Meggan Robinson on October 16, 2015 0 Comments Due south of the tiny country of Luxembourg and due west of the picturesque Alsatian town of Strasbourg near France’s border with Germany is the source of the Mosel River (Moselle in French). The waters of the Mosel meander north and run along the southeast border of Luxembourg, entering Germany and picking up the waters from one of its tributaries, the Saar, near the ancient city of Trier. From Trier, the river flows northeast, collects the waters of the Ruwer, and winds dramatically through a deep valley until it flows into the Rhine at Koblenz. Along the Mosel’s 320-or-so miles are hundreds of tiny vineyards. These vineyards–the steepest in Europe–cling to rocky hillsides that defy any notion of sensible vineyard location. The Mosel Valley is located at the northern edge of traditional latitudes for grape growing, typically between 30 and 50 degrees. Because of the latitude, most vineyards along the serpentine Mosel are south facing, attempting to soak up every ray of sunshine needed to ripen grapes. We’re in a land whose roots run deep–in history and in dedication to making wines in a rather inhospitable place. The Mosel is the site of castles, picturesque towns, unique cuisine, and extraordinary wines made from the noble Riesling grape. Climate and Soil The Mosel’s climate is pretty cool, especially as wine-growing regions go. The growing season is short, both because of temperature and the shortage of sun as days grow shorter in the autumn. The Mosel River itself helps mitigate some of what would be otherwise harsh conditions, as the river fog helps prevent frost from occurring too early. The soils of the Mosel, particularly on the hillsides where grapes are grown, are thin and poor. Slate is an important component of Mosel soils for the minerality it imparts to the wines and also because slate reflects sunlight and heat back up toward vines, keeping them warm and healthy. The thin, rocky topsoil means Mosel vines have deep roots, picking up minerals from the variety of soils under the surface. Some soils are volcanic, others greywacke sandstone, while still others are limestone. So steep are the vineyards of the Mosel that practically every task must be done by hand. While some vineyards and coops have built monorail systems to transport workers and grapes up and down the grades that can approach a staggering 70% incline, other vineyards continue to move grapes step by human step. The hillsides with the loose shale pose another problem after big rains, and it’s not uncommon for workers–laden with baskets of shale and topsoil, to trudge to the top of hills to replace soils washed away by the rain. Nowhere else in the world is wine so defiantly handmade. One wonders, in light of the difficult terrain and short growing season, why anyone would bother to grow grapes in the Mosel at all. History The oldest settlements in the Mosel date back to the Stone Age (4000-3000 BC). Though arriving later than the very earliest settlers, grapes aren’t new to the Mosel. In fact, the area was the very first in Europe to be planted to wine grapes–dating back to the Romans. Near the famed Piesporter Goldtröpfchen vineyard, Roman wine presses dating to 200 and 400 AD have been discovered. Germany’s oldest city is Trier, on the banks of the Mosel, and the Trier Cathedral is Germany’s oldest church, dating to 1270. A trip down the Mosel is really a trip through history, as you can find evidence of Roman settlers, as well as spectacular castles built from the 900s through the 1800s. It’s a wide swath of history, and wine has practically always been a part of that history. Grape Varieties Riesling rules the Mosel Valley. Roughly 91% of the grapes grown in the valley are white, and nearly 60% of those are Riesling. Also known as White Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling, the grape flourishes here, and truly nowhere else is it possible to get such a range of flavors, ripeness, and intensity as the Mosel. Müller Thurgau is the second most widely planted white grape variety, comprising roughly 14% of the plantings in the region. An interesting variety called Bacchus is also grown in the Mosel. Bacchus was created in 1933, and is a cross of Riesling and Silvaner crossed with Müller Thurgau. Bacchus doesn’t develop as much acid or flavors quite as refined as Riesling, but its chief benefit is the fact that it ripens early and is far less picky than Riesling in terms of where it’s planted. Bacchus can even be grown at higher latitudes than Riesling, so it fares well even as far north as England. Weissburgunder (Chardonnay) is also grown in the Mosel, as well as Kerner (Riesling crossed with Trollinger) and Elbling, one of the oldest grape varieties. While white varieties of grapes dominate the Mosel, there is some Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) that grows well, though the wines don’t develop as much depth or complexity as they do in other locations, such as in Burgundy. Wine Styles German wine labels can be intimidating, but once you learn to read them, you’ll realize just how wonderful they are. German labels give you practically everything you need to know to get an understanding of what’s in the bottle. For example, most wines are labeled with the name of the town and vineyard they’re from–so Wehlener Sonnenuhr comes from the Sonnenuhr vineyard near the town of Wehlen. Additionally, wines of a certain quality level also include information about the ripeness of the grapes at harvest and the sweetness level of the finished wine. Terms to know: Kabinett – the least ripe of the specially designated wines. Typically the lightest offering. Spätlese – late harvest, picked later and with higher sugar levels than Kabinett. Auslese – select harvest, specific bunches of grapes that are very ripe and often affected by botrytis. Beerenauslese (BA) – berry selection, specific grapes that are botrytis affected and very concentrated and sweet. Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) – dried berry selection. More concentrated still, these are botrytis affected grapes allowed to dry on the vines. Eiswein – Grapes harvested and pressed while frozen. Typically not botrytis affected, the sugars are concentrated when the water in the grape freezes. So, one would think the levels from Kabinett to TBA would always increase in sweetness, but there are a few more terms that complicate the picture: Trocken – dry. Kabinett, Spätlese, and even Auslese wines can be fermented until nearly all the residual sugar is gone. Halbtrocken (sometimes also referred to as feinherb, a loose synonym) – half-dry. Another category of Mosel wines is Sekt, sparkling wines made from a number of white grape varieties. Most Sekt is made using the Charmat method, in which the second fermentation (the one that results in the bubbles in a sparkling wine) takes place in a large tank. A few Sekt are made using the traditional method in which the second fermentation takes place in the bottle. Mosel Cuisine So what do residents of the Mosel eat with all their graceful, exuberant Rieslings? The region is known for several distinctive dishes: Fish – the Mosel itself is the source for fresh fish, and both smoked eel and baked trout are common. Tafelspitz – boiled beef or veal in broth, typically served with horseradish. Sauerbraten – pot roast in a vinegar-based marinade, served with a sweet and sour gravy sauce. Often accompanied with red cabbage and spaetzle noodles. Rösti – fried potato pancakes. Traditional local cuisine aside, though, Riesling is one of the very best wines to pair with food, and it’s one of my go-to varieties for challenging dishes. Nothing balances spicy dishes or dishes with sweet sauces better than a high acid Riesling with a little residual sugar. When it’s great, Riesling is incandescent–like sunlight in a bottle–and Mosel Riesling is truly a labor of love, given the steep hillsides and the region’s location at the edge of latitudes suitable for making fine wines. It’s astonishing–given the tiny parcels of land and the hard work that goes into managing and harvesting every grape by hand–that Mosel Rieslings are as affordable as they are. When compared with top white wines of other regions like Burgundy and Champagne, Riesling stands out as a relative bargain.