Winners and Losers of the Revised German Wine Law
BY STEVEN SIDORE
Roughly once a generation, the German government pops the hood on Germany’s wine law for a tune up. 2021 is one such year, with a new set of revisions taking effect in early May. On the surface, the changes appear more incremental than revolutionary. Yet controversy has followed as various stakeholders realize that some new wrinkles may have unexpectedly far-reaching consequences. So let’s pour ourselves a glass of dry wine (law) and savor some juicy power dynamics. Here are the early winners and losers of the 2021 German Wine Act.
Winner: The VDP’s Long Game
You can’t say the VDP didn’t see it coming.
Over the last century, the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, an organization of roughly 200 estates that form the self-selected upper echelon of German winegrowing, has come under considerable criticism. Its vineyard classification scheme, its “unashamedly elitist” approach, its insistence on sticking with a logo that bears more than a passing resemblance to Nazi iconography have all come under fire at one point or another.
But to give credit where credit’s due, early on the organization grasped that a time bomb was ticking in the far-reaching wine legislation passed fifty years ago: one that could eventually burden German wines on the international market. And so the VDP formulated a plan — well, several plans over the years, as one after the next wasn’t quite right — to do something about it.
The issue that spooked them was a stipulation in the (in)famous 1971 Wine Act that pegged official quality classifications for German wines to ripeness levels. The regulations leaned heavily on the legacy of Ferdinand Oechsle, a German machinist and inventor whose enchanted sugar kaleidoscope [disclaimer: not actually enchanted or kaleidoscopic] measures the amount of sugar in unfermented grape must. That level can then be used to assign a ripeness, and by extension, prestige category from the list of classic Qualitätsweinprädikate.
While the Prädikat system did historically align with wine quality, it was more correlation than causation.
There was a certain appeal to using ripeness to define quality. While not perfect, it had historically been fairly accurate for Germany, whose climate was not just cool but cold back in 1971. Plus, there was a profoundly egalitarian element to the approach that spoke to the zeitgeist. Any producer, however humble their holdings, could theoretically achieve the ripeness levels to qualify for a superior designation.
But as Anne Krebiehl MW so convincingly explores in her book The Wines of Germany, there are grievous blind spots that come with worshipping at the altar of the Mad Sugar King. While the Prädikat system did historically align with wine quality, it was more correlation than causation. Sugar levels are an imprecise tool to evaluate final wine quality; if anything, they are better at the inverse, suggesting what will be of poor quality based on a lack of ripeness. And besides: the whole concept only really worked well for Riesling and Silvaner at a time when achieving ripeness in the grapes was anything but a given.
But the 1971 Wine Act did not account for variety or climate change. Smelling profit, broad swaths of the German winegrowing community planted high-yield varieties capable of hitting physiological ripeness — and thus earning impressive Prädikate — even in otherwise mediocre or poor vintages. Factor in climate change, which allowed Germany’s flagship late-ripening varieties to hit the mark more often than not, and any sense of “quality” from ripeness levels began to lose meaning.
Recognizing this early on, VDP member estates — individually at first, collectively later — agitated for a revised system. They preferred a methodology measured not by degrees Oechsle, but rather by the predictive power of terroir. And so, with plenty of fits and starts, in 2002 the association introduced its own mandatory origins-based hierarchy for members’ wines.
As it moves from bottom to top, the scope tightens progressively from the regional level to single classified site. The model is obviously Burgundian, which famously breaks down its own wine classifications into region, village, premier cru, and grand cru. Yet from a legislative standpoint, the new German law couldn’t just copy and paste the VDP’s system, since it needed to include all German growers. And while not quite the classification rhombus that some have made it out to be, the 2021 wine law framers soon found, in classic German fashion, that one pyramid simply wasn’t enough:
However confusing the visuals, there is a solid dose of wisdom at work here. First, “The Narrower the Origin, the Better the Quality” is a much easier sell than “We Measured the Grape Sugar Using Our Magic Monocle and It Told Us All We Need to Know About the Quality of the Wine.” Second, the international market rewards labels that people can actually understand. German labels are notorious for being stuffed with words long enough to bring a Scrabble champion to ecstasy. The Burgundy model seems more likely to bring the desired results than more sugar-based voodoo.
The arguments here are obviously oversimplified, but the point remains: steady won the race for an organization seeking to restore Germany’s standing among the world’s winegrowing elite.
Loser: The Dog Who Caught the Car
The VDP invested two decades of toil and treasure in promoting this origins-based classification model for German wine. The core of their efforts is now enshrined in law.
Yet a stubborn turd of inconvenient truth still swims in the celebratory punch bowl: narrowing the origin of a product is not inherently any more predictive of a good wine than the Way of the Sugar Wizard.
As British wine critic and author Stuart Pigott notes: “Look how badly the Burgundian classification works: you can buy grand cru wines that are neither good quality nor typical for the site. However, it doesn’t seem to matter, because the demand and prices are high.”
The VDP knows that prestige sells. Which is why it misses no opportunity to tout that its classifications are based on centuries of vineyard classification, stretching back to tax maps commissioned by Napoleon and the Prussian government. And in that context, it makes sense: good land in talented hands does tend to produce wines that impress pour after pour.
The 2021 wine law framers soon found, in classic German fashion, that one pyramid simply wasn’t enough.
But it appears that the VDP’s members were caught off guard by just how hard the lawmakers would lean into their “origins story” concept. Like an uncomfortably long hug, what started out promising and emotionally rewarding has reached a point where the association is desperately seeking an exit strategy.
It is, after all, shockingly clear that the 2021 ordinance wrests the terms Großes Gewächs and Erstes Gewächs from the VDP’s control. Any classified single sites, not just historical high-flyers, now qualify to produce those two prestige categories of wine. Terms and conditions apply, no doubt. These are to be formulated by Schutzgemeinschaften, literally “protection communities,” which have been vested with the responsibility of establishing official regional profiles by 2023 — permitted grape varieties, yields, minimum must weights, the works. VDP members will undoubtedly play a major role in those committees, but the mechanisms are built for democratic choice and census.
There is real fear on the part of the VDP, not just of lost sales to domestic competitors, but also of the damage that plonky “premium” wines could do to the cachet (and high price point) that the VDP has spent decades cultivating for its top GG and Erstes Gewächs bottles. How else to read this official statement from the VDP in response to the passage of the legislation:
We must give particular consideration to the careful and considered use of the terms "Großes Gewächs" and "Erstes Gewächs," which are now defined in the ordinance. We are all in agreement that these terms must be protected. To avoid any premature missteps and risking what we have achieved, the VDP would have preferred an intensive discussion in advance before specification as an ordinance. If German winegrowing wishes to be taken seriously at the international level, then absolute excellence is required here — in terms of all criteria of production, especially however in terms of using origin to reference the best vineyards in a region.
(Official VDP Press Statement, emailed on April 1, 2021)
If you catch a whiff of desperation in there, it’s because the VDP is terrified that the beast they’ve created might come back to maul them. As Steffen Christmann, widely respected president of the VDP, points out: Should the Schutzgemeinschaften, for whatever reason, opt for the minimum legislated standards instead of stricter ones, then it will be using the same standards established a decade ago under the moniker Selection. One could call that designation an unmitigated disaster, except it is so mediocre that no one cares enough to even bother. (#NotTheCreamOfTheCrop)
Make no mistake, the VDP maintains a strong hand here. It still has the vineyards, expertise, infrastructure, and connections — and the trademarks on its own proprietary versions of the phrases Großes Gewächs and Erstes Gewächs (always with the VDP. prefix).
But it would be blue sky thinking to expect the larger crowd of consumers to notice — at home, let alone abroad. “It’s not just that consumers don’t understand this stuff. It’s that they don’t want to,” bemoans Thorsten Kiss, a buyer at the wholesaler Schlumberger with long experience in retail. The overwhelming majority of consumers base their purchase decisions on price, region, and taste profile for the grape, he says. The difference between a top classified site and a non-premium one? Not so much.
Barring a revision of the legislation before this part of the law takes effect in 2023, it is entirely possible that high-end VDP bottles will, instead of floating atop the rising tide, be dragged down beneath it. #BeCarefulWhatYouWishFor
Winner: Truth in Advertising
For the first time since 1971, the Oechsle obsession is no longer the law of the land. But don’t yet mourn the umlaut-rich hours you’ve spent learning your Beerenauslese from your Spätlese. The Prädikate have merely been made optional, even if that news appears not to have reached across the ocean yet. (Hey English-Language Wine Media: #You’reWhyTheyFoundedTrink)
So what finally brought the switch? Let’s read how the legislators explained themselves:
German wine has continuously and for years been losing market share on the international stage. A trend toward falling domestic consumption has led to further loss of revenue. To improve the economic perspectives of the producers against the competition and to provide support in the face of falling sales volumes, measures for market stabilization should be joined with opportunities to boost sales and create and expand value… Taken as an overall packet, [the revised wine law and ordinance] should help toward the implementation of the aforementioned goals. Alongside these economic aspects, there is also a need to adapt individual national specifications to Union and constitutional standards. (“Tenth Law for Modification of the Wine Act”)
So, yes, Germany’s wine laws needed to be brought into harmony with the overarching EU legislation. But that didn’t inherently require casting off the shackles of the must-measurement monarchy. A series of smaller, targeted changes might just as well have sufficed.
Once again, Pigott cuts to the chase: “The weakness of demand and prices are the things driving contemporary German wine politics.” The bill’s main proponent, Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Julia Klöckner, grew up in a family of winegrowers and once served in the prestigious role of German Wine Queen. It’s reasonable to believe she has insight into the industry and its issues.
Any classified single sites, not just historical high-flyers, now qualify to produce those two prestige categories of wine.
So why does the government believe these measures will move the needle on wine sales, in Germany and beyond?
The answer seems to come on the wings of the modern palate. As many have noted, changes in climate and taste have altered Germany’s classic market. General consumer preference has moved away from sweet and rich, especially for white wines. And those are precisely the types of wines encouraged by a system that incentivizes high sugar levels in the grapes.
So where are tastes going? Towards freshness, which Klöckner seems to regard as something German winemakers and terroir can do well. And if you believe that the “premium dry” movement represents the great white hope for the industry, and that this was poorly served by the constant sugar chase, then you change the rules of the game to emphasize your strengths.
Loser: Your Local Optician
Be honest: can you read that word in the middle without hitting zoom?
Let me help you out. It says “Region.”
You can’t read it without squinting because the original draft of the wine law called for the term “Region” to be printed in a font of at least [checks notes] 1.2 mm in height. On the front label. You know, the patch of paper landscape where some combination of growing region, variety, town and site are normally Hollywood billboard sized. Not here. Name huge, “region” tiny.
Fortunately, in a bewildering act of absolute sensibility by Germany’s upper chamber of parliament, this provision was struck at the last moment. The Bundesrat was quite clear about its rationale:
The changes to the ordinance are expected to provide a comprehensible structure for both producer and consumer. The consumer should be able to clearly tell which “tier” a wine occupies. The indication of the term “region” in a font size as small as 1.2 mm, as specified in the draft changes, is barely legible and does not fulfil the sense of a clear and consumer-friendly labelling.
There were three distinct reactions:
So what’s going on here?
We’re witnessing the slow-motion end to a years-long game of what might be called three-bottle monte. Among its other charms, the 1971 Wine Act created large-scale vineyard blocks called Großlagen. These are often massive, stretching across multiple communities. And intrepid producers quickly found equally massive loopholes. For example: these Großlagen can bear the name of their most renowned vineyard, even if it contains only a teensy-tiny bit of that vineyard and the rest is undistinguished or worse. It’s kind of like ordering calamari and getting something that is mostly pig rectum.
Why does this matter? Because bulk wineries, cooperatives, and no-name producers live from putting bottles on supermarket shelves that take advantage of flimsy consumer knowledge. Many German consumers can make a vague connection in their minds between Piesport and good wine because the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen is indeed a world-class classified vineyard. Its name alone conveys a halo of authenticity to that two euro bottle of Mosel Riesling labeled as Piesporter Michelsberg (a Großlage, likely with zero grapes from the famous site).
You can bemoan the ignorance of consumers, but the problem is systemic. The existing law actually made it at times impossible to tell the difference between a single site and a Großlage wine for any but the most informed of wine consumers, who know to look for specific towns, sites, and producers. It’s not a problem unique to the wine industry. Olive oil labeling could win the Booker Prize for Fiction. The same holds true for maple syrup, clothing, and even cars.
The majority of the changes detailed here won’t take effect for six years.
This has been a thorn in the eye of not just the VDP, but also other producers big and small who are fortunate enough to have parcels in the actual historical sites. Those vineyards in theory carry tremendous marketing value, value which has been diluted by the Großlagen rule. The changes to the ordinance finally acknowledge that it’s time for the practice to stop.
Which brings us back to 1.2 mm. The 2021 changes to the wine act specify that in the future, bottles from Großlagen would include the word “Region,” hence in our example “Region Piesporter Michelsberg.” In response, various lobbyists representing the parties hurt by this decision slipped in a wrinkle whereby the word Region (and its future synonym Bereich) could be printed in what can charitably be called “optician-friendly” size. And it came thiiiiiiiiiiiis close to making it into the final law.
The language from the Bundesrat now reads: if “a Bereich or Großlage is used, the descriptor ‘Region’ must be appended immediately before [the name] in a clearly legible and non-smudging manner, in the same color, typeface and font size.”
So blame the Bundesrat if your local optician is in a worse mood than normal. She was probably counting on selling a whole lot of extra reading glasses.
Winner: The Next New and Creative Con
Shed no tears for the bulk producers just yet.
The majority of the changes detailed here won’t take effect for six years, ostensibly to give these big players time to adjust their business models. And if we’ve learned anything from thousands of years of European history, give intrepid souls a little time, and they will invariably find a new and effective hustle.
It’s all in the game.
All translations are by the author.