As a child I associated the Germans with World War Two. Both my grandfathers were alive, and both had fought, or at least contributed: my paternal grandfather was a navigator in the Fleet Air Arm, flying in Bristol Beaufighters, and my maternal grandfather was a sort of air traffic controller based in the Shetland Isles. Paternal grandfather talked about it a bit, and had a portrait of Churchill hanging in the living room. The subject was still alive. The films were still regularly on the telly.
Later, I began to associate the Germans with beer. This is something that they are rather good at. Even the most commercial of German lagers: Becks, actually tastes of something, is clean and, very importantly, doesn’t make you beat your wife when you get home. Lone quality in a world of fizzy piss.
They are also rather good at cars. My car of choice sadly suffers a bit of an image problem: Porsches were also the brand of choice of the 1980s BSDs (read “The Bonfire of the Vanities”). But drive a 911 (ok, a Boxster) for a week or so and you will discover automotive perfection: something special. Even automotive integrity. And that’s before we even start on Mr Porsche’s real bit of work, the Beetle, or its grandchild: the Golf. We’re drifting away from Porsche but staying German.
So, German wine? Tricky? Or maybe not. And to be ignored only by the ignorant.
German wine suffers from an image problem. Part of this is down to Liebfraumilch and Black Tower: The Nottage Hill or whatever of the 1970s. Bland, samey, and your Nan drank it (or at least had a bottle somewhere). Away from these, one was, and still is faced with an odd-shaped bottle with lots of German on the label. German is actually closer to English than French, but it seems like Dutch when printed in gothic script, and words like “Pfalz” or “Kabinett” just don’t roll off the tongue, or caress the mind’s palate like “Puligny” or “Meursault”.
The good news about this is that German wine is impossibly cheap for what it is. In terms of sheer technical quality, one can find Riesling Kabinetts from top producers at about half the price of a white Burgundy of similar stature. And there’s another thing: Riesling. Riesling is the most noble of all the white grape varieties. Regal class. And forget the sickly bland sweetness of Granny’s Black Tower. The best Kabinetts, and Spatleses with a little more age (the good ones will last forever) have richesse more than sweetness, balanced by the pin-sharp, nervy acidity that Riesling does best.
There is not the space (nor, I confess the inclination) for a guide, but the best one I’ve found is here. And the thing about German wine is that you can learn it. The nature of the people is such that the labelling is logical if confusing to the uninitiated, but it’s like learning grammar. I learned German wine for my Diploma exam in 2000 for that reason alone (well, almost alone: write an essay on German or English wine for your WSET exams and you can be fairly sure that whoever is marking it will be pleased to have something to do: it’s not a popular subject).
My German producer of the moment is Selbach-Oster. Not as trendy as Donnhoff, not as pin-sharp as Leitz, but at a tasting of 2007 Rieslings last year a Wehlener Sonnenhur Kabinett just seduced me. I could taste the slate of the vineyards, I could taste some soul. The case is in storage. If I can resist it it will be just superb in five years’ time, but I’ll probably crack into it this summer (if we have one). And, at 11% alcohol it won’t knock me out: you can share a bottle at lunchtime without writing off the afternoon.
So. Ze Germans. Cars. Beer. And wine. Not a bad footballing side. And I haven’t even started on sausages…