1 Feb 2012

Take me to the river (Mosel Valley, Germany - Day One)

Whilst I admit that it was wonderful starting the European leg of my trip in the familiarity of Champagne, there was something quite exhilarating about arriving into a totally new region. I spent the past week staying with a friend in the German town of Neuss trying to organise my visa and a car, and then caught up with some friends I met in the States in Cologne over the weekend. On Sunday afternoon I drove down in very cold conditions towards my base for the next five nights, the town of Traben-Trarbach, situated in the middle of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. The town straddles the Mosel River; Traben on the North side and Trarbach on the South. Just as I was entering the valley above the Mosel River, it began to snow very lightly, which made it that much more beautiful. It was already dusk so it was a little too dark, but amazing nonetheless.

The next morning I drove up/down river to Winningen, where the Mosel and Rhein Rivers meet, for my first appointment in Germany. Through Cellarhand, the experts in German wine, I had arranged several appointments in the Valley for the week, and Heyman-Lowenstein was one of them. Established in 1980 by Cornelia Heymann and Reinhold Lowenstein, they relocated to Winningen in 1983. When you consider some wineries in the region date back to the 16th Century this is pretty young. The philosophy is very much in the Burgundy terroir style, with several specific sites being identified as having distinct identities and influences on the riesling grape. As a member of the VDP (Verband Deutscher Qualitäts- und Prädikatsweingüter, don't make me say it), Heymann-Lowenstein are committed not only to site, but also quality and tradition. Thus they vinify their wines very simply with cold soaks and gentle fermentations, often in fuder barrels (roughly 1,000L). The cellars under the winery were built with the house in the 1880s and create a perfect environment for fermentation and storage.

In tasting the wines, I realised I was somewhat out of my depth, having little experience with German rieslings. Naturally they are very crisp and delicate, and the minerality of the slate based soils make them very austere. The Heymann-Lowenstein rieslings are all very floral in their aromatics, but the different sites influence the level and type of floral elements you might detect. The fruit elements also range from very intense grapefruit and lime to candied peach and nectarine. There is an interesting textural element to the wines which probably comes from the juice having a small amount of skin contact. These all combine to create several layers to the wine. There is more depth to the classified wines, and also more complexity. The 2010 wines which we mostly looked at were very high in acid and also residual sugar, a product of the vintage. The balance between the two means that neither really stands out, although after a week of wines from 2010 and my teeth will probably be paying the price. No brushing teeth I guess.

After a brief schnitzel for lunch (not much open this time of year on a Monday), I drove back along the Mosel River towards my second appointment. Words cannot describe how amazing the valley is. I could never have imagined how steep the vineyards are, and many are precariously perched on man-made terraces, finding the smallest patch of soil to plant even a few vines. You can clearly see the slate jutting out of cliffs, a sharp reminder of how important the soil type is here, and the minerality of these wines. Harvesting fruit on these slopes is definitely not for the feint of heart, as in some places you would need a harness and mountain boots to stay up.

My second appointment of the day was in the village of Punderich, in the heart of the Mosel region. Clemens Busch established his winery with his wife Rita in 1983, and have been using organic principles since 1986. Back in these days their neighbours laughed at the additional expenses and work required to grow organically, but having seen the difference in vine health (and also the marketing potential of organic wines), many in the Mosel are now converting. The most common non-organic practice in the vineyards is the spraying of herbicides, which Clemens Busch feels doesn't promote a natural biodiversity and discourages native flora and fauna which help protect the vines. The vineyards are now undergoing the transition to biodynamic viticulture, as according to his son Johannes, Clemens is a very spiritual person and believes in the principles laid out by Rudolf Steiner.

The 11 hectares of vineyards are located in the Marienburg, which contains three distinct types of slate. The blue and grey slates are found throughout the Mosel Valley, but it is the red slates that are rarer. Some of the vineyards are classified by the VDP as erste lage (grand cru), and the grosses gewachs wines although dry are at least of spatlese quality. The winery is using very traditional methods to produce the wines, such as cold-soaking and fermentation in large 1,000L fuder, practices which seem very much in vogue at the moment. This of course adds to the structure and texture of the wine, but as the fruit is harvested quite ripe, when fermenting to dry levels the alcohol is a bit higher, between 13-13.5%.

Much like the 2010 wines at Heymann-Lowenstein, the 2010 Clemensbusch wines were exceptionally high in acid and were very crisp and fresh. We compared the Marienburg Grosses Gewachs 2010 with the 2008, and whilst the 2008 had lovely peach blossom and apricot fruit notes, the 2010 had more zingy lime and green papaya characters. Moving up through the single block wines, the Rothenffad 2010 had creamy soda and root beer spritz, with good minerality underlying. The wine was certainly more complex and had great depth to it. The Marienburg Spatlese 2010 was a very delicate semi-sweet style, both cuddly and fresh. There was nice ripe citrus stone fruit characters, and viscosity and texture. These were certainly wines of personality and character, and not what you expect when you may think of the very pure, clean, crisp and austere rieslings of the Mosel. As I was tasting it started snowing, and didn't stop until the next day.

Click below to see more photos from Day One of the Mosel Valley, Germany.

Mosel Valley, Germany - Day One

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