Mosel Riesling: Like the Juice of Crushed Slate

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:

Bremmer Calmont

 

‘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)

Wine, the Universe and Everything

What’s it all about, Douglas? Four-and-a-half billion years ago, some pointless lump of rock hurtling through the disorder of the early solar system crashes into a larger pointless lump of rock at great speed, explodes, then partially re-coalesces and slips into an orbit around the larger lump of rock in a senseless, irresistible spiral. Thence biogenesis, microbes, yeast, plants, winemakers, wine drinkers and all that jazz.

How does is all happen, really? Okay, let’s stick to what’s answerable. What, in this bullshit-benighted age, does ‘terroir’ mean? Many a rhapsody has rung out over ‘terroir’ – the idea that the wine we drink is an expression of the specific geology and climate of the land the grapevines are grown on – but let’s face it, most are based on nothing more than a commercial interest in that land.

The winemaker’s craft is almost always a matter of interfering with natural processes. Chaptalisation, acidification, deacidification – the list of -ations that are part of the typical commercial producer’s routine goes on and on. As does the list of additives used in these processes. From the time the grapes are picked to the moment the bottles are corked, wine producers in the EU are allowed to use more than 200 (that’s not a typo) additives to make their wines ‘just so’. In other parts of the world the number is even higher.

The use of these additives makes a nonsense of the idealised notion of ‘terroir’. If you’re buying your wine from a supermarket, forget it: fancy labels, probably written in fine italics, with airy references to “enduring philosophies”, “faithful traditions” and “unique expressions”. It’s basically bullshit.

There is one place, though, where use of the term ‘terroir’ is not at all bullshitty (though the soil the vines grow in may be). That is in the world of natural wine.

What on earth is ‘natural wine’? Natural wine is wine made organically or biodynamically (more on this in a moment) with minimal intervention in the vineyard (no synthetic fertilisers or pesticides) and the cellar (only low levels of sulfites (max: 70mg/l)). The RAW Charter of Quality also insists that no yeasts be added, except in the case of the second fermentation of sparkling wines, when neutral yeasts can be used (in other words, wines must be fermented spontaneously by ambient ‘wild’ yeasts).

What about biodynamics? Biodynamics is a funny one. It emerged in 1924 as a general agricultural method. Worried that industrialisation had weakened their soils and enfeebled their crops, European farmers turned to social reformer, esotericist and all-round Enlightenment man Rudolf Steiner.

Influenced by the holism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, astrology and occultism, Steiner came up with a way of cultivating crops that did away with the synthetic chemicals and mechanisation of large-scale agriculture. Instead it was guided by the phases of the moon and the positions of other celestial objects, and used only natural aids – organic compost, biological green manures, herbal treatments – to grow crops.

Steiner’s aim was to produce a sustainable system of agriculture that would enhance the quality and flavour of whatever was grown – and make people feel healthier in body and mind. The methods are inarguably bizarre from an uninitiated’s point of view. Filling cow horns with manure and burying them for six months before dissolving the resulting fermented material in homeopathic solutions to spray on crops, ‘dynamising’ these solutions by stirring them in an infinity-symbol pattern – and that’s before we move on to spiritual interstellar beings that transmit generative forces to the earth or to super-sensory consciousness…

Scientific rationalists like me have trouble accepting such ideas. But whatever you think of them, they do overlap with a) a basic cosmological awareness and b) a sense of ecological virtue, which is concerned with promoting life, health and sustainability.

They also overlap with the making of some extraordinarily good wine. So much so that a Decanter magazine debate concluded that the wine trade should promote biodynamic methods. So much so that Tesco and Marks & Spencer now only hold wine tastings on auspicious days in the lunar calendar. So much so that they have created the biggest consumer buzz around wine in recent years.

So what does it all mean, really? Yes, some of this is sheer trendiness, the latest buzz for the Crunchy Granola Set, but then it just might be part of something more fundamental, something more elemental, something more… listen to me – it’s funny what drinking three glasses of artisanal wine under a full moon will do.

Photo: Thangaraj Kumaravel (acquired under CREATIVE COMMONS LICENCE).