A quiet revolution has been taking place in the vineyards and wineries of Germany. Over the past decade, a new generation of young wine-makers has reshaped the German wine industry and the emphasis is now very much on quality.
Although Liebfraumilch - a halfway house between drinking Coke and drinking wine - remains popular, Germany has so much more to offer.
In the 1960s, many German wine producers were part-time wine-makers looking for grape varieties that gave large volumes and were guaranteed to ripen in Germany's somewhat marginal climate. These people looked to the newer crossbred vines such as Mller-Thurgau, Bacchus and Optima, and succeeded in producing vast quantities of bland, medium-sweet wines.
Modern wine-makers have recanted and returned to the classic grape varieties that made Germany's name in centuries past. First among these is Riesling.
In the right hands, Riesling produces the most dazzling of white wines. It can combine a floral delicacy with a mineral intensity, powerful and yet elegant and subtle. It also reflects the terroir in which it is grown, so it is impossible to generalise about German Riesling.
The wines from the Mosel Valley tend to be the lightest and most floral. Riesling from the Saar and Ruwer - tributaries of the Mosel - are harder, with more overt acidity and greater power. In the Rheingau, Riesling takes on a mineral, slaty character, giving wines with more body and weight. In warmer regions such as the Pfalz and Baden, they are fruitier, almost New World in style.
Riesling is also produced with varying amounts of sweetness. The sweeter wines, such as Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein, are produced in limited quantities and can be among the finest dessert wines. The drier wines, Kabinet and Sp„tlese, are more widely available and are better suited to restaurant wine lists. Germany has a Riesling to suit all tastes and all occasions.
While Riesling dominates the quality sites of northern Germany, other varieties hold sway in the warmer south. Sylvaner, Pinot Gris, Weissburgunder/Pinot Blanc and red varieties complete the portfolio that Germany has to offer. German wines offer a range of tastes that are particularly appealing to palates jaded by years of exposure to oaky Chardonnays.
The versatility of Riesling is illustrated by the range on offer from one small 10-hectare estate. Ernie Loosen owns vineyards in a number of locations near Bernkastel, in the Mittel Mosel. His wines are made from low-yielding vineyards containing a high proportion of very old vines.
This results in very concentrated wines, which are made in a number of styles. His wines from the slaty soils of Wehlen are racy and elegant, while those from the red, volcanic sites of Urzig make a fuller, spicy style, with hints of apricot.
Recently, Loosen has introduced a "house" wine, a QbA (Qualit„tswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet) wine labelled simply as Dr Loosen Riesling. This contains significant proportions of QmP (Qualit„tswein mit Pr„dikat) wine, but is available in larger volumes. It still has the Loosen hallmark qualities of intensity and tremendous concentration of flavour. The Dr Loosen Riesling is a wonderfully versatile wine, light enough to drink on its own as an aperitif, but with sufficient body to accompany white meat dishes.
Further south in the Saar Valley, Riesling provides wines that can counterbalance the richest sauces. One of the finest producers is Christian Ebert of Schloss Saarstein, whose wines have a rich mineral character with zesty balancing acidity.
Like Saarstein, Weingut Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken makes wines which, in youth, display searing acidity, but this is always perfectly balanced and makes excellent food wine.
Other names to look for in the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer region include Weingut Max Ferd Richter, in Mulheim, Weingut Heinrich Schmitges, from Erden, and the excellent Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, based in the ancient town of Trier.
The most prestigious region in Germany is probably the Rheingau, home to many of the aristocrats of the German wine industry. The wines here are predominantly Riesling, and the variety takes on strong earthy/mineral characters. The power and weight of many of these wines makes them well suited as partners to meat and game dishes.
Outstanding Riesling producers in the Rheingau include Weingut Robert Weil, Schloss Reinhartshausen, and Langwerth von Simmern.
The region also produces some excellent red wines, and wine-makers such as JB Becker, in Walluf, make excellent Pinot Noirs, with surprising depth of colour and powerful fruit character.
South of the Rheingau is the region of Rheinhessen, which used to be noted for the production of sweet, commercial branded wines. This area can make truly classy wines. Peter von Weymarn of Weingut Heyl zu Herrnsheim makes his wines using organic farming methods.
One side-effect of organic production is that yields are low, which results in wines of intense flavour and character. Weymarn's reputation has been built on his rich, powerful Rieslings, but he also makes excellent Silvaner, which is packed with ripe, succulent peachy fruit, with a backbone of refreshing acidity.
Possibly the most exciting region at present is the Pfalz. Here, 23,000 hectares of vines nestle in the shelter of the Haardt mountains on the west side of the Rhine. Historically, this is a region of bulk wines, produced by huge co-operatives, but this has changed over the past decade.
There is a large spread of grape varieties here, notably Silvaner, Scheurebe, Gewrztraminer, Pinot Noir and Dornfelder. Leading the drive towards quality in the Pfalz is Rainer Lingenfelder, of Weingut Lingenfelder. Rainer's Sp„tburgunder (Pinot Noir) stands comparison with the finest Pinots in the world, but he is also passionate about making quality Scheurebe. He has shown the potential of the variety, producing a wine with citric characters of grapefruit and gooseberry.
Other producers have also established reputations based on a mixture of red and white wine production. Weingut Knipser-Johannishof makes powerful reds from Sp„tburgunder and Portugieser, as well as classy Rieslings and Scheurebe.
Weingut Lergenmller makes muscular Sp„tburgunders, plus rich, fruit-driven Dornfelders and Portugiesers. An unexpected star in its portfolio is a barrique fermented Chardonnay, an indication that at this location, the climate is closer to that of Burgundy than the Mosel.
In Baden, the region's southerly nature is illustrated by the appearance of many Chardonnays and powerful red wines. Weingut Dr Heger makes immense, serious Pinot Noirs, packed with ripe berry flavours. Karl Heinz Johner of Weingut KH Johner spent several years making wine in England; his wines are very fruit-driven and made to suit the UK palate.
Red wines are emerging strongly. Dornfelder and Portugieser offer fruity, customer-friendly reds at reasonable prices. Pinot Noir is more serious, both in taste and price, but is value for money.
It is difficult to list all the excellent newcomers, but the best guarantee of quality is the name of a reputable grower on the label, and the initials VDP also indicate quality. The VDP is a grouping of Germany's finest producers dedicated to producing quality wines from classic grapes.
The past 10 years have been excitingfor the German wine industry. British consumers who still equate Germanywith cheap Lieb are missing a rewarding experience. n