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How Germany could benefit from the impact of global warming on the wine industry

Wine growers are split on what global warming means for them. Germany stands to profit, but is it prepared to act?

Deutsche Welle Published 07.06.23, 02:52 PM
The 12th-century Eberbach Abbey is a hallmark of German winemaking

The 12th-century Eberbach Abbey is a hallmark of German winemaking Deutsche Welle

Wine growers are split on what global warming means for the industry. Germany stands to profit, but is the country ready to seize the opportunity?

"It's like tasting a dinosaur. With climate change, you can't recreate these wines."


In a suit and tie, Dieter Greiner speaks from the head of an elegant, wood-carved hall, smiling at around a dozen winemakers sitting at the tables set up along the room's perimeter. On the wall behind him, a row of neutral-faced German monks in black robes stare out from their portraits. On the table in front of him — and every other person in the room — are nine wine glasses, each filled with a splash of amber-colored Riesling known as Eiswein (ice wine), the oldest one dating back to 1981.

Due to rising temperatures, Germany hasn't been able to produce that type of Riesling, which relies on cold weather, since 2012, Greiner says, as his guests sniff and swirl their glasses.

The German wine expert is the managing director of Kloster Eberbach, a former Cistercian abbey still known today for its wine production. In June, the abbey near the banks of Germany's Rhine River dipped into its wine archive to offer a special tasting event to select winemakers from around Europe: over two days, more than a dozen industry insiders from France, Spain, Italy and elsewhere gathered at the abbey to taste 101 vintages of German Riesling wine, the oldest dating back to 1893.

"The idea is to draw attention to German wine and to German culture as a whole," German winemaker and sommelier Ralf Frenzel told DW in an interview before the event begins. This "G20 of wine," as Frenzel named it, is a cooperation between the abbey and his wine magazine "Fine." Frenzel hopes the event can help expand Germany's culinary image abroad to include more than just beer.

When giving presentations in other countries, Frenzel says he always includes a slide showing a monkey in lederhosen drinking beer and eating sauerkraut.

"And then I show another slide that says: 321 one-star Michelin restaurants, 58 two-star restaurants, and 12 three-star restaurants," he says, listing off the German restaurants honored with the prestigious culinary award.

We're sitting at a balcony table of one such restaurant, ENTE in Wiesbaden, where Frenzel got his start as a sommelier in the 1980s. Back then, falling production standards had left the reputation of German wine at an all-time low. Over the last 40 years, German winemakers and sommeliers have done a lot of work to revive that reputation, which had been world-class before World War One, when Germany was still a popular holiday destination for European nobility.

From the balcony, Frenzel watches as his guests arrive and collect their first glass of wine. Noticeably absent, he points out with frustration, are the German politicians he'd invited. The best he could get was the mayor of Wiesbaden, who stops by before lunch to blandly read out a long list of the city's tourist attractions.

"We get it, awesome city," one hungry guest grumbles under his breath.

If the same event were taking place in Paris, the President of France would be there to personally open the ceremony himself, Frenzel says. But in contrast to countries like France, where wine sits firmly in the center of the national culture, Germany doesn't have enough pride in the quality of its wines.

"That's where you really see this German low-cost mentality coming out, and I think that's such a shame," he says. "Politicians could do a lot more, especially abroad, in communicating what German quality means — because it's actually really great!"

Today the cost of consumer goods in Germany is still painfully high for most people, after soaring energy costs last year drove up prices. The country is currently in a recession. That could be why politicians are reluctant to be seen attending what most would consider a luxury event.

"When we have guests, we need to be able to show them the best," says Frenzel. "And that shouldn't be misinterpreted. A good wine abroad costs between $50 [€46] and $100. And [here in Germany] we're serving stuff from the bargain bin."

Lunch ends. The guests are ushered outside the restaurant and into a caravan of private cars waiting to take them to the abbey up in the hills of the Rhine Valley.

Over the two days, the 20-minute car trips to and from the wine tasting provide a calm atmosphere for the guests to talk shop. An Austrian winemaker tells a German one what his industry is doing to prepare for climate change. An Italian winemaker and a cellar master from Champagne in France joke about how relaxing it would be to manage Germany's 103,000 hectares (254,518 acres) of vineyards. France and Italy accounted for 11% and 10%, respectively, of global grape-growing surface area in 2022, according to a 2023 report by the International Organization of Vine and Wine, an intergovernmental organization. Germany, with wine-growing regions on the Rhine and in other parts of the country, accounted for just 1.2%, the same as Russia and Afghanistan.

But Germany is doing a lot with a little. In 2022, the country was the world's ninth biggest wine producer, after South Africa and before Portugal. And Germany was the only EU country to increase its wine production level last year, a success attributed to a dryer, hotter growing season. 2022 was the hottest year since records began in Germany in 1881, according to the country's weather association.

On day one at Kloster Eberbach, the group tastes 40 Rieslings. During the tasting, the atmosphere is quiet and concentrated, like an exam. Around the hall, the winemakers swirl their glasses, sniff the wine, sip, and after a moment of tasting, spit it back out into a small vessel placed on each table. They take notes on the tastes and smells, and later discuss what they notice.

Pears. Herbs. Great structure. "I'm getting…barnyard," one guest whispers happily, "horses."

In the afternoon, the group takes a tour of Eberbach's vineyards. Managing director Greiner stands with the attendees on a green, vine-covered slope. In the distance, you can barely see the Rhine River snaking through the valley. Closer up, he points to a stone wall constructed centuries ago by the monks who used to cultivate the land.

A lot has changed since then. The monks are gone. Today the regional state of Hessen owns the winery. And the weather has gotten warmer. Last year, German vineyards along the Rhine didn't have any rain for two and half months.

"We'd never seen that before," Greiner tells the group. This triggers a mixed reaction.

"I believe — and many people in France believe today — that global warming is a good thing [for wine]," one French winemaker says. "The wine has never been better!"

"For now!" another voice counters.

Greiner listens diplomatically and then responds.

"We face new challenges, but the general quality is higher," he agrees. "But we face new challenges."

Back in the tasting hall, DW asks Munich-based Lebanese winemaker Marc Hochar of Chateau Musar if he also sees the warming climate as an opportunity for his industry. He's hesitant to be so black and white about it.

"There's change, there's no doubt about it," he says, "and it's impacting some more than others, and some are benefitting." He points to the growing quality of German reds and English sparkling wines. But it's not the case across the board.

"If you go to more southern countries, they're suffering."

On day two, the group has 60 more wines left to taste. The ritual constitutes. Sniff, sip, spit. Sniff, sip, spit.

The vintages get older and older as the day goes on. Soon wines bottled in 1910, 1905, then 1901 are being served. The tasters burst into applause when the ages are revealed. Even many of these professionals have rarely had wine this old.

The time traveling continues, moving back into the 19th century. The 79th wine served is from 1893, the oldest in the lot. The Riesling was bottled just down the river in Rüdesheim, at a time when Victoria, Wilhelm II and Guanxu reigned as emperors over India, Germany and China, respectively.

DW also has a taste. The golden wine is sweet and shockingly good for its age. It's a strange feeling to sip a drink made by people that lived 130 years ago, and the writer realizes they've never had such an intimate encounter with history.

As for the future, Frenzel says the opportunity to produce great German wines is there, particularly with climate conditions tipping in Germany's favor — at least for now. But the German wine industry will have to work hard to seize the moment and avoid becoming complacent with what they've already achieved.

"Because good is always the enemy of great," he says.

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