Saturday, June 21, 2014

Why German wine sales should recover

Photo: These Heitlinger labels show the new style of German labels

The lagging sales of German wine are long overdue for a rebound in the British Columbia market.

And that is not just because the Liquor Distribution Branch has just completed a month-long special promotion. The exposure will help, although there is more that the LDB could do.

In the 12 months ended March 31, 2014, sales of German wine in this market totaled an anaemic $7,082,000, down six per cent in the year.

The long-term trend has been grim. In the year ended March 1986, German wine sales totaled $13.6 million.

It would be hard to find any other major wine producing nation that lost market share here almost steadily over a quarter century.

To be sure, much has changed in the wine market in British Columbia in that period. Australia, Chile and Argentina took major market share. The British Columbia wine industry was effectively reborn in 1990 and today has VQA sales of $204 million a year.

There has not been much reason to go looking for German wines. As a result, consumers are missing some outstanding wines.

Here is a case in point from a recent tasting. A terrific Baden winery, Weingut Heitlinger, has listed a Pinot Blanc in British Columbia. It sells for $17.99 and I scored it at 90. There are about 900 bottles in various stores.

What is it competing with? Lake Breeze Pinot Blanc 2012 at $19 is sometimes considered the benchmark Okanagan Pinot Blanc. Hester Creek Pinot Blanc 2013, at $16.95, is also in the same league. The Heitlinger wine, as good as it may be, is in tough.

The leading German white varietal is Riesling. Good popularly-priced examples in this market include Lingenfelder Riesling ($18.99), St. Urbans-Hof Old Vines Riesling ($22.99), Tesch Riesling Unplugged ($19.99), Balthasar Ress Riesling ($18.99), Dr. Loosen Riesling ($18.99), Dr. Pauly Bergweiler Riesling ($18.99), Fritz Gunderloch Riesling ($17.99) and Selbach Riesling ($17.95).

As it happens, there are a number of competing Rieslings from British Columbia, including Intrigue, Quails’ Gate and Red Rooster at $17 each, Nk’Mip Cellars at $18 and Tantalus at $23. We have caught up with what Germany has done well for centuries.

So why would one expect German wine sales to show some life, finally?

First of all, there has been an absolute revolution in German wine labels. The baroque and confusing labels of former times now are largely replaced by crisp, clean and readable labels. The legally required hieroglyphics are still there, but on the back label.

That struck me forcibly at a recent tasting; when I looked around the room, I saw almost none of the fusty old labelling.

The reason the Heitlinger Pinot Blanc could do well here (aside from its good quality) is its colourful label, which is simple and which stands out across the room. All the Heitlinger wines have front labels with a cluster of four H’s stacked against each other. No other clutter.

There is a simple, modern label on the Selbach Riesling: an image of a fish with the winery name above and the varietal below. It gets the message across effectively.

Secondly, those who are selling German wine in this market have begun to focus on how well the wines pair with Asian food. Is there a better match than sushi and a crisply dry Riesling?

During the wine promotion, the Germans hosted a trade tasting and luncheon, pairing wines with dishes from two of Vancouver’s best Asian street food vendors, Vij’s Railway Express and Roaming Dragon. Every pairing worked, including Riesling with Korean bulgogi (a beef brisket dish). St. Urbans-Hof Ockfen Bockstein Riesling Kabinett ($29.99) was a particularly good companion.

If the representatives of German wines get more of their wines before consumers in Asian restaurants, that should pay off in future sales.

The Germans need to get out the news that they also have red wine. Germany lost a lot of market share to the so-called French paradox phenomenon – that red wines are better for your heart health. Twenty-five years ago, Germans sold only white wines in this market. Red wine sales soared globally after 1992 and left Germany behind.

Even today, only $192,000 worth of German reds sold in this market in the 12 months ended March 31.

Germany grows excellent Pinot Noir. Two are listed here: Peter & Peter Pinot Noir ($19.99) and Schloss Reinhartshausen Pinot Noir ($23.99). The LDB needs to list a few more, including the good one offered by Heitlinger. That winery’s chances of succeeding in this market would be much better if it had several listings, not just one.

It is also my view that the LDB really needs to overhaul its German wine listings. The current list is replete with old brands that are too ordinary to create any excitement.

When was the last time a bottle of Blue Nun stirred your soul? To be sure, it must do it for a lot of consumers because the LDB currently has 2,100 bottles in its system. It would be hard to find a Chinese restaurant without it on its wine list. One can only dream that the list might also include Weingut Tesch 2013 Riesling Trocken Unplugged ($20).  Currently, the LDB has 287 bottles available.

That is not to say the LDB list is devoid of excitement. Weingut Dr. Bassermann – Jordan Jesuitengarten Riesling GG 2012 ($84.50) is one of the greatest German wines in its system. You need to hurry: there are only 16 bottles left.

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