The wines of Germany have in the past suffered from an identity crisis. Being the 4th largest European wine producer and with an incredibly long history of winemaking, Germany is very serious about wine (they’re serious about a lot of things), however in the 1970’s a huge percentage of their wines were sold as bulk, sweet brands (Blue Nun anyone?). In recent years however with the move of society to more structured, elegant, cool-climate wines, as well as the parallel growth in desire for Riesling- and the realisation that not all Rieslings are sweet- German wines have experienced a rise in popularity, especially in the Premium category (>$30AUD).
But just what does quality mean in Germany? The answer to that question is a minefield, where German wine can again become complicated and misunderstood. With the rest of wine-producing Europe, we can usually quite easily grasp the quality systems (DOC and DOCG in Italy, Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru in Burgundy, 1st to 5th Growth in Bordeaux etc), but Germany is a little harder to get a grasp of. You see, because it is so cold in the majority of the growing regions of Germany, the German Wine Law of 1971 stated that it was not a specific site, hill, valley or vineyard that was to be awarded a quality designation, but rather how much sugar the grapes accumulate- no matter where they are located throughout the country. This was meant to award the best sites that achieved the ripest grapes and highest quality levels and therefore could attain the highest prices, however the opposite occurred- ripeness was sought at any cost, and flavour, balance and acid were thrown out the window by many entry-level producers in order to put the highest “quality designation” Prädikatswein on the label and push up prices. Quality designation in the 70s and 80s became a misnomer, however the pendulum has swung back, and today ripeness is more often than not associated with quality. From lowest to highest ripeness levels we find; Tafelwein, Landwein, Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA) and Prädikatswein. Layered over this is the regional designation for where wines from the top 2 quality levels can be sourced; in descending order of size, wine can come from an Anbaugebiet (a major wine region like the Mosel), Bereich (a district within the wine region), Großlage (a collection of vineyards within a district, and the ß is pronounced “ss”) and Einzellage (a single vineyard), so you have a general idea of how big the vineyard area is that a wine has been sourced from. Added to this are other terms that indicate higher quality within a distinct sweetness/ripeness level, such as Grosses Gewächs (for dry wines), Kabinett (mostly dry), Spätlese (late harvest), Auslese (bordering sweet/noble rot) and Beerenauslese (dessicated, usually Botrytis affected dessert wine). It really is no wonder there are so many words on a German wine label sometimes! So, now that we have a better understanding of what quality actually is, back to the Mosel!
The Mosel Region (formerly known as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) is the 4th largest wine region in Germany, and one of its most important for producing quality wines. It runs along the steep, stony, sheer slopes that shoot up from the river Mosel as it winds from the border with Luxembourg to join the river Rhine in the city of Koblenz. The most westerly of all Germany’s wine regions, the Mosel sits only 200km due East of Reims, the capital of the Champagne region, which gives an indication of how cold it can get in this region. Riesling is king here, mostly due to its late-ripening (to avoid the yearly threat of spring frost) and ability to thrive in the very unusual Devonian slate soil of this area, found in the best vineyards. The distinctive red, blue and black slate has been used to tile local village roofs for centuries, and combined with steep slopes (Calmont, with a gradient of 65% is the steepest vineyard in the world!) running down to a river, you wouldn’t think much would grow here at all! The vines hold fast to the slope by digging deep into the soil for nutrients and water- despite a fairly wet climate, rain runs down the hill almost as soon as it falls, meaning the vines near the top of the hill struggle for water every year. This lowers disease risk dramatically, and the rocky, slatey soils are inhospitable for bugs that feed on vine roots such as phylloxera and nematodes. The steep gradient of the slopes also means no tractors or machinery can access the vines, so there is little pollution or soil compaction in the vineyards. Whilst a harsh environment, it seems the slight inconveniences of starvation and freezing are ultimately worth it!
Some of the best known and highest quality sites can be found in the Mosel, such as Ürziger Würzgarten, Bernkasteler Lay, Graacher Himmelreich, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Piesporter Goldtröpfchen and Erdener Treppchen, from some of the best producers in Germany like Dr Loosen, JJ Prum and Clemens Busch. The key to the fantastic balance and subsequent high quality of Mosel Riesling is the searing core of tartaric acid, believed to come (at least partially) from the slatey soil. Mosel Riesling is often described as having a mineral, rocky/slate aroma along with some citrus, spice and, depending on the sweetness level, a broad array of fruit flavours from green apple (dry) to pineapple and guava(sweet).
So, we find it is a combination of extremes that makes the Mosel one of the best Riesling producing regions on the planet. Cold climate, steep, rocky slopes, constant threat of starvation and danger from vintage variation caused by Mother Nature could only ever make dramatic wines, however these extremes also come with advantages- no need for pesticides, low competition in the vineyard, only hand harvesting, high natural acid. The results speak for themselves- wines from the Mosel are not only amazingly balanced, but some of the most long-lived of all white wines, which you would almost expect given the life the vines have had!
Wine Sales Manager