Not that you can get juice from crushed slate, but the image definitely evokes the focused, flinty character of rieslings from the Mosel.
In this most northerly of wine regions (it’s at 50° latitude; the latitudinal range for wine growing is 28°-50°) the bits of slate that litter the vineyards store the sun’s heat, transferring the energy to vines which would otherwise lose the will during the cold night hours. The Mosel river itself also helps to nourish the vines, reflecting the sun on to the slopes and providing that extra bit of warmth that encourages the vines along.
And what about those slopes:
‘Steep’ barely covers it. Look across the river at certain vineyard blocks and they look vertical . The Bremmer Calmont (Bremm is the town, Calmont the vineyard. This is a naming system you will come to recognise if you drink Mosel wines) vineyard on the bow of the river between Trier and Koblenz is the steepest in Europe. At 67 degrees, it has the same gradient as the tougher sections of the Matterhorn. Just being able to stand in vineyards like this would seem impossible without harnesses, carabiners and crampons – but farming them?
Terracing is essential on such vertiginous sites, but even then bad things can happen. The guide on my trip told me the last tragic accident was three years ago, when a winemaker who was replanting a particularly steep vineyard site fell off his tractor and somehow impaled himself on a vine-training pole. His family continues to make wine in the same region.
People have been braving these inhospitable sites for 2,000 years, since the Romans ruled the western world. Nearby Trier was a major Roman city and much of the wine made in the Mosel was transported down the river for consumption there. Archaeological discoveries of a Roman wine press that dates back to 400 AD (making it the largest wine press ever found north of the Alps) indicate the scale of the industry then. Indeed it’s thought that the vineyard area in the Middle Mosel sites of Piesport and Neumagen-Dhron during the Roman era was just as big as it is today.
What’s the wine like?
What can you expect from Mosel riesling? It is a very special combination of high acidity, low alcohol and laser-focused minerality. When you taste one of these wines, you know about it. Such finesse, such clear definition, such invigorating freshness. And because the alcohol is low, you can drink a lot without getting messy. I regard this as a huge plus point.
What about Mosel riesling’s famed ‘minerality’? Does the slate show in the flavour of the wine? It may appear to, but no, not literally. Though terroir romantics would have us believe otherwise, there is no known mechanism for the transfer of mineral flavours from soil to finished wine. Besides which slate doesn’t taste of anything. Having said that, there’s something going on that gives Mosel rieslings their unmistakeable, mouthwatering, mineral feel.
Some wine people think that it’s a relative absence of fruitiness which we read as a mineral, even faintly salty, quality in the wine. It’s also been suggested that it’s something to do with sulphur compounds produced during fermentation. Others still argue that certain nutrients in water held deep in a soil – sodium and potassium-containing ones – are drawn up through the roots and transfer to the fruit.
There are even suggestions that the mineral-salty feel in certain wines it attributable to a fungus, a gossamer-fine network of mycorrhizae which attaches itself to vine roots and exists in a marvellous symbiotic relationship with them, transmitting messages like synapses in a brain and helping them to distribute water and nutrients evenly throughout the whole vine system.
Studies are being conducted that should get to the bottom of this terroir mystery before much longer. Until then, if you want to know more about it, I recommend you read what wine writer and former plant biologist Jamie Goode has to say about it.
The best Mosel rieslings from my trip:
I spent two days travelling along the Mosel river and tried a wide range of rieslings from different vineyard sites in the company of local wine writers, Mosel specialists and the winemakers themselves. These are the best wines tasted during my trip. I’ve made a note of those wineries I know to be biodynamic or natural, and have included links to UK retailers/importers where known.
Weingut Sybille Kuntz (Lieser, Mosel, available from OW Loeb)
Maximin Grünhauser (Grunhaus, Ruwer, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Meulenhof (Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Haart (Piesport, Mosel)
Weingut Markus Molitor (Bernkastel-Wehlen, Mosel, available from Bibendum)
Weingut AJ Adam (Dhron, Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Van Volxem (natural, Viltingen, Saar, available from Howard Ripley)
Weingut Clemens Busch (biodynamic, Zell, Mosel, available from David Bowler)
Weingut zur Römerkelter (biodynamic, Maring-Noviand, Mosel, available from Vintage Roots)
Weingut Zilliken (Saarburg, Saar, available from OW Loeb)
Weingut Knebel (Winningen, Mosel, available from Flint Wines)
Weinhof Herrenberg (Schoden, Saar, available from The Winery UK)
Staffelter Hof (Kröv, Mosel)
Weingut SA Prüm (Bernkastel-Wehlen, Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Hain (Piesport, Mosel, available from Tanners Wine)
Weingut Bastgen (Bernkastel, Mosel)
Weingut Melsheimer (biodynamic, Reil, Mosel, available from The Winery UK)