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Stop misleading customers and damaging the reputation of German wine - an open letter to Waitrose

Dear Waitrose,

You are not like every other supermarket. You were the first to sell organic food in the UK. You have a royal warrant to supply the Queen. You are owned by your employees. And through your wine business you have won much respect, including mine.

That is until you sold me a bottle of "Piesporter Michelsberg" under the label of "Legends of Germany" as "one of the most renowned wines of Germany". Admittedly, this has not the same shocking ring to it as labelling horsemeat as beef, nor is it a health risk or illegal. And yet you are misleading your customers, thereby damaging the image of a product you and others have worked hard to restore to former glory: German wine.

You don't know what I am talking about? Somehow I find this hard to believe. After all you are not just any supermarket. In 2012, your website reminds us, you were named Retailer of the Year and European Retail Wine Buyer of the Year at the annual International Wine and Spirit Competition. You have won the title of Decanter Supermarket of the Year five times since 2006. You also proudly say you "have more Masters of Wine than any other supermarket". Surely that means you understand the basics of German wine at least as well as this humble Wine Rambler and you would not sell a wine after "a rigorous quality control and tasting process" without knowing what it stands for. But maybe you forgot. Or it was the intern who ordered the wine. So let me remind you.

Depending on whom you ask Germany either has a reputation for world class wines or sweet plonk. Sadly, both is true. Artisan winemakers, often working on historic vineyards, make outstanding wine, while others mass-produce utterly unexciting wine that is exported in bulk. Customers are free to decide which of these to buy, but a retailer should not knowingly sell one for the other - and here we come to the "Legends".

Piesport (original by <a href=Chris, CC BY 2.0)" src="/sites/default/files/images/20130310_30.jpg" width="500" height="326" align="center" class="inline inline-center" />

Amongst the truly legendary vineyards in Germany is the "Goldtröpfchen" (gold droplet) in the Mosel village of Piesport. Winemaking there goes back to the Romans, and wine lovers across the world delight in Riesling from the "Piesporter Goldtröpfchen". And yet "Piesporter" has a bad reputation in the UK - because of the German wine law, and because of you. The law allows profiteering people to sell wines as "Piesporter Michelsberg" even if the grapes don't come from Piesport. While it sounds like a single vineyard Michelsberg is a "Großlage", a term that refers to a large area comprised of dozens of vineyards in the region, with the wines often being blends with the Müller-Thurgau grape. So if you want a Riesling from one of the famous Piesporter vineyards buying a bottle of "Piesporter Michelsberg" is a good way to ensure not to get it.

The Germans are to be blamed for this you say? Damn right they are. But you contribute by selling these wines. Even worse, you have chosen one that under the label "Legends of Germany" claims to be one of the world class Mosel wines. The back label says:

Piesporter Michelsberg is one of the most renowned wines of Germany

Renowned? Infamous rather! Maybe your intern, like me, is not a native speaker and confused "famous/renowned" and "infamous"? However, they do seem to understand the difference well enough as on your website you advertise "Legends" as follows: "Piesport is a picturesque village in the central Mosel valley, famous for its light and refreshing wines." You can sell as much mediocre semi-sweet wine as you like, but why mislead your customers to believe they drink a legendary German wine?

Wine legends are born from quality, joy and excitement. And to prove it I reluctantly took a bottle of "Legends" home with me and put it against a wine from a famous Piesport vineyard - in a blind tasting, to avoid any bias.

would be legends / real legends
would be legends / real legends

The wine in the first glass has a very pale straw colour and a bouquet that is almost as faint. Yes, there is some fruit - citrus, pear, apple and a little stone fruit, but it is hardly much. Even a little floral soapiness and a hint of furniture polish are not enough to leave an impression. The wine is equally light on the tongue: some fruit, especially apple, with lemon and a hint of something bitter make a wine that when you don't pay much attention is vaguely refreshing and easy to drink, but that as soon as you do feels watery and falls flat towards the end.

The second wine also is of straw colour but with a touch of gold. Its nose is richer with much more depth and expression: glorious peach, lovely herbs (think herbal candy), an echo of chilli and vegetable plus some caramelised fruit (think molten fruit gold). It also has a very different mouth-feel with more substance, good texture and a long finish. Almost buttery apple blends with rich, caramelised peach and a great freshness that ends in a zingy after-taste with a touch of mineral.

It was not hard to tell these two wines apart instantly, but just in case you still have hopes: the second wine was not your "Legends" but a Kabinett from Piesport. Despite not even being a high grade wine from the Goldtröpfchen vineyard it plays in a completely different league to "Legends". Considering the price difference the outcome should not have been a surprise, but that is not the point. The issue is that you are misleading your customers, that you contribute to the confusion about German wine and that you damage the efforts of German winemakers by putting "Legends" on your shelves and selling it as "one of the most renowned wines of Germany".

I would have expected better from you, Waitrose. And from your intern.

The Wine Rambler

Update, June 2013

Last month I met a representative from Waitrose to discuss this - read their response and my comments on it.

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