The Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter, VDP) has embarked on a compelling journey through the world of German viticulture over its more than hundred-year history. Shaped by tradition, innovation, internal conflicts and constant change. To this day, it has earned a unique role in the German wine world to this day. In doing so, it has set quality standards, established classification systems, and revived the lost reputation of German wines.

Max Kaindl, 23. April 2024
Reading time about 9 minutes

VDP: The Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates

A History of Tradition, Classification, and Constant Evolution

Foundation and the Challenges of the Post-War Period of World War I

The origins of the VDP trace back to a time when German „Naturwein“ wines enjoyed the highest reputation worldwide. No respected wine merchant or renowned hotel could afford not to feature “Originalabfüllung” (original bottling) from the cellars of the natural wine auctioneers on their wine list back then. Founded in 1910 as the “Association of German Natural Wine Auctioneers” (VDNV), it was a union of several regional associations of what were then called „Naturweinversteigerer“ (natural wine auctioneers): Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and (Rhein) Pfalz.

In the 1920s, a time of economic instability and political turmoil, German viticulture faced major challenges. Political events, such as the occupation of the Ruhr area by French and Belgian troops in 1923, also affected the wine trade. Inflation led to constant devaluation of money. Sanctions by the Inter-Allied Rhineland Commission led to expulsions and restrictions in the wine trade, further complicating the situation for winegrowers. Despite these challenges, the Prussian state attempted to promote the sale of German wines to support the industry. The advertising campaign “Trinkt deutschen Wein” (Drink German Wine) and financial support for publications on viticulture were important steps in strengthening the image of German wines. Nevertheless, under pressure from “sales difficulties,” numerous founding members left the regional associations of the VDNV. They hoped to offer natural wines in barrels and bottles and market “improved” wines under their own names, bypassing the auctions.
Sidenote: Until the 1930s, selling wines in whole barrels was widespread. Until then, only a few renowned wineries bottled their wines.

In 1925, the symbol of the association that exists to this day was created. In the course of the first Reich Exhibition of German Wines, the Cologne graphic artist Franz-Josef Lichtenberg designed a stylized Imperial Eagle carrying grapes as a breastplate. One of the few significant moments for the VDNV during this time was the assembling of an unprecedented collection of top German wines for the 80th birthday of President Hindenburg in 1927.

After years of economic instability, 1932 marked the low point for German viticulture and perhaps for the VDNV as well. While Germany had to be governed by emergency measures, wine prices collapsed to such an extent that many barrels at the auctions received no bids. Wineries in many places could only cover their basic costs with the proceeds. Consequently, some members left the association again.

Pictures: © The Art of Riesling – Maximilian Kaindl

In the Shadow of National Socialism

The era of the National Socialists between 1933 and 1945 was a dark period in Germany’s history, which also strongly influenced viticulture and the VDNV. During this time, German winegrowers faced numerous challenges ranging from political interference to economic restrictions.

After Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, the National Socialists began to “purify” German viticulture of Jewish influences. Jews were displaced from the professional organizations of viticulture, leading to alienation and discrimination in the industry. Although Jewish merchants and brokers were not initially subject to a professional ban, their previously high influence and livelihood were threatened.

The National Socialists pursued a policy of “Aryanization,” in which Jewish businesses and assets were “Aryanized” and transferred into the hands of “Aryan” Germans. This also affected the wine trade and industry, where Jewish wine merchants and brokers were economically ruined. Members of the VDNV were encouraged to participate in these measures, leading to division and uncertainty within the association.

The incorporation of the association into the Reich Food Estate in 1935 was another step by the National Socialists to consolidate control over agricultural organizations. The chairman, Albert von Bruchhausen, was replaced by an NSDAP district farm leader, illustrating political interference in the association. Despite these constraints and restrictions, the VDNV was allowed to maintain its activities, albeit with conditions. Why? Presumably to not jeopardize the international prestige of German “natural wine.” Annual auctions were maintained until 1940 and resumed after the war in 1949.

By the end of the war, many wineries and vineyards were devastated. Allied bombing destroyed the centers of Mainz and Bingen, the capitals of the wine trade, to a large extent. The occupying powers seized wine to supply their troops and used individual wines in interzonal and foreign trade as barter for essential goods.

Reconstruction and Growth in the Postwar Period

In the postwar period from 1945 to 1970, the VDNV faced the challenge of rebuilding and revitalizing German viticulture after the devastation of World War II. Despite difficult circumstances and heated internal disputes, the association succeeded in achieving important accomplishments and promoting German quality winegrowing.

By introducing initial controlled quality standards and promoting traditional cultivation methods, efforts were made to counteract the demand for simple and especially sweet “consumer wines” fueled by the economic miracle. Nevertheless, in the 1950s, wineries struggled with a series of smaller harvests and crop failures. It wasn’t until the exceptional vintage of 1959 that VDNV members were able to once again make a visible impact on the international stage.

The effects of the 1971 Wine Law

The introduction of the new Wine Law in 1971 had far-reaching implications for viticulture and the association, which are worth examining in more detail.

It marked a turning point in German viticulture. The term “natural wine” was replaced by the system of “quality wines with predicate.” Subsequently, the VDNV and individual regional associations considered dissolution. Through a passionate speech by Peter von Weymarn, owner of the Nierstein estate Heyl zu Herrnsheim, the dissolution of the venerable association was prevented at the last minute.

The result: A new headquarters, a new name (Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates, VDP), a new constitution, a new president (Peter von Weymarn), and higher membership requirements. In short, a complete overhaul.

In the years following 1971, the VDP became increasingly involved in marketing top German wines both domestically and abroad. The establishment of the Mainz Wine Exchange (Mainzer Weinbörse) as a trade fair for German top wines significantly contributed to this. The introduction of stricter production rules, the obligation to display the association’s emblem on wine capsules, and regular inspections were also crucial steps towards a unified quality structure within the association. Thus, efforts were made to counteract the trend of declining prices and reputation of German wines. However, this trend couldn’t be stopped.

The introduction of the VDP vineyard classification

A significant milestone in the history of the VDP was the self-restraint in 1994, when the use of so called “Grosslagen” (a merger of several small vineyards into an extremely large vineyard site) in wine designations was abandoned for VDP members. This step underscored the association’s desire to emphasize the uniqueness and quality of German vineyard sites and to distinguish itself from mass-produced wines from large vineyards. At the same time, greater emphasis was placed on selective harvesting. This was in response to the increasing use of mechanical harvesters introduced and aimed to ensure high quality grapes and thus wines.

Under the dedicated leadership of Michael Prinz zu Salm-Salm, the VDP also developed its own vineyard classification from 1994 onwards. The process was quite laborious and led to some internal upheavals. The most famous example was Bernhard Breuer. Breuer, owner of the already world-famous Breuer estate in the Rheingau left the association because he felt that progress towards a high-quality classification within the association was not happening quickly enough. During the 2002 annual general meeting in Castell, a first internal classification system was introduced after sometimes heated discussions. The result was a three-tiered pyramid consisting of estate, village, and cru wines, known as “Erste Gewächse” (First Growth).

Another key decision was the ban on indicating the predicate on the label of dry wines. This also led to upheavals among the members. The consequence was the withdrawal of renowned wineries, such as Koehler-Ruprecht from the Pfalz, which wanted to maintain the existing predicate system for their dry wines as well. Nevertheless, it must be noted: The introduction of this vineyard classification laid the foundation for the rebirth of high-end German wines and led to their renewed prestige over the last 20 years.

Adapting. Improving. Developing.

In the following years, the VDP continuously developed its classification system. In 2012, the 3-tier system was expanded to a 4-tier pyramid by including the VDP.ERSTE LAGE. Additionally, Erste Gewächs was renamed to VDP.GROSSES GEWÄCHS. This precision in classification enabled further profiling of individual vineyards as well as improved communication of different wine qualities and origins.

Despite these positive developments, the VDP also faced increasing challenges. By adding further designations in recent years, such as VDP.AUS ERSTEN LAGEN, the pyramid became increasingly complex and thus increasingly difficult to understand. To this day, some consumers wish for a return to the originally clear 4-tier pyramid. Additionally, there were internal conflicts and criticism of the exclusivity of the association.

These challenges prompted the VDP to reconsider its strategies and bring its members closer together to achieve common goals. The shift towards more sustainability within the association and among the members is one of the results of this process. The uniform use of lightweight glass bottles for estate wines (and potentially other categories in the future) as well as the sustainable certification (social, economic, and ecological) of all VDP estates by 2025 are intended to be the two main pillars. Another step was the more intensive engagement with German sparkling wine, resulting in the publication of the VDP.SEKT.STATUT in 2020. More on this topic will follow shortly.

The Revision of the Vineyard Classification: Change in the Era of Climate Change

After celebrating the 20th anniversary of VDP.GROSSES GEWÄCHS in 2023, the VDP announced a revision of its classification history. The previous criteria and documents, which aimed at initial recognition of the vineyards, are to be reviewed, summarized, and supplemented with new findings. It remains to be seen how the VDP will reconcile the tradition and prestige of historical vineyards with the rapidly changing climatic conditions and the resulting changes in vineyard quality. A modern classification doesn’t grant awards indefinitely. At least if one wants to continue the success story of the VDP classification.

The history of the VDP is marked by highs and lows, successes and challenges. Nevertheless, over more than a hundred years, the association has succeeded in establishing itself as a leading authority for German wines of the highest quality worldwide and in preserving the diversity and uniqueness of the German wine landscape. The conversion of all estates to sustainably certified viticulture, the implementation of the VDP.SEKT.STATUT, and the revision of the vineyard classification are important but also necessary initiatives to continue to lead the forefront of German viticulture in the future. Whether and to what extent this will succeed remains to be seen.

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