German 'communist champagne' that conquered the West
18th December 2011, 0 comments
For over a century, a German sparkling wine named after a fairytale character has been used to toast personal milestones and the highlights of the country's turbulent history.
But "Rotkaeppchen", or "Little Red Riding Hood", also represents a rare success story -- it is the only product from the former communist East Germany to have conquered the West.
With its iconic red foil tops, the sparkling wine dubbed "communist champagne" is part and parcel of Germans' New Year's festivities, especially when hundreds of thousands gather at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Corks are just as likely to pop on bottles of the four-euro ($5.20) German Sekt to celebrate a big family occasion.
And as the only bubbly available to East Germans during the Cold War, it was drunk in copious amounts at the euphoric fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.
It was precisely this abrupt opening up of the East that enabled "Little Red Riding Hood" to gobble up the "Big Bad Wolf" -- a competitive market economy.
The company was created in 1856 and launched the Rottkaeppchen brand in 1895.
The firm, which was nationalised by the communist regime after World War II, now holds, together with its subsidiaries, 46.8 percent of the German sparkling wine market producing more than 162 million bottles annually.
More than 21 years after Germany's reunification, Rotkaeppchen continues to be made in the struggling eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt in the pretty town of Freyburg.
Local vineyards dominate the landscape of the town where bottles of the sparkling wine roll off the production line around the clock, apart from at the weekend and on public holidays.
-- 'Erased their image' --
"Rose sparkling wine is very fashionable at the moment," Ilona Kaiser, head of marketing, said outlining the Rotkaeppchen range as a worker loads pallets destined for a Christmas promotion at a supermarket in the northern city of Hamburg.
While East German leaders used to raise a glass of Rotkaeppchen to make a toast, residents would be forced to queue up outside a shop when a delivery of the sparkling wine arrived to go on sale.
"It was the only Sekt which existed in the GDR (German Democratic Republic)," Andreas Ludwig, director of a museum of daily life in the former East Germany, told AFP.
"You didn't find it everywhere but the people drank it for occasions" such as anniversaries and marriages, he added.
But the East Germans' new-found freedom also threatened to be the death knell for the company as consumers threw themselves at abundant western products wrapped up in flashy advertising.
In 1991, less than three million bottles of Rotkaeppchen were drunk.
Two years later, however, the state-owned company was rescued when a group of employees stepped in to buy it and west Germans, often disdainful of products from the former east, tried it and liked it.
The company sought to present Rotkaeppchen as a German product, rather than as a product of the former east, even as longing for old eastern staples eventually grew.
"They immediately erased their image by launching on the whole German market without ever referring to the GDR," said Volker Mueller, of the Leipzig-based Institute for Market Research, referring to communist East Germany.
While some of the few ex-communist era brands still thriving today play on the nostalgia trend, Rotkaeppchen stresses the period was just one short part of its long history.
"They're right," Mueller said. "Because for new consumers who are 20 years old today, the GDR doesn't mean anything."
© 2011 AFP