I sentence anyone with romantic notions of wine production to a harvest in the Mosel.
There’s no doubt the last three weeks, spent occasionally in the cellar here at Weingut Kerpen but mostly on the slopes of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich and, most distressingly, Graacher Domprobst vineyards, have been the most physically demanding of the year. Two days after the completion of the harvest, each morning is a process of unfreezing various joints and muscles that, I am tempted to think, have been permanently damaged. I’m grateful, however, the various cuts on my hands and arms inflicted by rogue secateurs and blackberry bushes have, for the most part, stopped bleeding.
You’ve probably seen the photos: vines rise scenically above cute German villages that look to have strayed in from a fairy tale. I’ve not seen any witches on my visit so far, but there’s certainly a moral to the Mosel story: this is no sane place to grow wine. One has to walk the vineyards to adequately appreciate how steep they can be, and how difficult it is to simply make one’s way from top to bottom without the added complication of trying to pick fruit.
And yet, vines have graced the south-facing slopes here for two thousand years, as ancient a tradition as any New World winemaker might wish for, proving at the very least that crazy vignerons aren’t a new invention. This is an extravagantly old-fashioned wine region, from its viticultural methods (still predominantly close planted vines, one plant per post, cane pruned in the shape of a heart) to the magnificent wineries that grace the banks of the Mosel in Wehlen, Bernkastel and Graach. The wines are old-fashioned too, gloriously so in my opinion, with few concessions to fashion or varietal diversity. Sure, there’s some Spätburgunder planted here and there, along with a smattering of Müller-Thurgau, but the point of the Mosel is Riesling in its spectacular diversity of expressions.
Wine here is an interesting counterpoint to that from Burgundy. The Burgundian model of wine has had a far-reaching influence in terms of shaping how many other regions, especially in the New World, conceive the winemaking enterprise. The primacy of terroir, the exaltation of single vineyards, the ostensible erasement of the winemaker; one site, one expression, minimal “intervention.” German Riesling is different. For a start, vineyards like Wehlener Sonnenuhr are vast and contain many sites of differing grades. Although generally regarded as having some defining characters, these mega-vineyards are simply a starting point for a winemaker-driven range of expressions: dry, half-dry or sweet, ripeness levels like Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and so on. These aren’t pseudo-natural, “just leave it and bottle the results” wines, they are a complex matrix of styles enabled by the vineyard and mediated by the winemaker, often requiring simple but highly interventionist winemaking (most notably, stopping fermentations part-way through).
How refreshing: a wine culture that acknowledges both the importance of the vineyard and of winemaking.
It’s this integrated view of winegrowing that prompted Martin Kerpen to send me out to the vineyards to pick. In a series of fascinating conversations, we have discussed the relationship between vineyard and cellar, and how some wine cultures separate the two more than others. His view is unequivocal: winemaking is inseparable from viticulture. Although my formal training presented me with two quite separate disciplines, and my experiences this year have been firmly cellar-based, the wisdom of Martin’s view has slowly dawned on me as I’ve moved between vineyard and cellar, first picking then processing fruit. I find, now, when I taste each batch in the cellar, I know how the fruit looked in situ, what the vineyard was doing as we harvested, the trellising used, the crop load, variability within the site, and so on. It’s a view I’ve not had of any parcel of fruit until now, and it’s fascinating.
Of course, I’ve tasted widely and often since arriving here. I was already a big fan of German Riesling, hence my desire to work in the Mosel, and my appreciation for the wines has grown substantially over the past few weeks. They are, at their best, sublime, spectacular wines. What has shocked me most, I think, is how well, and how slowly, the wines age. They develop a set of flavours quite different from South Australian Riesling, shunning overt toast and honey in favour of a slow transformation that shaves the wines of their highly floral aromas and further emphasises fruit richness and minerality. Minerality is a key term when approaching these wines, and as a descriptor is often used by local vignerons to indicate a separate element from either fruit or structure; a third component of wine, if you like. I don’t think there’s anything magical about the mineral flavours in these wines, but they are most certainly there and are a key balancing element.
If there is anything magical about Mosel Rieslings, it’s in their balance. For example, wines with over one hundred grams of residual sugar taste only off-dry and finish cleanly, yet with the most powerful, luscious fruit on the mid-palate. This is a trick I’m repeatedly astonished by, and I’m keen to learn the magic from Martin. I’ve been conscientiously tasting ferments as they take their course, and we will soon begin arresting ferments. Martin does this mostly by taste, and I’ll be tasting alongside him, training my palate to recognise the right moment.
It’s truly nuts here: the vineyards are insanely steep (and even more insanely beautiful), the complicated system of quality classifications surely invented by a committee of lunatics. Most of all, though, the wines are wildly, crazily, fittingly beautiful.