When it comes to buying anything German, Brits seem to suffer from a schizophrenic attitude: they love and appreciate German-built cars and washing machines, have no hesitation whatsoever when it comes to German beer and, if supermarket shelves are anything to go by, have even embraced Lebkuchen and Stollen as Christmas treats. But German wine? That's still a bit of a no-no. Yet, who can blame them? The track record is clear: there is competence and exactitude, even 'Vorsprung durch Technik', but Germany as a land of gastronomic discovery, full-flavoured produce, diverse regional cooking, scenic landscapes, unique wines and even sensuous joy? This is simply not how the world sees us. To every thousand cookery programmes delving into cucina and cuisine, tiffin and tandoor, there might be one clichéd mention of Bratwurst. How sad. If Germany is framed in gastronomic terms at all, it is all about pork knuckle, sausages and foaming steins of beer carried by buxom waitresses. Yawn. Then there is a vague memory of unpronounceable, seemingly endless strings of consonants, possibly even in gothic lettering and – even worse – the hangover of Liebfraumilch & Co. If I had a pound for every stupid Blue Nun joke I've heard as a German girl in the UK wine trade I could retire today. Yes, the real Germany remains a mystery to most, so I can understand that there is a certain nervousness.
Yet, while the world had its back turned, this country at the very heart of Europe has transformed itself viticulturally. Despite an outdated, clunky and almost impenetrable wine law, the Germans started turning a corner in the late 1980s had a real reckoning in the 1990s and have upped their game tremendously since the turn of the millennium. Clearly, climate change has helped. Today grapes ripen reliably in every vintage when this simply was not the case before. This means that properly dry wines are now the rule; that dry riesling in a scintillating array of styles is a real and enduring proposition; that pinot noir, aka spätburgunder, takes its rightful place in the global pinot pantheon.
But there's another thing at play, too. While Germany benefits as much as any winegrowing country from scientific progress and superbly educated winemakers, something has shifted in the way Germans see themselves. All quality producers today have travelled to and even worked in various vineyards across the globe only to return home and recognise the treasure at their feet: ancient vineyards on sun-facing slopes situated on sinuous riverbends; exquisite soils and a climate that had turned from marginal to wonderfully temperate. Right on their doorstep they had the opportunity not just to make good wine, but to craft something unique, expressing region, culture, site and personality. Following on from a generation that still saw being a Winzer (winemaker) as terminally uncool, this is a huge cultural turnaround, a paradigm shift from the browbeaten winemakers of the late 20th century, rocked by scandal and weighed down by an ultra-naff image. Today's Winzers are a collaboratively minded, energetic crowd keen to experiment and rejoice in what makes Germany unique. This transformation has happened across all of Germany's 13 growing regions which span four degrees of latitude: from Baden's southerly slopes at 47.5°N to Saale-Unstrut's northerly suntraps at 51.5°N.
While the parents of today's trendsetters proved that absolute quality was possible, this latest generation of winemakers builds on that premise to redefine what German wine is in the 21st century. So what does that mean? It means a focus on regionality, site and unique expressions of grape varieties.
Clearly, riesling is foremost in this endeavour but not alone. Those who have not yet given German pinot noir a try are missing out, while the other two pinot siblings are hits in their own right. German pinot gris/grigio, aka grauburgunder, is pitched between the light, neutral styles of northern Italy and the rich, rounded styles of Alsace, often with pristine fruit and lovely balance. The real sleeper is pinot blanc, aka weissburgunder, a slender but supple wine with as much ability to express soil as chardonnay. Then there are the lesser-known varieties. Those who love subtlety should get their hands on silvaner, especially from Franken. Those who love translucent, chillable reds should look for trollinger and lovers of peppery reds should try Germany's take on blaufränkisch/kékfrankos known as lemberger. The fact that these wines are unbelievable value for money is almost a scandal, considering how handcrafted most of them are. There is so much to discover and enjoy. Thus for wine's sake, let go of your present notions of Germany, turn your gaze away from the Autobahn towards those sun-kissed vineyards, those steep slopes, those deep forests with their cold, clear brooks, those winding river valleys expanding into orchard and pasture. Yes, Germany can also be beautiful and languid, brimming with flavour, joy and ease. There even is a word for it: Genuss.