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In an interview with Uwe Kauss, VDP managing director Theresa Olkus reports on the new developments in the discussion on national origin classification in Germany and on the future of the Grosses Gewächs.

It has become very quiet around the "Großes Gewächs für alle" and the discussions about a new German classification. We haven't heard anything new for over a year. Where are the debates heading, where is the VDP heading?

Theresa Olkus: In the past months, there was a threat of an individualisation of the regions with almost 13 different orientations and interpretations of origin - caused by the newly created profiling of origin in the new wine law. Now, the representatives of the German Winegrowers' Association have agreed to take their time once again for the designation of the top of the pyramid with Erste Gewächs (EG) and Großes Gewächs (GG) and to take a common, national path. We welcome this step.

We hear that so far often nothing - and nobody - has moved.

Theresa Olkus: People who were involved in the discussions tell me that it was often incredibly difficult to find a consensus on the basic issues, starting with PGI restrictions. There were clashes of forces.

Where is the discussion heading now?

Theresa Olkus: It is now clear that it would lead to maximum irritation if a wine from the Rheingau's top vineyard Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg could be sold as Premier Cru, Grand Cru, Spätlese trocken and "normal" dry quality wine. With good intentions, basic parameters on the hierarchy of origin were laid down in the wine ordinance. What was missing, however, was the centrepiece: the guaranteed and delimited reference to origin that takes into account the creditworthiness and reputation of a site. We need a legitimation why a certain vineyard has a higher potential and the wines from it are special.

Is there any convergence in the meantime?

Theresa Olkus: Until the joint decision in the German Winegrowers' Association in January, the understanding prevailed in some regions that from one and the same site - or even from every piece of land - a Erstes Gewächs and also a Großes Gewächs could be produced, often also a "normal" single vineyard. The general understanding was that the previous "Spätlese trocken" would be titled EG and the "best wine so far" in the range simply GG. A new edition of the "Selection" under a different name. This threatened to repeat the mistakes of the failed designation "Selection", which was previously anchored in wine law. In the meantime, the realisation has grown that this would lead to a disaster and that a reference to creditworthiness and reputation is needed with a drastic limitation of the area. In this respect, the discussions are actually very good at the moment. But there will still be many sticking points. We will see.

We won't get anywhere without classification of origins

This requires a consensus for all growing regions.

Theresa Olkus: The top must be pointed. This makes it all the more important for the stakeholders to now rethink the process, to clarify the current regulation, and to work on a "bottom up" classification. First the base, then the top.

What criteria are decisive for the VDP in this?

Theresa Olkus: If you want to create German Premier Crus and Grand Crus, you won't get anywhere without a classification of the origins - and thus an evaluation of the vineyards. If you don't want to create a classification, you can't establish Premier Crus and Grand Crus. The formula is simple: there can be no classification without a value-based reference to origin. An important insight from the exchange with our neighbouring countries is that it is above all about reputation and not only about potential. If a vineyard has the substance to produce GGs, but no one has produced any so far, there is no need to classify it.

What does "substance" mean for the VDP?

Theresa Olkus: We need comprehensible criteria that lead to the recognition of a classified area. At the same time, however, it must be clear that a classification once made is not valid for eternity. It must be evaluated, let's say, every 10 years. There must be promotions and demotions. So if someone "kisses awake" a vineyard as "Sleeping Beauty", there must be the possibility of achieving classification with it within a manageable time. We want and need a dynamic system.

What criteria are in the future decisive for a vineyard - like Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau here - to be officially classified as a "Große Lage"? The discussion in the German Winegrowers' Association about this has now begun.

© German Wine Institute

The debate about the necessary criteria could drag on for years.

Theresa Olkus: Such a process takes time. In the end, care goes before speed. We share the conviction that a classification has the highest protection when it becomes a law. However, we expect that this classification fulfils the standard that we have exemplified for decades. There must be a national framework as a guideline for a classification of origin that also leaves room for regional conditions. We want this to be done seriously and well.

So far, it has not looked like that.

Theresa Olkus: We need a definition of what First and Great Sites are. Some Schutzgemeinschaften have already done a lot of work on this, but so far they have moved in very different directions. The examination of the classification criteria as well as the sensory examination require experience as well as a serious interest and understanding of the idea of origin. For this purpose, a commission is to be set up in which experts are to be appointed who can demonstrate appropriate knowledge and experience with such wines. It is out of the question that these wines are only subjected to the legal quality wine testing, which tends to only exclude faults. We need a separate examination with people who have sensory experience in testing the different origins.

Establishing such a procedure for all sites in the German wine-growing regions will be a huge effort.

Theresa Olkus: Of course, but Rome wasn't built in a day. The chances are incredibly high, so it seems worth the effort to us. In other words, there are already great locations today whose potential no one doubts. One can start with that. In the same way, there are wines from previously unknown sites that have been proving the greatness of their origin for years. Of course, a well-founded, uniform set of criteria must be worked out in parallel. The path is the goal. In the end, such wines benefit entire regions and social, rural areas as image bearers. They are of great economic importance. The introduction will therefore cost a lot of time, money and manpower.

The wine-growing regions will want to profit as much as possible from such an elaborate procedure.

Theresa Olkus: We will need another amendment to the wine ordinance. It must lay down clear parameters according to which the suitability of the vineyards for the production of First Growths and Great Growths is determined. Production may only take place on areas that are suitable due to topography, geology and microclimate, but also due to the reputation of the wines produced on these areas.

A maximum of three percent as cultivation areas for Great Growths

So far, some conservation associations have wanted to interpret this definition very generously.

Theresa Olkus: Nationally, the size of five percent EG areas and three percent GG areas should not be exceeded. Regionally, it may not exceed up to ten percent of the area for GG and up to 20 percent for EG, as determined by the conservation communities and sector associations.

It will take years to find a compromise that all responsible parties agree to.

Theresa Olkus: Not necessarily. The pressure in the conservation communities seems to me to be great, the desire is very high. At the same time, there is a growing realisation that the door should not be opened too wide. There are ambitious comrades-in-arms everywhere who understand what it's all about. The winegrowers' association is now beginning to discuss criteria with reference to origin, and that is a good and right step. Many wineries have also long been on the way to categorising their portfolio into estate, local and single vineyards.

Many critics already feared after the adoption of the new wine law that a consensus among the stakeholders on these core issues would be almost impossible.

Theresa Olkus: We need staying power. Everyone is in the same boat here: politics, viticulture policy as well as each individual winegrower. We can only go down this path if everyone is determined to follow it successfully and consistently together.

Will the VDP leave the German Winegrowers' Association if no acceptable compromise is reached?

Theresa Olkus: That is not really the point. It is about whether we will remain a part of the classification of the Schutzgemeinschaften if the system is not credible. There are already voices in the VDP demanding: Let's go our own way, it won't work anyway. On the other hand, if we want German wine to achieve something, we have to participate. The path offers great opportunities for everyone to achieve a lot. But it also offers great risks of failure and disgrace. We are hopeful at the moment. Without a clear idea of what constitutes a region as a whole, one cannot go about carving out premier and grand crus. The discussion about this has now begun.

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