Badge of honour

06 April, 2007

Broader horizons and new leadership could translate into a more dynamic market presence for Germany's top producers. Gary Werner reports

Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter. There's a titanic, Teutonic tongue-twister! The words almost defy pronunciation, but they form the name of a respected association of Germany's top wine estates. Membership in the VDP - a much more merciful moniker - comes by invitation only, costs at least €6,000-€8,000 (£4,070-£5,430) a year and demands extremely high standards. As a result, the group totals no more than 200 often small producers.

"These people cultivate just 4 per cent of Germany's vineyard area and produce only about 2 per cent of the country's wines," says Joel Payne, co-author of the Gault Millau Guide to German Wines. "But they account for 8 per cent of total sales, so their wines are selling for up to four times the national average. These are the top end."

Iris Ellman, of Hampshire-based German wine importer The Wine Barn, confirms that elite status : "I tell sommeliers and private customers alike to look for bottles with the VDP symbol - a stylised eagle and cluster of grapes - as a sort of guarantee of superior quality."

David Motion, of London retailer The Winery, who generates up to a quarter of his revenue from German wine, also sees great merit in the work of the VDP. "But does that emblem make a difference as to whether somebody picks up a particular bottle of wine from our shelves?" he asks, rhetorically. "I'd say no. It makes absolutely no difference at all to our customers. It's just not meaningful to them."

So why does the VDP logo appear to be the closest thing to a "sure thing" in the wine world, and yet fail to resonate on the sales floor?

As is generally the case, it comes down to marketing. According to Steffen Christmann, a leading producer in the organisation - and from July this year its first new president in nearly two decades: "The VDP decided to actively build our recognition within just the German market starting about 10 years ago. We targeted sommeliers and retailers, and by now I think we have solid recognition among these domestic gatekeepers."

Payne agrees: "Many of the better wine shops and finer restaurants in Germany now list only wines produced by members of this group. And that's not any kind of dedication to the VDP itself. It's just recognition by the trade that it's hard to find truly phenomenal German producers who are not members."

"With this accomplished," adds Christmann, "we can now consider promotion on international markets. But we have not collectively decided where to do so yet. It's not possible for us to tackle the world at once, so this is a big discussion. Even so, export markets are already very much more in our sights than they were even two years ago."

To highlight that point, Christmann points to VDP sales data from its most recent general meeting. "We sold about 30 million bottles in 2004 and last year that number had grown to 35 million. While exports represented just over 14 per cent of sales in 2004, they are now 21 per cent. That's growth of 50 per cent in two years. It's a very big number.

"Some markets , such as Scandinavia, are just exploding," he says. "As a personal example, Sweden and Norway would take everything I produced if they could get it. The Benelux countries, Spain and Italy are all working very well. On the other hand, the UK remains a big challenge. People there talk about serious, dry German wines in a high, honourable way, but consumers are not drinking along these lines. I don't know why. The Scandinavians also experienced that horrible Liebfraumilch stuff, but for some reason the trade and consumers in the Nordic nations have decided to explore top dry wines from Germany. We need to work on making that happen in Britain."

Making things happen is something Christmann wants to do when he assumes the VDP presidency . In fact, he has already started work. "It turns out there are some people at the McKinsey management consultancy who love wine," he says. "So they started working with us at the start of the year and we developed and issued surveys to the VDP membership only about six or eight weeks ago. The results have been excellent. They have all indicated a desire to work together more closely.

"Also, more than 90 per cent say they want to take the necessary steps to increase quality - including three-quarters of those we in the leadership think are not achieving their potential right now. That's a great result for me because I feared that those relatively lower performers would be in denial. Anyway, we are expanding the project to ask sommeliers and retailers in Germany what they think about the organisation and what they want from it. And when we have all of that back, I hope I have a clearer mandate for what we need to do in the coming few years."

The VDP launched an ambitious vineyard classification system in 2002, and refined it last year; but many aspects of implementation remain to be addressed across the organi sation. Then Christmann wants to increase average bottle prices (now €8.60) to improve vineyard investment. He will likely also be president during the VDP's 100th anniversary celebrations in 2010. By that time, he says "I want sommeliers and merchants across all our markets to really understand the VDP and get something meaningful from our wines for their businesses and their customers."

VDP factfile

2006 sales value: £204 million

Change from 2001: +29 per cent

2006 volume: 35 million bottles

Export share: 21 per cent

Average bottle price: E8.60 (£5.84)

Average bottle price of German wine in the UK: £2.89 (Nielsen MAT to Dec 2 2006)

Source (unless marked otherwise): VDP

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