The ancient vines of the Mosel valley

On every trip to the region, I pause on the bridge towards Zeltingen-Rachtig to take a picture. Every season it looks different, and it really shows what a distinct wine region the Mosel is. On one side, you have what are some of the highest rated and best vineyards; Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, Wehlener Sonnenuhr onwards to Graach with Domprobst and Himmelreich, just before you get to Bernkastel. On the other hand, the view does not have the same winegeeky romantic luster with an almost finished bridge blocking the view nowadays, but the Mosel also makes a turn and vineyards are now located mostly on the other bank. Erden and Ürzig have their famous Lagen, but when you go further, the landscape changes. Instead of broad steep slopes with neat vineyards, plots are smaller, often planted with single stake vines and looking a bit more chaotic.

As in Burgundy, the Napoleonic Civil Code led to a splintering of vineyard holdings over the course of 150 years (each holding was split equally amongst one’s heirs). Now, if all these tiny plots are relatively easily accessible, the work remains manageable. If however your plots are located on steep, rocky slopes, it does become a challenge. So, in an impeccable example of German efficiency, “Flurbereinigung” was introduced. The goal was for different estates with vines in the same Lage to exchange plots. This would allow them to gain control over actually workable, and more importantly, economically viable holdings (preventing these plots from being abandoned altogether). In addition, certain vineyards were uprooted to construct roads and access ways, and new ones were planted.

All good, easier to work, leading to lower costs and cheaper wines, surely everyone would be happy? Unfortunately not. Flurbereinigung accelerated in the sixties, a time when yield instead of quality was prioritized. The main consequence was that the planting material used was not always up to the standards that most estates would like to work with. What’s more, the new plantings had to be grafted on American rootstocks for the prevention of Phylloxera. So, you have not only the uprooting of ‘wurzelechte’ centenarian vines, but also their replacement with inferior planting material. It does not take a genius to figure out that this is a grave loss of vinous treasury!

Unsurprisingly, the Lagen mainly hit by Flurbereinigung were the ones most popular. Those spared were lucky to be considered (mistakenly so) as ugly ducklings at the time. Clever winemakers have of course figured this out, and nowadays there is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm to rediscover and safeguard these old plots, especially as they are one of the region’s only sources of ungrafted vines. I often find that these offer quite a distinct impression, less fruity, more herbal yet with a salty tang to them. They often come across more subdued, but not without substance, and are a must for anyone who wants to delve into Riesling depths.

Now, where can you find these wines? The Klitzekleine Ring might be a good place to start. It is a community of winemakers mostly located around Traben-Trarbach, dedicated to recovering and maintaining steep slope vineyards, marketing their wines as “Bergrettung” (mountain rescue). The association is quite small, with only about 10 members, and quality varies, but I find it an initiative to be encouraged, as there is loads of potential to unlock. Specific producers to watch for are Martin Mullen for everything old, Daniel Vollenweider for sweet wines, and of course Weiser-Kunstler, which will get its turn in the spotlight in next week’s post following a visit I enjoyed a while back.

Another major advocate of rebuilding respect for these vineyards is Ulli Stein. The Stein estate owned with his brother has vineyards mainly around Sankt Aldegund, Alf and Bullay. I visited the estate last year, and was not only charmed by the evening I spent in the cellars going from Fuder to Fuder, but also by the excellent wines produced here. Ulli really takes the time to show how exactly a site translates into a wine, and the role that winemaking plays in ensuring an accurate translation.

Ulli prides himself on the care and attention paid to his vineyards, with vine age averaging around 60 years. Age often gives them better access to water, and makes them less susceptible to certain diseases. If there is a vineyard that needs to be replanted, this is done only with cuttings from the estate’s vines, which follow a rigorous selection process. Afterwards, the vineyards are worked without herbicides and pesticides. What you see in the cellar resembles a technology-averse mad scientist’s laboratory, with experiments involving sulphur-free wines, orange wines, red wines, yet without losing sight of a well-thought out traditional approach.

The wines are delicate, quite racy and more on savory minerality than on fruit tones. Most importantly though, they are utterly drinkable!  Low in alcohol (around 12%), with a thirst-quenching quality that almost guarantees an empty bottle in no-time. The range of wines is quite large, but if you want something adventurous, I would encourage you to check out St. Aldegunder Palmberg Terrassen Spätlese Trocken, as well as the Alfer Hölle feinherb, a wine coming from one of the oldest vineyards in the Mosel valley, dating from 1900! In recent years there have also been some excellent red wines, including one of the best Spätburgunders produced in the region these days, as well as an astonishing Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend that I would encourage everyone to track down.

Palmberg photo courtesy of Ülli Stein

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