The Last of Their Kind: Germany’s Treasury of Old Vine Riesling

Old vine riesling fruit before harvest in the Mosel.
Riesling fruit on the Rosenberg | Photo credit Christoph Raffelt

History books are surprisingly quiet when it comes to 1825. John Quincy Adams became president of the United States, though few know anything about him today. The same can be said of Nicolas I, tsar of Russia and last king of Poland. And while, yes, there were births of note, such as Johann Strauss the Younger, it was on the whole a rather quiet year. The planting of a parcel bearing the cadastral number 211, by a vintner of unknown identity, would surely have been lost to time — had it not been recently confirmed as the world’s oldest documented (and still extant) Riesling vineyard.

Everything old is new again

Old vines have become internationally en vogue. The first Old Vine Conference was held in 2021 and the event will take place again in October this year. In South Africa, Rosa Kruger and André Morgenthal established the Old Vine Project to rescue mature vineyards, and an “Old Vine Registry” has been set up as the first database for historical vineyards. 

This represents a sharp reversal of recent history. For decades, old vines were torn out in favor of new, higher-yielding clones, a practice driven in no small part by a desire for easier short-term monetization of those vineyards. 

Growers, however, are coming to realize that preserving old vineyards actually brings with it a passel of other benefits. For one, “old vines” have proven to be a potent marketing tool. They hold their own special cachet — not least because old vines often produce more fascinating wines.

But there is another, less immediately visible reason: old vineyards can offer refuge to varieties that have otherwise disappeared. Even more crucially, they represent precious repositories of old genetic material. This point cannot be understated. Standard cloned vines from commercial nurseries have, on the whole, delivered decreasing quality over time. These vines are often more susceptible to certain viruses. Old vineyards can expand a variety’s gene pool to include variations that are significantly more resistant to disease and other hazards.

Understanding the uniqueness of ungrafted vines

Well into the 19th century, one did not speak of “Riesling,” but rather “Rieslings.” Plantings were understood within the context of a larger grape family. Not unlike Silvaner, with its red, blue, green, and yellow variations, Riesling existed with red, white, and golden berries, berries of different sizes, and distinct taste profiles. Growers appreciated the genetic diversity, even as it was being widely eradicated by later techniques for cloning grapevines.

Old vineyards can offer refuge to varieties that have otherwise disappeared. Even more crucially, they represent precious repositories of old genetic material.

Christopher Loewen of Weingut Carl Loewen in the Mosel town of Leiwen believes ancient ungrafted vines are also more effective at absorbing nutrients from the soil. “They have a much greater network of fine roots, aren’t as explosive in their growth, the grape bunches are smaller and looser, and they don’t struggle with botrytis,” he says. In autumn, the grapes turn yellow sooner, gain in aromatics, and settle into the winter dormancy earlier. “You can’t get them out of balance,” he says. “The harmony between leaf growth and root growth is perfect. And when the vines need water, communication between the roots and trunk, the body of the fruit and the leaves is much better than in clones on American rootstock.”

Thomas Riedl: Old vine hunter

Thomas Riedl specializes in old vineyards, field blends, and ungrafted vines. He is not a wine expert in the normal sense; he’s neither ampelograph, nor winegrower, nor wine journalist. In fact, his day job is as head nurse of an acute psychiatric care unit in a Rhineland clinic. Nevertheless, his relentless investigation into historical grape varieties and vineyards has resulted in a 444-page compendium he calls Deutsche Weine aus seltenen historischen Rebsorten und ihre Erzeuger (German Wines from Rare Historical Varieties and their Producers).

In March 2024, Riedl shifted his research from the page to the glass in order to put together a tasting of wines from the world’s oldest Riesling vineyards — none planted more recently than 1900. Even as his search took him around the globe, suspecting that Australia might have forgotten historic sites, his most recent successes have been closer to home: one find in the Mittelrhein, four on the Saar, and 13 on the Mosel. 

Almost all of these Rieslings are wines from well-known producers. This includes the first wine in the tasting, a 2016 Van Volxem Riesling Sekt named “1900,” whose vines were largely planted at the turn of the last century in the fossil-rich slate soils in a cooler side valley of the Saar. The tasting ended with a 2018 Riesling Auslese Edelsüß from the Leutesdorfer Gartenlay. The parcels were planted in 1895*, and their 250 vines are the oldest anywhere in the winegrowing district of Mittelrhein. Weingut Selt, which produced the wine, is no longer operational. The parcels are now being tended by Sarah Hulten, a young producer who crowdfunded the launch of her estate in 2017/18*. For the sake of brevity, I’ll recap three wines that I felt were particularly outstanding.

Old stone terrace steps on the historic Rosenberg vineyard in the Mosel
Stairway to Riesling in the Pommerner Rosenberg. Photo credit: Weingut Schneiders-Moritz

2019 Pommerner Rosenberg, Riesling trocken, Schneiders-Moritz

With plantings dating back to 1860, these parcels may well be the second oldest in the world. They grow on the steep terraced sites along the longest contiguous southern slope on the Mosel, the Pommerner Rosenberg. They belong to Kilian Moritz and his mother Hildegard, proprietors of Weingut Schneiders-Moritz. Kilian Moritz was offered the chance to take over the parcels in 2014. At that point, it was unclear just how old the vines really were, “but even in my grandpa’s time that was considered an old vineyard,” he says. The vineyard’s actual age came into focus when Janine Reichert, a Mosel native, published her university degree project on old vine material, including several vines from the Rosenberg. Moritz produced the first vintage in 2015 after a great deal of effort to get the vineyard into shape. 

The heavily terraced parcels cover only 1,600 square meters. But the uppermost terrace had long lain fallow until Moritz recultivated it. Today Moritz’s problems are more practical: guarding the vines from the wild boars that enjoy eating the ripe berries from the terraces along the forest’s edge. “This means that in some years we’ve brought in 1,000 liters, and in others just 500.” The wine clocks in at a lean 12% abv. It was spontaneously fermented in stainless steel and matured with long lees contact in used French tonneaux. Quintessential Riesling aromas enhance an appealing concentration coolly balanced by a vibrant acidity. One can feel the long lees contact and latent minerality and tension. In the tasting, the wine was trumped only by the one that followed it.

One hand on an old basket press used for old vine Riesling at Weingut Loewen in the Mosel
Old basket press for the ‘1896’ Riesling at Weingut Loewen | Photo credit Oliver Semik

2021 Longuicher Maximin Herrenberg Riesling “1896,” Carl Loewen

As the name suggests, the vines that are the source for this wine were planted in 1896. They were ordered by Carl Schmitt-Wagner, who hailed from an affluent local family and had acquired the Maximin Herrenberg vineyard from the possessions of the former Saint Maximin Abbey, which had been secularized in 1802 by Napoleon.

As fate would have it, Carl Schmitt-Wagner’s distant descendant Bruno Schmitt-Wagner and grower Karl Josef Loewen shared an American importer and ended up together on a U.S. roadshow in 2007. Over the course of the tour, their discussion turned to the Maximin Herrenberg. Schmidt-Wagner hadn’t found a successor interested in running the estate based on his vision and was contemplating selling the vineyard. Loewen agreed to buy it from him. 

He and his son Christopher now feel this Riesling vineyard — 20 kilometers from their estate — represents the crown jewel in their treasury of old vineyards and justifies the distance and added logistics. “Every time I’m there,” says Christopher, “it somehow feels different. I have massive respect for that place.” It was, in fact, after tasting the first glass of Riesling from this vineyard that then 16-year-old Christopher decided to become a vintner. He could already taste the differences from all else that he knew. And these observations reflected at least in part the special nature of this parcel which had been placed in the highest category of classified sites in the Prussian site classifications of 1868.

For Christopher, it’s clear what made the vineyard so special, even back then: “This parcel marks where the vineyard shifts from dark red to blue slate.” And this has an impact on the structure and taste of the wine. Today, the age of the vines and their special genetics make the wine even more complex. 

The Loewens produce two wines, almost identically named, from the old vine parcel. The first is a Großes Gewächs with a white label. The second is a black label, which has not been classified as a GG. The white label reflects the sensibilities of Karl Josef Loewen, while the black label — the favorite of the evening, coincidentally — was produced by Christopher Loewen. The latter allowed the must to begin fermenting in the vineyard, gave the wine time for an extended maceration, and used an old basket press. The wine is grippy and electric on the palate, extremely balanced and shows tremendous concentration. Indeed, this style of vinification delivers a greater density, intensity, and tension.

recultivated Riesling vineyard Vorm Berg in the Middlerhein winegrowing district
Vorm Berg in springtime. Photo credit Weingut Jochen Clemens

2019 Piesporter Treppchen, Vorm Berg, Spätlese feinherb, Jochen Clemens

It’s less taste profile than history that makes the “Vorm Berg” Riesling so remarkable. The wine was spontaneously fermented and vinified for an extended period on the fine lees. It offers tremendously opulent fruit, slightly slowed by the impression of botrytis. Vintner Jochen Clemens of the eponymous winery was on hand at the March tasting to recount its fascinating history.

Back in the 1990s, Clemens befriended Piesport winegrower Theo Haart. On one of their evenings together, Haart kept fetching bottles from the late 1960s and 1970s out of his cellar; of the bottles, those from one parcel in particular kept showing a notable freshness. It was the “Vorm Berg” parcel, which, in the ‘90s, had been abandoned because its yields were too low, which during those dark years of German viticulture simply wasn’t viable. Clemens couldn’t shake thoughts of that parcel. But it took decades to convince its owner to sell it to him. 

Even before then, he had already asked a cousin who worked at a government geological and surveying office to investigate the age of the vines. A cadastral entry under number 211 indicated that the vineyard had been registered during the Napoleonic era. But when were the vines planted? Clemens’s cousin discovered that the parcel was listed on a map from 1812 as still unplanted. A map from 1829, however, showed the vineyard as already under cultivation. So the first planting had to be in that period. But were the vines really that old?

In 2017, after Clemens had successfully liberated the vines from overgrowth, he received a second call from his cousin. After reviewing all relevant documents in the state archive in Koblenz, the cousin could now confirm that the parcels had never been replanted. It was indeed home to the oldest documented Rieslings in the world, as well as a few other varieties, primarily Elbling, as was the custom at the time. The 2019 bottling marks the second vintage from this vineyard, which is now home to 120 vines and whose peculiarities Clemens is still working out, bit by bit.

The time and expense involved in tending these vineyards is unlikely to make anyone rich.  These tiny parcels return notably small yields. But growing respect for old vines from both producers and consumers alike highlights the role of these wines, and others like them, as representatives of an especially respectful manner of viticulture. At Weingut Carl Loewen, “1896” represents the culmination of decades of purchasing old parcels.

“My father started in the 1980s, expanding from two hectares to 18,” said Loewen. “After he owned one vineyard where very old vines were standing next to the best young clones available at that time, it became clear that the old vines produced less fruit, less volume, lower must weights, and more acidity… but also an entirely different character of depth and complexity, such that he immediately focused on acquiring old parcels. The youngest vines are now 70 years old, with some over a century old as well as the 1896ers, of course.”

The importance of these vineyards for viticulture as a whole can be seen in the nursery operated by Mosel winegrower Nik Weis in Leiwen, which likely counts among the most important treasury of Riesling genetics in the world. Weis and his vineyard manager Hermann Jostock have built an unofficial “Noah’s Ark of Mosel Riesling,” drawing on the diverse genetic materials of ancient Mosel vines — a collection that is now highly sought after by top Riesling vintners.

More wines from German vineyards planted in 1900 or earlier

 2020 Saarburger Laurentiusberg, Riesling trockenPlanted in 1880, the world’s third-oldest Riesling parcelWeingut Dr. Wagner, Saarburg, Saar
2021 Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Uralte Reben, Grosses GewächsPlanted 1890-1950, in the finest section of the SonnenuhrWeingut Max Ferd. Richter, Mülheim, Mosel
2018 Saarburg Alte Reben, Riesling trockenPlanted in 1890Weingut Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken, Saarburg, Saar
2021 “Rothlay,” Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, Riesling Spätlese trockenPlanted in 1895Weingut Gessinger, Zeltingen-Rachtig, Mosel
2021 “Auf Hifflay,” Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, Riesling Großes GewächsWeingut Gessinger, Zeltingen-Rachtig, Mosel
2011 Alte Reben 1889, Riesling Spätlese trockenFrom Burger Wendelstück
Weingut Frank Brohl, Pünderich, Mosel
2005 Edition 1896, Riesling AusleseFrom parcels in Burger Wendelstück and Reiler FalkenlayWeinhaus Alexander Barzen, Reil, Mosel
2021 Longuicher Maximiner Herrenberg, Alte Reben, Riesling SpätlesePlanted in 1898Weingut Zentius, Longuich, Mosel
2020 Fährfels, Riesling feinherbPlanted in 1900Weingut Clüsserath-Weiler, Trittenheim, Mosel
2018 Wiltinger Schlangengraben, Alte Reben, RieslingFrom 1893, the family was only leasing the vineyard, there are no longer single-site wines made from this parcelWeinhof Herrenberg, Schoden, Saar
2011 “1900,” Alfer Hölle, Riesling SpätleseWeingut Ulli Stein, Bullay, Mosel
2021 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen, Riesling Auslese lieblichPlanted in 1895Ferienweingut Scholtes-Welter, Klüsserath, Mosel

*Ed. Note (4 June 2024): One would think that old vineyards of this kind would, in the very month one writes an article about them, maintain a bit of ownership stability. Not this time. In late March, when we tasted Weingut Selt’s 2018 Riesling Auslese Edelsüß from the Leutesdorfer Gartenlay, the parcel was leased by Sarah Hulten. In early April, however, it was taken over by Kay Thiel and Katrin Sensenschmidt of Kay Weine, whose organically certified Mittelrhein estate include heritage varieties such as Elbling and Gelber Malinger. One surprise awaited them when they began working the parcels and their 250 vines: the date of planting was not 1895, but rather 1892. The owner, at a ripe 86 years of age, knew the answer without a moment’s hesitation.

Translated from German by

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