’t even a pale shadow of those emerging from its ancestral Piedmont. Should that in any way diminish this great grape? Not hardly. Is there a wine-lover out there who actually doesn’t think that the great wines made with Nebbiolo are anything but glorious?  Doubtful. And another thing: how about the role of scarcity? It helps to drive the price of Barolo and Barbaresco up, because the quantities are limited. Granted, these are wines whose greatness is well-known, well-publicised, reviewed (and, lamentably, scored by critics and publications “of import”), and taken advantage of in a way that many Germans really can’t quite grasp, let alone master.

But let’s beat this dead horse just a little bit more. Let’s look at another grape (other than Nebbiolo or Riesling). The grape known, variously, as Grauburgunder, Pinot Gris, or that all-too-familiar  Pinot Grigio. Now the average wine drinker may not be able to say much about Grauburgunder (more is the pity, because it can be freaking fabulous), but as Pinot Grigio you would be hard-pressed to find even a casual wine drinker who hasn’t heard of it. It produces a neutral, generally uninteresting wine that, nevertheless, contributes to hundreds of thousands of pleasant mealtime and holiday experiences. People buy it, and they love it, and they even seek it out. But! According to statistics released by the DWI (Deutsche Wein-Institut), Pinot Grigio is found on just a paltry 44,500 hectares worldwide. Italy has got over 17,000 hectares of that. Less total hectares planted worldwide than Riesling. With 38% of the worldwide total, Italy has the most planted (by far, with Germany in second place at a measly 5,600). And Pinot Grigio is a significant market entity. So what’s the problem with Riesling?

Let’s take my overly-angry answer a bit farther. New Zealand. A premium wine-producing country commanding good prices for their product. Legendary Sauvignon Blanc which exploded on the scene in the 90s and established itself as a new paradigm for a long-respected grape. New Zealand has a total vineyard of just over 36,000 hectares, 21,000 of which is Sauvignon Blanc. Plenty is drunk at home, but most, by far, is exported. Compare those figures with the Riesling vineyard in Germany. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a category in its own right, it is inimitable. Exports are increasing, plantings are increasing. People want it. Sauvignon Blanc from other nations – even completely different styles that are barely recognisable by comparison – profits from the trail blazed by this tiny island nation. Goodness me, what could the difference be? I’ll get to that.

Riesling: no hustle

A new point: paraphrased from the article, it seems Riesling doesn’t sell itself.

“Riesling is not being torn from the barrels and tanks of the producers”.

The article goes on to state that the majority (without figures) of Riesling produced is consumed in Germany. Significantly less than 20% is exported. And, according to Andreas Kurth, who is quoted several times in the article, price is a “central indicator of value” – and plenty of producers of Riesling often have trouble even covering their own costs.

I’m not even remotely surprised, unfortunately. It is no secret that Germans are penny-pinchers. They are legendarily thrifty, with a personal savings rate that legitimately dwarfs that of most other western economies. And, as a nation, they have an extremely low per-bottle average price for wine, particularly in comparison to other big wine-wine importing countries like the UK and the USA. If you are depending on the Germans to pay a good price for your bottle of wine, you are in for disappointment. No, you’d be better off looking at the British or the Swiss if you are looking for a European market that is willing to splash out a bit on a bottle. And after all, it is not for nothing that the price of food in Germany is lower than virtually every other European country – that’s the way the Germans want it, and by God, that’s what they are going to get! The rumours of luxury cars parked in front of Aldi and Lidl while their owners stock up inside are grounded in hard observation, and Aldi remains Germany’s biggest wine retailer. I would posit that the German market is NOT a suitable indicator of the inherent value of Riesling anymore. It was, but those days are long past. More on that later.

On a pissy side note, wasn’t it just a year or two ago that the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction raked in over 10,000 Euros? Yes, it was. And it was a bloody German Riesling. So it appears somebody out there is willing to pay a buck or two for the stuff.

But I digress.

Old Vines: the Myth.

One point was made behind which I can throw my complete, unadulterated support: “Old Vines” as an indicator of quality (and higher price) is, essentially, useless. There is no discernible difference in quality, objectively. Nor is the term itself protected or defined in any jurisdiction in the world, leading to its overuse, misuse and abuse. And from what I’ve personally tasted – as well as what I have heard again and again from growers, winemakers, tasters and buyers all over the world – the most important thing is not the age of the vines, but the quality of said vines together with the viticulture. If you have lower-quality biotypes of a certain grapevine, you will get lower-quality wine, regardless of how old the things get.

..And Old Wines

Another lament from the article: the Rieslings of the 19th century and earlier bear little to no resemblance to the wines of today, partly due to the grape’s long time innbarrel and partly due to the style. The article says the wines of yesteryear were either fully dry or quite sweet, aged for years in barrels, and that the older the wines were, the more they were cherished and the more they were worth. Today, by comparison, it is hardly possible for the wines to be young enough for the consumer.

Well, partly hogwash. First off, with the possible exception of those with years of barrel-aging, the styles of Riesling from over a century ago continue to exist, and they are extraordinary. Second, Riesling is truly legendary for its ageability, when made well and in the right style – collectors continue to seek precisely those wines out, and they are willing to pay for them. Finding aged examples can be challenging, and they are seldom cheap (by German standards), but they are immensely rewarding. Yes, the fashion among drinkers is for young, younger, youngest – particularly for whites and rosés – but that phenomenon applies to the entire wine world, and not just to Riesling. Look at Bordeaux, that most investment-worthy wine from the Atlantic coast of France. Even the wines from smaller houses are not generally ready to be drunk when they are released, but that doesn’t stop most people from doing it. This is an entirely new phenomenon, arising after the market for Bordeaux began to balloon in the 1980s. There is an entire market based on selling Bordeaux from established, high-quality producers before the wine is even in the bottle for goodness sake! And the wonderful thing about Riesling is that it has such gorgeous fruit, it is so easily enjoyable even in the year it is made that it generally CAN be drunk. The same cannot be said for much Bordeaux. What a silly argument.

What of Nebbiolo?

Now let’s look at more similarities and differences of Riesling and Nebbiolo, so that I can make my case a bit more.

Nebbiolo is undeniably a terroir wine, meaning it reflects the tiniest nuances of where it is growing – just like Riesling. Like Nebbiolo, Riesling paints a picture of the soil, the vintage, the sun and rain in vivid colour. But unlike Nebbiolo, Riesling is also capable of delivering great wines in all expressions running the entire range of styles – from bone dry to sticky sweet, as well as sparkling wines. Okay, there is no red or rosé Riesling, of course. But it is partly due to this huge range and versatility as well as the incredible expression of this grape that it is considered one of the great “noble” grapes, alongside, well, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and others. As I mentioned, Nebbiolo is, geographically, very localised. It is most successful in Northern Italy, with most of the planted hectares by far to be found there. Much like Riesling in Germany.

A Look at History

The article’s closing comment deals with history: “Whosoever wishes to understand the present, must understand the past”. The comment was made to establish that the earlier popularity of the grape had much to do with the noble status and wealth of the best producers. I don’t necessarily agree with the thesis, but I couldn’t agree more with the idea that a historical understanding is essential, so let’s have a brief look at some important historical information about Riesling and Germany.

  • German wines (specifically Riesling) were, at one time, the most expensive and sought-after wines of the world. The rank and privilege – and wealth – of the owners of estates that were producing Riesling was not significantly different to those producing Cru Bordeaux or Port. The simple fact is, it takes – and took – money and landholdings to produce fine wine. This fact has not changed. Historically, it was primarily the aristocracy or the church that could manage it.
  • A classification by quality of the wines of the Mosel – commissioned by Napoleon – actually predates the infamous Bordeaux classification of 1855. Yes, Riesling from the Mosel has been rightly famous for a long, long time.

The Real Problems

So what is the problem with Riesling? There is more than one, in my opinion, and here they are:

  1. Riesling continues to suffer from the bad image of German wine that exists internationally. Fingers can be pointed at a variety of places for this, but most of the blame belongs with poor-quality Liebfraumilch and its success abroad. This simple, semi-sweet style of wine, drunk only overseas and never at home – in fact, the major brands are unrecognisable to Germans – has gone a long way to informing the opinion of wine-drinkers. The stuff rarely contains any Riesling at all, but so what? It has poisoned the perception of German wines abroad for generations. And as any marketer will tell you: perception is everything.
  2. Fashion. This is a multi-pronged one.
    1. The current fashion for a large swathe of wine drinkers is for soft wines with low acidity. Riesling is a high-acid grape, which contributes to its longevity and improves its capacity for food-pairing – but, without serious technical intervention, it will never be low-acid
    2. For purposes of investment or willingness to pay large sums, wines must be red – the only exception to this rule is white Burgundy. ‘Nuff said, really. Riesling is obviously not red, and resembles white Burgundy only in colour. Caveat: real wine-specialists are aware of the immense quality of fine Riesling, but these people are vastly in the minority among investors. It is far easier to buy Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, etc., since they are regularly reviewed by prominent critics and have been for decades. This permits even those with no real expertise of their own to buy wines with a relatively secure resale/investment value, as well as ensuring that the prices for said wines remain comfortably high in most cases.
    3. Wines should be dry. Now, there are many, many superb Rieslings made in a dry style, including in such legendary holdouts as the Mosel and the Saar. But, particularly in these classic areas, a fully-dry Riesling is not generally the one that shows the best expression of the grape. Which is not to say that the wines need to be sweet, per se. No, the impression on the palate left by many a Mosel Riesling with a significant level of residual sugar is still dry – but, legally, the wines often have too much sugar to be called dry. The importance of the impression of the wine on the palate cannot be overstated – and yet it is what is printed on the label that carries more weight.
  3. German wine law. Even after – or perhaps particularly because of – the latest reform, the system is opaque. Must weights dictate the quality, instead of geology and geography. The last reform diluted many of the best sites in Germany, making them huge, homogenous and uninteresting. Knowing the producer and what they were doing became an acute need for seekers of quality. And for the international market, the nomenclature and system remain complex and unhelpful. The VDP is trying to simplify the system, but there remains much to be done.
  4. Poor marketing. I would venture to say that, at its heart, it is a greater problem with German wine as a whole – and with the way Germany markets both “Brand Germany” in general and wine specifically. If the product concerned doesn’t have objectively measurable qualities, Germany and Germans have a fair bit of trouble promoting it – and a big part of that comes down to self-confidence. Beyond football, Germans do not wave their flags. Nor are they prone to talking about how great their country is. In the fields of manufacturing, technology, machining – anything involving precision, with measurable results and a need for expertise – Germany excels and is often rightfully recognised as a leader, and that without the need for Germany to blow its own horn. My car analogy above was chosen to show the absurdity of the point I was trying to refute. But when the industry depends on softer qualities, subjective appreciation, or comes down to matters of taste, Germany falls behind. Not because of a lack of quality, mind you, but because Germany seems to have real trouble promoting itself in such a milieu. For example, despite the success of designers like Karl Lagerfeld, Jil Sander and Wolfgang Joop, and despite being the birthplace of some of the world’s most successful and recognisable fashion models (Heidi Klum, Claudia Schiffer) Germany is not known as an overly stylish or fashionable country. Certainly not in comparison to France or Italy. Germany does not think of itself as better than other countries unless it is demonstrably so, with easily-observed and quantifiable data. In matters of taste, “demonstrably so” can quickly devolve into “demonstrably not so” when one considers numbers and statistics. This seems to be the essential element for the entire article printed by the FAZ. But numbers and statistics famously do not tell the whole story.

Final Point

My rebuttal has already extended to many times the length of the article it is intended to rebut. Allow me to close with a final significant point: virtually without exception, people who know wine and love it adore Riesling. Collectors, sommeliers, academics, oenologists and writers, they all love Riesling. But these are people steeped in wine, who know what to look for – and where to find a deal. And make no mistake, the quality of even “just” good Riesling and the price at which it can be had, let alone the great stuff, makes it one of the best bargains in the world of wine today. The fact that it remains a bit of an insider tip may be sad for the industry, but it is fabulous for those in the know. The fact that it IS an “insider tip”, however, says more about its quality than the prices or the hectares planted worldwide. The job here, the task that need to be undertaken, is to communicate what this fluid gold is worth, and get people to pay attention.

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