Photos By:: Adil Arora
Ambassador Michael Steiner, from the beer guzzling state of Bavaria and now a teetotaler, grew up with his mother in a small town in Mosel. She was a grand taster who could tell the vintage and place of origin of a wine by simply tasting it. Welcoming the invitees, he also emphasized that German wines were light, lively and fruity, thanks to the unique climatic and geological conditions. The generally lower alcohol in German wines makes them ideal for the hot Indian climate, he said.
Germany is considered by many to produce cheap sweet wine, thanks to the ubiquitous supermarkets labels like Blue Nun and Black Tower. But ‘discerning customers do not drink sweet wines other than the occasional top Kabinett or Spätlese. There is still a market for the cheap and sweet with the card playing proletariat. In the gourmet temples you will find no sweet wine other than the Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese of the finest estates,’ says Joel.
Dry wines produced by the estates which are members of the highly prestigious VDP, the world’s oldest association of wine estates (founded in 1910), are unique, terroir driven wines. Grosses Gewächs are dry wines from the great growths - the best vineyards of Germany. They are known as Erstes Gewächs (first growth) in Rheingau, their nomenclature approved by legislature.
Interestingly German wines are classified as dry when they have a maximum residual sugar level of 9 gms/ liter (internationally 4-5 gms/liter is considered dry for still wines). Joel clarified that in some cases where acidity was high and adequately balanced with sweetness, even 10 gms/ lit can now be considered dry. Rheingau considers anything under 13 gms/ liter of residual sugar, as dry. Mosel with wines having bright acidity, would like to call wines under 15 gms/liter sugar, dry. Such wines would be ideal mates for spicy Indian cuisine that craves for slight sweetness in the wine to tame the chilies in the spices. Interestingly, the acidity level of wines is higher in the North and comes down as one goes down south due to the temperature difference.
Joel believes that the upper limit for dry wines should run from perhaps only 6 gm/lit in the south (Baden) to as much as 15gm/lit in the north (Mosel). But the classical definition of dry wine deposed with the European Union was the only way to find a consensus in the beginning, he explained.
VDP. Die Prädikatsweingüter-The Quality Wines Association
The name VDP - Verband Deutscher Qualitäts- und Prädikatsweingüter is so unpronounceable that the Association now describes itself as VDP. Die Prädikatsweingüter. It’s considered the equivalent of Union des Grandes Crus of France. There are 198 wine estates that are members of the association which has strict standards for entry and codes to follow as a member. The Bordeaux top growth estates were classified in 1855. The system has not changed (notable exception being the promotion of Mouton Rothschild to the first growth in 1973) even though many Chateaux came down in quality while others with improved quality command better premium but their status is never upgraded.
In comparison, VDP had 161 members in 1991. Since then 113 new estates have been accepted while 78 ‘resigned,’ informed Joel, insinuating that they were asked to leave for not keeping up with the high prescribed standards. He feels that the VDP is truly Summa cum laude of the German wine industry.
There are about 48,000 producers out of which only about 1100 are considered important enough in terms of production. Only 2% of the German wineries are part of VDP though they own 4% of the surface area and 8% of the total value (indicating higher average price). 20% of production is concentrated on Riesling. Interestingly, the grapes that may be used for Grosses Gewächs (GG) have been prescribed, with Riesling being the only common varietal. Grosse Gewächse (plural form of G.G.) represent only 2 percent of the VDP’s total production, around a million bottles.
The wines presented from the VDP estates were all Grosses Gewächs (great growths) or Erstes Gewächs (First Growths) from 2009 vintage, barring the two Pinot Noirs which were 2008. As Joel explained, 2009 was an excellent vintage in which every producer could make very good wines. In fact, he felt that if any producer did not make good wine, he should not be in the wine business.
There were 13 wines presented to a full house of about 50 invited importers, F&B personnel, journalists and connoisseurs. These included a selection of Silvaner (1), Weisserburgunder (Pinot Blanc-1), Riesling (9), Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir-2) from 7 of the Germany’s 13 regions, Franken, Pfalz (Palatinate), Mosel, Nahe, Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Baden.
While the wines had a lot of individual personality, a common thread that ran through all of them was that they were fruity, very concentrated and mostly mineral and long. The two reds were interesting but paled in comparison with most of the whites.
Wine, Food and Frau Steiner
Many of the guests would not know that Eliese Steiner, the Ambassador’s Italian-German wife was the enthusiastic organizer who volunteered to control the back-end. Co-ordinating with Joel and me about the guest list, glasses, photographer, wines, labels, storage and service, she took charge of everything and was regularly in touch, looking into the minutest details. She even took suggestions on which Indian food to serve with the wines. The big platters of miscellaneous finger foods included chicken tikkas, kebabs, paneer and papri preparations and doubled as the center-piece decorations on the round tables. The quick speed at which they needed to be replenished, was her subtle way of conveying that German wines, especially Rieslings, were a great match for the snacky Indian food.
All the wines tasted were excellent drinking white wines with many of them having a special terroir personality. They retail for around €18-40 in Europe, including taxes. It is interesting that about 100 years ago, some of these wines commanded higher prices than the Bordeaux first growths like Chateau Latour. For a connoisseur of fine white wines, these wines offer an excellent quality and quality-price ratio. Despite their high prices, they do have a niche market at fine restaurants and 5-star hotels. The current heavy taxes forbid them from entering retail, and with the much-talked about reduction of duties, they would be perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the duty cuts; VDP could be on the right track of keeping the trade interested and enchanted by these wines.
The event was organised for the third time at the German embassy and might become an annual feature. Whatever the future brings for these wines, it is a treat and a must-visit event for German white wine lovers. Those few who could not make it this time missed out on a golden VDP opportunity.
VDP Wines Tasted
Joel Payne’s Article on Dry wines