wine
If the tabloids' Euro '96 Achtung, Surrender headlines did little for Anglo-German relations, they're equally unlikely to have stemmed the ebbing tide of enthusiasm for German wines in this country. Despite a 12 per cent drop in the market, it's a sobering thought that two out of every five bottles of white wine drunk in the UK are still German. Say what you like about lieb and hock, a lot of people enjoy drinking the stuff.

Liebfraumilch has gone up to an average pounds 2.75 a bottle, but hock has plunged to pounds 2.19 in the high street, a "crazy price", admits Tesco's German wine buyer Ruth Traylor, as no one makes any money on it. Tesco's German sales are down less than most, but Victoria Wine has virtually given up on Germany.

It may seem odd that a nation that can produce Klinsmann and Porsche can fail so abysmally when it comes to wine. Despite modern German engineering, grapes are actually less easily controllable than footballs or car suspensions. And even at such a northerly latitude, climate is only an accomplice in the crime of so-called Qualitatswein.

No, the yawning gulf between Germany's hand-crafted estate reislings at the top and the awfulness of most cheap big-company blends has more to do with the fact that the left hand, as represented by Germany's giant bottling plants, doesn't know or care what the right hand, Germany's 70,000 grape growers, is doing in the vineyard.

"It began when the Germans bought huge bottling operations to meet demand, which crashed in later years," says Angela Muir, consultant wine buyer at Kwik Save. "They need the turnover for their highly automated lines, so they'll do deals at lemming-like prices, then look round to see what corners can be cut." According to Hugh Suter at Victoria Wine: "The German wine industry is the last which still systematically kills its wines with sulphur."

In order to make the stuff palatable, around 15 per cent of Lieb and Hock consists of sussreserve: sweet, unfermented grape juice saturated with sulphur dioxide to prevent any embarrassing and potentially costly refermentation in the bottle. "The penny only begins to drop when consumers get headaches and then look elsewhere for their wine," says Angela Muir.

In the crucial pounds 3-pounds 5 area of the market, there has been little for lieb and hock drinkers to graduate to, other than Chilean sauvignon blanc or South African chenin blanc.

After a considerable degree of soul-searching, a handful of the more forward-looking enterprises such as Langenbach, Kendermann and St Ursula have taken on board the need to modernise wine styles controlling fermentation temperatures to bring out the fruitier qualities of the wine without suffocating it with sulphur, and looking at prices and packaging.

New wave may be putting it a bit strongly, but the first fruits of these endeavours are the appearance of a number of wines which at first sight you could be forgiven for thinking are Australian: Devil's Rock, Almond Grove, Wild Boar Riesling, Echo Hill and Northern Star. Tesco even considered stocking its new Germans in its new world section, but after a trial, Ruth Traylor says it would have felt uncomfortable passing Germany off as Australia.

The 1995 Wild Boar Vineyards Riesling, pounds 3.99, Asda, is the result of Australian flying winemaker Nick Butler's first foray into Germany to make wine to Asda's specification. This fresh, modern expression of the Riesling grape, made at Langenbach and tinged with lime and blackcurrant, is a confident start. Northern Star German White, pounds 2.99, Asda, is another successful Nick Butler blend.

In its own venture with Langenbach, Thresher insists it hasn't tried to make an Australian wine in Germany, but rather to emphasise the freshness and fruit of the raw material. The 1995 Solus, pounds 3.99, Thresher, a blend of Muller-Thurgau, Sylvaner and Scheurebe, is made from lower yields than normal with a third of the quantity of sulphur normally used for liebfraumilch. Still on the sugary side, it's a lot fresher and fruitier than bog-standard lieb.

The tabloids predicted during Euro '96 that it wouldn't be so much Deutschland uber alles as all over for Fritz after Wembley. And, as we know only too well, Germany has a habit of coming back. In Liebfraumilch's centenary year, deep in the forest something is stirring

German Wines of the Week

Muller Thurgau, Rheinhesen, Saint Ursula, pounds 3.19, Co-op. Mouthwatering, grapefruit and honey-style quaffer. 1993 Ruppertsberger Nussbein Riesling Kabinett, Pfalz, pounds 4.15, Safeway. Soft, tropical citrus fruit-like riesling with a grapefruity twist. 1994 Riesling Kabinett Halbtrocken, Messmer, pounds 6.99, Oddbins. Elegantly lime-crisp, off-dry Rheinpfalz riesling with sumptuous honeyed sweetness. 1993 Ruppertsberger Linsenbusch Riesling Spatlese, Rheinpfalz, Winzerverein Hoheburg, pounds 5.99, Thresher Wine Shops, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack. Lemony, peppery, characterful Riesling. 1994 Scharzhof Riesling, Weingut Egon Muller-Scharzhof, pounds 6.99, Majestic. Classic, featherweight, green apple and petrol-style Mosel riesling.

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