Getting to the Good Grapes
With all the great wines available in Germany, how does the dedicated Expat wine drinker broaden his knowledge and palette without spending a fortune?
by Tom Lipton
With the explosive interest in better wine, the biggest challenge many expatriate wine lovers in Germany have is gaining easy access to discovering elevated quality, non-German wines here.
Accessing German wine is a breeze with some 14,000 vintners in Germany's 13 official wine-growing appellations. Most vintners welcome visitors to their wineries allowing visitors to sample their wines either for free or for very modest fees. Fees are usually absorbed with the purchase of their wines, so that discovering many excellent German wines at the source is a no-brainer.
A few hours' drive puts virtually everybody close to a growing area — not just in the more southern and western parts of the country, but even in the eastern and central states as fine wines can be readily discovered at Sachsen and Saale-Unstrut appellation wineries in Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thüringen. This enables vinophiles who live in Berlin, Brandenburg, eastern Lower Saxony and even Mecklenburg-Vorpommern opportunities to visit vintners relatively close to home.
(Admittedly, this is a stretch for wine lovers in Schleswig Holstein and the city-states of Bremen and Hamburg.)
The big question is, how to find quality and price for all those gorgeous drops from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, neighboring Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and tiny Luxembourg without buying x-number of tasting bottles. Those can add up very quickly to a fortune. The same holds true for the oceans of improving or better wine now available from North and South America, New Zealand, Australia, Greece, Israel and Eastern Europe. And with global warming increasingly evident, even Britain is getting back into the act after a 500-year hiatus.
Getting the chance to taste
A few big retail wines chains such as Jacques' Wein Depot hold first-Thurday/Friday of the month tasting evenings showing five - seven wines free of charge in most of its 320 or more shops Germany-wide.
Currently celebrating its "schnaps-zahl" 44th anniversary, free tasting of most of Jacques' offerings has been a founding principle of this HAWESKO-owned operation. Jacques' offerings are consumer-driven, middle of the road offerings specializing in moderately priced, solid quality wines.
Every two weeks Jacques' outlets introduce yet another six to nine additional wines, all of which can be tasted for free. These are briefly available and are not part of Jacques' regular assortment. Many of these wines return annually on a regular basis, albeit for a brief time, perhaps only a month or two. Consumers who apply for the JWD free customer card even get discounts on some of those newcomers and holiday specials.
Most of Jacques' wines come from cooperatives and large producers. This helps keep prices down. Occasionally, there are terrific discoveries — as well as disappointments.
Of course, the breadth of selection must be limited given the increasing number of countries and growing areas producing wine. About 80% of Jacques' offerings are non-German so it is a good point of departure for learning about solid, everyday wines usually well under 15 Euros a bottle.
Mövenpick, the international food manufacturer-distributor-retailer, known for its ice cream specialties and restaurants also has a wine division. It generally offers somewhat more expensive, higher quality wines as does World of Wines. Some bottles, not all, are available for tasting.
All of Germany's finer department stores with food departments, catering facilities and in-house mini-restaurants (such as Kaufhof, Karstadt-Oberpollinger, KDW, and gourmet delicatessens as Käfer, Eilles and Dallmayr) offer premium wines; however free tastings are, indeed, rare. Some of the more entrepreneurial managers show better quality but most tastings are limited a few bottles of new additions, generally popularly-priced wines costing about 7 Euros or so. You can enjoy mini-tastes in tiny plastic glasses poured by demonstrators usually during non-congested shopping hours.
Fortunately, many upscale wine stores, distributors, and producers, both German and international, participate in regional wine fairs.
In Munich smaller exhibition areas on the Prater Insel, the M.O.C fairgrounds, and the neighboring Zenith Hall, both in Freimann, enable you to taste wines from 75 or more exhibitors for an entrance fee of 15 - 25 Euros for several hours' visit. These are usually conducted over two days or a Friday - Sunday weekend.
Munich's Forum Vini in November, for many years in private hands, was acquired by the Meininger Verlag about four years ago. That major publisher of consumer and trade magazines is a co-producer of ProWein at the Düsseldorf Messe, Germany's most important wines, spirits and now craft beverages exhibition. Well over 100 producers, distributors, retail outlets and related companies are present.
Entrance fees to all of these can be avoided if you have become a good customer of an exhibitor. Usually a free pass for two is sent by mail enabling you to reconnect with your benefactor. Even more importantly it enables you to explore many other wines, styles, producers from all over the world even though most of these shows are overwhelmingly showing German wines.
With extraordinarily great good luck, you might even be able to breach the security barrier of a trade show tasting and wangle an invitation to ProWein in Düsseldorf held in mid-March or the super-exclusive Golden Ring Tasting of premium, noble sweet wines held in Trier.
If you have really deep pockets and breath-taking connections and can make the trip to Verona in early April or to Bordeaux for the biennial VinExpo in late May the entire wine world addresses its peers with thousands of exhibitors and tens of thousands of wines from every wine nation in the world. Verona caters more to the consumer, with a special events program held at various locations throughout the town.
Almost as daunting as getting in is finding accommodations at any price anywhere near either venue. A 40 km, 60 km or even lengthier drive is not unusual, traffic is grim and parking a nightmare, none of which ever seem to improve despite good intentions by the Fiera and the Foire.
Germany's highly prestigous VDP - the Association of German Premium Wineries and Producers, Germany's elite 200 or so best - has a touring program winters with Regional Tastings in the largest cities. These are indeed a very special treat...but only VDP members' wines are presented, of course.
Some smaller regional importers who also sell over-the-counter at their warehouse facilities also host annual tastings with their leading vintners present. These tastings usually occur just before the Christmas buying season kicking off at the end of November. That's when the current year's harvest is in and all but the slowest cold fermentations are complete. Cash and bank cards are the way to pay as you discover your holiday treats and personally meet the winemakers.
Many upscale retail outlets also have tastings by invitation but not necessarily in your neighborhood. There are also finer wine stores located in the upscale suburbs and finest postal codes in and around major metropolises.
Unique new tasting opportunities
There are alternatives that combine the best of all possible worlds — namely professional tastings that are also open to the general public for a reasonable price.
The presentations' content are identical and usually follow the trade in-depth tasting of several wines and the tasting of several wineries' offerings fee after the business day early in the evening.
Organized by highly-qualified young professionals working independently on behalf of various growing areas, these events enable any serious wine lover to discover interesting and unusual growths. In the Munich area, Faye Cardwell, an expatriate Brit with extensive knowledge and experience organizes both trade tastings with elements dedicated to consumers, and wine-makers' dinners.
Ms Cardwell says "I believe that wine is sold with a story, not with technical details. Wine lovers are often thirsty for knowledge but also want something to which they can relate.
"Pruning systems, elevation and soil texture don't do it for them but a quirky story from the producer themselves about the label, the name, the vineyard, will stick in their mind.
"I love creating events around wine, food and good company. People should go home having had an enjoyable evening and having learnt something more about the fascinating world of wine. I try to make my events accessible in every way, creating informative moments so that guests feel prepared when they enter the tasting room; a small number of friendly producers that have great wines; and a great crowd of similar-minded people to share the event with".
Cardwell works regularly with Italian and Lebanese wineries to create events showcasing lesser known appellations and regions. For more information on her activities and upcoming events, go to www.fayecardwell.com.
Tom Lipton first discovered fine German wines (and eventually many others) way back when - during the Cold War on his arrival here. He's been drinking and pouring them ever since.