Mosel - The myth. The legend. The reality.
The Mosel, Germany’s oldest winegrowing region, knows how to beguile. The Rheingau swathes itself in the trappings of nobility, Baden boasts of its sunshine, the Mittelrhein beckons with Romanticism. The Mosel, however, reaches straight for myth.
There are many recaps of the growing region readily available, so let’s focus on something else instead: what makes the Mosel unique — now, then, and, likely, in the future.
Not for nothing is the biggest annual wine fair along the Mosel River entitled “Mythos Mosel.” The name, and the event itself, attest to the enduring power the Mosel holds in the imagination of the wine-drinking public.
Yet the myths of the Mosel — an endless array of light and refreshing white wines, from quaint villages and stony vineyards named for sundials or doctors or drops of gold — have shaped more than just the region’s own public image. Given the difficulties that dry Rieslings have had in gaining a global foothold, the classically sweet wines of the Mosel have a gravitas that places them at the center of the de facto international understanding of what German wine as a whole ought to be.
With so many takes — hot, cold, and otherwise — on the Mosel, perhaps it’s instead time to play Mythbusters. Not in a ‘Gotcha!’ sense, but rather to open our eyes and to engage with the actual living heritage. Let us celebrate the Mosel and its enduring benchmarks, not least as a vehicle for appreciating the ways in which the region’s winegrowing and making is most definitely changing with the times.
Myth 1: When we talk about the Mosel, we’re talking about the Mosel
The label on the bottle may say “Mosel,” but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, as recently as 2007, those same bottles would have been labeled as “Mosel - Saar - Ruwer.”
The reasons for this change lie somewhere between marketing and geography. The Mosel River rises in France as the Moselle, meeting Luxembourg and Germany at Schengen and Perl respectively. The first stretch until the outskirts of Trier serves as the border between Germany and Luxembourg (with winemaking on both sides of the river). From there it continues exclusively on German soil to Koblenz, where it joins the Rhine.
Let's open our eyes and engage with the actual living heritage of Mosel today.
The German portion of the Mosel meanders a twisting 250 kilometers, split into four sub-regions. Working east to west from Koblenz, the first section is technically known as “Burg Cochem,” but in the popular vernacular is now simply called Terrassenmosel. Winemaking is a fringe affair here, a tooth-and-nail struggle to engage, but never tame, the ultra-steep slopes using an agricultural technique (terracing) as old as history itself. To prove the point, the Bremmer Calmont — Germany’s entrant in the wine world’s favorite parlor game of “who’s got the steepest vineyard” — is located here.
Next comes the Mittelmosel (Middle Mosel) district, officially known as “Bereich Bernkastel.” This is the heart of the mythic Mosel, the stuff of calendars and postcards, half-timbered houses along picturesque bows in the river, and some of the most famous winegrowing terroir anywhere. Towns like Bernkastel, Enkirch, and Piesport and vineyards such as the Apotheke, Sonnenuhr, and Goldtröpfchen resonate the world over.
The first part of the Südliche Mosel (Southern Mosel) begins after Trier with the Obermosel (Upper Mosel). This region remains somewhat terra incognita for the wider wine world, although climate change and the region’s broader and flatter terrain means you might well be hearing (and drinking) more from this region in the years to come. As the river flows into the neighboring federal state of Saarland, the second part of the Südliche Mosel (Bereich Moseltor) begins. It is geographically part of the Gutland, a primarily Luxembourgish region known for its mild climate and fossil limestone soils. Viticulturally its vineyards are all part of one single, large-scale district (Großlage), not typically an augur of quality winemaking.
That’s it for the Mosel River. But the Mosel winegrowing region actually has six sub-regions. The remaining two? The Saar and the Ruwer, a pair of tributaries easy to overlook on the map, but not in their winegrowing importance. Although the Saar River runs all the way to France, wine is grown solely in the Rheinland-Pfalz portion, on a stretch extending a mere 20 or so kilometers between Serrig and its confluence with the Mosel at Konz. Known for steep slopes of dark Devonian slate and a bit of volcanic diabase, this valley actually tends to be slightly cooler than the Mosel, allowing for longer ripening periods — and clean, crisp wines of enticing minerality, characteristic citrus notes, and remarkable aging potential.
The Ruwer is the smallest of the sub-districts, covering a humble 197 hectares as it flows from the village of Sommerau into the Mosel at Trier. Devonian slate dominates, and the vineyards tend to be higher set than on its parent river. Its steep slopes require laborious hand labor, but reward that attention to detail with long ripening periods and fine, delicate wines of subtle fruit aromas.
Both of these subregions ring out with names like Egon Müller and Karthäuserhof — some of the oldest and grandest estates in all of Europe. So don’t let the simplified branding fool you: when we talk about the Mosel, we’re often talking about tiny little towns that loom large on the world stage.
Myth 2: The Mosel is Riesling, Riesling is the Mosel
Given the predominance of Riesling on the Mosel — 5,422 of 8,689 hectares in 2020, according to the Deutsches Weininstitut — it may feel like Riesling is, always was, and always will be what the Mosel does.
History tells us otherwise.
The region has seen a revolving door of rulers for thousands of years. The Celts were displaced some two millennia ago by the wine-loving Romans, whose empire eventually gave way to the rise of the Church. Ecclesiastic hands toiled in the valley’s prime south-facing vineyards until the turbulent years and decades of French occupation under Napoleon and then neglect by Prussian rulers in Berlin.
Change came in the late 19th century, as steep-slope German Rieslings in a light, refreshing style came to be compared favorably against heavier Rhine wines, thus earning their spots on wine lists and monarchs’ tables around the world, at prices often far exceeding those of bottles from Bordeaux or Burgundy.
The 20th century then showed, in devastating fashion, that myths are easier conjured than maintained. Geopolitical turmoil — say, a world war or two — a dram of scandal — oh the joys of ‘inverted sugar syrup’ and ‘glycol’ — and the desperate postwar attempt to achieve stability and profitability by planting more vineyards (from 7,500 hectares in the 1950s to 12,300 in the early 1990s) soon left a fine winegrowing legacy in tatters.
Note one thing about the (admittedly oversimplified) history above: Riesling wasn’t a major player until the mid-1800’s, rising in stature as the 20th century dawned. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Mosel became connected to the wider world in this age, especially through rail connections and steam ships, allowing the reputation of the Mosel as Riesling nirvana to be incubated in the wider world. This connectivity served as the medium for the sway of myth — Riesling and Mosel, lovers as long as wine has been grown here — to take hold.
In reality, Riesling was only grown in volume on the Mosel after the 1787 decision by the last Trier prince-elector, Archbishop Clemens Wenzeslaus von Sachsen, to clear the region’s vineyards of lesser quality vinestock and to replant with better ones, especially Riesling. Even if his order was not uniformly enforced — and it was evidently not — the point remains that Riesling was nowhere near as prevalent historically on the Mosel as it is now.
So what was? Some of the answers are lost to history, others, like Müller-Thurgau, now the region’s second-most prevalent grape, are historically quite new.
Not so the number three variety, Elbling. Recent DNA testing of this ancient grape appears to place it as indigenous to Germany (and related to Riesling). At some more distant points in German history, it was one of, if not the, most cultivated varieties in Germany. Today almost all Elbling plantings in Germany are found in the Upper Mosel (the aforementioned terra incognita), if only due to historical circumstances. (That region was at the time under Luxembourg’s control and not subject to the archbishop’s edict.)
Spätburgunder is proving
surprisingly well adapted to the region’s slatey peculiarities.
But Elbling is no historical relic. It is the predominant variety in the Obermosel, at roughly 60% of plantings, and is enjoying a renaissance in a straightforward dry style, especially as sparkling wine. There is some sentiment that, should Riesling begin to struggle with climate change, Elbling — a proven performer in all types of growing conditions — could re-establish itself along the Mosel. A different kind of Millennial, one might say.
Nor does Riesling only need to watch its back solely over white varieties; the rise of companions, if not competitors, to Riesling is not limited to the white varieties. After being banned by the Nazis as overly French — we wish we were kidding — Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) and other reds returned to the Mosel in the 1980s. Forty years later, Spätburgunder is proving surprisingly well adapted to the region’s slatey peculiarities. Its share of plantings remains small (4.6%), but the excellent results from winemakers like Markus Molitor and Daniel Twardowski hint that quality reds are destined to become more than just a novelty here.
Don’t expect Riesling to disappear anytime soon. But also don’t get too caught up in the idea that it is and always will be queen here. Even in the heritage-bound Mosel, where tradition is measured in centuries, a change is (eventually) gonna come.
Myth 3: The Mosel’s style is a settled matter
Light and refreshing Rieslings remain an irreplaceable hallmark, but this myth is perhaps the most pernicious of the bunch. The present Riesling profile has been in place for well over a century. As Anne Krebiehl MW notes in her excellent book The Wines of Germany, barrels and bottles from the Mosel won hearts and palates precisely because they, unlike riper, richer wines from the Rhine, could be drunk young.
Yet if you review the first four winegrower profiles in the Benchmarks section below, you might note the precise inverse of this last point. Those four producers — very different in approach and history — are nevertheless all noted for the cellarability of the wines. The decades that can be expected from their bottles are a far cry from the Mosel’s reputation a century ago as best-drunk-young.
So what is the constant of the Mosel style? The easy answer appears also to be the right one: soil.
To wit: the Mosel style has been continually defined and redefined since the first cultivated vines were brought north through the Alps by the Romans. Winegrowers here have always responded to the exigencies of the era, whether natural like the Little Ice Age or manmade like an archbishop’s edict, and continued to adapt.
This process is far from finished. As Dr. Katharina Prüm of Weingut J.J. Prüm has noted, today’s warmer temperatures mean the fruit is now riper when picked, promoting Kabinett, Spätlese, and Auslese of greater concentration and complexity than in the past. One can expect alcohol levels and weights to shift as well.
Compare this flexibility with the current situation in Bordeaux, where producers are facing tremendous pressure, financial and otherwise, to keep delivering familiar wine styles at the familiar quality despite the searing effects of climate change. It is a situation that, at least to outward observers, appears unsustainable.
So what is the constant of the Mosel style? The easy answer appears also to be the right one: soil. Here the myth actually comes close to the truth — the showcase portions of the Mosel and its tributaries truly are a Suessian roster of slate: red slate, blue slate, gray slate, weathered slate, at times mixed with wildcards like greywacke, shell limestone, and diabase. But slate all the same, in configurations seen nowhere else.
This is the canvas upon which the Mosel’s winegrowers have always performed their artistry, the constant in an otherwise dynamic system. Cold growing conditions once lent themselves to field blends and southern exposures; global warming has seen a shift to higher elevations and cooler side valleys. Heavy wines elsewhere brought welcome attention to the Mosel’s fresh, lower-alcohol styles; a brave nucleus of pioneering organic producers and even biodynamic techniques work well in its cool(-ish) climate.
For several centuries now, wines filtered through the kaleidoscope of Mosel slate based on the then-prevailing conditions have come up bright and nimble. As a reliably cool climate and plentiful rain transition into something different, that style is likely to change yet again. Maybe not all at once, but probably in line with Hemingway’s famous dictum: gradually, then suddenly.
To illustrate this point, we chose a roster of avant garde and benchmark producers who are proving classics continue to evolve and myths are made to be reborn.
A selection of RECOMMENDED PRODUCERS
The Prüm name is omnipresent on the Mosel. Many regional estates (and businesses outside wine) bear the name — two in the VDP alone. J.J. Prüm’s holdings are a Mosel trophy case, with vineyards in the Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich, Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, Bernkasteler Badstube, and Bernkasteler Lay. Currently in the talented hands of Dr. Katharina Prüm, the fourth generation of the family, the estate harnesses its one-of-a-kind terroir into a sublime catalog of genius wines at all Prädikat levels. These bottles are routinely gone from the market in a flash, re-surfacing from cellars to wide smiles for many, many years to come. VDP Member.
Few estates better display the nuances of the Saar’s cooler microclimate than that of Christian Ebert, owner and winemaker at Schloss Saarstein. His chateau — unlike most German estates, the term fits here! — sits atop the steep Serriger Schloss Saarsteiner, a monopole covering 11 hectares composed primarily of gray slate. “Nervy, fine Rieslings,” writes Anne Krebiehl MW, “[Ebert] relishes playing off Saar acidity with varying levels of residual sweetness… and the sugar seems to disappear.” VDP Member.
Weingut Wwe. Dr. H. Thanisch Erben Thanisch*
The quintessential Mosel mix. Established nearly 400 years ago, now in the twelfth generation of family ownership, founding member of the VDP, with ungrafted rootstock holdings throughout Bernkastel, especially on the world-famous Berncasteler Doctor. Women-led for five generations — that “Wwe.” stands for Witwe (widow), referring to Katharina Thanisch, who took the reins when her husband, Dr. Hugo Thanisch, died young in 1895. Sofia Thanisch currently helms the estate, and the wines remain pure, light, and fresh as ever, with a cellar life that might well be measured in centuries, not decades. VDP Member.
The Ruwer is the smallest of the trio of waterways in this region, but Weingut Maximin Grünhaus is part of the reason this tiny tributary stands in no one’s shadow. The estate traces its origins to 633, when Frankish king Dagobert I gifted ownership of the Grüneberg to St. Maximin Monastery in Trier. It would remain in Church hands until 1802, followed by a few years of Napoleonic French administration and then private ownership. The von Schubert family has held the reins since 1882, in recent decades under the firm guidance of Carl-Ferdinand von Schubert, and now under that of his son Maximin. Its 34 hectares of red and blue weathered slate are the source of coveted, age-worthy Rieslings. VDP Member.
It seems fitting that Reinhard Löwenstein, a luminary on the German wine scene and a modern pioneer of dry Mosel wines, has postulated that the stones of the hills around his Winningen estate have voices all their own. After all, his wines evince a style perhaps best described as acid jazz. It is now his daughter Sarah’s turn to carry on the tradition of drawing the best from the estate’s tricky, terraced vineyards and make the estate’s bottles sing. Reinhard was the driving force behind the awarding of a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) for three Mosel terrace single vineyards: the Uhlen Blaufüsser Lay, Laubach, und Roth Lay. This distinction was the first of its kind in Germany as it is also linked to production criteria. VDP Member.
Rita and Rudolf Trossen are pioneers of biodynamics in the Mosel, having started in 1978. They remain among the most influential in encouraging a once-unthinkable movement toward Mosel wines that are hands off in the vineyard and cellar. More than half of the estate’s wine is now bottled without filtration and sulfur. Sommeliers from around the world flock to the estate to learn from these oracular figures and their mystical Rieslings and Pinot Noirs. And what four decades ago looked like madness is now firmly leading the way for a cadre of open-minded winemakers.
Not every hero wears a cape. Or owns her own cellar. Jasmin Swan, an ex-somm from Düsseldorf, took up winemaking in her late 20s. She made her first vintage in 2019, in the cellar of Jan Klein’s Staffelter Hof in Kröv, using bought-in grapes from the Mosel and beyond. Her playful exploration of the possible, her dedication to organics, her openness to the new — such as fungus-resistant PiWi varieties — has brought fresh energy and imagination to the region
If there is an upside to the 20th century’s overcultivation and inevitable abandonment of vineyards along the Mosel, it is that it provides a proving ground for treasure hunters like Jakob Tennstedt. The intense, soft-spoken Berliner laboriously reclaimed a few small parcels of mostly ungrafted vines in the Trarbach side valley, and began farming them not only biodynamically, but regeneratively. The wines — all Riesling — are named for the native animals of his vineyards, with no two vintages ever quite alike, by intention. This, to Tennstedt, is essential in discarding the established wisdom of Mosel wine and unveiling the truth of the stone below.
Sometimes fate smiles, bringing together celestial bodies whose orbits wouldn’t normally cross. So it was with Philip Lardot and Ulli Stein. The former is a native of Finland (via Amsterdam) who fell hard for the steep slopes of the Mosel. The latter is one of the most respected vintners in the region, a perpetual champion of 2,000 years of Mosel tradition, who also owns and works a small collection of steep-slope vineyards. The two not only hit it off, Lardot was eventually tapped to learn at Stein’s side and will take over his estate shortly. In the meanwhile, Lardot has the freedom to produce his own vintages, which he does spontaneously, and without blocking malolactic fermentation. in the glass, his wines reflect the Mosel as he sees it: deep and contemplative, more dream than lightning strike — dare we say: mythic?
*Exported by P.J. Valckenberg, which provided support for this education feature.