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The Wines They Are A-Changin'

German winegrowers are innovating and returning to their roots in order to compete in an increasingly cut-throat industry.

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More competition means vintners have to produce better wines

High above the Rhine near Rüdesheim, the times they are a-changing in the world of wine.

Anthony Hammond is an up-and-coming grower in the Rheingau region who's making waves and catching raves with his unconventional wines although he's only been in the business for four years. But Hammond is willing to experiment and calls his vineyard the "Garage Winery."

"People expect something different from me," he said. "I have to present something different, something that people think is interesting and that they want to taste and hopefully buy."

Germany is the world's 9th biggest wine grower, and about a quarter of its wines are sold abroad. Britons bought 97 million liters last year and even the French bought 11.2 million liters.

Even so, new players have been joining the world wine market, which is forcing Germans producers to place quality over quantity in order to compete. But even very high quality isn't always enough. Vineyards often have to come up with unique selling points to establish themselves on the world market, say experts.

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Quality beats quantity these days

"Germany imports more wine than anywhere else," said Ingo Swoboda, a wine critic and author. "That's why it's important for growers to have their own image -- a German image for German wine. They also need new ideas to keep up with competitors from overseas."

Innovation a hit

The Rheingau region is at the heart of the German wine industry, which has flourished here for a thousand years. But increasingly, new names and new products are making their way onto the market. Those include a sort-of Riesling-Prosecco described by its makers as "frivolous." Some 20 young growers are involved in its production.

"Back when we started, the older generation of growers snickered at us and doubted we'd be successful," said vintner Frank Nikolai. "They couldn't believe we wanted to launch the idea together."

Their creation has been a hit. Each of the growers contributes part of their Riesling harvest to the joint effort. Production is subject to strict quality controls and judges make sure that only wines that meet the standards are used to make the Prosecco.

Weinflaschenverschluss Vino-Lok

Innovation popular in the traditional art

Embracing new trends doesn't mean having to forego tradition. Hans-Josef Becker uses many of the same techniques as his grandfather. At the same time, he's not afraid to tinker. He was the first German grower to use glass stoppers instead of corks.

"It's really easy to remove the glass stopper," Becker said. "And you can close it again so that you can put the bottle in the refrigerator."

Becker decided to switch to glass stoppers because of the declining quality of natural corks: the more delicate a wine is, like the dry Rieslings in his region, the more sensitive it is to unpleasant aftertastes or changes that can come about because of the cork. The glass stoppers have helped avoid spoiled bottles and won over customers.

Back to basics

There are a total of 13 wine-growing regions in Germany: the largest ones, are along the Rhine and Neckar valleys in the states of Hesse and Baden-Württemberg. But the region around the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer valleys is also famous for its own light, dry white wine -- the Riesling.

A century ago, this was the most expensive wine in the world. But its reputation, particularly since 1985, has been declining along with its export numbers. Now, that is beginning to change with a new generation of innovative vintners who want to return the reputation of old.

Roman Niewodniczanski of Van Volxem Vinyard is one of those growers. He bought an old Jesuit monastery in Wiltingen on the Saar river and completely renovated it -- keeping only the wooden wine barrels. Just like in the past, the must -- juice from the grapes -- ferments in the barrels without any added ingredients.

He also believes in going for quality over quantity. In the past, the vineyards in the region tried to produce as much as possible and as a result, quality -- and business -- suffered.

As a result, he gives his grapes as much sunshine and space as possible. He is having his stock thinned out and the remaining grapes on the vine won't be harvested until November when they've had the opportunity to soak up as much sun as possible.

"If you try these grapes you'll notice very strong exotic fruit flavors: apricot, passion fruit, papaya--lovely fruit combinations--and they produce fantastic wines," he said.

"We want to produce complex, hand-made wines that will last unlike modern high-tech wines that don't keep very long."

Neighboring winegrowers agree.

"These steep hillsides here make for high cultivation and harvesting costs," said Peter Mertes, a winegrower from Wiltingen. "Everything has to be done manually. To compete on the international market, we need something unique -- and we can only achieve that via small harvests and high quality."

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