Germany's ripple effect
Finding German wines on retailers’ shelves used to be like playing Where’s Wally? But while you still need an eagle eye, this is clearly changing. Across market sectors, a shift is happening, quietly but convincingly.
But first some facts. In its official UK Wine Market Overview, Wines of Germany gives a realistic snapshot of the current situation. It acknowledges that wine volume sales are down 8% and value down 10.2% in the UK (Nielsen), but notes “increased awareness of different styles” as well as “a fall in sales across all price categories apart from the premium end.”
Germany is not alone in losing volume and value share in a contracting UK wine market – so are France, Italy, Spain, the US and South Africa – but it points out: ”While Nielsen is useful in giving us an indication of market trends and what is happening in supermarkets, it doesn’t tell us about the independent and on-trade sectors, both of which are major value drivers.”
In the supermarkets German wines have played the chicken and egg game for years – customers cannot buy what is not on the shelf and what goes on to the shelf depends on previous sales records. Yet there are examples of successful lines where product, packaging and price are at a sweet spot. The Co-op’s Devil’s Rock Dry Riesling at £5.99 is a prime example.
This works even better with less tricky but familiar grape varieties. Victoria Di Muccio, wine buyer for Booths, says: “It can be a challenge for German wines to find a market in the UK, but when the quality is there, they perform well. Our best-selling German wine is Villa Wolf Pinot Gris, at the premium price point of £9.50.”
Tesco has just listed a £7 Hans Baer dry Pinot Noir from the Pfalz. German wine buyer Roberta Neave says: “We are seeing high demand from customers for single varietal Pinot Noir and, as we all know, Germany does this just as well as anyone else, but without the associated price tag that normally comes with the Pinot Noir grape.
“Hans Baer Pinot Noir encompasses all that is exciting about the new generation of German wine. Its packaging is playful and modern, and the wine is of a style that people are enjoying at the moment – lighter, fruit-driven and accessible.”
Neither will it linger in obscurity like so many German wines in the past. “It will be in just under 1,000 stores, including 300 Express stores, so we will be giving it high visibility,” Neave says.
Similar things are happening at the top end, too. Fortnum & Mason has just come out with an own-label German Pinot Noir, also from the Pfalz, retailing at £17.50. “The reason we have bought it is because we were looking for a medium-bodied red,” says wine buyer Jamie Waugh. “With Burgundy prices spiralling you can get delicious drinking Pinot from Germany.”
However, excitement is not restricted to Pinot Noir, which has blazed a trail in the on-trade and is finally filtering through to the market at large. Specialist German importer Howard Ripley Wines has been listing Weissburgunder – aka Pinot Blanc – for a while now.
This is Pinot Grigio’s slightly more sophisticated and slender sibling. It is dry and versatile and delivers subtle, appetising fruit flavours at a great price. Above all, it has none of Riesling’s baggage and falls into that dry, clean-cut category. While Howard Ripley mainly sells to the on-trade, this is where the trend barometer is set.
THE CURRENT COOL
Trade sales director James Comyn says: “It is without any misplaced confidence that German wine has finally turned that corner and is seen as the new current cool. Our sales have sky-rocketed and we simply need more producers and styles to keep up with demand. There is, after all, only so much Riesling you can get on one wine list. Also, the quality of the non-traditional varieties we’ve discovered has been phenomenal.”
Sainsbury’s and Tesco are already on to this and both list appetising, consumer-friendly Pinot Blancs that over-deliver against their price. Tesco’s Neave says of her new listing: “It’s an excellent expression of German Pinot Blanc. It’s exciting to think about other white varieties.”
David Wright of Delibo Wine Agencies has two German Pinot Blancs in his portfolio and says his clients are “taken aback by the quality, subtlety and range of the variety”.
Another category that is slowly edging into people’s consciousness is Sekt, Germany’s sparkling wine. Quality Sekt is experiencing a huge revival at home and a few examples are in the UK, notably the award-winning Reichsrat von Buhl range, but other Sekts are making inroads, too, both at mid and premium price levels. David Motion, owner of The Winery, a London retailer with a wide range of German wines, notes that clients have only just realised it is out there.
“Sekt is close to our hearts,” he says. “It’s fair to say that, in the perception of our customers, it doesn’t quite have the profile of dry Riesling or Spätburgunder yet, although whenever we have a Sekt open at tastings, our customers certainly enjoy it.”
At Theatre of Wine in Greenwich, south London, manager Tom Illsley says: “We only sell Riesling Sekt and only have bottle-fermented, estate-bottled examples. Serious bottlings such as those from Peter Lauer show all the racy purity that we love about Riesling in a different key and that is great for Riesling lovers and all serious wine lovers.”
Tony Stones, chief executive of sparkling wine distributor Champagne Warehouse, says: “German wines in general are making a welcome resurgence and sparkling styles in particular. We have chosen to add Winterling Riesling Brut Sekt from the Pfalz to our portfolio. It’s an organic sparkling wine, offering the lightness of Prosecco with layers of stone fruit, pear and minerality.”
Apart from the enduring but niche appeal of Riesling, Germany’s strength clearly lies in clean-cut, food-friendly, dry wines that punch well above their weight in varietal expression, especially where Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris – aka Spätburgunder, Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder – are concerned.
Within the burgeoning category of sparkling wine, Sekt is set to become an exciting, consumer-friendly addition. Encouragingly, most of the action happens in the independent on-trade at mid to premium prices – with realistic margins. Prost to that.