GRAPEVINE

KATHRYN McWHIRTER ON THE NEW FACE OF GERMAN WINE
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The Independent Culture
Five years ago, Asda's wine buyer Nick Dymoke-Marr would probably have got the sack for delisting Niersteiner Gutes Domtal, Piesporter Michelsberg and their mates. This year he has blithely ejected seven of the once best- selling range of basic German wines from Asda's shelves.

"In 1990, we were selling three million cases a year, of which a third was Liebfraumilch and Lambrusco," he says. "Now we sell five million, but only 700,000 cases are Lieb and Lambrusco. Now the cheapest are Chilean, Argentinian, South African or Eastern European. All those taste far more interesting than a bottle with massive amounts of sugar and acid."

What you'll find instead at Asda is a select range of finer German wines (up to pounds 6.99) and a small clutch of inexpensive wines that are from Germany but quite ungermanic in style - even the bottles are claret-shaped. 1995 Wild Boar Riesling is one: dry, with gentle acidity, freshly fruity, rounder and fuller than most German wines, a snip at pounds 3.99. 1995 Northern Star German White (pounds 2.99) is nearly as good, slightly buttery, crisp but easy and fruity.

That Asda employed Australian wine makers sounds like no new story, except that flying wine makers have as yet scarcely set foot in German wineries. Nick Dymoke-Marr had set as a benchmark the Australian Penfolds Bin 202, a fresh, dry Riesling. Just before the vintage, Australians Nick Butler and Mark Nairn moved into Langenbach, the large Rheinland winery selected by Asda. Finding really ripe grapes to make "soft, fruit-driven, ungermanic wines" was not easy in the rainy 1995 harvest. Techniques in the winery were very different, but it was easy working with the Germans: "True German efficiency demanded a production process in step-by-step fashion for all to follow. The only thing our German co-workers had a problem with was the contingency for 'on the spot wine-making decisions'."

By chance, buyers from the Thresher/Wine Rack/Bottoms Up group had chosen the same winery to create their own new-style German wine, though without input from down under. Their Solus (pounds 3.99, arriving July 11th) is less of a total style change. "We were trying to make something traditionally German, and not dry, but juicily grapy, cleaner, more refreshingly floral and aromatic, less coarse, more flavourful - more modern," says wine buyer Kim Tidy. "One thinks of the Germans as highly advanced technically. They are, in the sense of hygiene and microbiology: they need to be, with wines with low alcohol and sweetness, which might otherwise re-ferment. But for big-volume, cheaper wines they make their vines produce incredibly high yields, ferment at high temperatures, and use very high, tastable levels of sulphur preservative."

Thresher persuaded Langenbach to install new equipment, including temperature- controlled tanks. Fruitiness and aroma boils off in an over-heated fermentation, but until then opening the winery doors onto a cool German autumn had always been thought to suffice. The grapes were hand, not machine-picked, from particular sites where growers had been asked to produce half the normal yields. Even half was still high, admits Kim Tidy, compared with yields in other European countries, "but these grapes had a lot more flavour. Instead of sweetening the finished wine with Sussreserve (a grape juice sweetener commonly used in Germany), which coarsens the flavour, we made some tanks dry, some with residual sweetness, and blended the wines to get the sweetness and style we wanted. We used very low doses of sulphur - but it was enough. The wine is so stable we can leave it open a week in the tasting room." To reduce acidity, the Thresher wine underwent a second, malolactic fermentation, something the Germans tend to avoid.

These Thresher and Asda wines were not the very first. The St Ursula Winery on the Rhine had already produced two dry, fuller-bodied, un-German wines in the two previous vintages, one with the help of Hugh Ryman and his Australians, both still on sale: 1993 Almond Grove Dry Reisling, St Ursula (pounds 3.89 Safeway) and 1994 Devil's Rock Riesling, St Ursula (pounds 3.69 Sainsbury's, Asda, Co-op, Morrisons, Tesco, Waitrose).

There will soon be more. The Germans themselves have been doing market research in Britain this year, observing groups of volunteer drinkers through two-way mirrors (sorry, the research has now finished). Six big wine companies have got together with the German wine promotion board and the famous Geisenheim technical research station for the project, and plan to launch their own new-style wines this autumn. They had better be quick, or that acid sugar-water will lose all its listings to more interesting wines from Eastern Europe, South America and South Africa. !

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