Samui Wining & Dining
German Wine

It’s no longer suffering from the Curse of the Blue Nun!

P22-(1) I have to admit to being old enough to remember wine in the 1970s, when Blue Nun, the mediocre German sweet wine, along with the equally dubious Matteus Rosé, was so popular. The bottle was distinctive blue, tall and stylish (but ruined by an angelic looking nun pictured on the label), the wine a sickly Libefraumilch blend. And I believe the Libefraumilch era damaged the image of German wine, particularly in the UK, where the common misconception was that, translated, it meant, “lovely mother’s breast milk!”

Today however, some German white wines are up there with the best, and actually always were. Even in 1970s Britain, Piesporter had a loyal following amongst wine buffs. They knew that the German winemaker’s emphasis, rather predictably, was on quality. And whereas in France that meant studying terrior, in Germany it’s a lot more about the weather. Rainfall and sunshine hours are logged meticulously, and elaborate investigations are mounted into every aspect of a wine’s quality. And the scientific approach, judging by the results, obviously works.

But unfortunately for the outsider, Germany's universe of wine can be difficult to understand. Labels can be intimidating, with long foreign words and ornate gothic script that are enough to make many consumers head for a different section of the wine shop. But if you have an understanding of how German wine terms function, you will see that German wine labels are among the most descriptive out there. Like any wine label, you’ll find the name of the producer, the vintage, the region, and sometimes the name of the grape, it is just a matter of knowing what to look for. In addition, most German labels will show the names of the town and the vineyard in large lettering. And usually written much smaller, will be the terms Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (often just Qualitätswein, or QbA), indicating a “quality wine,” or Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP), denoting a quality wine picked at designated minimum ripeness levels that vary by grape variety, and growing region. And Grosses Gewachs "great growths," is the country's equivalent of Grand Cru.

Most of the classic German wine regions are closely identified with river valleys, the slopes of which provide the proper exposure to sunlight for ripening grapes at this northern latitude. Notable regions are:

Mosel - the coolest of the German growing regions, home to Piesporter, and to Germany’s crispest, most delicate Rieslings.

Rheingau - whose slate slopes and slightly warmer temperatures yield powerful, sturdy wines, with ripe fruit flavours underscored by deep mineral tones.

Rheinhessen - the source for much of Germany’s production, quality here can vary from generic blends to fine single-estate wines.

Nahe - this small valley is the only rival to the Mosel for elegance and finesse, with Rieslings that balance lightness of body with mineral-based tensile strength.

Pfalz - just north of Alsace, this is Germany’s warmest winegrowing region, and benefits from a great diversity of soils, microclimates, and grape varieties. Dry styles, whether made from Riesling or other white grapes are more common here, and show better balance than those from cooler regions. Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) is also more successful here than elsewhere.

I don’t think it’s too much of a generalization to say that currently, virtually all of Germany’s best wines come from the Riesling grape. There are some exceptions to prove the rule, like the fine Gewurztraminers from Fitz-Ritter in the Pfalz, Valckenberg in Rheinhessen, and the exquisite Rieslaners and Scheurebes from Müller-Catoir in the Pfalz. We have come to think of German Riesling, particularly from the Mosel Valley, as at least, slightly sweet. Which is absolutely fine, because despite present-day thinking, many, including some of the world's finest wines, are just that.

And there is a growing list of intriguing German white wines that defy easy classification - often they exist in a complicated realm between dry and sweet. And certainly they can be very appealing to lovers of both. But like elsewhere, what the winemakers are struggling with, is that sweetness has become a bad word. It’s why they often describe the slightly sweet nature of many Rieslings as fruchtig (fruity). But even that comes with risk, and somehow, trocken (dry) has become a popular default.

Ask any crisp white wine lover, and they will tell you that they are made for food pairing. Making an exciting complement to traditional German comfort food, like grilled sausages, roast duck, boiled hams and asparagus with hollandaise sauce. And the wines marry well with many other countries’ cuisines. Somewhat surprisingly, Scandinavia and Asia are now Germany's biggest customers, with German wines winning fans paired with dishes like Danish roast veal with radishes, Swedish black currant-glazed venison and Cantonese dim sum.

German medium-bodied sweeter white wines make a great accompaniment to most Thai food. A fragrant, punchy Gewurztraminer can perfectly balance pungent Thai flavours. And the clean simplicity of any well-chilled Riesling will re-enliven the palate, after an onslaught of, often-powerful, Asian food ingredients. The very trendy Eiswein (made from grapes frozen on the vine) is also becoming popular in Asia, most likely because the intense flavour and sweetness is a foil to the balmy weather and spicy food.

And finally, to be fair to the much-maligned Blue Nun, just lately I noticed here on a popular Samui supermarket’s shelf. And she’s had a makeover! The tall bottle is still blue, but the soppy Nun’s portrait has gone, and the new label is bold and savvy. But most significantly, the wine inside is now Riesling, and hopefully, much more suited to modern tastes.


Peter James


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