Riesling and its friends are looking for an occasion to drink


If you were following me on twitter yesterday you may have noticed that I attended a conference yesterday concerning German wines. A panel of wine trade professionals took turns answering a lot of familiar questions about styles, presentation and how to raise the profile of these wines.

On the panel were Andrew Bird (Marks & Spencer); Christine Parkinson (Hakkasan), Richard Halstead (Wine Intelligence), David Brown (Justerini & Brooks) and Andrea Ruggeri (Matthew Clark).

There were some interesting discussions but two caught my attention. 

The first was about the style of Riesling, and whether there should be a “house style” in the same way that New Zealand has a perceived style of Sauvignon Blanc that has helped to establish it as a consumer category?

My first reaction was “No WAY!” Why would you promote a single style when the great thing about wine in general is it’s variety? I am SO BORED of NZ Sauvignon Blanc (apart from a very few premium producers that I rarely can afford), so I would not wish this on Germany. However, as @WineBusProf pointed out: 

Diversity v Generic. Always diversity? No. It depends on the market. We love diversity, but not for the entry-level market

Maybe that is true. One of the barriers that other people quoted were complicated labels, not knowing what kind of wine (particularly sweetness) they might end up buying, and the cost. If we could establish a baseline, wouldn’t that help? Maybe it would, but it would have to be a GOOD wine to compete with the famous colourful brands from that country that are already so established in the consumers’ minds.

The other was about alcohol levels. There is a fair amount discussed about high alcohol levels and customers looking for “lower alcohol” wines. What was interesting was to note that in fact consumers were NOT looking for LOW alcohol wines (i.e. below around 10%). They may be moving away from the 15%+ styles, but the sweet spot was 11%-13% and anything below that worried people – would they be getting the bang for their buck on the alcohol front? 

 Of course, German wines can easily be under 10% alcohol which gives them advantages in lots of circumstances.

But really, it isn’t about variety, style, alcohol, labels, or anything else. It is about why people would want to drink these wines.

What German wines need more than anything are CLEAR drinking occasions. Most UK wine drinkers have no idea what to do with a wine with sweetness levels you get from Germany. That is not a reason to change the wines, it is about helping them discover occasions to appreciate them. More importantly, to find a way past the “only dry wine is good wine” norm established in UK society.

I think that German wines are doing a good job already in the “fine dining” area and although they deserve greater sales, they are already respected by experienced wine drinkers.

What we are really talking about is the mass market and BIG volumes of wine sales. In this case, I think German wines should not think about varietals, regions, appellations, etc. They need to make it the default “fun wine”, and focus on the benefits it offers:

Lighter alcohol, with some sweetness, so it is easy to drink chilled in the pub, with friends, any time of the year and doesn’t give you nearly as much of a headache. Couple this with: 
  1. modern packaging (screwcap, international name, modern design like “Eins, Zwei, Dry“) 
  2. a marketing budget linked to distribution into the volume trade,

… and I think they’re on to a winner.