Monday, April 19, 2010

A Master Sommelier became a Web 2.0 Digital Sommelier- An interview with Germany's Hendrik Thoma (Part 2)

Picture: Hendrik Thoma

This is the second part of a two-parts interview with Hendrik Thoma, which was conducted via Skype in early April 2010. The first part was published on Schiller Wine on April 12 2010. See here. Following the text of the interview, there is a post scriptum: A link to a youtube video with Hendrik Thoma and Katharina Pruem and Ernst Loosen on the planned High Mosel Bridge.

CS: Let’s move to America. The American wine industry has exploded in the last 50 years, after the famous 1976 tasting. America is the leader of the New World Wine Group and Napa Valley it’s geographical center. When I am in Germany, however, I often hear very critical voices with regard to New World Wines. What would you tell these voices in Germany and what would you say to the producers and exporters in America?

HT: A couple of things. First, America is a big wine producer but not a big exporter. In addition, they export a lot of cheaper wines, which you find in Germany in the supermarket and on discount shop shelves. When I first came to the US, German wines were perceived in the US like American wines here today: easy to drink and fruity.

Of course, there are also the high-end wines from Napa Valley and elsewhere. These are highly appreciated by the German wine connoisseurs, but I have to say that the so-called garage wines are viewed with some skepticism.

Then there is the issue of plastic wines. When two years ago American wines having been subjected to the spinning cone and other sophisticated processes were allowed to be imported into the EU, there was an outcry in the European press. There is a lot of prejudice here in Europe which I think is absolutely wrong. I get mad when people say that wines from the New World are plastic wines and European wines are superior. After Americans started exporting wines with the cone spinning, countries like Italy, France and Spain, who are far bigger producers, also started to make wines with cone spinning.

Also, for Americans, wine is just a beverage. Here in Germany, people want to know the vineyard and the winemaker, and develop a relationship with the wine. People think just because you see the vineyard and have a relationship, it’s a better wine. In my opinion it’s not. So I think this prejudice against American and New World Wines is such a crap thing, because in America you have great producers that make really nice wines.

The only thing that you could say is that New World wine has a little bit more fruit due to the climate. If you like something jammy and thick, go for Napa Valley. If you want to have something elegant and fine, go for Mosel valley. The wine world has become global. Germans need to open up and realize that there is good stuff from everywhere.

CS: Germany has introduced the concept of Grosses Gewaechs wines, which are bone-dry wines in the French grand cru tradition. One of them, from Weingut Wittmann, made it to the Top 100 Wine Spectator List. How do you see the future of these wines on the world market?

HT: This is an interesting issue. If you look at the first German Grosses Gewaechs wines you notice that they were not made for consumption. They were made to show off, they were big wines meant to impress people. Frankly, my feeling is that many of the German winemakers prefer lighter and more elegant wines. Grosses Gewaechs wines are sometimes just very big, very fat, too alcoholic. I know I could get beaten up in Germany for saying this. It does certainly not apply to all the winemakers, but there is a tendency.

Another problem with Grosses Gewaechs wines is that they do not all deserve the label. Like Burgundy, where you have the Grand Crus: If you don’t look at the producer you make a big mistake. A great vineyard doesn’t necessarily generate a great wine. It is the same here in Germany. Some of the Grosse Gewaechs wines are in my view not really first growth wines.

CS: The Austrians have brought the Guener Veltliner to the US and the Americans love it. These are easy drinking table wines. Could the Germans repeat this with for example the Silvaner grape?

HT: Silvaner is nice because it can be very dry, yet very steely and also has a good creaminess. But it would probably be the wrong grape variety because it’s just too small here. There are only 2000 hectares in Rheinhessen and 1300 hectares in Franconia, the two regions that have a meaningful production of Silvaner.

I would instead suggest Pinot Grigio (or Pinot Gris or Grauburgunder). The Pinot Grigio from Germany can be beautiful. We have a good climate for it and it is less creamy and not as thick as that from Alsace.

Picture: Hendrik Thoma

Riesling is a complete overhype with food I think. Because of its sweetness it can be very good with certain foods. But certainly for me the more gastronomic wine is the Pinot Gris. That’s why I think people should go for that grape variety

CS: To conclude on German wine, let us talk about the German flagship wines, the noble-sweet wines. Tell us a bit about these extraordinary wines, such as the famous German Eiswein.

HT: Well it’s another interesting story. I think noble sweet wines are our real show wines. These are wines that you don’t drink too often. There is a very small market for them, but I think it’s very important for Germany to produce these wines because the German style of noble-sweet Rieslings - combining the sugars, acidity and freshness - is difficult to find anywhere else in the world.

CS: The Wall Street Journal just published an article about the wine industry in China. What role do you see for German wine in China and Chinese wine on the global wine market?

HT: I think the whole world is waiting for China to pick up on wine. We know there are parts of China with a great wine culture, especially Hong Kong and, increasingly, Shanghai. If you talk to people about China, everybody is very excited, but I am not sure if people know how that market works. Probably you need to invest a lot of time and money. India is another interesting wine market.

China is very much a market that is driven by premium brands, which makes sense to me. People first rely on the brand and then take a second or third look, but at the moment we are still in the brands phase. The next stage can take a couple of years and then people look for smaller producers.

With regard to Chinese wines, I have already tasted some Chinese wines and what I had in the glass at these tastings was not bad.

India is another very interesting market. And India is closer to Europe in terms of culture due to the British influence.

CS: I know you were in Argentina a few months ago. Tell us a bit about your impressions from this trip.

HT: Wine from Argentina has freshness and elegance. These are big wines, for which there is a demand in the United States. They go well with steak. So I think these wines with their mountain climate have good tannins and are not oversaturated. Again coming to price, Argentinian wine is great if you look at what you can get for the money. The wines of Chile, which were also quite big in the US, seem to be a little heavier, a little sweeter. Argentine wines seem to be fresher, lighter, a little more European. But the Argentine wine industry is very much depending now on the US, which is very dangerous.

CS: Thank you very much, Hendrik.

Post Scriptum

Hendrik asked me to post a video with Ernst Loosen and Katharina Pruem here. It was recorded on April 10, 2010 in Berlin, in the context of an effort to stop the construction of a huge bridge over the Mosel valley. Others who came to Berlin included Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson from the UK, ex foreign minister Joschka Fischer and English-born, Berlin-resident, leading wine writer Stuart Pigott. See the video here.

I co-signed the petition: Sie haben erfolgreich die Petition Bundesstraßen - Baustopp für den so genannten Hochmoselübergang mitgezeichnet. Ihre Stimme wurde vom System unter der Mitzeichnungsnummer 1377 erfasst. Hendrik asks you to do the same.

Hendrik Thoma, Hamburg, Germany

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1 comment:

  1. Nice part 2. When comes part 3? :-)

    I would like to make one little comment (can't resist, can I?). I totally agree with Hendrik regarding the Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) definitely being a great grape, giving nice wines to combine with lots of different food!

    Still, my humble opionion is that Germany's flagship should be/remain the Riesling. This is what many people within the wineworld already associate Germany with and it seems to be now spreading more and more with the 'average consumer'. But, I would definitely wish for the dry versions to make their way abroad. Even in my wine school here in Sweden, those were hardly mentioned, all information was based and focused on the off-dry, sweet wines, which to me shows, there is still a lot of educational work to be done from our (Germany's) side...

    Plus... given the fact, that America is the country of mingle-parties, and casual get-togethers, the dry Rieslings make the perfect wines for such occasions (among others!), where food is not the centre of the event. Which though is not to say that Riesling does not match food!