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Vintners Toast German Wine's Popularity

As the trade fair ProWein continues in Düsseldorf, Germany's wine industry has plenty to celebrate: Exports are booming. Still, vintners worry about what the future may bring.

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German wines have been gaining in popularity -- worldwide

It's a good time for German wine. Exports increased last year to 475 million euros ($569 million), 10 percent more than the previous year and the highest level they've been at since 1985 when an Austrian wine scandal had a devastating knock-on effect in Germany. Britain remains German wine's biggest importer followed by the US and the Netherlands. And consumers have been devoting more attention to Germany's top wines, Riesling above all.

"The aficionados are in America first and foremost," said Prince Michael zu Salm-Salm, head of Germany's fine wine association VDP. "A Riesling boom is underway in the United States, a real renaissance. But the aficionados are also in southern Europe. In Italy, in Spain we're gaining momentum dramatically. And we can truly say that it's a development that's beginning to have a worldwide effect."

The success of Riesling doesn't merely have to do with the grape's flavor, but also with the increasing number of foreign journalists who give German wine good marks, particularly wine guru Robert Parker.

Trouble brewing?

Despite the boom in exports, German vintners are troubled by a recent addition to a winemaking agreement between the European Union and the United States. A coda to the accord, added in March, allows the Americans to export wines to Europe that have been chemically and physically treated using controversial techniques that are largely prohibited in Europe.

Michael Prinz zu Salm-Salm

Prince zu Salm-Salm speaks for Germany's quality wine producers

"There are two critical points to the agreement," said Monika Christmann, an expert on cellar techniques at Geisenheim Technical College. "For one, that all future techniques, that don't yet even exist, have been approved. That means that we must accept everything that comes from America in the future, and with that, the Americans practically set the standard worldwide. The second critical point is that an integral part of the agreement is that all these techniques can be employed without declaring it on the label."

Thus, consumers won't be able to tell how a wine was treated and whether a wine labelled as having been produced "according to the manner of a Johannisberg Riesling" is indeed a Johannisberg Riesling.

Power of the purse

Two figures are crucial in order to understand why the EU agriculture ministers agreed to the deal: US wine exports to the EU were worth $325 million in 2005, while EU exports to the US were valued at $2.6 billion.

But the agreement has caused quite a bit of hysteria in Europe, with a plethora of newspaper articles upbraiding so-called artificial or plastic wines from the US, and largely demonstrating ignorance of the facts.

Politicians from the German neo-Nazi NPD party also took advantage of the controversy to promote anti-American sentiments with their slogan "German wine instead of American rotgut." German vintners ended up feeling like they had to defend the US at the same time as criticizing it.

Weinkeller

Differences in cellar techniques have some vintners worried

"The fact is, all over the world there are vintners who are craftsmen like us, said zu Salm-Salm. "And in Europe, too, there are companies that are more used to working industrially."

"In America, it's basically accepted -- not in California, but in other parts of America -- to add water to wine or to separate it with spinning doctor machines and then reconstruct it. Naturally, that goes entirely against our understanding of wine. ... We're opposed to the wine trade agreement and demand that improvements are made to it," he said.

The deadline for changes to the deal ends in three months. By then it will be clear whether German vintners can save their designations of origin and whether it will become obligatory to declare particular cellar techniques. But neither outcome is likely.

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