The first in a three-part series on German wines.
WHEN I MENTIONED to friends I was traveling to the Mosel region of Germany, invariably they asked one of two questions: “Where else are you going?” and “Why?”
American wine drinkers don’t visit German wine regions the same way they do those in Italy or France. And yet the Mosel is one of the oldest, most beautiful wine regions in the world, home to small, charming villages with half-timbered houses and spectacular Riesling vineyards.
Some of the vineyards are so steep they’re practically vertical. “You learn to dig in your heels,” said
owner of Selbach Oster winery, as we stood at the edge of the vertiginous Zeltinger Sonnenuhr vineyard, above the town of Zeltingen. Mr. Selbach lives there, in a generations-old waterfront house that’s regularly inundated when the Mosel river floods.
Mr. Selbach produces some of the region’s greatest Rieslings, and his family is one of several who have been growing grapes in the Mosel for hundreds of years. Unlike Tuscany or Bordeaux or, increasingly, Burgundy, the Mosel is almost entirely populated by small, family-owned wineries, operated by the producers themselves.
Foreign investors are virtually nonexistent here, but should one decide to buy a vineyard I’d recommend the place where I spent some time recently, the Middle Mosel or “Mittelmosel.” Most visitors there, I was told, are English, Belgian, German or Dutch. Ernst Loosen of Dr. Loosen estate believes part of what keeps Americans away are German wine labels, crowded with too much information. “People say, I like your wines but don’t explain them to me, it’s too complicated,” said the high-energy, fast-talking Mr. Loosen, waving his hands.
The region’s wines are also too often (mis)perceived as sweet. Though Mosel wines are actually made in styles ranging from exceedingly sweet to bone dry, perhaps the greatest expression of the Mosel can be found in its Kabinett Rieslings, according to Mr. Selbach. These are the lightest, freshest and most delicate—fruity with a beautiful balancing acidity. They’re also refreshingly low in alcohol (often around 8%). “You can drink a bottle by yourself,” he said.
‘One of the oldest, most beautiful wine regions in the world, it’s home to charming villages and spectacular vineyards.’
When I visited, Mr. Selbach received me on the ground floor of his house. (He recently opened a tasting room about a mile downstream from their house that is open during business hours, no appointment necessary; Gänsfelder Str. 20, 54492 Zeltingen-Rachtig). Visitors who make their way to the Dr. Loosen estate find an imposing, four-story, slate house just outside Bernkastel-Kues, the Mosel’s most famous (and touristy) town. Because Mr. Loosen makes wine in other parts of Germany as well as in Washington state, in conjunction with Chateau Ste. Michelle, his winery is better known and more visited than most.
I met Mr. Loosen on the second floor of his house for a tasting of sweet wines as well as the dry ones he introduced into the portfolio in 2008. The latter account for 30% of production today. As we began to taste, he pointed out the window to an impressive structure across the river in Wehlen, the home of an equally famous producer, Joh. Jos. Prüm—my next stop.
Mr. Loosen is related to the Prüm family on his mother’s side. “Say hello to Katharina,” he said.
recently took over management of the 12th-century estate from her father, Dr. Manfred Prüm. He made the Prüm estate one of the most highly regarded Mosel names, known for the purity and ageability of its wines. Its Kabinett Rieslings are famously long-lived.
The Loosens and the Prüms make wine from some of the most famous Mosel Riesling vineyards, including Wehlener Sonnenuhr, which faces the town of Wehlen and features a large 19th-century sundial. It’s one of several “sundial” vineyards—”Sonnenuhr” means “sundial”—on the sunny side of the Mosel. Exposure matters in this cool, rainy region where hail isn’t uncommon and ripening is a perpetual challenge.
Multiple producers own small plots in these vaunted vineyards, with their individual holdings identified by their names or simply their winery colors painted on the tops of stakes among the vines. (Mr. Selbach noted that some wine lovers have made off with the name-marked poles as souvenirs.) Unlike Burgundy’s grand-cru plots, these great Mosel vineyards are remarkably accessible. It’s possible to move from one town to the next simply by walking through vineyards, as both tourists and residents often do.
Some Mosel vineyards, such as the famed Bernkasteler Doctor, are nearly 100 years old, while others are quite new. There has been a good deal of planting in the region of late, particularly of non-Riesling grapes. The day after my visit, Mr. Selbach was planting Pinot Noir, which has become more common in the Mosel recently thanks to a warming trend. “Nothing has changed in the Mosel,” he said. But then he allowed, “The climate has gotten better.”
The weather was certainly warm the week of my late-April visit, which happened to coincide with spargelzeit (asparagus season). This season is short—April-June—so every restaurant around had at least one and often two or three asparagus dishes on the menu. When I arrived at the Zeltinger Hof Gasthaus des Rieslings, the modest but charming hotel where I stayed, I found the proprietor,
laboring over a large pile of asparagus, shaving the thick stalks down to a more manageable size. (I found him repeating the task at breakfast time the following morning and again later that day.)
Mr. Reis is not only the owner of the hotel and operator of a
microbus advertising his wine tours; he is also de facto wine director of his hotel’s restaurant. A fan of Mosel Riesling, he’s accumulated quite a few bottles in the cellars of the buildings he’s purchased and renovated over the years.
His wine list includes a remarkably deep selection of old Mosel Rieslings, some dating back more than 100 years, and up to 150 wines by the glass at any given time. Up to now, the only Americans who have stayed at his hotel have been in the wine business, but Mr. Reis is optimistic that will change. “The market for Mosel wine isn’t big,” he said, “but I think it’s coming.”
RIESLING RECONNAISSANCE // Where to Sip, Stay and Dine in The Mosel
Joh. Jos. Prüm
In the village of Wehlen, this estate, run by the elegant Katharina Prüm, is among the region’s most famous. At this and the other wineries listed here, an appointment for visits is necessary. Uferallee 19, 54470 Bernkastel-Kues, 49-6531-3091
Weingut Dr. Loosen
The Loosen estate webpage notes that Ernst Loosen travels frequently and may not be able to meet you, but the welcome will still be warm at this stately slate home. St. Johannishof, 54470 Bernkastel-Kues, drloosen.com
Weingut Selbach Oster
Few winemakers are more charming or welcoming than Johannes Selbach. In addition to great Rieslings, he might share a taste of the wild boar he hunts in his vineyards. Uferallee 23, 54492 Zeltingen-Rachtig, selbach-oster.de
Zeltinger Hof Gasthaus des
Rieslings This three-star hotel has a range of rooms (ask for the Spätburgunder), one of the best wine lists in Germany and a proprietor passionate about wine. Kurfürstenstraße 76, 54492 Zeltingen-Rachtig, zeltinger-hof.de
In a lovely hotel on the site of a 17th-century winery, this charming bistro offers regional fare and a well-priced wine list big on Mosel Riesling. Weinromantikhotel Richtershof, Hauptstraße 81-83, 54486 Mülheim, weinromantikhotel.com
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