Hedonistic Pilgrimage, or pure folly?

The annual VDP auctions offer wine lo vers the chance to taste and bid for some of Germany 's finest wines . But for one wine lover making his first trip to the auctions in September last year, it also promised a week of hedonism. Was he right? Or had he made an expensive mistake?
by Jeremy Carne

Each year, several hundred wine lovers travel to the winemaking heartland of Germany to devote four days of September to an arcane pre-harvest rite from which they can only emerge poorer or disappointed. For years, I had wanted to be one of them. Last year, I finally got my chance.

I had always envisaged that this would be a hedonistic pilgrimage, but my myths were out of order. Trier, a quiet town on a bend of the River Mosel at the western edge of Germany, was Roman; but Hedone was Greek. As for being a pilgrimage, Trier's most famous son was a keen atheist named Karl Marx. So, what accounts for this misrepresented odyssey? (Yes, yes, it's a Greek word - the shame!)

In the 1930s, German estates still sold all their wine at auction, and commissioners coordinated the splitting of a cask's contents between merchants. German wine once fetched higher prices than first-growth claret, and in 1910, to protect this reputation, top estates banded together in an association that forbade chaptalization (the practice of raising potential alcohol by adding sugar to the pressed juice). That association evolved into the Verband Deutscher Qualitätsund Prädikatsweingüter, less mouthtwistingly known as the VDP. As estates increasingly bottled their own wine and sold direct, the VDP auctions became used solely for bottles filled from its members' very best casks.

Now, a century later, the wine enthusiast and critic Jean Fisch, who has been attending the auctions for two decades, says, "Ninety percent of the greatest German wines I've tasted are auction wines." Yet traveling for an auction always risks disappointment. If your bids are too low, you could end up with nothing but a hotel bill. If that seems unacceptable, then you could skip the travel and place absentee bids through a specialist merchant, such as the knowledgeable Sebastian Thomas at Howard Ripley in London, who explains, "If you know what you want and don't need to taste in advance, there's no necessity to attend."

But it won't be cheap. The 2010 auctions sold 15,000 bottles, achieving ¤1.5 million. The highest price was ¤8,568 for a bottle of 1943 Steinberger Trockenbeerenauslese (Hessische Staatsweingüter Kloster Eberbach). And you'll pay maybe 25 percent over the hammer price to cover the commission, tax, and shipping.

The odyssey begins

First off was the Bernkasteler Ring auction on Thursday at Kloster Machern, an hour northeast of Trier. When I arrived at 8:30am, the abbey was sunk in fog, but three hours later the steep vine-clad hills across the river gleamed green in the sun. There was a friendly village atmosphere and manageable prices.

Very few who attend the Trier auction go to the Bernkasteler Ring, because not many well-known winemakers are present. This year, to complicate things, there was a mad dash back to Trier the same afternoon for the VDP's glam tasting of nonauction wines from the current vintage, which was held in the pink rococo Kurfürstliches Palais and surveilled by agriculturally employed putti clad only in gilt.

Here I spotted the amiable Johannes Haart and charming Katharina Prüm cheerfully serving wines from rival estates at the auserlesen ("exquisite") table of older vintages. Katharina says of the JJ Prüm estate, "Less than 1 percent of our production goes to auction, but I enjoy the mix of enthusiasts here from around the world. I'm always impressed how vivid the auction is."

The big one

By that, she means Friday in Trier, the big one, the Grosser Ring, held in the glamorless concrete Europahalle. I didn't get to Saturday's Rheingau auction at Kloster Eberbach, and next year I may skip Sunday's crowded Nahe auction at Bad Kreuznach, which offers top names at high prices (including the reds) but hardly any traditional white Spätlesen, which is what I drink most.

All of these are disturbingly described as "wet" auctions, because not only do you arrive at 9am to taste through the catalog, but you are then served the same wines all over again, singly, by an army of uniformed helpers as each wine goes under the hammer.

Bids are placed around 11am toward the end of the pre-tasting (Vorprobe) with one of about eight commissioners. Ask your commissioner's advice on the likely hammer price, specify your maximum price per bottle and the number of bottles you want, then escape for air or food - but return in good time to bag a seat for the auction.

I bid through the very helpful Johannes and Barbara Selbach, who also run the fine Mittelmosel estate of Selbach-Oster. Almost every bidder I met had a science, maths, economics, engineering, or otherwise clever background. "Fine Riesling," Johannes tells me, "seems to appeal to people of high intellect." Yet everyone here also knows that for less than half the price they could buy the non-auction version of these wines, which would taste way more than half as good. This is a room full of rational minds in the headlong irrational pursuit of perfection.

For the Grosser Ring, hundreds of us sit at row after row of white-clothed tables and endure a tense but grinding marathon from 1pm until well after 6pm. Quantities range from a hardfought single bottle up to, occasionally, 1,300 bottles. Like big-money art auctions, there is salivating applause every time the bidding goes through another round number, which here is ¤1,000 per bottle. Salivate they might, but there are spittoons every couple of feet, and it seems Hedone doesn't swallow.

Under VDP rules, the growers agree never to sell an auction wine lower than the auction price. If the bidding soars, underbidders may drop out and the grower could be left sitting on the rest of the bottles forever, so the commissioners form a huddle at the front to stop the spiral and parcel out what's available.

Nonetheless, firm auction prices hint at a recovery of past grandeur. Reinhard Löwenstein of the Heymann- Löwenstein estate at Winningen and vice president of the VDP, says, "Nature gives the occasional fuder something extra, but only a fraction of our annual income is from the auction. Working historically great vineyards by hand, all our wine gets the same approach. It's the antithesis of industrialized agriculture. A similar ethos is found at many VDP estates. In ten years' time, the image of German wine quality could be as high as it was a century ago."

Meanwhile, it seems I arrived two years early for the quincentennial of the Holy Tunic, a blessèd garment that reached Trier in the luggage of St Helena, mother of the first Christian Emperor Constantine. So, hedonism be damned, but it was a proper pilgrimage after all.