Extract: The wines of Germany, by Anne Krebiehl MW

16 May 2022 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

Mosel – a cosmos unto itself
Not only are the valleys of Mosel, Saar and Ruwer unique; they seem like a different universe. Here, grape, climate, soil and topography combine in such a fashion that the ancient contract between humans and vine, between sweat and fruit, is driven to its extreme. It is here that the greatest effort leads to the greatest lightness; that Riesling climaxes with absolute transparency, exactitude and expression. Nowhere else is it more apparent that it is light, not heat, that ripens grapes. Take the legendary south-facing Scharzhofberg in Wiltingen. You climb to its ridge and look at the shrub on its shaded, north-facing side: barely an apple would ripen there.

Until 2007 the Mosel region was still called ‘Mosel-Saar-Ruwer’, also crediting the valleys of the smaller tributaries. These subregions now go under the Mosel umbrella but are as distinct as ever. This region covers the final, brief stretches of three river valleys: the Mosel on its meandering path before it joins the Rhine at Koblenz, the Saar and Ruwer before they run into the Mosel at Konz and Trier, respectively. While the river Mosel rises in the French Vosges mountains and flows north past Metz and Schengen, the German wine region begins at the Luxembourg border. This is the relatively unknown Obermosel where Elbling and white Pinot varieties on Triassic formations dominate. What is commonly understood to be the Mosel region proper begins in Trier and follows the snaking river bends which take 237 kilometres to cover the 96 kilometre distance to Koblenz. By grinding its way into the 400-million-year-old sediments of the Rhenish Slate Massif between 15 and 2.5 million years ago, the river created this spectacular topography, curve by winding curve. The Mittelmosel, where all the most famous vineyards are, runs from Trier to Briedel. Its villages from south to north read like a wine menu: Leiwen, Piesport, Braunberg, Bernkastel, Graach, Wehlen, Traben-Trarbach and Enkirch. Driving along the Mosel in this narrow valley is confusing: the road follows the river but on alternating banks, so after one or two loops and bridges you lose all sense of direction. However, driving early in the morning allows you to see how the rising sun hits some knolls and slopes first, some dells and troughs later. At dusk some parcels are still sunlit while others have been shaded since noon. This mix of exposure, gradient, relative distance to the river and altitude already accounts for many differences in the wine. Add elements like varying subsoils, vine genetics, viticulture and winemaking and you have a perfect matrix of infinite possibility. This alone inspires awe, let alone the vertigo-inducing steepness of the rocky vineyards. The experience is much enhanced by the white lettering proclaiming the famous vineyard names from afar.

The stretch of river from Zell to Koblenz is called Terrassenmosel as the valley becomes a little warmer but much steeper, so vineyards are usually terraced. This is where Germany’s, and possibly Europe’s, steepest vineyard is, the Bremmer Calmont. The Mosel is of course synonymous with slate but there are variations of it as well as other formations. The fact that the Germans like to use the term Schiefer, or slate, freely causes much confusion so caution is advised. The oldest formations are Devonian shales, or Tonschiefer. Depending on colour they are named Blauschiefer or Grauschiefer and are the dominant formation in all three valleys. The same era also left some quartzite, especially in the Terrassenmosel as well as volcanic diabase in the Saar. The Permian era left rhyolite, red with iron oxide, which is often called Rotschiefer; the Ürziger Würzgarten is famous for it. All these formations are weathered to varying degrees; some are so fine you can crumble them in your hand. The dialect word ‘Lay’ means slate, explaining why this term crops up in so many vineyard names. In the Ruwer valley, just outside Trier, vines are more difficult to spot because the vineyards are choice, south-facing, singular slopes not on the Ruwer itself but on tiny tributaries, like Eitelsbach, Weschbach or Kundelbach. They are at slightly higher altitude and don’t benefit from the moderating effect of a sufficiently large body of water, so they are cooler than the Mosel valley. The same is true for the Saar, which is altogether more spacious, more remote and wilder. Merely its last 25 kilometres from just south of Serrig to its confluence with the Mosel at Konz constitute its world wine fame. Few vineyards are directly on the Saar and rise to 300 metres and beyond, both accounting for their coolness. These slopes are much more exposed to the elements. You realize how marginal the area is when you spot signs for the Viezstrasse, or cider route, which also is a speciality here. Saar vineyards are monumental in a different way from those in the Mosel. The good distances between them, their relative isolation and altitude seem to afford them lofty majesty and grandeur that underscores their individuality. The mere mention of sites like Kanzemer Altenberg, Ockfener Bockstein, Saarbuger Rausch, Ayler Kupp and Scharzhofberg will send shivers of pleasure down the spines of Riesling lovers.

But history also plays its part. Neither poetry nor artefacts leave any doubt that viticulture has been a central part of Mosel life since at least Roman times. The Mosel’s ‘rising, natural theatre of vines’ was described as early as the fourth century by Roman poet Ausonius, who had been summoned to Trier, or Augusta Treverorum, an important Roman settlement and garrison, to teach the sons of Emperor Valentinian. Remnants of Roman wine presses in Piesport and Brauneberg bear witness to active, early wine culture. After the invasion of the Franks, Trier emerged as an early centre of Christianity whose archbishops united worldly and ecclesiastic powers, expanded their territory and rose to become powerful electors in the twelfth century. The electorate of Kurtrier was an important church state and wine was central to its economy as countless records document: vineyards are named, Fuders bought and sold, trade regulated, and prices listed. In the tumultuous centuries surrounding the Thirty Years’ War, conflict was never far away, but viticulture, then still dominated by Elbling and field blends, always revived. In 1787 Elector Clemens Wenceslaus decreed that within the coming seven years all lesser varieties were to be grubbed up and replaced with quality vines like Riesling. Much is made of this famous edict but as later records show, it was never fully put into practice, especially since the French occupation of the left bank of the Rhine disrupted the political order once and for all. As one writer noted, the entire Mosel, ‘from its source to its confluence with the Rhine, became a French river.’ The area of Mosel, Ruwer and Saar which Napoleon’s troops had occupied since 1794 became the French Département de la Sarre in 1797. Secularization followed, as did the Code Civil, and former church possessions were sold off. Estates like Scharzhofberg and Maximin Grünhaus can trace their history to these transactions. It is believed that almost half of all vineyards changed hands at that time, a cataclysmic upheaval after centuries of feudalism.

By 1815 however, with Napoleon defeated, the area fell to Prussia. An initial period of prosperity was swiftly followed by disaster: the scrapping of protective tariffs combined with poor harvests spelled hunger and misery. The poverty he encountered among Mosel Winzer moved a young Karl Marx to pen several articles railing against Prussian injustice. Around the same time another social reformer, Ludwig Gall, introduced the idea of Nassverbesserung, literally ‘wet improvement’. Based on the ideas of Jean Antoine Chaptal in France, who had introduced ‘Chaptalization’, i.e. the enrichment of musts with sugar, Gall’s idea was the improvement of musts with sugar solution (sugar dissolved in water) which killed two birds with one stone: it enriched must and diluted acidity. Nassverbesserung thus made unpalatable, sour wine at least drinkable and therefore marketable. Needless to say, the method was and remained controversial, but became so widespread that gallisieren entered the vocabulary – no doubt the practice also helped to entrench the naturrein principle of unadulterated wine firmly in the German wine psyche. Yet this western backwater of Prussia remained desperately poor. Landowners with other income streams could survive, but for farmers especially reliant on viticulture in this narrow valley without much space for other arable crops, each vintage spelled either feast or famine. The Mosel flooded at regular intervals, too, creating more misery. If you look carefully you can see the high-water marks of past floods on doorways and bridges. Thorough as ever, the Prussians commissioned their cadastral inspector and tax councillor Franz Josef Clotten to create a vineyard site classification. Based on the site evaluations of Mosel, Saar and Ruwer vineyards conducted by the Prussian tax authorities between 1816 and 1832, this map was published in 1868 and graded vineyards into three classes. The best vineyards – mostly the same as today – were marked out in dark red and not only served tax purposes but also became a handy guide for wine merchants. A string of good vintages in the 1860s meant that Mosel wines were going up in the world. Geopolitically, Europe was changing, too. Prussia was in the ascendant, threatening the carefully calibrated European power balance of the Vienna Congress. France declared war in July 1870 and by February 1871 the Prussians were victorious. While the Franco–Prussian War set the scene for the creation of the Deutsches Reich in 1871, it also emphasized the strategic importance of the Mosel region. This formerly French and remote province now received a railway line that connected Berlin, Koblenz, Trier and Metz in the newly annexed region of Lothringen/Lorraine. Steamships had already eased transport, but the Mosel then was not navigable year round. Trains meant that wines could now go to market easily. Indeed, if you look closely at old Mosel labels you will see an unusual number of steamboats or locomotives signalling ready transport links. By the 1870s Mosel wines started to become highly fashionable. The English writer Henry Vizetelly described them in 1875 as lacking ‘the robustness of their brethren of the Rhine’ but noted that they were ‘at any rate light and delicate, and possessed of a fresh and at times even a decided flavour, rendering them highly palatable.’ While Rhine wines were drunk with bottle age, Mosel wines were drunk young. The wine chapter in the official catalogue of the Deutsches Reich for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris gives a nod to this fashion by describing Mosel and Saar wines as ‘by now popular’. It was their marked difference to the revered, mature Rhine wines that set them apart. Conscious of the need to support the populace of a border region, in 1896 the government in Berlin started founding not one but three Staatsdomänen, or state domaines, in Avelsbach, Serrig and Wiltingen: this way the state could benefit from the profitable wine business while also providing research and teaching centres serving as model domaines for best practice.

It was also in the nineteenth century that Riesling’s predominance was cemented in the Mosel. In 1845, Servatius Muhl reports lots of field blends in Saar and Mosel, noting Kleinberger, i.e. Elbling, and a hotch-potch of varieties. He notes that Elbling is often co-planted with Riesling, quoting the local wisdom: ‘Kleinberger brings much wine, Riesling makes it good.’ He also remarks that Riesling is planted in some places where it will not ripen in weak and average years. Fifty-three years later in 1898, Koch and Stephanus note that as a development of the past 20 years Riesling had become the predominant variety – but they also point out that in lesser sites Riesling is mixed with Silvaner, Pinot varieties and Traminer. Occasionally there are references to red wine – made from Spätburgunder and Portugieser. They also emphasize the viticultural progress. It was at that time that several harvest passes were made in the best Riesling vineyards, and grapes of the same ripeness were fermented to create different wine styles. Mosel wine was thus at its zenith at the turn of the century – and would remain so until the First World War. In this golden age these wines were amongst the most expensive and desirable in the world. The decades that followed the war were marked by difficulty. The tough conditions of the Versailles Treaty, the economic crisis and inflation of 1929, the ascent of Nazi Germany that ended in devastation, loss and misery. Yet, when German chancellor Konrad Adenauer negotiated the release of the last German prisoners of war still captive in the Soviet Union with Nikita Khrushchev in 1955, he took precious Berncasteler Doctor Riesling from the 1950 vintage with him.

Recovery was slow in the immediate post-war years, but vineyard expansion was rampant from the 1960s to the 1980s. The fact that Nassverbesserung, that relic of the nineteenth century, was still allowed, coupled with the 1971 invention of Grosslagen, or collective sites, meant that much Mosel wine became a parody of itself. One of the most grotesque examples of a Grosslage is the Piesporter Michelsberg, or PiMi in bulk wine circles, with 1,106 hectares – larger than some German wine regions! The figures tell the story: in 1879 there were 6,144 hectares in the Mosel, of which 42 per cent were Riesling; by 1906 there were 7,484 hectares of which 88 per cent were Riesling. In 1964 there were 9,835 hectares of which 79 per cent were Riesling; in 1979 there were 12,298 hectares, of which 58 per cent were Riesling and 22 per cent Müller-Thurgau. All this rode on the coat-tails of former glory and culminated in the 1980s when several scandals broke: amongst them that of inverted sugar syrup in 1980, which centred on the Mosel, where sugar was used to create fake Prädikat-level wines from poor wines, and the diethylene glycol scandal of 1985, where this substance was added to wines to mimic the viscous mouthfeel of rich, sweet wine. Domestic and export markets collapsed and even blameless estates suffered. The region’s reputation lay in tatters. Various parcels on the steep slopes fell fallow.

It took the Mosel until the turn of the millennium to start recovering. Climate change has helped: ‘Mosel, Saar and Ruwer have benefited because there are no more sour wines. Viticulture is much better today. We want to maintain the delicacy, the positive lightness. Vineyards which used to be abandoned because they were too cool are being recultivated, we go higher up, we go into the lateral valleys,’ explains Johannes Selbach of Selbach-Oster. And now Spätburgunder is also winning plaudits. The past twenty years have seen a flowering of quality where old vineyards and vines are valued; where young winemakers invest their futures in this region; where visionaries like Ernie Loosen, Markus Molitor and Roman Niewodniczanski of van Volxem created a dynamo effect with their respective investments and achievements; where arch traditionalists like Egon Müller, Maximin Grünhaus and Joh. Jos. Prüm hold fast to their historic values. Once again Germany and the world are conscious of the uniqueness of Riesling that can be achieved here. The slopes are still as steep, but the counsel from an old book, ‘that no bread in Germany is earned harder, nor sliced more frugally, than in the Mosel,’ is thankfully consigned to history – even though the wines are far too cheap across the board for the effort that goes into growing them. It is a delicious contradiction that such monumental effort should lead to such weightlessness and delicacy. Today the stylistic spectrum of Riesling in this region alone is mind-blowing. If you wonder about the differences between Mosel and Saar Riesling, here are the opinions of two experts. Nik Weis of St Urbanshof says that ‘the particular conditions of the Mosel are even more heightened in the Saar,’ while Hanno Zilliken of Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken notes: ‘The difference between Mosel and Saar is the different weighting of constituents. A Mosel Riesling is carried by its fruit accompanied by acidity. A Saar Riesling is carried by its acidic structure accompanied by fruit.’ Fans should not miss two annual events: Mythos Mosel and Saar Riesling Sommer which draw an enthusiastic and young crowd.

Extract from The wines of Germany © Anne Krebiehl (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
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