Journey to the Center of the Mosel: a Nordic Perspective

Riesling grapes on the vine at harvest in the Mosel
Photo credit: Håvard Flatland

Talking about Mosel wine is one thing, living it is something else. There is only so much that can be learned from books and bottles. In the summer of 2019, I decided that it was time I learned first-hand. Literally. To be a part of the process which, looking out my kitchen window on steep, glacier-forged Norwegian fjords, felt dauntingly far away from the feinherb banks of the gentle Mosel.  

German wine, and especially Riesling, has a stronghold in the Norwegian market. Kjell Cordsen, who established the Riesling-focused Record Vinimport Norwegian import company, says the Riesling tide shifted around the turn of the millennium. Restaurants began embracing a lighter style of cuisine focused on fewer but higher-quality local raw ingredients. That made a case for fresh, aromatic wines. Dry German Riesling became the go-to. In Vinmonopolet, Norway’s state owned retail chain, no other country comes close to selling as much white wine as Germany with 26.2 percent. Of this, Riesling rules.

Fjords and Farming: Where Mosel meets Sognefjorden

I adore wines from Burgundy and Champagne, and know winemakers in Douro and Alsace. But something about the steep hillsides of the Mosel Valley mirrors my own fjord landscape in western Norway. Farming in my area is small scale. I wanted to work with someone who does most of that work themselves. The 4.3 hectares of Riesling vineyards farmed by Alexandra Künstler and Konstantin Weiser in Traben-Trarbach perfectly fit the bill.

The cultural landscape in and around the small mid-Mosel city of Traben-Trarbach is a haven for tourists from around the world. Its history as a wine trading center can be seen in extravagant Art Nouveau villas and in the spacious cellars, lined with casks of coveted Riesling, hidden beneath the intricate architecture.

Something about the steep hillsides of the Mosel Valley mirrors my own fjord landscape in Norway.

But what is it like to grow grapes in these hallowed hills? On my first visit twenty years ago, I had gazed in wonder at the majestic green-covered slopes. Now I had plans to walk them, multiple times daily, bearing the weight of these grapes and their potential on my back. Would I manage the long days and monotonous work?

I tried to channel my shepherding experience in my home mountains. My father comes from a sheep farm in a rural valley and for the last seven years I had joined the team of relatives that gather the sheep from the high summer pasture. The sheep can graze as high as 1400 m.a.s.l. and shepherding them takes three full days. Even though the vineyards in Traben and Enkirch are steep, at least the grapes stay mostly still.

The Birds and the Boars

My first assignment is to join Weiser in setting up electric fences around his parcels. The wild boar is a great fan of ripe grapes and our job was to keep them from having a feast. Weiser mows the grass so we can build the fence close to the ground. Anything less and the young boars will crawl under. I pound down the fence posts and we add the wires. One of my tasks is to return the following days to check the battery and see if the boars have succeeded in knocking down the fence.

Even though the vineyards in Traben and Enkirch are steep, at least the grapes stay mostly still.

But the wild boar are not the only ones with a taste for Riesling. The birds must also be kept at bay. With harvest less than a week away, we set up a perimeter of nets around some parcels. “Even though we are organic, we can’t give all the grapes back to nature,” says Weiser with a smile. We are now high up in Enkircher Ellergrub, where the forest has grown tall around the vines. When the trees are close to the grapevines, they offer both shelter and an easy perch for birds to snack on ripening Riesling clusters.

Some vineyards are difficult to cover with netting, so we use a loudspeaker to emit falcon cries. The sounds punctuate the stillness in random intervals, as otherwise the birds will not be fooled by the machine.

Nothing Like Harvest

Growers throughout the valley organize their harvest teams in different ways. Some have a large family with cousins, kids, and parents ready to answer when the call goes out. Others rely on the local unemployed or a seasonal workforce, mostly from eastern Europe. The Weiser-Künstlers prefer more consistency. They employ two men from Romania throughout the year for pruning, summer vineyard work, and again at harvest. They also welcome woofers, people who work on organic farms in exchange for room and board. That year we totaled eight volunteers. 

Riesling grapes on the vine and in a ray bucket below overlooking the Mosel River a
Photo credit: Håvard Flatland

But before harvesting can start, the maturity of the grapes must be thoroughly checked. Our three-man team drives downstream to Enkirch to source the sample fruit. We drop a few grapes from each vineyard into a plastic bag to bring back to the winery. The grapes are picked from clusters in each section of the parcel, from small and large, from the top and bottom of the vine, from both sides of the row and from top, midway, and bottom of the slope.

When we return, the grapes are crushed and Weiser measures the sugar with a refractometer. The grapes from Zeppwingert destined for Sekt are showing 85 Oechsle. Weiser is happy. But declining acidity levels convince him that it’s soon time to start the harvest. 

The Rhythm of Riesling

Day One

We are given the green light. Not all of the harvest team has arrived, but at the communal breakfast table we are told to start. We head to Enkircher Steffensberg. The weather forecast calls for warm and humid weather; botrytis is coming. This prized fungus will concentrate sugar and acid in the grapes, as well as add a slightly spicy flavor, honeyed and complex, dirty but in a good way. But Weiser wants healthy fruit for his dry wines. 

He picks bunches of various sizes and shapes to show the new harvest crew what to collect and what to discard. A summer heat wave meant that many berries were sunburned. Some were also infected with black rot. These hard, dessicated berries bring bitterness to the wine and must be sorted from the healthy grapes. We begin. 

The western part of Steffensberg is our first parcel. The gentle slope allows us to focus on the quality of the fruit rather than keeping our balance. Young vines and rich soils mean the grape clusters here are big. The vines are trellised in rows about 1.5 meters apart. After a while I find my rhythm, although my hands grow sticky from the grape sugar. I cut away excess foliage. I snip the clusters, drop them in a bin, move a couple of meters, and repeat.

Once the bin is full I shout for an empty, and one is handed over or along the row. When we reach the bottom, we trek back up and start anew. The full boxes are hauled up to the road with the tractor. We barely complete the parcel by four in the afternoon. 

A monorail in the Mosel vineyards carrying empty harvest bins
Photo credit: Håvard Flatland

Back at the winery, we unload the grapes into the press. When all the grapes are in, the pressing cycle starts. The winery has two presses and this one has an automatic program that takes about three hours. I ready the boxes for the next day with a thorough cleaning. Any grape residue (a.k.a. sugar) will quickly oxidize or start to ferment and leave undesirable aromas. I spray them with a hose and pile them upside down to dry.

To Watch the Glories of the Grapes

Day Two

We move to Enkircher Zeppwingert to pick grapes for the Sekt. Here the vines are trained on single poles and the slope is steep. I must position the box behind the pole to prevent it from sliding down the hill. With very little topsoil or grass, the exposed slate is slippery. Grey skies do nothing to dampen the team’s high spirits. 

Day Three

The morning starts cold. Fog down by the river threatens to bring more botrytis. We pick the lower section of Enkircher Ellergrub, the winery’s largest holding and a historically important vineyard. We see botrytis as we move up the slope and refine our selection to single berries for an Auslese. Here the vines are old, around 80 to 100 years, and the clusters are small and loose. My shoes have too little support and I struggle to find a good grip in the slippery slate and the steep slopes. 

The next days turn warm and sunny and the team finds a good rhythm in both the vineyards and the cellar. But as we reach the Traben-Trarbach vineyards on the southern side of the river, the rain returns. We are forced to pack up and drive back to the estate. For the next three days, our harvest is restricted to only a few sporadic hours when the rains stop. 

I like to compare the taste of the freshly pressed Riesling juice against the taste of the fresh grapes. This year the grapes that go into the press are warm. The fermentation is fast and strong. After two weeks, the cellar is an avid orchestra of “blub and blob” from the yeast locks on the tanks and fuders. A taste of the partly fermented wine from the Kabinett grapes in Ellergrub is promising! Sweet, raw, but with puckering acidity that lifts the profile.

The Sweetest Hour

Fast forward to Day 23…

A Tuesday in late October, and the final day of harvest. We traverse the upper terrasses of Enkircher Ellergrub. The week before the leaves had begun turning yellow, transforming the slopes into an undulating golden sea. The grapes seemed to absorb the color, now more yellow than green. This is Spätlese material. The aromas are richer; the taste is sweeter. 

A secateur in a bucket of selected Riesling grapes in the Mosel
Photo credit: Håvard Flatland

In the days to come, the few remaining workers will trek back into the vineyards to reclaim the metal clamps that tie up the single stake vines. Vineyards that had been abuzz with energy, purpose, and fruit are now still. That energy is now sleeping in the cellar, gathering purpose for the next phase where it will transform from juice to wine. For more than three weeks I have been outside with a secateur in hand and a plastic box by my feet.

Just one pair of hands among many.

I can’t help but wonder at how little the label on the wine bottle reveals about the complexity of this annual ritual. The intense efforts needed to navigate into the steep, impassable vineyards. There are no roads and just getting the crew out and the grapes home takes time. The weather wildcard makes it difficult to predict how much will be done in one day. And yet, we did it! And I was part of it all. The respect for the people who live and work this life of toil and sweat has increased, and my understanding of Mosel Riesling too.

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