German Wines: The Mosel's Steep-slope Rieslings

The Mosel's heart-shaped vine. S. Slinkard

Germany’s Mosel River Valley, has a long and storied past. For over 2000 years the steep slopes of the Mosel have been home to the region’s grape-growing endeavors, with many giving the Romans credit for the first wave of plantings when they conquered the area and set up headquarters in Trier. The Mosel River Valley is host to hundreds of picturesque vineyards that are forever clinging to steep hillsides teeming with medieval castles, that still guard the comings and goings of all who pass whether by boat, car, train, bike or hike.

A Glimpse into the Mosel's Wine History and Future

After the Romans established the region’s initial viticulture scene, the wine cultivation was carried on with particular care, study and systematic practice by monasteries. The early 19th century saw Napoleon conquer the area and the local monasteries began selling off their prized vineyards to private owners. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the Riesling grape really started to gain prominence on the worldwide stage. With Mosel Rieslings being among the most sought after wines in the world and often gracing the elegant tables of royalty. Today, the Rieslings coming out of the Mosel are once again claiming international recognition. Quality controls are at an all-time high with organizations like the VDP, elevating the quality bar to new levels, and initiatives like Generation Riesling bringing the up and coming Riesling winemakers into the fold, bolstered by tradition yet beckoned by technology.

These young, fresh faces of Generation Riesling are making and leaving their mark on Germany’s most famous grape.

The Mosel Terroir

A cool continental climate, super steep vineyard slopes (between 45-60° grades are typical), a heavy influence from the visible chunks of blue-gray slate covering the soil and typically a condensed growing-season that can be a little short on sun, make up the unique terroir of the northerly Mosel River Valley.

The South facing slopes tend to be the most desirable vineyard locations, as they garner higher doses of sunshine. The Mosel River itself represents a critical component of the area’s terroir, as the river is responsible for both reflecting and retaining the sun’s heat to the vines as well as providing a buffer to early frosts via the river fog. Besides steep slopes, the vineyards along the Mosel are characterized by individual, heart-shaped vine staking systems instead of the conventional trellis system (pictured). These intriguing vines are trained into a heart-shape to allow easier access for manual labor (no mechanical harvesting happening on these sheer hillsides) and vineyard management on the significant grades of the Mosel’s inverted landscape. The oldest vines found in the Mosel are about 150 years old, producing tiny berries that do an exceptional job of concentrating and reflecting the Mosel’s unique terroir.

The Wines of the Mosel

Many in the wine world consider Riesling to be the top white wine grape, capable of producing wines of dynamic diversity from bone dry to dessert sweet, lean and light-bodied to full, rich and round, all within a single grape varietal. Not to mention Riesling's uncanny ability to welcome and embrace many of the world's toughest cuisine match-ups (think Thai, Viatnamese, spicy Asian or even Creole), let alone its versatility and forever food-friendly nature to many mainstream dishes.

It's no surprise that Riesling sales are on the rise in the global marketplace and Riesling is quickly making its way to more menu wine lists than ever before.

Though Germany seems to still carry a reputation for solely “sweet wines” in some parts, it’s critical to note that they produce and export remarkable dry Riesling. In fact, on a recent press trip to the region I tasted through far more bone dry Rieslings with tangy acidity, rich mineral-driven character and exceptional balance than I did Rieslings that lie on the sweeter spectrum. Rieslings grown on the Mosel’s blue-gray slate soils tend to make a wine that is racy, lean and brimming with minerality both on the nose and the palate. These lower-alcohol wines (8-11%) are typically dominated on the palate by fresh green to golden apple, pear and peach nuances and can exhibit subtle citrus qualities as well.

The fine balance of acidity and residual sugar has been well-mastered in the Mosel region, offering consistent Riesling with focused character, elegance and finesse. To determine if a Riesling is from the Mosel region, look for a green bottle, Germany’s Rhein Rieslings are found in brown bottles.

 

Mosel Rieslings to Try:

From the big names like Fritz Haag, Dr. Loosen and J.J. Prum to smaller wineries (termed “weingut”) like Schmitges and Werner, the Mosel is not lacking in either quality or character when it comes to Riesling wines. If you are looking to expand your Riesling horizons, some top wines to begin the adventure with include:

The soon to be released 2009 Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Trocken – Presenting crisp, clear cut Mosel Riesling character and mouth-watering acidity.

The Fritz Haag 2009 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling (off-dry) - full of floral character, along with notes of pear and a touch of honey on the palate.

The Fritz Haag 2009 Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese - the perfect Riesling ambassador from the Mosel with lively character, solid balance and ripe fruit.

Markus Molitor 2007 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spatlese Riesling - rich aromatics are lovely on the nose, ripe stone fruit heavy on the palate, overall a lush, round wine with a generous finish.

Markus Molitor 2005 Wehlener Klosterberg Auslese - presents full fruit and floral aromas with a delicious richness on the palate.

Weingut Schmitges Riesling Grauschiefer trocken - brings a focused wine with ample acidity, fruit that ranges from green apple to a splash of peach and appropriate balance from start to finish.

Weingut Schmitges Treppchen Riesling Selection Spatlese trocken - a tantalizing wine that brings the Mosel’s terroir to the surface in opulent stone-fruit aromas and peach on the palate, an invigorating wine that speaks of the soil’s slate and the sun’s favor.

Weingut Werner 2009 Trittenheimer Apotheke Riesling (off-dry) - a refreshing, well-balanced wine with apple and pear fruit placed just above the subtle minerality.

2008 Dr. Loosen Riesling - this well-distributed Riesling represents a solid Mosel value on today’s wine shelves. Ripe apple fruit drives this wine and a racy elegance finishes it.

The 2007 J.J. Prum Riesling Kabinett - is a vibrant Riesling rendition also from the Mosel. With bright floral aromas and succulent stone fruit on the palate, this wine has a seamless elegance that epitomizes the region’s Riesling reputation.

The 2007 Weingut Schmitges Riesling Sekt - is an amazing Riesling experience, a sparkling brut Riesling made in the méthode traditionnelle with all of the lively acidity trapped in beautiful bubbles and eager to show off the grape’s quality and exotic fruit components.

The 2008 Heymann-Lowenstein Schieferterrassen Riesling - offers up flower-driven aromatics, citrus fruit and subtle slate nuances, along with interesting and even eccentric winemaking philosophies.

Weingut Ratzenberger, though technically not on the Mosel but not too far down the line on the Mittelrhein in Bacharach, crafts a stellar line-up of Riesling wines. From the single vineyard 2006 Bacharacher Kloster Furstental Riesling Sekt brut (sparkling wine) to an absolutely stunning 1998 Bacharacher Kloster Furstental Riesling Eiswein that epitomizes intensity and personifies elegance with extremely concentrated layers of flavor.

Curious to try some of these Mosel Rieslings in person?

Check to see if there are any Destination Riesling events coming to a city near you. Or better yet, plan a trip to Germany. Most of these wineries receive tasting guests if you call ahead to set up an appointment. If you stop by the tourist hot spot of Bacharach then Weingut Ratzenberger is a contact well worth making, you'll be captivated by the wines, have a chance to check out the vines firsthand and may even get an insider's glimpse into the region from Jochen Ratzenberger himself. Weingut Schmitges is happy to host you for a wine tasting in their very modern tasting room, or help you coordinate vineyard hikes and even set up a wine-pairing for lunch, with a quick call or email ahead.

 

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary travel for the purpose of reviewing the region and the event. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.