New orders for sister plonk

Blue Nun, the sickly sweet German wine so popular with British palates in the early Eighties, is trying to take itself upmarket, writes Imre Karacs
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The Independent Online
DISCERNING connoisseurs of Blue Nun may have noticed a subtle change recently in their favourite tipple. The squat, brown bottle of old has metamorphosed overnight into a sleek blue flask, the label has been given a make-over, and the lady in the habit is looking more cheerful - dare one say, alluring? - than ever before. The oldest German brand, so good that every drop is sent abroad, has been re-launched.

No longer does it boast the proud "Liebfraumilch" logo. The grapes still come from Rheinhessen - Liebfraumilch country - but their nectar is now blended at a giant plant by the Mose river. And into the new bottles is poured a new wine; fruitier, less sweet and glowing with a more intense hue of gold. Following in the wake of German wines of more solid reputations, Blue Nun has gone upmarket.

The reason for the "new communications concept" is spelt out in the PR blurb of Langguth, the concern which bought the company producing Blue Nun two years ago. "An extremely delicate problem was posed by the quality of the wine," it states. Put it simply, the punters who had guzzled 20 million bottles of the stuff every year in the early Eighties lost their liking for treacle and switched to better wines in the same price bracket, produced mostly in the New World. Consumption plummeted, and the Sichel estate, which had created the brand in 1921, was forced to sell out.

"Wine production was volume-driven," explains Helmut Seibert, director of the new holding company. "The old product was relatively sweet. The quality standard was not compatible with wines of the New World. We could see it had no future in the market."

The new, improved Blue Nun, selling for a respectable pounds 3.99 at British supermarkets, is still a long way in quality from the wines produced by Langguth on its own estates, but it is trying hard to narrow the gap. Selection of the 280 independent vineyards contracted to supply the raw material has been tightened up. Langguth inspectors keep an eye on the grapes throughout the year, advising farmers on modern methods. They have imposed a 30 per cent cut in yields, ensuring the fruits reaching their vats will make a better wine.

Grapes are picked early in the morning, so they remain fresh during their journey from the Rhine to the Mosel. Modern fermentation methods are applied. The result is a better class of plonk, still on the sweet side, but calculated to tickle low-budget Anglo-Saxon palates.

In its first year, sales of Blue Nun Mark II doubled in the UK; there are still no plans to sell it in Germany. At the same time, Liebfraumilchs that retain the increasingly naff label have fallen back by 11 per cent in the UK.

Blue Nun's rebirth comes at a time when all German wines are trying to polish up their image. After the pile-'em-high Eighties, yields are being cut across the Mosel and the Rhine. "German wines are going through a revival. They are becoming better all the time," Mr Seibert asserts.

And in this trend, the demise of Liebfraumilch appears to please both mass producers and the up-market estates. "Most English people probably think Liebfraumilch is Germany," laments Prince Michael zu Salm-Salm, president of the national association, which jealously guards wine standards. The Prince produces only 70,000 bottles of exquisite wine on his estate, and resents being bracketed abroad with drinks bearing the same "Quality Wine" label as his own. "In some ways Liebfraumilch hurt us, as people may not realise that top German wines are different," he says.

He may not need to worry about Germany's reputation much longer. The makers of Blue Nun are about to imprint their brand on countries which have been squeezing Liebfraumilch out of the market with their superior beverage. Under the new management, Blue Nun's global conquest has already begun. So far, the range includes Blue Nuns from Argentina, France and California.

For the emerging yuppies of Asia, Langguth's marketing people have concocted a "Golden Edition" - a sparkling wine containing flakes of 22-carat gold. Langguth has estates in France, Italy, Spain, Tunisia and Moldova, and is about to plunge into China. Mr Seibert spends much of his time these days travelling to north-east China, where the new vineyard will be established.

On his desk in the historical wine village of Traben-Trarbach sits a bottle of white, produced by Chinese vintners. An unremarkable wine, he says, except for the snake coiled around inside. You only drink the liquid, fortified by the reptile's yin and yang. "It tastes vile," Mr Seibert says. "Ours will be much better."