Too Many Good Choices: The Under-appreciated Wines of the Mosel

Every little town in Europe seems to have a steeple rising out of its center.  European cities compound this, with seemingly every neighborhood having its own church or cathedral, each grander than the next.  Some of these churches have achieved international fame and are swamped by visitors taking photos and marvelling at the stained glass or architectural features.  Other churches, sometimes equally magnificent, stand in relative obscurity.

All of these churches represent the collective labor of thousands of people over hundreds of years.  They also reflect a specific time and culture, each attempting to create a space that inspires awe and encourages contemplation.  Modern visitors are rarely privy to the contextual side of these grand churches, but find it very easy to appreciate the size and beauty.  It seems odd that each neighborhood would need its own church, or even cathedral, but it is the act of creating their own unique expression of faith that motivated this continuous labor.  Exploring the less famous churches and cathedrals can reveal much about the lives, hopes and fears of the people who built them, if you can find a guide willing to point you in the right direction.

Wine from Europe is similarly the product of a time, people and culture.  The modern marketplace has chosen to elevate certain regions -- Bordeaux and Burgundy -- to dizzying heights while relegating others to lower shelves or back corners of the store.  However, those regions with long winemaking traditions continue as they always have, regardless of the price their wines fetch.  One such region, which deserves much more attention, is the Mosel in Germany.  

German wines can be very difficult to sell outside of German-speaking countries.  The labels are confusing, the vineyards names are difficult to pronounce and often very long, and there are few well-known brands to rely upon.  Further complicating matters, they are mostly white, delicate, and sometimes sweet, in a market dominated by powerful red wines.  But German wines, and those of the Mosel in particular, are worth seeking out.  

Vines were brought to the Mosel river valley by the Romans sometime in the late BC era.  The valley itself is extraordinarily steep and almost entirely slate, but these steep slopes allow the grapes the greatest sun exposure possible, as well as catching the light’s reflection off the waters of the river.  This enables grapes to ripen in a climate that would ordinarily be too cold.  

The winemaking of the Mosel was advanced with the arrival of the Cistercians, who had developed winemaking in Burgundy and were the first to pay attention to the terroir of individual vineyard sites.  However, where in Burgundy, the best sites bore names such as Le Montrachet and La Tâche, Mosel’s famous sites include the likes of Ürziger Würzgarten and Piesporter Goldtröpfchen.  It is easy to see why few consider German to be a language of romance.

But difficult pronunciation is no reason to eschew wine that is legitimately great!  So, let’s make it a bit easier:

  • First, quality Mosel wine has only one grape, Riesling.  Like Merlot -- and for similar reasons -- Riesling can sometimes have an undeservedly low-brow reputation, but in fact, it is a complex, refreshing wine that pairs well with a wide variety of foods.

  • Second, Mosel wines range from dry -- meaning no sweetness -- to diabetic-coma-inducing, with every level in between.  The Germans have a cumbersome system for informing consumers of the sweetness, which include classifications such as:
    • Kabinett

    • Spätlese

    • Auslese

    • Beernauselese

    • and Trockenbeernauslese

Very helpful, I know.  An approximate rule of thumb is to look at the alcohol.  If it is 10.5% or below, there is a good chance that it is at least slightly sweet.  If it is above 12.5%, it is likely to be made in a dry style.  

  • Finally, seek out wines with this symbol of the VDP, an Eagle with a bunch of grapes inside of it.  The VDP, which controls the use of this symbol, is a voluntary organization, and most quality-minded producers are members.

Like the grand churches of lesser renown, getting acquainted with the wines of the Mosel is a pleasure.  You can walk right in, take your time wandering around and actually begin to feel that sense of appreciation, contemplation and history that are the result of passionate labor.

If you’re looking for a producer in particular, Dr Loosen is an excellent one.  They have been leaders in simplifying wine labels and educating consumers about Mosel Rieslings the world over.  Look for the Red Slate and Blue Slate wines.  They are both dry Mosel Rieslings under $20 and are a great way to experience classic terroir without a huge investment.