More Than Riesling

Germany’s Wine Revolution Is Just Getting Started

The Mosel region used to produce some of the premier European wine. But vine disease, war, and bad laws changed all that. Now, a new crop of vintners are trying to bring the area back.

Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty

The world’s most ethereal wines are produced in a small region in northwestern Germany, where the Mosel River flows northward in tight hairpin curves beneath steep fractured-slate hillsides dotted with century-old Riesling vines. Too few people know these wines.

The Mosel region is arguably the most storied, least-understood wine region in the world. Romans first cultivated vines there in the 2nd century B.C., and viticulture flourished. By the late 19th century, wines from the Mosel had become widely sought-after, commanding international acclaim and some of the highest prices in the world, matching and eclipsing wines from Champagne and Bordeaux.

But that all changed in the 20th century when the Mosel faced a number of challenges. It endured vineyard devastation from the root louse, phylloxera, along with both World Wars and misguided laws that impeded quality in favor of quick revenue. But now, a handful of under-the-radar growers are working to restore the region to its former glory.

Romans were the first to cultivate vines in the area, and monks and villagers continued the viticultural tradition throughout the Middle Ages. But a royal mandate in the 18th century to grow only Riesling shaped the landscape into what it is today. In 1868, the Prussian government codified Mosel vineyard sites in an intricate tax map that identified three separate tiers of vineyard land, ranking the various parcels into three quality levels. These categorizations, based largely on the vineyard’s slope, aspect, and soil type, had been established and understood, though not legally classified, for centuries. The most prized parcels were often the steepest.

Then, at the end of the 19th century, an insect that feeds on the roots of vines, phylloxera, invaded Europe and ravaged its vineyards. Only two soil types in the world are inhabitable for this root louse: one is sand, and the other is slate. In all of Germany, only vines on the Mosel’s steep, slate slopes survived.

The only way to continue growing European grapevines after phylloxera’s infestation was to graft European vines onto American rootstock. This process continues today, when only a handful of vineyards with ungrafted, or “own-rooted,” vines still exist. Many of them are in the Mosel. The vines are old, and therefore they produce lower yields. But the quality and complexity is profound and inimitable in younger, grafted vines.

Shortly after the wine trade regained momentum, Germany braced for war, and viticulture and wine trade came to a halt. During WWI, many vineyard workers joined the army and were unable to tend the vines. During World War II, the political and viticultural landscape changed. Nazis arrested and killed much the Jewish population who comprised and controlled the wine trade and restructured wine laws in an effort to maximize production and revenue. Towards the end of the war, Allied Troops bombed bridges and vineyards in the region, turning the Mosel into a war zone.

After the Second World War, government attempts to revitalize the wine trade compromised the quality of the wine produced. A combination of new technology and economic depression led growers to plant vines on the flat riverbeds and farm them mechanically, in order to churn out high quantities at minimal cost. Then in 1971, the government passed the German Wine Law, still in effect today. In a controversial effort to make the country’s wine less confusing to export markets and to reduce labor and costs for growers, the law eradicated many of the historic boundaries delineating the best vineyard sites. Instead, it restructured the area in what is known as Flurbereinigung, a mandate that grossly expanded famed vineyard sites and attributed quality-oriented names to swaths of cheap vineyard land. In addition, it created the “Pradikat” system, which correlated sugar with quality. The more sugar in the harvested grapes, the rule mandates, the better the wine. The ruling paid no heed to aforementioned factors—a vineyard’s soil, aspect, vine training—that actually correlate to grapes capable of producing world-class wine. The government wanted to reduce labor and costs, but many growers view the law as a quality death knell.

Last week, I was given the opportunity to walk these slopes with a handful of growers on an inaugural visit to the Mosel. We spent our first day with winemaker Dr. Ulrich (Ulli) Stein, a winemaker and activist who is trying to mobilize growers to farm the steep slopes (despite the additional labor and costs) and understand that working these vineyard sites is a necessity i the region is to carry on its 2,000-year-old winemaking tradition producing world-class wines.

Ulli looks like a healthy, 50-year-old version of Jim Morrison. He has an oenology degree from Geisenheim (the German oenological equivalent of Harvard) and a pHd in biology. His interests span everything from Andy Warhol to Albrecht Dürer, and his command of U.S. cultural icons would put most Americans to shame. His home is a semi-hotel known as “Haus Waldfrieden” perched atop Alf, a small town in the Mittel Mosel, and has become a haven for his friends. A cemetery of Polish prisoners-of-war and Nazi soldiers lies five minutes away, and during WWII, an American bomb landed in his basement. Fortunately it never detonated, and Ulli keeps a framed newspaper clipping and photo of it in his home.

Ulli’s primary interest is making wines that represent the classic, dry varieties of historical Mosel and doing all that he can to preserve the region’s old vines. We drove with him to visit his vineyards and stopped in one of his favorites, called St. Aldegunder “Palmberg Terrassen.” A brilliant tour guide, Ulli continuously stopped along the incline to point out his vines parcels and to explain the site’s history. He pointed down at the slated decline, dotted with budding vines and told us that vines, “like people,” must have “the right amount of stress” to perform their best.

Many of the Mosel’s vineyard sites are steeper than forty-five degrees. The steepest, and one of the most famous, the Bremmer “Calmont,” is 68 degrees.

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We drove further and came across a parcel of Ulli’s red grapes—a mélange of Cabernet Sauvignon (native to western France), Sangiovese (native to Italy), and Pinot Noir (also called Spatburgunder), native to Burgundy.

For years, growing red grapes in the Mosel was illegal. Ulli single-handedly overturned the ruling several years ago. While Riesling is still the region’s prominent grape variety—almost exclusively—Ulli wanted to prove a point. Spatburgunder is Germany’s most common red grape (and a logical choice, given that the Mosel’s cool climate is similar in ways to Burgundy), but planting Sangiovese and Cabernet is outrageous given the Mosel’s cool temperatures and the amount of heat and sunshine that the two latter grapes need to ripen.

But when it comes to Ulli, it’s not surprising that he plants all three. When I asked why he chose these grapes, Ulli exclaimed, “As a joke! There is so much that is serious in the world already. I wanted to prove a point.”

Most of his vineyards are planted with ungrafted vines, which he observes maintain balance and create more profound wines than grafted ones. He experiments constantly, and he believes in understanding and exploring the reasons behind rules and mandates. “This law forbidding red grapes, it dates back to the Nazis, who knew they could command more money for Mosel Riesling than anything else. I wanted our region to have freedom to experiment and explore.” Ulli’s Cabernet trial is a political message that underscores his curiosity and freedom.

A few years ago, Ulli wrote a treatise addressing against the Mosel’s most desperate challenge in the course of its history: grower incentives to stop working the steep vineyard sites, uproot and replant the old, ungrafted vines and farm vineyards mechanically instead of by hand.

His message seems to be working. Ulli is paving the way for a new wave of wine growers who are ignoring Flurbereinigung and looking to the Prussian tax maps to scout, purchase, and salvage historically great vineyard sites, work them by hand (as opposed to restructuring them to work with machines), and produce dry-tasting wines reminiscent of those created in the 19th century.

A young generation of ambitious, thoughtful and meticulous growers is once again producing compelling wines from these storied sites. Wieser-Kunstler, a young husband and wife duo in their early thirties, are producing pristine, filigreed wines from ungrafted vines in the Ellergrube vineyard. Their neighbor and friend, Daniel Vollenwieder, trademarked “Schimbock,” a name that actually references his ancient parcel’s former name, even though he can’t legally label it that way unless it’s positioned as a brand. Roman Niewodniczanski of the Van Volxem estate and Florian Lauer of Weingut Peter Lauer are making spectacular wines from the Ssar, and Julian Haart, who inherited his winery from his uncle, is working similar magic in Piesport’s “Goldtrepchen” vineyard.

Their wines are balanced and profound in ways that are impossible to recreate anywhere else.

“I love these wines at all levels,” says Stephen Bitterolf, a Mosel wine expert and founder of Rieslingfeier, an annual event that celebrates Riesling. “I love the fact that farming this land is very literally a dialogue with history, with a life force that has lived through numerous human generations, that brings the past to us. I love the sacrifice that is made for these vines, the work on the steep sites, the lower yields. In affect more work for less. But the quality is profound. They are less flashy, more subtle, more a whisper. But what a whisper.”

These wines are a glance into the past. They offer a rare insight into not only the Riesling that dazzled those 19th-century connoisseurs, but also a rare glimpse into how vines grew and interacted before globalization, mechanization, and greed impacted the wine trade. These wines are as pure in spirit as they are in their delicate taste.

Some of my favorite wines from the region (all available here) are:

2012 Stein “Blau Schiefer” Troken 2012/3 Peter Lauer Ayler “Senior”2012/3 Peter Lauer Ayler Kupp “Unterstenberg”2011 Van Volxem “Alte Reben” Riesling2012 Immich-Batterieberg (various bottlings)2012/3 Weiser-Künstler Ellergrub (Their Steffensberg and Gaispfad bottlings are great, too)2011 Vollenweider “Schimbock”2013 Julian Haart, “Piesporter Goldtröpchen”