Wine Revolution in Germany

In the last ten years, a new generation of winemakers has taken control of the German wine industry, causing something of a revolution in the wineries.

“Generation Riesling,” as they’re known, are well educated and well traveled. Many have worked in California, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Spain, or Argentina. They are also ambitious and ready to invest.

Their philosophy is that the quality of the grape determines the quality of the wine—and they are prepared to sacrifice yields to improve the quality of the fruit.

They are also moving away from mechanical pumps towards gravitational flows from press to barrel, and making efforts to reduce the handling of the grapes. The gentler the processing, the better the final wine will be.

The area devoted to wine growing in Germany is surprisingly small—and the size of the vineyards was traditionally tiny. In 1989, 100,000 hectares were devoted to grapes with 77,000 producers. (A hectare is a little under 2.5 acres.)

The new generation is consolidating the vineyards, improving profitability, and investing the proceeds in equipment and quality. By 2009, the number of producers had dropped to 48,000.

Education with industry ties
Many of Generation Riesling are graduates of Geisenheim, the well-known wine research center located in one of Germany’s most productive wine-producing regions, the Rheingau. Important institutions for both research and training exist in other wine-growing states, along with an apprenticeship system that produces both craftspeople and wine technicians.

The wine education system stays close to the industry. Geisenheim has its own commercial winery. “It helps us keep our feet in the soil,” explains Monika Christmann, a department head in the research center. The researchers can see which of their ideas work in the market.

In collaboration with the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences, the center offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in subjects such as viticulture, oenology, horticulture, and beverage technology. Geisenheim also attracts students from across the world to its English language master’s program.

“A lot of people think the fine wine market is the most important and influential one. But that is not true in Germany,” says Christmann. “Around 80 percent of the wine produced in Germany is sold at a low price”—also reflecting some of the greatest improvements in quality. “For the consumer, it is like paradise, cheap wines of very good quality,” she says.

Germany imports more wine than any other country in the world. Yet, German winemakers maintain a 30 percent share of sales in the intensely competitive supermarkets. Fifty percent of their output is sold through higher price, higher margin channels—directly from the winery or through specialist wine retailers—a sign of the winemakers’ successful drive for quality.

Both red and white German wines have benefited from the initiatives typified by Generation Riesling. A mini-boom in demand for German red wines occurred during the 1990s and 2000s, and red wine production tripled between 1980 and 2005. It has since flattened out—at a little over one third of total production.

Taste the difference
According to Ernst Büscher of the German Wine Institute, one of the best examples of the effects of Generation Riesling is the excellence of the wines pressed from the Sylvaner grape in the Franken and RheinHessen regions.

When vineyards are managed to maximize yields, the Sylvaner grape, with its neutral flavors, can result in rather bland wines, says Büscher. However, Generation Riesling's skilled vintners are producing wonderfully intense wines with aromas of pear that draw out the best from the region's chalky soils.

A wine revolution is in progress. Monika Christmann expects continuing developments in German wines over the next five years. But they are also preparing for some big challenges. Geisenheim has invested in a system that can model the effects of climate change where they will test effects on the structure of the soil, changes in microorganisms, and in the levels of nutrient available to the vines.

“If only the temperature or the quantities of greenhouse gases changed, we could adapt easily,” says Christmann. “But we expect huge variability in our climate.”

Read more about the Geisenheim Wine Research Center or Generation Riesling.

Photo credit/copyright: