When the writers of British sitcom, “I’m Alan Partridge,” wanted to choose the most embarrassing wine for the hapless hero to order over an important lunch, there could be no better choice than Blue Nun.
Blue Nun, a German wine that sold 3 million cases globally a year in the early ‘80s, had by the late ‘90s, when this episode first aired, become a two-word joke. Say the words blue and nun, and watch the hilarity ensue.
But Blue Nun shouldn’t be a joke. Not only does this much-maligned wine have a rich history, but — whisper it — it’s actually rather nice, and it’s still going strong. This year, it celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Made by a spy
The first Blue Nun was a 1921 Liebfraumilch, then a respected style of semi-sweet white wine from the Rhine winelands in Germany. It was shipped to London by the Sichel wine merchants of Mainz, with a brown label featuring a picture of nuns wearing blue habits.
Peter Sichel, in his rollicking memoir, “The Secrets of My Life,” recounts how Blue Nun took off, “Customers placed new orders, specifically requesting the Blue Nun label.” The Sichels were a German Jewish family. When the Nazis came to power, Sichel fled to Bordeaux, where the family had interests. He later went to America, where he worked for the CIA.
At a time when most wine was sold either in restaurants or by the case, rather than off the shelf, the idea of having a striking label and brand name was a new concept. In 1930, the Sichels decided to put the words Blue Nun on the label for the first time and began exporting outside the two biggest markets, Britain and America. Surprisingly, Sichel recounted how the brand continued to be sold to the Allied Powers, even during World War II.
The Blue Nun name was applied to a range of different wines. But in 1961, the firm “eliminated the Blue Nun label on all wine except Liebfraumilch and a sparkling wine,” wrote Sichel. It was a blend of Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, and a little Gewürztraminer with about 2.5% residual sugar — which works out at 18g per liter, so firmly sweet, rather than off-dry.
There was an emerging market in Britain and America, “people who took up wine-drinking for the first time, and wanted an inexpensive sweet wine that was low in alcohol,” according to Andrew Barr, in his 1988 book, “Wine Snobbery.” The firm undertook research into how wine was drunk, how sweet it should be, and sold it with the line: “the wine that goes with every dish.” British wine writer, Jancis Robinson MW, describes the marketing strategy as a “substantial investment in advertising which preyed on the fears of what was then an unsophisticated wine drinking public.”
The key was consistency. “Never mind the year on the bottle or its origin,” as Sichel put it. The nuns, however, did evolve from aloof and unsmiling in the early ‘60s, to wearing come-hither smiles in the ‘70s.
Blue Nun was the first, but its success inspired others, including Black Tower, which was released by another German wine company, Kendermanns, in 1967. Marketing guru David Grossman, the man behind products such as Bailey’s Irish Cream, explained the appeal, “They came in bottles that were easy to recognize on the shelf. They were widely distributed. And perhaps, most importantly, they tasted good.”
Blue Nun traded on a traditional German image, but it was a high-tech wine for the time. Andrew Barr writes, “The Seitz factory in Bad Kreuznach developed filters that were fine enough to remove yeasts, thus ensuring that the addition of süssreserve [unfermented grape juice] to a wine before bottling did not cause it to re-ferment.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but Blue Nun was aspirational in the ‘60s and ‘70s: there’s a great image of Rod Stewart in his ‘70s pomp holding a bottle of Blue Nun and chatting with David Bowie. But this all changed in the 1980s.
“It is about time to pay respect to this incredible symbol, the nun.”
From classy to déclassé
Consumers on both sides of the Atlantic were moving on to the dry, full-bodied wines coming out of California, Australia, and Chile. Mocking Blue Nun was a way for novice wine drinkers to parade their sophistication.
Yet people who genuinely know about wine tend not to be so dismissive. Robinson admitted that quality was high; while in his memoir, Peter Sichel wrote that Robert Parker was a fan. Nayan Gowda, a winemaker who worked with Black Tower in the ‘00s, said, “I think Black Tower and Blue Nun are very good products. I’m not embarrassed about making it.”
In 1996, the Sichel family sold Blue Nun to another German family wine company, Langguth. The new owner tried to reinvigorate the brand by making it less sweet, launching a higher quality varietal Riesling, and, somewhat inevitably, repackaging the wine in blue bottles. But at some point, the seductive nuns disappeared.
Patrick F.W. Langguth, one of the younger Langguths working in the family business, thinks this was a mistake. He said, “Our own people lost their connection with the nun and tried to get rid of her.” Now, on its 100th anniversary, he wants to change that. “It is about time to pay respect to this incredible symbol, the nun.” The firm’s plans are under wraps, but Langguth hinted that the anniversary will include a collaboration with legendary New York designer, Paula Scher, and a tie-up with the music industry. Maybe they could wheel out Rod Stewart.