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Heat challenges German wine industry riding global trends

Dagmar Breitenbach
August 6, 2018

Thanks to the heat wave scorching Europe, German winemakers have started the earliest-ever wine harvest. Wine expert Romana Echensperger tells DW how the German wine industry can adapt and shares global wine trends.

A man harvests grapes in Lörzweiler
Image: Reuters/R. Orlowski

DW: What does the ongoing heat wave in Germany mean for the wine harvest? Will 2018 be a great year for wine?

Romana Echensperger: That's always a tricky situation. You can only start talking about a great year once the grape harvest has been stored in the cellars. If we now had thunderstorms and strong rain, then you can forget about a good wine year.

Heat and strong sun challenge the vineyards. These cause drought stress, for example, which in turn can limit physiological maturity. Then the grapes will have a lot of sugar but harsh tannins and not a lot of taste.

An early harvest is also not ideal, since high temperatures will cause the crushed grapes to immediately begin fermenting at a very fast rate. This hinders the development of delicate aromas, so you have to put a lot of energy into the cooling process.

These are just two examples. In short, winemakers must adjust their winemaking and their storage technology for heat and dryness in order to make the year's harvest work.

Romana Echensperger
As a Master of Wine, Romana Echensperger knows not just everything about grapes but also the ins and outs of the global wine marketImage: privat

DW: You've been in the wine business for many years, have worked as chief sommelier at top restaurants and, as one of a handful of women in Germany, carry the revered title Master of Wine. Why does a fine wine go so well with a good meal?

Romana Echensperger: Wine has a long tradition: It fits perfectly with food, enhances it, makes it more easily digestible — and then, there's the social aspect. Wine is a social lubricant that brings people together, just like food.

How about German wine — does it hold its own? 

Absolutely! Germany is [usually] a cool climate wine growing country. We have wines with a lot of structure, but without any weight: no super fat Chardonnays but smart, crisp, fresh Riesling-style or Pinot-Blanc-style wines that go perfectly with contemporary-style meals with less meat and lots of vegetables and herbs.

The style of wine we produce in this cool climate is just perfect for modern cuisine.

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What are the future trends for German wine growers?

Sparkling wine is the next big thing. It's not their core business, but today more and more wine growers have begun to focus on sparkling wine production only, working on the subtleties of wine production for sparkling wines. In the future, I think we'll be seeing more high-end sparkling wines from Germany.

The art of wine

Has the German taste for bone dry or richly sweet wine changed over the years?

Actually, there's constant change; wine styles are always part of a trend. After years of hardship during World War II, Germans were looking for sweetness in wines. So through to the 1970s, people were keen on sweet wines. After the glycol wine scandal in the mid-1980s [wines had been adulterated with diethylene glycol to make them appear sweeter — Editor's note], things changed and it was suddenly in vogue to drink brutally bone dry wines.

Today, it's OK for wines to have a few grams of residual sugar for more crowd-pleasing styles. At the start of the century, quality was seen as equal to concentration, so we were seeing super fat Chardonnays with a lot of oak — and now the trend is lighter wines, fresher and with less alcohol but more acidity.

Speaking about trends. Is vegan wine just that — a trend that will die out?

I think the vegan issue has been exaggerated to a certain degree. At the peak of the vegan movement, a lot of growers reacted by slapping the term on their labels. Most wines are vegan anyway.

Every market is different

What are typical wine preferences in other countries?

In the US, you have sweeter wines on the lower end and the best wines in the world at the higher end. If you go to the West Coast or the East Coast, you have a plethora of outstanding restaurants, and very good wines.

In Norway, people like wines that have a high acid content. The Japanese — a very traditional market — don't like screw caps but love corks in their bottles. It's the opposite in the UK.

wine bottles behind bars
For pleasure and profit, men tend to collect wine Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Arnold

What's the most exciting wine country at the moment?

I think it's Germany, because so much is going on here. And New Zealand, they have great wines.

Bringing people together

"Wine is and always will be a personal sensual experience," you write in your new book on women and wine. How is the wine experience different for women?

Women have a more pragmatic approach to wine. Men are keen on a wine's image; women go to the supermarket, see the "Hello Kitty" rosé they like, buy it — and don't care what other people think. Women have a keener sense of taste and smell, they can differentiate more aromatics. They like to buy wines for a special occasion, they like to share wine. They are not collectors.

More women drink wine than men, so actually they are more important for the market, even if they don't drink wine as often. The cliche that women love light, sweet wines has to do with the fact that they drink wine less often —  and like every human being, they then prefer the sweeter wines. Women who drink wine regularly end up liking the same wines men do.

After all these years in the wine business, what is the one really important thing you've learned about wine?

Wine is like art and music — you don't need it to survive but it's a genuine expression of human culture. It brings people together. That's really a good thing, the most important thing for me. 

Romana Echensperger is a German Master of Wine. The longtime head wine steward at exceptional star-rated restaurants teaches at the International Wine Institute in Bad Neuenahr. She also works as a wine journalist and is the author of the 2017 German-language wine book for women: "Von wegen leicht und lieblich. Das Ultimative Weinbuch nur für Frauen" ("Forget light and sweet — the ultimate wine book just for women").