Curse of the Blue Nun

Writing about Riesling got me to thinking about great  German Rieslings and, because I am a Dismal Scientist after all,  I also started thinking about the not-so-great German wines that define that country for wine drinkers of a certain age.  And so, inevitably, my thoughts strayed to memories of Blue Nun.

I haven’t thought of Blue Nun wine in years. I remember it from the 1970s as an unsophisticated Liebfraumilch wine in a tall thin blue bottle with a blue and white-clad nun on the label. She reminded me a bit of the “Flying Nun” television show (starring Sally Fields) that ran from 1967 to 1970. The wine was about as serious as the TV series, but apparently it sold hundreds of thousands of cases to aspiring wine drinkers like me.

I didn’t know that it was still around until I spotted it on a BBC television show about wine. It was a miniseries featuring Oz Clarke, notable British wine guru, and James May, co-host of the popular automobile series “Top Gear.” Oz and James were touring California with wine expert Oz trying to teach neophyte James a bit about wine. James resisted, put off by wine’s snobbish elitist ways.

Terrible. Disgusting. Must be European.

Blue Nun appeared in a sequence where James bet Oz $100 that he couldn’t identify an ordinary everyday wine in a blind tasting (from a plastic beer cup, as it turned out). Oz sniffed and swirled and made a bad face. Terrible, he said. Disgusting. So bad that it couldn’t be from America – market-savvy Americans would never make a wine this bad. This could only come from the Old World.

“Blue Nun!” he shouted, winning the bet, although I suspect that colored bottle gave him an unfair clue. Here is a taste of the show. The Blue Nun episode is not available online, but this will give you a good sense of what the show is like.

I’m not sure that Blue Nun is really that bad, but Oz Clarke’s revolting reaction is telling.  Blue Nun and brands like it established Germany’s place on the lower tier of the World Wine Wall in the 1970s. The wines may not have been as cheap and nasty as memory suggests, but they were not expensive and sophisticated, either. They were the face of German wine abroad and that face, like the Blue Nun herself, was more or less a colorful cartoon version of the great wines of Germany.

The First Global Wine Brand

Blue Nun was by some accounts the first truly global mass market wine brand, an unexpected distinction for a German wine. Its story therefore has some bearing on the globalization of wine. Blue Nun’s roots go back to 1857 when Hermann Sichel started a wine business in Mainz. I know little about the early days of Sichel’s firm except that it managed to survive the political and economic chaos of the ensuing years, which in retrospect seems like a considerable achievement.

The real story begins with the 1921 vintage, said to be one of the best. Sichel sought to export these wines, especially to Great Britain, and the Blue Nun label was invented to facilitate sales abroad. One source holds that the nun on the label was originally clad in standard issue brown robes, but a printer’s error turned them blue and thus a brand was born.

The brand and the famous vintage it represented found a market in England, selling more than 1000 cases a year in the 1930s (quite a lot for a single brand of wine at that time) according to the official company history.  The volumes increased after World War II, rising to 3.5 million bottles a year in the UK in the 1970s before sales collapse back to 800,000 in the 1980s.  The quantity quality trade-off finally came back to haunt Blue Nun, it seems, and the fashion for red wine started by the famous French Paradox discovery did not help either.

Blue Nun, it seems was the original victim of the Curse of the Blue Nun: the simple, sweetish wines that make you will also break you. As tastes changed and wine drinkers sought to move up-market, Blue Nun wine petered out (although 800,000 bottles is hardly a trickle). Passé to some, a joke (as with Oz and James) to others, that was and to some extent is Blue Nun.

It is an over generalization to say that the whole of German wine suffered the Curse of the Blue Nun, but there is some truth in it. Great wines continued to be produced, of course, and snatched up by the educated wine elites (although not at the high prices they once earned), but Brand Germany was Blue Nun, Black Tower and their Liebfraumilch shelfmates. German wine hit its lowest point.

Blue Nun and the New Globalization

I am an optimist about globalization and wine (that’s why next book is called Grape Expectations) and this attitude extends to German wine. The bad news of the crisis of quality is matched by the good news that German wines have changed, even the big brands. Black Tower has moved upmarket into affordable quality wines, not just Liebfraumilch and not just white wines, either. It is the top German brand today.

Sichel sold the Blue Nun brand to Langguth, another German maker, who also upgraded the wines. Blue Nun is once again a major brand, selling 5 million bottles in Britain alone in 2005. It is a German brand but, significantly, reflecting the current wave of globalization, not just a German wine.

Popular wines from around the world are imported to Germany where they are bottled under the Blue Nun label. There are Languedoc Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, California Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz, Chardonnay from Chile, and a Rosé from Spain, for example. There’s even a Pinot Grigio from Germany, although its unlikely origin is not easy to learn from the front label.[i]

Blue Nun Light is low alcohol (0,5%), low calorie (27 calories per 100 ml glass). Tastes great, less filling.

My personal favorite (perhaps because I’ve never tried it) is Blue Nun Sparkling Gold Edition shown here. It’s a light fizzy wine infused with flakes of 22 carat gold leaf that glitter in the glass.

Young women seem to be Blue Nun’s target market according to both published sources and the look of the advertising copy. Women buy more wine than men, so this is not a crazy strategy, and young women are the market of the future, although the assumption that they are especially attracted to shiny floaty things like these gold flakes is sad if true. The idea that the attractive female image of the Blue Nun might particularly appeal to women never occurred to me … until now.

German wine is back, but it has changed. Quality has improved – even the mass market brands offer some good wines – but the reputation lingers, the legacy of the Curse of the Blue Nun.

[i] The ad copy says it is from the “sunny Palantine region,” which sounds Italian but isn’t. The geographical designation is Pfalz, Germany. I’m sure it is quite good as Pinot Grigio goes.

9 responses

  1. Interesting post Mike. I have often wondered why, during the height of the white zin popularity in this country, German wines were not making a bigger splash. In a country raised on soda pop and Koolaid, it seems the sweetish wines of Germany would have floated a bit higher with the tide.
    Maybe “the curse” explains it.


  2. I have to admit that I thought Blue Nun was terrific when I was 21. First tried it in a restaurant and I think I took the blue bottle home; I was smitten). So, I am not surprised at the target market today.
    Sparkling (gold and all) was up hugely (from nothing) in ’08 and down more hugely in ’09 (fell off cliff in last half).
    Overall, German wine imports are down by 38% in ’09 following down 20% in ’08.
    Gallo released two German Rieslings, named Pölka Dot; one off-dry (labeled Riesling) and one semi-sweet (labeled Medium Dry). From Pfalz. BLUE bottle.
    Looking at wine stats these days may mean there’s a market for moonshine in the wine trade.

  3. i was interested to note that you mentioned in passing that blue nun was selling wine from california and other places in Germany. that seems like a good thing for world wines – would it be asking too much to see something like that in France or Spain?
    On the subject of selling wine to women (or maybe pre-teens), my local wine shop now carries Hello Kitty wine.

  4. I remember, I was having an affair in the mid 70’s and Blue Nun was our wine. I’d pick up a bottle at the local 7-11 and go to her place. We spent several pleasant evenings enjoying that wine.

  5. The other ‘curse’ of Blue Nun was the stereotype that it created for Riesling in general. Producers here in the Finger Lakes of NY and others around the world are still fighting the perception, mostly among the general public, that Riesling is only a sweet, cheap wine that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Fortunately things are starting to change slowly, but it is still a battle that Riesling producers are having to fight.

  6. Enjoyed the article. I was introduced to Blue Nun by a Japanese Cherry Iimporter, in 1978. He wanted to buy a bottle of wine as thanks for the the dinner he had as my guest. I said OK, his choice. He requested “Bru Run”. After some clarification, we shared a bottle of Blue Nun. Remains a good memory regardless of the choice. It was, and remaims a thoughtful gesture.

  7. I inherited someone’s liquor cabinet. In it, a bottle of Blue Nun, 1981! Haha I have zero knowledge of wine but I have loads of curiosity! Do you think it’s still drinkable?

    • There is not much chance that it would be enjoyable to drink after all these years, Kristin. I would keep it as a curiosity rather than pulling the cork.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: