Jan 09: While the world is drinking Champagne, Cava and Prosecco bubblies, Germany is the biggest consumer of sparkling wines with over 400 million bottles flying off their shelves annually, is the fourth largest producer of the ubiquitous bubbly known as Sekt and the prestigious association VDP has only recently evolved standards through VDP.SEKT.STATUT that would soon be available in the market for high quality Sekts, writes Subhash Arora who has visited several Sektkellerei and believes they can compete with the best of champagnes and are unique with Riesling varietal
Germany’s love affair with sparkling wines precedes the current trend toward bubbles (read Prosecco). In fact, German producers like Krug, Bollinger, Mumm were in the forefront in Europe, involved significantly in the development of sparkling wines, including champagne.
Germany is perceived as a beer-guzzling country, but Sekt (pronounced as Zect) is the all-purpose German sparkling wine to toast on special occasions or just for good times (think Kingfisher in the 2000's). In 2010 about 440 million bottles of different sparkling wines were sold in Germany, according to Kessler Sektmanufaktur (family-owned sekt producer), Germany’s oldest Sekt producer since 1826.
To get a proper perspective, Champagne sells around 290 million bottles (after reaching its maximum of 330 million bottles) and Prosecco produces around 480 million bottles with an estimated 550 million bottles consumed a couple of years ago. Cava produced around 245 million bottles in 2018. An estimated 2 billion bottles of sparkling wine are consumed worldwide-and a quarter of them are consumed in Germany.
The history of Sekt goes back to 1826. The founder Georg Christian von Kessler, born in Heilbronn, near Stuttgart in Baden-Württemberg, had immigrated to France, and rose to become a partner of the world famous Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin Champagne House in Reims. He returned to Germany and founded its first Sektkellerei (sekt factory) in 1826, in –Esslingen (a suburb of Stuttgart, where I lived for a year many moons ago but never visited Kessler as I was then a teetotaller-editor)
By law only large producers were allowed to produce sekt till 1976 when a legal decree was passed, abolishing their monopoly and paving way for cooperatives and individual winegrowers to produce and sell their own sparkling wines.
According to the German Wine Institute the 18 largest Sekt producers are still responsible for 90.6% of producing Sekt. Perhaps the biggest global Sekt and sparkling wine producer Henkell Freixenet came into existence as Henkell in 1856. One can buy Henkell Trocken Sekt and Freixenet Cava in India, imported by Aspri Spirits and Wines. Only about 3% of the total sekt production is considered Artisanal. The Verband Deutscher Qualitäts-und Prädikatsweingüter (VDP), the prestigious association of independent growers, with 196 members took the Artisanal producers under its wings and proposed rules that have become operational in late 2020.
With 3.9 mhl exported in 2018 (73% of its national production), Italy alone accounts for 43% of the world sparkling wine export market. Since 2002, the exported volume of Italian sparkling wine has registered an average growth rate of more than 10% per year. Behind this boom is Prosecco, which in 2018 represented 65% of Italian sparkling wine exports.
France is the second exporter in terms of volume at 1.9 mhl in 2018, including 1.1 mhl of Champagne alone. Spain in 2018 was the third-largest exporter just behind France, with 1.8 mhl. Unlike France, the great majority of Spanish sparkling wine produced is sold abroad (88% in 2018). Since 2002, Spain more than doubled the volume of its exports, a growth driven by the rise in demand of Cava.
Germany holds the 4th place in terms of volume (0.3 mhl in 2018) and 5th place in terms of value.
However, as an importer, the UK is the biggest importer (1.4 mhl), followed by the US (1.4 mhl), and Germany (0.7 mhl), which is a net importer of 0.4 mhl of sparkling wines.
Recent Rise in quality
The ubiquitous Sekt has 4 ways of producing it- at the very top of the echelon is the traditional method, which is still used to make about 3% of total Sekt produced. VDP has defined strict standards to define two categories. Most Sekt is simple base wine sourced across Europe and further processed in Germany. It’s produced in big tanks with industrial quantities, and sold at very affordable pricing-In fact, about 95% of Sekt is made this way.
Champagne expert Essi Avellan MW reportedly says, "Sekt is a very low-grade product of no individual character, and thus of no interest to discerning drinkers in the international market. How so much Sekt can be consumed by the Germans is a real mystery." In the past decade, however, the German Sekt landscape has changed fundamentally due to an increasing number of small estates making big efforts to craft fine Sekt.
Sekt can be produced from grapes, juice or wine sourced anywhere in Europe and fermented in tanks (Charmat)- most consumed domestically. Deutscher Sekt, or German Sekt (displayed on the label) must have grapes or the base wine from Germany and is thus more authentic and better quality. Deutscher Sekt b.A. (bestimmter Anbaugebiete, similar to Qualitätswein b.A. for still wines) means grapes from one of Germany’s 13 quality wine regions have been used.
Producers can mention a geographical unit such as village, or vineyard if at least 85% of the wine originates from that site. The same 85% rule applies to vintage or grape variety-there is no restriction on the varietal, as well.
Monopoly and Sekt Tax
Those of us who hope to see reduced taxes on wine in India, would be surprised to know that Emperor Wilhelm II introduced a Sekt tax in 1902. It was abolished in 1933, to be reintroduced and the higher Sekt tax of €1.02 a bottle still continues to be charged on every bottle, almost 120 years later, yielding around €450 million annually to the exchequer.
By law only large producers were allowed to produce sekt. However, in 1976 a legal decree was passed which abolished their monopoly, paving way for cooperatives and individual winegrowers to produce and sell their own sparkling wines.
VDP.SEKT.STATUT for Artisanal Sekts
The best quality is made with traditional methods and with VDP defining the standards. it can compete with the best bubblies in the world. Known as Traditionelle Flaschengärung, these wines if produced from the growers’ own estate-grown grapes, can be referred to as Winzersekt, similar to Grower Champagne.
VDP has honoured this tradition for almost 200 years, through a new VDP.SEKT. STATUT, which adds the formal rigour of official classifications to the production of top-quality, handmade sekts. Ratified recently, it applies the association's high quality standards from the world of still wines to sparkling wines.
The two qualities of VDP
Traditional bottle fermentation is mandatory for both VDP.SEKT & VDP.SEKT. PRESTIGE. Former must spend at least 24 months on the lees whereas the later 36 months. Grand sekts may mature well beyond those minimum guidelines. The VDP's production regulations will also apply for the production of base wines.
A dedicated VDP specification guide has also been developed to provide other mandatory parameters, for example, stipulations that sekt must originate from the estate’s own vineyards. From pruning to harvest, all vineyard work and harvesting must be handled by hand. Each region will define its own permissible varieties for VDP.SEKT and VDP.SEKT. PRESTIGE, typically Riesling and the Pinot family, supplemented by regional classics. This flexibility at the regional level encourages exploiting specific benefits of the spectrum of fine German sekts. Thus, varietal blends and cuvées from single sites are also allowed.
Producers can mention a geographical unit such as village, or vineyard if at least 85% of the wine originates from that site. The same 85% rule applies to vintage or grape variety as well.
Those of us who hope to see reduced taxes on wine in India, would be surprised to know that Emperor Wilhelm II introduced a Sekt tax in 1902. It was abolished in 1933, to be reintroduced in 1937 and the Sekt tax of €1.02 a bottle still continues to be charged on every bottle of sekt, almost 120 years later, yielding around €450 million to the exchequer currently.
Visiting Sektmanufactur Schloss Vaux
Schloss Vaux was founded in Berlin in 1868 to produce sparkling wine using Traditional Method. In the 1880s Chateau de Vaux situated at the shore of Mosel, close to the city of Metz, was purchased. But when Metz became a part of France again after World War I, the producer moved to the current location in Eltville am Rhein (also known as Sektstadt), a late nineteenth century villa that looks like a big residence from outside.
Schloss Vaux is known for high class sparkling wines, produced from grapes grown in the well-known vineyards of the Rheingau. As Christoph Graf, explained to delWine, ‘Sektmanufaktur’ means a sparkling wine producer owned by a single family and not a mass manufacturer of Sekt. The winery produces only high quality sekt by using primarily Riesling but also cuvees using other grapes.
While most of the world’s traditional-method sparkling wines are made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Germany specialises in quality Sekt made from Riesling. Its inherent freshness and lightness make Riesling eminently suitable as a sparkling wine base.
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VDP takes German Sparkling Wine under its Wings
It may be a bit early to popularise Sekt in India but with the new standards of Artisanal Sekt by VDP, there could be a market for the Riesling Sekt for the discerning connoisseurs. One would have to wait and watch, perhaps sipping Deutscher Sekt made by Charmat Method, competing with Prosecco DOC.