The first wine I ever drank was German. It was light and floral – probably a Mosel – the perfect entry wine for a young girl, which the father of the family I was staying with in Dusseldorf gave me. Reader, I’ve never looked back. The other seminal moment was in Magdeburg with a friend, Fitzroy Maclean, who’d been there as a student before the war, and recommended frankenwein, distinguished by its flat round bottle – the Bocksbeutel, bit like Matteus Rose. It was fresh, elegant and classy. I’ve been trying to track it down ever since.
The thing about the current popularity of good German wine is that it’s picking up where British drinkers left off a century ago. A nice hock, from the Rhine, would have been many British drinkers’ reflexive choice; Berry Brothers has a wine list from 1927 which shows that German wine was rather more expensive than others and the selection looks oddly contemporary: there’s gewürztraminer, kabinetts and spätlese.
The horrors of the Blue Nun years are behind us. Berry Brothers have seen an extraordinary increase of a fifth in the amount of German wine sold by volume in the last year. 2016 was a cracking vintage, but the change has been happening for more than a decade. German wine is generally regarded by the wine trade as a bargain; wine writers drink German gewürztraminer by choice. It’s received wisdom that a good German pinot noir gives the best French burgundies a run for their money, but it’s German whites that rock my boat. You can get a crisp, dry gewürztraminer for a tenner from Berry Brothers; for rather less from Waitrose and Tesco.
Tastes here and in Germany have recently tended towards drier wines, which has been a good thing, but it’s also possible now to buy slightly sweeter wines – kabinett is the generic term – which have body and balance, and are, apparently, perfect with spiced foods, though one grower cheerfully recommended them for watching telly or reading a book. There were some lovely riesling kabinetts at a tasting I went to at Justerini and Brooks, which has an excellent range, many with the ‘grosses gewächs’ classification for the best growers. But there were also some good sweeter wines, spätlese, from the grapes harvested later in the season which aren’t overly sugary. But if it’s nectar you’re after, the best German eiswein – the frost is allowed to catch the grapes – is heavenly. Justerini and Brooks stock an eye-swivelling version from Maximin Grunhauser: so it should be, at £86.30 for a half bottle.
But back to my quest for frankenwein in bottles shaped just how supermarkets don’t like. I was put onto Iris Ellman, an inspired buyer at the WineBarn who supplies frankenwein to Harvey Nichols and the Wine Society from Hans Wirsching, growers for 14 generations in three types – gewürztraminer, silvaner (the grapes for which the region is best known) and scheurebe. Gosh, they’re good – fresh and lively. Start clamouring for them now.
As an easy route to exploring the most interesting German wine is to try a mixed case from The Wine Society, while the Wine Barn website discusses each German region and offers wines from some of the best and most interesting growers from each. The minimum order is for 12 bottles but you can do a mixed case.
A crisp and fresh Rudd Mosel Riesling Kabinett, Selbach-Oster from Berry Bros (£10.25)
Waitrose has very good rieslings. Grey Slate Dr L Private Reserve Riesling Mosel is a good, slightly fruity example from a well known grower (£9.99)
Tesco is starting to explore a greater range of German wines with some good and affordable examples, including this dry and minerally Riesling Vom Kalkstein (£8.50)
Justerini and Brook has an excellent range of German wines including Schloss Lieser wines: the Piesporter Goldtropfchen, Riesling Kabinett, 2016 is lovely (£15.60)