Book Review: “Mosel Wine”

Close up of Moselwein book with green cover on a wooden table
Photo credit Valerie Kathawala

We like to think of Mosel wine as eternally glorious. The river valley’s nearly 2,000-year vinous history, its relics of Roman civilization and tributes to Celtic wine gods, its very viticulture carved with seeming permanence into stony banks all suggest an unbroken line. But an excellent new book, edited by Lars Carlberg, with able assistance from David Schildknecht, Kevin Goldberg, and Per Linder, underscores the extent to which the Mosel’s glory has been far more ebb than flow. Such awareness only makes the late 19th-century golden age that is the book’s focus more luminous. 

The book nests together several components. At its core is a facsimile of wine merchant and author Karl Heinrich Koch’s 51-page Moselwein (in this review Moselwein refers to the 1897 original, Mosel Wine to Carlberg’s 2022 edition) and an admirably nimble, trustworthy translation by Carlberg and his team, which they have also richly and rewardingly annotated. Surrounding this are several essays that frame Koch and his book in both contemporary and current context.

Goldberg contributes a brilliant examination of the shifting fortunes of Mosel wine over the course of its “long” 19th century, placing these developments within a broader framework of “state and society.” Carlberg republishes an illuminating study he made of the elements of viticulture, vinification, and popular taste that propelled Mosel wine from maligned to Modewein (“fashionable wine”). 

Also included are biographies of Koch and the book’s illustrator, Anton Lewy, a guide to select vineyards and a brief glossary of vineyard terms, suggested readings, and a few helpful maps, including the 1890 edition of Franz Josef Clotten’s famed viticultural tax map. Sorely missing are an index and gazetteer with which to navigate this trove and a more extensive glossary. While the book contains a wealth of terms and places sure to delight linguists and German wine freaks, unfortunately the editors offer no shortcuts to find and define terms from the common Fuder to the obscure Gähre. Nevertheless, for students and lovers of the Mosel, Mosel Wines is an absorbing delight and indispensable addition to the library.

Much of the book’s success lies with the ace team that put it together, spearheaded by Carlberg. An American long resident in the historic Mosel city of Trier, he brings decades of experience in the trade — first in retail and imports, later as a writer and publisher of an authoritative website on Mosel wines, more recently a two-year state winegrowing apprenticeship, and now as an employee and broker of the wines of acclaimed Saar estate Hofgut Falkenstein

Like Carlberg, American David Schildknecht is a self-taught scholar of German wines and a preeminent journalist and critic writing in English on the subject (also a frequent contributor to this magazine). Kevin Goldberg, PhD, also of the U.S., is a wine historian, author, and translator, well known for his work on the Wine Atlas of Germany (2014). Per Linder, a Swede living in Luxembourg, is a trained translator and amateur historian who conducted much of the archival research for this book.

In 2010, while digging around in a local archive, Carlberg happened upon two battered copies of Koch’s self-described Buchlein (“little book”), Moselwein, published in 1897, and took on the project of bringing it to wider attention. It is unknown how many copies were originally published or still exist. Just last summer, Carlberg discovered another copy that included a title-page note in the author’s hand. It is this copy that is reproduced in Mosel Wine. The facsimile’s mottled amber pages, Fraktur font, scrawled notations, moody landscape and architectural drawings, and grainy photographic reproductions give readers the thrilling sense of holding a rare artifact in their own hands.

The facsimile’s ambered pages, Fraktur font, scrawled notations, and moody drawings give readers the thrilling sense of holding a rare artifact.

Moselwein celebrates some of the Saar villages and vineyards worked by Carlberg’s employer, Hofgut Falkenstein. This small estate, led by Erich Weber and his son Johannes, has shot to cult status among Mosel wine drinkers and collectors for its range of old-school, mostly dry-tasting Rieslings. But knowing this subtracts nothing from the book’s value. In fact, Carlberg’s combination of practical and theoretical knowledge make him a particularly well-qualified guide to the region’s past and present.

A not-so-hidden agenda of Mosel Wine is to ground the identity of Mosel Riesling in a tradition of wines that, as Carlberg writes, “were—much to our surprise—light, zappy and dry.” Key word: “dry.” Those outside Mosel circles may be unaware of how much ink has been spilled in the battle over whether the true nature of Mosel Riesling is sweet or dry. Koch weighs in, noting that Mosel Riesling of his era isn’t, finally, sweetish, nor sweet.” Happily, it is entirely possible to absorb and enjoy this book without getting mired in the politics attending this divide.

Koch’s charming original is equal parts potted history, pocket wine guide, and travel brochure.

Koch’s charming original is equal parts potted history, pocket wine guide, and travel brochure. It opens evocatively as Koch takes readers back to the Mosel of the 1860s, then a neglected hinterland. The “unshakable axiom” of the time, Koch writes, was “Rhine wine is sweet, Mosel wine is sour.” The opulent wines — and, yes, throughout the book by “wines” he means Riesling — of the Rheingau had commanded the pinnacle of Germanic wine culture for more than a century.

Koch’s interest, however, is in the next several decades, when, he explains, a confluence of political, social, technological, and commercial developments, combined with a late-century string of exceptionally good vintages and a shift in consumer tastes, turned the world’s attention to fresh, zippy Mosel Rieslings. 

Schildknecht contributes a forward that imagines Koch transported to today’s Mosel, and records his putative impressions. This device gives readers a clear sense of just how much of 1890s Mosel is still recognizable in the Mosel of today, while snapping major changes into focus. This may not be noteworthy in other parts of the world, but knowing what we do about the intervening catastrophic events of the 20th-century in Germany, the sense of continuity is striking.

“The time-traveler might be surprised — indeed, many of today’s friends of Mosel wine are — to learn how frequently top vineyards still belong to direct descendants of those who purchased them in the course of Napoleonic secularization,” Schildknecht writes. “This means that a roster of today’s landholding elite would strike Koch as familiar.” On the other hand, Schildknecht believes Koch would have wondered at “the widespread appearance on labels of family names other than those of huge landowners or nobility” and the rise of “the small scale grower with middle-class means not just as vinifier and bottler but sometimes as qualitative standard-bearer for a village or even an entire region.” 

In his pocket history, Koch explains the three main factors that put Mosel wines on the map. Most important was access to the Mosel itself. The unification of Germany in 1871 ushered in a rush of infrastructural development. Eight years later, the advent of rail access to the region meant travelers and traders could more easily get to Mosel wines — and Mosel wines to them. The flourishing trade and commerce that ensued spread these wines far beyond Germany’s borders.

This development was accentuated by the rising prominence of the Trier wine auctions, where, by the mid-1890s, casks of Mosel Riesling were fetching record prices. Koch marvels that two casks of Herrenberg from the Ruwer estate Maximin Grünhaus brought in “the highest prices ever paid for any Mosel wine” in 1896. These feats captured the attention and desire of a globalizing wine market. 

Mosel, Saar, and Ruwer auction prices. Photo credit Valerie Kathawala

Tastewise, a shift was underway in Germany that mirrors that of our own time. Just as today’s discerning drinkers have turned from extracted, high-alcohol wines toward slender, acid-driven ones, fin-de-siecle German wine lovers had begun to embrace Rieslings of refreshment and animation, a style in which the Mosel excelled. Tellingly, Koch renders Mosel Riesling’s “missing traits” as virtues: “Mosel wine is not heavy, big, and full; it isn’t leaden, lush, fat, and schmaltzy”; what it is, he writes, is “light and fleeting, delicately sparkling, gossamer, floral, spicy, and piquant, elegant and gulpable.”

He quotes a trusted cooper, Stefan Horberth (referenced in old-school scrawl across the book’s cover), who gave Mosel Riesling what Koch (and, clearly, Carlberg) regarded as the ultimate compliment: “er zappelt.” Carlberg et al seize on this term, explaining both its multifaceted connotations of joyful, nervous energy and the specific wine-growing and -making conditions that account for it. 

Curiously, Koch pays no attention to what happens inside cellars. His focus is on vineyards and landscapes. As he wends his way from the Saar to the Ruwer, Piesport to Ürzig, Enkirch to Cochem, he recounts local lore and contributes a bit of his own mythologizing. “One gazes with astonishment at the narrow vine rows, which the vintner has with tireless diligence, unshakable perseverance, and unspeakable effort wrested, one meager piece at a time, from often barely accessible cliffs,” he writes breathlessly.

Throughout, he takes pains to valorize the human scale of Mosel viticulture — particularly in contrast with the grand estates of the Rheingau. “Nowhere else in Germany is wine growing so much in the hands of the common man as on the Mosel, and nowhere is the parcelization of vineyards so extreme,” he observes. 

“Nowhere else in Germany is wine growing so much in the hands of the common man as on the Mosel,” Koch observes. 

Moselwein ends with the reprinted score of “An Ode to Mosel Wine,” featuring the  refrain, “The wine is German, the wine is good, it is true Mosel vine blood.” Although the notation indicates the song is to be played with “freshness and humor,” it is hard,  knowing what we do about the ensuing century in Germany, to read these lines without registering a stir of unease. Mosel Riesling would enjoy soaring prestige and prices at auction and on wine lists until the cataclysm of the First World War. After that, it would take until our own century for Mosel wines to regain close to the same acclaim.

Karl Heinz Koch,, title page inscription. Photo credit Valerie Kathawala

Moselwein is a primary source gem. Mosel Wine puts in the modern reader’s hands a work that is relatable and contextual, combining a contemporary’s buoyant insight with meticulous archival work and clear explanatory essays and reference materials. Deeply researched annotations will delight Mosel freaks. They are unmissable for anyone seeking a pinpoint understanding of late 19th-century practices, detailed histories of ownership of select parcels, and insights into lesser-known sites that may bear watching as future objects of revival. But those who prefer to stay within the cheerful flow of Koch’s lyrical narrative will not be amiss. The book’s great achievement is to reframe our view of the Mosel — then and now. 

Mosel Wine is available in ebook and paperback for 19 euros anywhere books are sold worldwide. Published by Dolman Scott Ltd, 2022.

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