Monday, May 11, 2009

US wines in Germany

Germany may be a nation of beer drinkers, but wine is omnipresent here; even Bavarian beer halls stock a few pork-friendly wines. Moreover, unlike France or Italy, wine-producing nations that mostly drink their own, Germans drink internationally; in grocery stores, German wines are in the minority.

However, while you can easily buy wines from Spain, France, Italy and South Africa even in convenience stores, U.S. wines are rare, outside of low-end Gallo wines that tend to sit in a low corner of the aisle. Even Gallo isn't price-competitive; for 6 Euros, I can get one of their non-vintage California-appellation reds, or a vintage-dated Spanish wine with regional character. What would you buy?

In Hamburg, the second-largest port in Europe, I wandered into a well-stocked wine shop called Hanseaten Select and chatted with wine buyer Mike-Alexander Brede. Brede has one of the largest selections of American wines I saw: a dozen current-vintage reds -- from Bogle Zinfandel to Shafer Merlot -- and a few older vintages of high-end wines like Opus One and Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet.

"American wines aren't doing much in the German market because they aren't interested," Brede said. "I call wineries asking for the wine and they tell me that it's all allocated, or they have mailing lists, or something. They just don't care about selling in Europe."

Brede had several different bottles from Hess Collection, all well-priced.

"Hess' winemaker was just here a couple of weeks ago," Brede said. "They almost never visit us. That was something special."

Brede is a fan of some U.S. wines; his favorite is Ladera Cabernet, which he stocks. He says Schug Pinot Noir is well-regarded, and he even stocks Schug's quirky sparkling red, though he says he will drink 4 bottles from the 6-bottle case himself. He also says he often recommends Bogle and McManis Family Vineyards wines as offering value for money.

But he says that most German drinkers are not looking for New World style wines, which is why you see many more South African wines on store shelves than Australian.

"South African wines are popular because they're more in the European style, and also some of the wineries have very old European connections," Brede said. "For a little more money, Bordeaux is always very popular. People like a lighter, low-alcohol style."

Paradoxically, Robert Parker's ratings are followed, though they are controversial. Brede says he might use Parker's ratings as an additional selling point but I did not see point-of-sale materials anywhere in the country citing point scores. However, there is a German wine competition that offers medals, and winners of that competition use bottle stickers to advertise it.

Brede says the overall reputation of American wines has been hurt by the ubiquity of generic wines from Gallo and lately from Robert Mondavi Winery.

"Many people here feel a connection with America and so they want to try an American wine, but when they try it, if it's a Gallo wine and it's not so special, they don't see any reason to try another one," Brede said.

One wine-market trend you don't see much of in Germany yet is private-label wines. I spotted a private-label California Cabernet Sauvignon in one grocery store. But unlike in British grocery stores and US wine chain stores, private-label wines are still rare.

Brede wouldn't speculate as to why, but I have a guess: Germans are more puritanical about ingredients than any other country; the EU overturned their purity law for beer, but consumers still reject brands that don't follow it. Perhaps German consumers are still unwilling to buy wines without knowing the source, whereas we English-speakers will wrap our lips around just about anything.

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