English vs German wine, personal thoughts on a wine dialogue

English vs German wine, personal thoughts on a wine dialogue

This is a story about a dialogue, a dialogue between English and German wine - or rather my personal experience of it. Moving from Germany to London made me see wine differently and I think I have benefited from this experience. In particular, it was a blending of national perspectives, perhaps even bias, that had some fruitful effects and made me look out for and experience things in wine I would otherwise not have done. While this is partly a personal story, it can also be read as a plea to look at wine in different ways and turn whatever national drinking bias we might have into a force that makes us see more, not less.

The personal part of this story starts with me moving to London a few years ago. Looking back now I realise that this actually made me more German in some ways, particularly with regards to wine. I had mostly drunk German wine before coming here, but living in the England really made me focus on it. The strength of Sterling against the Euro and the high taxes on alcohol in the UK contributed as I could get first class German wine shipped to my door rather cheaply, so cheap in fact, that nothing I could buy here could compete in terms of value. This changed a little with Sterling going south, but by that time I found myself on a mission: constantly being confronted with people who either had no clue whatsoever about German wine or who were plagued by the misconception that German wine is mostly cheap, sweet plonk, had turned me into an ambassador for German wine. You can see this in the Wine Rambler, but I am getting ahead of my story. Before there was even talk of the Wine Rambler, English wine entered the stage.

Like many continental Europeans, I knew that such a thing existed, but I had heard it was utter rubbish and of course I had never had one. While this may be expected in my case, I was a little confused that most of my English friends had never even bothered to try one too. Shouldn't they be curious about it in the same way I was about German wine, shouldn't they educate me? Without anyone to guide me, I became a little curious in their place. Just a little, mind you, but curious enough to send me on a voyage of discovery that last week led to an unusual event: instead of bringing German wine to England, I took an English wine to Germany - and when my German wine friends liked it I did feel a little patriotic pride. And then something even more unexpected happened, which made me think a little more about my perception of English vs German wine and what could be learned from it.

Let's go back a few years, to St George's Day 2007. An English friend had suggested to have roast beef in a restaurant in Borough Market; it was a place I had never been to before called 'Roast'. What I did not know back then is that Roast champion not only English food but also English wine. I did, however, spot an English Pinot Noir on the wine menu. I really wanted to try the wine, so I suggested it to my companions. Blank stares. Silence. Another round of blank stares. Eventually, my English friend said that this wine was English and hence rubbish. As no one seconded my motion, my friends settled on a cheaper Spanish red wine. When I expressed concern that at that price nothing much exciting was to be expected, they replied that in a good restaurant you would expect all wines to be at least of decent quality. This is of course a valid point, but shouldn't it apply to all wines equally, including the poor English wine that everyone but me seemed to despise on (bizarrely, as they were mostly English nationals) nationalist grounds? When I said that, I got the 'the German is insane' blank stares again. Whether the Pinot was bad or good we will never know, but with regards to the Spanish wine the only thing I can remember is, well, nothing. If only I had got a bottle of the English red for myself!

While this is just an anecdote, it shows the reaction that many English have to English wine. Not all, mind you, and increasingly less so, but for some reason everyone I met during my first couple of years in London was like that. So I happily busied myself exploring what Germany had to offer, and found gem after gem. Then I started to host wine tastings, mostly focussed on German wine, but I made sure to include the odd English wine to compare to my Germans. As none of my English friends then drank any English wine, I felt I had to do it in their place. Also, I was curious about their opinion as I considered myself biased, but really wanted to know how the English wine compared against the Germans - and you cannot host a blind tasting for yourself...

The first few adventures ended in boredom. Even when the wine was deemed acceptable, it still felt too expensive. With Sterling being very strong against the Euro, importing German wine was an absolute bargain - first class Mosel late harvest Riesling delivered to your door for about ten quid. Nothing in England could compare. Even with the Pound plummeting, I still found that with a Riesling for 8 € I could easily beat any English wine I had come across priced up to £10 or beyond. However, I was also too aware that my knowledge of German wine was (and is) way superior to my English wine knowledge, so the experiment was flawed from the start as the English wine should have been picked by someone knowledgeable too.

I was of course aware that England had built up a reputation for sparkling wine; just earlier this month, for instance, the Elitist Review shared a good specimen with me. A couple of years ago though I would not really have appreciated it as I stayed away from all sparkling drinks - the high acidity and CO2 did not go along too well with my stomach. Interestingly, German Riesling helped me to overcome this. Focussing on half-dry and sweet Riesling first, I learned to appreciate acidity in wine, which in turn made me curious about sparkling wine. A marvellous German sparkler that the Wine Ramblers shared on New Year's Eve 2009 put sparkling firmly back on my wine map. So far our explorations have been focussed on German sparklers, but it was clear to me from the start of this mission that, as soon as we would have set things into perspective, England would follow, not Champagne. It would almost be like uniting two underdogs against the mighty big bad - it would make a good movie, but might not work with usual stereotypes as the bad guys would be French, fought by underdog English and Germans (unless we go back to Luis XIV. of course). Thinking of it, this would actually make a great Wine Rambler blind tasting event!

Anyway, before I got in sparkling wine I had the odd English white, mostly Bacchus, which I found not really bad, but also lacking depth and generally a little too expensive. I did also come across decent ones, but I still felt that for that price I would rather get a good Riesling. However, I did decide that I needed to try a German Bacchus from a respectable winery to set my experience in perspective: is Bacchus just an unexciting variety, are the English no good at making Bacchus or was it just coincidence that so far none of these wines rocked my boat?

I think it is quite telling about my perspective (bias) that I felt I needed a German Bacchus to set my English experience into, well, perspective. Surely, a good German winery could be relied on to produce a good Bacchus and show me what you can do with this variety? The task was a little difficult though. Bacchus, while fairly popular among wine growers in England, is going south in Germany. It is grown much less than it used to and it is often blended with Müller-Thurgau, hardly an exciting variety either, and others into cheaper wines that the online merchants I use just don't sell.

Last Friday in Munich's premier department store I did manage to find one though, a Bacchus Kabinett made by a respectable Franconian winery. This seemed very fitting as I had brought an English wine with me, a rosé, to be blind tasted by my co-Ramblers. I would learn about the others' views of an English wine and also get a better perspective on Bacchus.

And then I was surprised twice.

I had hoped for the English rosé to be decent, but it actually got a lot of praise from all of us. It was light, fresh, juicy - and all in a well defined, immensely enjoyable way. No one would have expected this to be an English wine and we all agreed that the Chapel Down English Rose was one of the most convincing rosés we have had in a long time. We also felt that the price was fair.

So here I was, eventually having found an English wine that I really liked, that was priced competitively and that, leaving all comparison aside, was just a really good wine. It made me stop thinking about it as an English curiosity and appreciate it as a wine in its own right. If a rosé from Kent can do this, other English wines can too, I concluded, and was happy. Interestingly, I was also proud. Not so much proud about my skill in picking the wine - I just grabbed it in a supermarket, knowing about the winery -, but a little proud that my England could produce a wine that my German wine snob friends liked too.

Maybe this reflects that I am now in a somewhat similar situation I was in when first coming to the UK. The Germans I speak to about wine have either no idea that English wine exists, or they think it is rubbish. A very few may be a little curious. Compare to what I said above about how I came to champion German wine...

The evening had a second surprise in terms of quality, and this time it was the German wine that did something unexpected. So we had this rosé that we all really liked. And after that we opened the German Bacchus. And were let down.

I spare you the details as you can read them in my review of the Bürgerspital Bacchus Kabinett 2009, but we found the wine to be so generic that it turned boredom into annoyance, especially compared to the English wine. While we would happily have had some more of the rosé, some of us did not even finish their first glass of the Bacchus. Yes, I have had English wine that was about as annoying as this one, but I also had English Bacchus that I found better, for instance because it had a bit of edge and character. It was also better value.

An English wine defeats a German 'quality' wine on both quality and value. My wine world was upside down. Or would have been, had I not developed a certain relation with English wine. Still, it changed my perspective a little. From now on, I expect a more open-ended, less one-sided dialogue between my English and my German wine sides.

This dialogue is important to me because it brings together two sides of my life, but there are also some more objective, if you will, connections between English and German wine, such as the grape varieties So many grapes grown in England have German roots, several were in fact created in Germany: Bacchus, Müller-Thurgau, Schönburger, Ortega, Siegerrebe or Regent - and the list goes on. Many of these varieties are seen as second rate in Germany, only grown in small quantities or with a reputation for being boring. This makes them much like English wine, at least as seen from the eyes of the average German wine snob.

I have found German wine, red and white, that my English friends like (and not only the English); I have found the first English wine that my German friends like. More is to come, I am sure. Looking at these 'second rate' varieties here in the UK, maybe it can become an encouragement to learn more about what German winemakers do with them? Usually, I would not even have considered to try a German Bacchus or even think about Ortega or Schönburger - but the more likely I am to come across more of them in the UK, the more interested I will get to try their German equivalents. If I manage to find a good English wine made from Ortega, will this lead me to appreciate this variety a little more and find a German specimen? Or, in trying to set English things in perspective, will I come across a really exciting German Bacchus? I wonder what else this two-country experience will encourage me to try.

Looking at the second rate is very likely to lead to disappointment, I suspect, but it keeps things more interesting, broadens the horizon and, sometimes at least, might uncover hidden gems.

Either way, I feel there is a dialogue to be had that should be educational, exciting and most importantly fun. Maybe you have made a similar experience? And if you have not, this may be a reminder that exploring the world of wine, in whatever way, is just such wonderful fun!

Submitted by Karl Laczko Thursday, 25/03/2010

I love German Rieslings and am currently on a quest to build up a small collection on less typical German wines (especially Reds) - so for me I would usually choose German over English. That said I have enjoyed many English wines as well; a wonderful 3 day stay at Three Choirs Vineyards in Gloucestershire opened my eyes to English light, crisp white wines, the Chapel Down Bacchus is a beautiful aromatic white and Nyetimber makes a decent drop of fizz.
Sadly I find myself trying to convince non-wino friends that English and German wines are both worth a try - I still haven't decided which is harder to do!

Submitted by torsten Thursday, 25/03/2010

In reply to by Karl Laczko

Thank you for your comment, Karl! It is really interesting to see how the perceptions of different groups of people differ. Many wine professionals adore German Riesling, but it seems to be different with the general public. Interestingly, several wine lovers I have met recently said very positive things about sweet German Riesling, but were disinterested with regards to dry Riesling from Germany - why do it, they said, if you are so good at making the sweeter wines? Austria and Australia, they said, could take care of the dry ones. Now, the Germans interestingly mostly drink dry and the prestigious grand cru Riesling wines are dry by definition. Then there are the people who think that sweet wines are evil rubbish, hence German wine is evil rubbish.

In that sense I get your frustration with regards to convincing people about the quality of German wine. I found that just putting them in front of a glass without telling them what it is worked quite well - this may also work for English wine.

Also, thank you for recommending Three Choirs Vineyards. I have yet to visit an English vineyard.

Submitted by Simon Jones Saturday, 27/03/2010

That's really interesting and thought-provoking. Alas, I still belong to the majority of English who have never tried wine from their own country. That will have to change on the evidence of your encouraging reports!

The last bit in your post about all the supposed "mongrel" German varietals used in England reminded me, incidentally, about a particular wine I drank years ago (in 1997, in fact) while living for a year in Germersheim in the Pfalz as part of my university course: a "Duttweiler Mandelberg Ortega Beerenauslese" by Weingut Syring-Lingenfelder. Very nice it was too. While preparing my German dissertation that year - written about wine from the Pfalz (surprise, surprise) - I visited Geilweilerhof in Siebeldingen, the place where they first crossed Regent. I still remember me sitting there scribbling notes while some academic/professor type spoke to me about it in his office!

Of course, as a lot of these cross-varietals of German origin are more immune to diseases like mildew etc., it would seem logical that they've taken to the English climate like the proverbial duck to water. (Though that's not to belittle the English climate, which can still be very pleasant, as I'm sure you know..)

The comments about preconceptions (and habits) with regard to wine among both German and the UK consumers were also particularly interesting. I could relate to a lot of it.

Anyway, great stuff, Torsten. I also liked the flag!

Submitted by torsten Saturday, 27/03/2010

In reply to by Simon Jones

Thank you very much for the comment, Simon - and also for the email and further details for your Pfalz experience. The first time I came across Regent was in a Mosel winery where they had just a few years ago decided to go beyond Riesling as some of their customers had asked them for a lighter red wine. So far Regent has not left a strong impression on my, nor has Ortega, but what you say about the Ortega Beerenauslese sounds really interesting. It seems at some point this year I have to order a few bottles of 'unusual' wines...

The English climate can indeed by lovely; in fact, I really enjoy the weather in London. It is great for cyclists as it does not rain very often and even less so heavily. Still, weather is a crucial factor and I can see why you want to go for very reliable varietals in the English climate.

I will send you a more detailed email later on as the part about your dissertation sounds really interesting; it seems that you picked a much more useful topic than me (researching English maritime and cultural history also got me to meet interesting people, but it did not contribute anything to wine appreciation).


Submitted by torsten Saturday, 27/03/2010

Funnily enough, I just met the English friend who took me to Roast three years ago, and it turned out that she had actually read this blog post. She reminded me of a part of that story that I had totally forgotten about: we did actually have English wine that night, English dessert wine that is.

How can it be that I forgot about this? Well, after she had mentioned the fact the memory slowly came back, memory of wine that was floral and yummy at first sip, but then fell flat for me, lacking depth and complexity (of a good Riesling, for instance), which apparently is why I blanked it from memory. So the historically accurate version of that story would be that my English friends did not think that English wine per se should be avoided, they only thought English red wine should - how you could not want to at least try an English red on St George's day when the opportunity arises is still beyond me though.

Either way, it took way over two years after moving to London before I found people who were actually interested in English wine - and the first few were Americans, of all people! Even now I could only name one or two English acquaintances who do show an interest in English wine.

Submitted by roger Saturday, 10/04/2010

you have really very good information and collections if wine