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  • November 6, 2014
  • A Moratorium on New VDP Construction?

  • by Al Drinkle

confusion_of_tonguesEditor's note: Instead of being buried at the bottom of a never-ending thread on Koehler-Ruprecht's departure from the VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter), I chose to highlight the following comments: Al Drinkle's plea to the VDP and its ever-changing classification, and David Schildknecht's analysis of what's to come.

My Plea to the VDP

Al Drinkle says:
November 4, 2014 at 12:48 am

Perhaps what the VDP needs to do, and should have done some time ago, is nothing, at least for a few years. There’s been much discussion on this site as of late in regard to some of the VDP’s decisions being somewhat irrational, a point to which I generally concede, but even if we can all be neutral towards even the latest additional adjustments of regulations and preferred (i.e., marketed) nomenclature, there's the glaring problem of how confusing all of this must be for everybody. The impact on the growers is a given, especially for members whose marketing of certain wines has become incongruous with the VDP’s stipulations (I’m enjoying a glass of 2012 Spreitzer Oestricher Doosberg Kabinett trocken as I write this). But using the term “professional” extremely loosely, I am a wine professional who is obsessed with German wine and even though I spend a significant portion of my waking hours drinking, selling, and studying it as a discipline, I can barely keep on top of the “innovations” that the VDP has been making. Needless to say, it’s almost hopeless for even my most devoted customers of German wine to stay on top.

Consumers have only had a short time to grasp the idea of Erste Lage as the top site and now it’s been superseded by Grosse Lage which in turn is one letter away from a designation that wholly lacks prestige. “Kabinett” will soon preclude not only minimum must weights but minimum residual sugar so light-bodied dry and dryish styles are getting extricated further and further away from what we are theoretically supposed to think of as Germany’s “best” wines and we’re expected to constantly refurbish our diction to stay in line with the VDP’s perpetually “evolving” campaign? Selling this mess can be tedious (but worth it—there are so many magnificent wines!) and I’m lucky that with my customers I often have the time to explain our selections either verbally or through written offers.  What about those who only have a minute or two tableside?

So, the obtuse nature of the latest decisions is not my point here—what I beg of the VDP is to quit making changes at all! Just for a few years! Let us all catch up and digest what has been implemented already. If my immediate colleagues and customers can serve as any indication, the VDP’s greatest recent achievements have been the reinforcing of the stereotype of German wine as a cryptic enterprise and the nurturing of apathetic feelings towards it. I think that some time of reflection instead of perpetual overcorrection could be beneficial to the key decision-makers within the VDP as well.

More realistically, instead of making strides to impede what should be a broad stylistic spectrum, let’s hope for rational steps—big or small, swift or plodding—towards a future clarity where the Riesling grape especially can shine as one of the world's most articulate conduits of terroir.

German Wine Labeling: More Change Is Coming, like It or Not

David Schildknecht says:

November 4, 2014 at 5:26 pm

I am, unsurprisingly, entirely sympathetic with your views, Al, and I agree with Lars (who just mentioned this to me) that the VDP Vorstand ought to read your two paragraphs (regardless of whether they pay any heed to the tens of thousands of words I have by now written about their classificatory mania and marketing ;- ).

But there are a few things that we wine professionals and German wine lovers the world over have to recognize (or perhaps, brace themselves for!):

1.) Much of what we have been discussing under the rubric of Koehler-Ruprecht’s departure, in terms of labeling and marketing changes at the grower level, simply represents the expiration of exemptions from or curtailment of delays in the enforcement of long agreed-to regulations. To that extent, significant changes are likely going to be taking place at many estates for at least another year, as they finally implement the regulations and determine how to apply them to their individual situations.

2.) The here much-discussed change in Rheinland-Pfalz that will permit the use of so-called Gewannnamen has huge implications all of which—even those of us who welcome them must admit—involve complication of German labeling. The implications for the VDP classification and for how the VDP’s current limitations on vineyard designations function in practice are also huge. Member-growers are already registering lieux-dîts in according with this new State legislation, so the VDP will be unable to avoid a prompt response that must necessarily take the form of new regulations.

3.) Those regions whose VDP growers have elected to establish a table of “Erste Lagen”—i.e., premiers crus—(and this includes all save Ahr, Mosel, Nahe, and Rheinhessen) will be working-through that process (some regions, notably the Pfalz, have already finalized their lists) and deciding how these vineyards will be promoted, which if the past is any guide will involve further restrictions on the use of vineyard names that do not have “Erste- (or Grosse) Lage” status.

4.) Those of us who would like to see a significant number of VDP member-growers stiffen their backs and object to some of the regulations that have been imposed on them (even if “democratically”) are not about to wish on them the further inconvenient imposition of a delay simply for the sake of minimizing potential change. And even if disappointingly few battles on behalf of greater grower liberty within the VDP are fought, much less won, there are a few contentious issues whose resolution remains clouded, such as how “Kabinett” will be employed in the future in the Rheingau.

5.) The VDP is almost certain to continue their lobbying for the abolition or at least reformulation of the concept of Grosslage. This is one manifestation of German Konsequentheit that I can only applaud. True, the utilization of Grosslage designations continues to be less and less important in practice. But as I argued in the aforementioned postings regarding the new Rheinland-Pfalz legislation, retention of this layer of wine classification now that there will be two others taking the same form {village + site name} will compound the consumer confusion already wrought by the employment of Grosslagen. Moreover, the VDP is in this instance acting as the good conscience of Germany’s growers and wine industry as a whole, reminding them that it can be considered nothing less than a colossal embarrassment to retain on the books legislation that was patently designed to mislead the wine consumer concerning pedigree and place of origin. So this is another cause on which I would really hesitate to wish a delay. But if that cause triumphs, certain labeling changes will impact even those who are focused on Riesling from the top growers. (The most obvious example is that most high-quality Riesling grown in Bernkastel will begin getting labeled for Einzellagen or Gewannnamen and no longer as “Badstube.”)

6.) A lot of change in labeling practice is bound to arise from the extent to which non-VDP members elect to align themselves with VDP practices, in particular, the singling-out of a wine as Grosses Gewächs (GG); the trimming of vineyard-designated wines in conformity to pyramid-headed thinking; and the elimination of Prädikat designations from dry wines. Especially among ambitious young non-VDP growers, a significant percentage have designs on becoming members and so will conform to the organization’s practices to enhance their case for membership. Many non-VDP growers will feel they need to follow the trend set by VDP marketing practices. And no doubt a significant number of non-VDP growers simply share the VDP’s notions of what constitutes good marketing.

The heterogeneous list above is offered simply to serve as a warning that the course to date of VDP regulation and the recent course of Rheinland-Pfalz regulation as well as ongoing VDP initiates collectively serve to guarantee that significant new developments in German wine labeling and marketing will take place over the next couple of years. A pause in “innovations,” then, such as you envision, Al—welcome though it would in many respects be—is in the near term even less likely than a reset.

I was reminded in re-reading this exchange just how important are the points about "explaining" German wine to oenophiles, and of the way in which I closed a long critique of Joel Payne's 2010 account of VDP regulations and marketing (issues 30 and 31 of The World of Fine Wine), which I take the liberty of repeating below:

I fear that we can look forward to a brand new round of conceptual and classificatory wrangling and confusion involving all German growers—not just VDP members... . [Mercifully, at least a major part of that is by November 2014 behind us.] If the wines weren't so distinctly and profoundly delicious, it's often opined, German Riesling would not be worth the effort it takes to explain. I'm more concerned lest the conceptual contortions of well-meaning proponents convince consumers it's not worth the effort to explore German Riesling in the first place. Few, though, who expose themselves to this genre's full stylistic range as rendered by its top practitioners, will remain unmoved and unbeguiled, regardless the residual sugar or alcohol levels of those bottlings that capture their fancy. Even when fettered by excessive regulation, these wines will preach their own gospel, eloquently and without exegesis.

Image: The Confusion of Tongues, an engraving by Gustave Doré from 1865.

Al Drinkle, who is a rock-and-roll shouter and a German wine fanatic, manages a wine shop in Calgary, Alberta, called Metrovino.

David Schildknecht has been tasting his way through Germany annually since 1984. His detailed reports and wine reviews—which will soon have a new home—long appeared in Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar and thereafter in Robert Parker's Wine Adovcate, for both of whom he also reported on wines from Austria, much of France, and elsewhere. A columnist with The World of Fine Wine and Austria's Vinaria and regular feature writer for Wine & Spirits, he is also responsible for the entries on German wine in the 3rd and (along with those on Austria) the upcoming 4th edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

  • Andrew Bair says:

    David – Great point about the non-VDP members who aspire to join the VDP, wishing to conform to the VDP’s standards as much as possible. Good luck on your “new home”, by the way!

    I certainly agree that allowing growers to register pre-1971 Gewannamen is a very positive thing. In the future, I’d like to see the VDP implement labeling standards uniformly throughout Germany – no more of this one way in the Pfalz; another in the Mosel: and yet another in Franken or Württemberg. To me, it’s crazy that some regions like the Pfalz have a two-level vineyard classification similar to Burgundy, with both Grosse Lagen and Erste Lagen, whereas others like the Mosel have only one level. If I can keep up with the constantly changing classification and rules of the VDP, it’s because I am a geek who sits down with a glass of Riesling and reads VDP press releases. I certainly don’t expect most other German wine lovers to spend their spare time following everything that the VDP does. Not that I’m against the VDP refining their classifications by any means – I just think there should be more consistency across the board.

    • Andrew, I’m glad that someone finally commented about non-members following along (which I also mention at the end of my article on Koehler-Ruprecht leaving the VDP). But it’s not just those who would like to become VDP members. Some just want to follow the trend—in particular, Prädikat designations only for the wines with more noticeable residual sugar. This was done by non-VDP producers years before the classification. Georg Breuer, Heymann-Löwenstein, and Van Volxem come to mind (the latter two became members of the Grosser Ring – VDP Mosel-Saar-Ruwer later on).

      I also agree that growers should be able to use pre-1971 Gewannnamen, or place names. I don’t buy the argument that only certain sites merit being on a label, because otherwise there will be too many named sites of lesser quality for consumers to remember.

      As for “the VDP implementing labeling standards uniformly throughout Germany,” I think that’s a problem. The Mosel region is much different from Baden, the Pfalz, or Rheinhessen. In France, each wine region has different labeling. It should be noted, too, that what’s a Grosse Lage in Rheinhessen would most likely be considered a “kleine” Lage on the Mosel, which is full of great sites, and not just those that are ranked VDP.GROSSE LAGE.

      You’re right, the VDP should be able to fine-tune its classification, but some of the changes don’t seem to be fully thought-through.

      • Andrew Bair says:

        Lars,

        I completely agree with you that most of the Grosse Lage sites in the Rheinhessen are not at the same level as their Mosel counterparts – save perhaps for the best parcels on the Roter Hang. Then again, we can look back to Burgundy and say that much of Clos Vougeot is well below the level of Musigny or Richebourg; or that Les Saint Georges has far more potential than any of the premiers crus of Montagny. I completely understand the VDP is mapping out each of their members’ top sites relative to their respective regions.

        To me, it’s still useful if I can look at the classification rubrics for the Pfalz or the Mosel, and apply the same framework in exploring regions that I am far less familiar with, like Württemberg or Saale-Unstrut.

        • Andrew, I don’t mean that the Wonnegau, for example, doesn’t have historically top sites, but, for a very long time, certain Rheinhessen vineyards along the Rhine, especially the Roter Hang, were considered the best in the region. I just think that many Mosel vineyards are overlooked.

          I also understand that it would be helpful to have a classification framework that applies to all regions.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    I completely agree with the sentiments of your second paragraph, Andrew (and I’ll ignore the bait of Lars’s intimation about the relative quality of Rheinhessen and Mosel sites ;-). But the reality is that the four-tiered version of the VDP classificatory pyramid only received the general consent of the membership by leaving it as an option rather than insisting on its implementation; and that the VDP members from three out of the six most Riesling-centric regions have expressed their DISinclination to create an official table of “Erste Lagen.” So the disparity you rightly call “crazy” is set to persist indefinitely. And frankly, if one considers all of the wine politics and horse trading that would be involved in establishing another whole level of vineyard classification, I have to sympathize with growers’ who are reluctant to consider that undertaking.

    It’s worth emphasizing several further points regarding the option of creating a “premier cru” tranche.

    First-off, it has to be borne in mind that what are now known in VDP-speak as the “Grosse Lagen” were selected under the aspect of an ostensibly tripartite, not fourfold classification. Put another way, the notion of there being “premier crus” did not even enter into the selection of “grand crus,” which was made with a virtually exclusive focus on the establishment of this classificatory tier as a prerequisite for Grosse Gewächse. Assuming a member-grower was keen on having “his” or “her” Grosses Gewächs, I know of no instance where he or she was denied that possibility by the selection of official top-tier sites. Since – unlike with what are now called “Grosse Lagen” – the ability to field a vinous entrant in the category of Germany’s ostensibly most prestigious (“grand cru”) category, namely Grosses Gewächs, is entirely independent of whether the grower in question has holdings in a site designated as an “Erste Lage,” it’s pretty obvious that very different political considerations will govern the selection of “Erste Lagen” than governed that of “Grosse Lagen.” If you think that this fact is in itself an untenable discrepancy from the standpoint of “pure” classification, I certainly agree.

    But here’s another thing to bear in mind. The VDP Pyramid of a decade ago was really tripartite in name only. At that time, the so-called “3. Stufe” consisted of BOTH “Gutswein- und Ortswein.” (Maybe Lars can locate an on-line graphic from the early years of the new millenium; I no longer could as they’ve evidently been expunged to avoid confusion with the “new” Pyramid.) Moreover, the “2. Stufe” consisted of “Wein[e] aus Klassifizierter[/en] Lage[n].” In other words, the presumption was that each region would determine which of the Einzellagen in which their members had holdings were worthy of mention at all on labels. (Perhaps needless to say, sites in which no members had holdings weren’t deemed relevant.) These would form the (at that time) so-called “2. Level” from which would be further-selected those sites deemed worthy to support a Grosses Gewächs or “Grosses edelsüßes Gewächs.” (Yes, the latter was back then envisioned as the only other category of German wine worthy to bear the name of a “great site,” though it was quickly recognized that residually sweet Spätlese could neither be denied top-flight status nor could “nobly sweet” be plausibly redefined so as to encompass Spätlesen.) Some regions set to work dilligently expunging Einzellagen from the list of sites deemed worthy of mention on labels. The Rheingau was especially aggressive in pruning, so much so that in a press release of November 2004 entitled “VDP Site-Classification: Vintage 2004 – End of the Transition Period for the Use of Non-Classified Single-Vineyard [i.e. Einzellagen-] Designations,” we read that “The lists of sites have now been completed for the second as well as the first level. Their implementation means, for instance, for estates in the VDP-Rheingau, that the use of 44 of the existing 123 sites [i.e. of the names of those Einzellagen] will not be permitted. At some wineries, after this classification only three of the available single vineyard designations are left.” (Note the sense of pride implied at having accomplished such Konsequent expulsion of rabble vineyards ;-)The VDP’s “new” Pyramid, however, doesn’t even allude to “Klassifizierte Lagen” and allows for only two categories of wine that are even labeled with the names of vineyards, namely those issuing from “Grosse Lagen” (but only one-such per trocken entry ;- ) or from the optional “Erste Lagen.” So what, you might well ask, is the status within the VDP’s classification of vineyard-designated wines per se or of the previous category of “classified sites”? I too would ask that of the VDP.

    If the undertaking in question were classifying surface areas according to their potential to generate high-quality wine, then it’s quite clear that today’s official Einzellagen would very often – perhaps even in the majority of cases – be poor candidates for uniform classification. Rather, one would need to single out the best portions of selected Einzellagen as supporting wines of the top classificatory level whereas other acreage within the Einzellage in question would be down-graded. And this is precisely what the Rheingau undertook as part of their establishment of sites supporting “Erste Gewächse.” Just because a Rheingau Erstes Gewächs bore the name of an Einzellage didn’t mean that it could be grown anywhere within that Einzellage’s boundaries. If one were setting out to stipulate what would qualify as premier cru vine surface strictly according to quality potential, then prime candidates would be within one of the Einzellagen that are refered to in the name of a Grosses Gewächs those surface areas that didn’t measure up to the top standards. In some cases, the portion of an Einzellage deemed grand cru-worthy might have its own name in the land registry, so for example the portion of Haardter Bürgergarten” farmed by Müller-Catoir under the name “Haardter Bürgergarten Breumel in den Mauern” could be deemed a “Grosse Lage” and the rest of Bürgergarten not. Surely, though, the rest of Bürgergarten ought to be accorded “Erste Lage” status, and that is in fact what the regional Pfalz VDP intends. Not every Einzellage or grower holding, however, so conveniently coincides with a Gewannname. And if, say (hypothetically),”Kreuznacher Am Kahlenberg” became the new name of a “Grosse Lage” whilst “Kreuznacher Kahlenberg” were relegated to the status of an “Erste Lage,” that would be more than a little confusing. The reality is that those regional VDPs that have elected to establish a table of “Erste Lagen” are going to do so with an eye to the marketing needs of their members, not a determination of quality potential per se. But coordinating, regulating and otherwise dealing with a proliferation of Gewannnamen registered by VDP member-growers under the new Rheinland-Pfalz legislation is, as I have already noted, going to be both an urgent and convoluted undertaking.

    I have been not only studying carefully the evolution of the VDP’s classificatory thinking over the past three decades but have discussed it extensively (at times, heatedly ;-)both in person and via correspondence with four consecutive VDP presidents: Peter von Weymarn (albeit subsequent to his term of office), Erwein Graf Matuschka, Michael Prinz Salm and Steffen Christmann, not to mention with regional VDP chairmen (yes, it happens that they were all men) and dozens of other members – as well as non-member-growers. And from that perspective I find it abundantly clear that the aim of establishing a luxury category of dry wine early-on overrode any other considerations in the so-called classification. Indeed, everything else about the so-called classification was either a consequence of decisions about how best to showcase and market that luxury category, or a mere afterthought. Here is not the place to offer a detailed and well-referenced defense of that contention. But permit me merely to cite two examples:

    i.) “Erste Lage” This term was first introduced simply to appease growers – notably Moselaner – who (rightly) saw the focus on a highest category of legally trocken wine as being inapplicable to them and disrespectful of their residually sweet wines. In short order (specifically, in 2006), the term morphed into that of “the unifying umbrella concept [einheitlicher Oberbegriff] in all regions for wines of the uppermost category.”* Later, in recognition of the incongruity of “great growths” issuing from merely “first[-class]” vineyards, the term underwent a seemingly colossal demotion, by being re-allocated to a merely optional classificatory level. The implication of its current status is that it’s not critical whether a region chooses to treat any vineyards at all as premier cru, nor is it deemed problematic that there be a different number of classificatory levels depending on region. The only thing deemed needful is that there be Grosse Lagen as required for there being Grosse Gewächse. At each stage in this conceptual metamorphasis, “Erste Lage” has played the role of hapless handmaiden merely accommodating or otherwise reacting to the demands of “Grosses Gewächs.”

    ii.) Restrictions on how many wines can be bottled under the name of a “Grosse Lage” If the wine in question is legally dry, a long history of evolving VDP marketing and classificatory theory (using that last term very broadly ;- ) can be cited grappling with this issue. If the wine in question is halbtrocken or otherwise residually sweet, the issue has never to my knowledge so much as been discussed. Egon Müller or Willi and Christoph Schaefer are welcome to bottle four different wines in each of Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese from the Scharzhofberg and Domprobst respectively. But Koehler-Ruprecht would be permitted only a single dry wine labeled for their dominant site, Saumagen – and what’s more, the VDP would stipulate the name and packaging under which that one wine is permitted to be marketed. Why, it’s almost as if residually sweet wine were being accorded all the deference and the breaks! In a way, yes. But I doubt that is how it’s ever been viewed within the VDP. How non-trocken wines are marketed was never of serious concern as part of the VDP’s classificatory enterprise, and this fact suffices to account for the lack of restrictions in that sector. Thus, the glaring discrepancy between regulation of dry wines and largely laissez-faire attitudes toward residually sweet – not to mention the further inconsistencies in marketing principles as well as in the very notions of stylistic diversity and terroir – influence that this implies – aren’t even deemed worthy of addressing.

    *This explanation could formerly be verified at several places on the VDP’s web site, most notably (verbatim) on this page: http://www.vdp.de/klassifikation/chronologie-der-klassifikation/ which, however, has since been removed.

  • Andrew Bair says:

    David,

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, and especially for the context you added behind the VDP’s thinking over the years.

    Additionally, I suppose that some VDP growers in the Pfalz could simply choose to ignore the Erste Lage classification tier; and just go with the GG, Ortswein, and Gutswein levels, as they have been already doing?

  • David Schildknecht says:

    I visited most of the Pfalz VDP members to taste in September and nearly all of them had organized their price lists under the four headings and added to their literature or web sites a list of their “Grosse-” and “Erste Lagen” respectively. I suspect that the only exceptions to utilization of the concept of Erste Lage would be in the event that a given winery just happened not to have any holdings in a site so-classified. While there is not yet an operative link on the VDP-Pfalz site to the official list of regional Erste Lagen, they are all depicted on the site’s map, and it seems clear from my perusal that every member grower has been accommodated with Erste Lagen just as was the case with Grosse Lagen. You’ll note from the site and the text accompanying this map that the VDP-Pflaz prides itself on the idea that every classified site will represent a “Filetstück” – which implies that in instances of Einzellage heterogeneity only a portion of the Einzellage in question would receive the VDP’s classificatory imprimatur; and also that the new allowance for registering cadaster names (Gewannamen) is mentioned as a reason to expect ongoing additions and changes to the classificatory list.

    (That map just got me wondering whether the VDP will continue to consider the Einzellagen of Kallstadt VDP-classified even though their sole member who farmed them is no longer a member. This raises an in-principle question whether that classification would be extended beyond the surface areas farmed by VDP members.)

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