Mosel Meanderings

Day 1: Myself, a South African and a brand new BMW 112d (thanks Europcar!!) headed out of Wetzlar, Germany on a sunny Friday afternoon and headed east for the Mosel with a 600km limit on the rental car and a weekend to kill in the home of Riesling.

First sight of the precipitous Mosel Vineyards was just past Koblenz on the river road, where the Moseltalbrücke loomed over the valley walls – impressive in a practical, imposing way (but a hint at what may become of the upper Mosel if the new Hochmoselbrücke goes ahead). 

A little while later we were in Cochem, a charming town and a perfect place to spend the evening, especially as the storm clouds were gathering. After checking into the guesthouse, Pension Gundert (well worth a stay at just under €40 a night) we walked into town as the heaven’s opened, ducking into Weinstube Restaurant Beim Weinbauer where an evening meal and a glass or three of Riesling seemed like a good idea!
The 2010 Göbel-Schleyer Riesling-Hochgewächs Trocken (Mosel QbA, 11.5%) proved a pleasing accompaniment to my plate of Garnelen und Pasta (Shrimp tagliatelle in a rich cream sauce): The wine had a creamy, lemon sherbert nose, a little spritz on the tongue and a clean, fresh taste. Although there was a touch of sweetness in the mid-palate light it was drier than first suggested, very pleasant indeed for €9.50.

The rain in the evening meant we couldn’t enjoy the guesthouse rooftop terrace (a selection of local wines can be bought at the Pension) so a relatively early night ensued. The next morning the sun was out so a short walk in town allowed a little sightseeing before getting into the car and heading further upstream.

Day 2: We left Cochem on a clear Saturday morning with the BMWs SatNav programmed for Bernkastel-Keus, our evening destination. We then promptly ignored all of its directions as we kept to the old river road following every twist and curve of the Mosel upstream. After a sedate drive with excellent scenery it was around lunchtime that we entered the village of Ürzig, famous for its Ürziger Würzgarten vineyard with its rich red-slate soil (as opposed to the majority of the Mosel which has grey-slate). It’s this “Roten Schiefer” that gives Riesling from this area an exotic spice and tropical fruit complexity.

The village is as traditional as you can get – old-style houses on the gradual slope up from the river bank – but it is the vineyards behind the houses that take the breath away. Steep slopes angle upwards in an amphitheatre curving round to the north and east, becoming the most precipitous at the river bend (just before and opposite the village of Erden on the other side) where the red slate is at its most obvious.

Keep turning clockwise and you’re eventually facing southeast where you can see the plateau just behing Rachtig, site of the proposed Hochmoselbrücke. It’s hard to believe how big a change to the landscape this massive engineering project will bring, but for a taster go to the Pro-Mosel Action Group web-site to see mock images of what this pristine area will become when the bridge works finally go ahead.

As we wandered about the small back streets and alleyways we saw a tractor high up in one of the vineyards behind the village and noticed a man on some sort of mechanical pruning machine being lowered down, and then pulled back up, one row at a time, giving some idea of the effort needed to tend vines on such gradients (as for harvest time, I can only guess at the back-breaking work involved!).

At the southern end of the village we chanced upon an oddity in this sea of traditionalism, a brand new winery building with angular, freshly painted concrete walls and a tasting room entrance of glass and steel. This belonged to Weingut Rebenhof (literally Vineyard) although, in keeping with the modern lines of the new building, it was pronouncing itself a “Riesling Manufaktur“. As I like contrast and challenging conventional wisdom it seemed the perfect place to have my first tasting at a Mosel winery and, nearly an hour later after trying a dozen wines poured by winemaker Johannes Schmitz himself, we finally left and made our way to a restaurant for lunch.
There will be more on the Rebenhof tasting soon, but suffice to say Schmitz makes some damn fine Riesling!

After a hearty lunch (Bierwurst & Mash was my choice) we finally left this charming village and continued on the road for Bernkastel-Keus, only a few kilometers down the road.

Day 2-3: Following on from our mid-day stop over in Ürzig it was only a few kilometers down the road to Bernkastel-Keus, where we had planned on spending the night. Arriving in town about 3pm it was clear that this was a tourist trap; the roads were significantly busier and there were people on the streets (Ürzig was a ghost town in comparison). Unsure of the local geography I ended up over the bridge at a riverside carpark in Keus on the western side of the river (the left bank) where there was a superb view of Bernkastel’s most prized vineyard – the Bernkasteler Doctor.

The local legend has it that in 1360, while staying at Bernkastel’s Landshut Castle, Kurfürst (Prince Elector of the Holy Roman Empire) Bohemond II, Archbishop of Trier, was close to death with a fever and all attempts to heal him had failed. A small barrel of the local wine was provided from which the Kurfürst drank deeply, making a full recovery after a few days. The vineyard which produced the wine was proclaimed the best Doctor in the region and the title was maintained ever since (although the 1971 German Wine Laws diluted its reputation by adding on adjacent vineyards in a short-sighted rationalisation of some of the Mosel’s greatest names).

Before any sightseeing could be done a bed for the night had to be found, as nothing had been booked in advance. It was surprisingly difficult to get something (plenty of guesthouses, no single rooms free!) until, after nearly 2 hours of searching I stopped at the Leo Schwab Weingut und Gästehaus on Saarallee which had a room for €50 (actually one of the first places passed, but overlooked as it was thought likely to be expensive for being on the main road). On reflection if I had stopped asking only for “eins zimmer” earlier there were probably plenty of “dopple zimmers” for a similarly low price that would have done the job!
I’d only just got my bags from the car when the heaven’s opened and a torrential downpour killed the chances of any sightseeing for the rest of the afternoon.

Once the rain had stopped it was early evening and time for a stroll across the bridge into the old town of Bernkastel. Looking downriver I could just make out another famous vineyard, the Graacher Himmelreich, on the right while upstream was the ruined Landshut Castle, destroyed by fire in 1692.

At the entrance to one of the alleyways into the old town was a map of the Mosel and its famous wine towns – Bernkastel-Keus is one of the number 12s, while number 15, Ürzig, is obscured by a vine leaf.

The old town has to be one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen – a picture postcard step back in time (think of the Vulgarian village from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!) with open-faced wooden beam houses painted in various colours with pristine whitewashed plaster.

After wandering for a good hour I then found what has to be one of the most picturesque wine shops ever, Weinhaus Adam Lauer. Also intriguing were the bottles of Rebenhof wine they had in the window for exaclty the same price I paid at the winery in Ürzig earlier that day. Sadly the shop was closed (or maybe luckily, otherwise who knows what I would have bought!).

Somewhat perversely dinner was at the only Indian restaurant in Bernkastel (the Taj Mahal – good food, just make sure you ask for the “extra hot” version of any meal on the menu, even then it’ll still be milder than you were expecting) although, to keep in theme, a bottle of Riesling (Markus Molitor 2007 Bernkasteler Badstube Feinherb Kabinett) was ordered. To be fair, and with hindsight, a bottle of Cobra beer would have been a better choice! That brought the evening to a close and it was back to Gästehaus Schwab for a relatively early night.

So ends my Mosel diary, as the next day was a leisurely Sunday drive back heading east to the Rhine, then hugging the left bank back to Koblenz before retracing the route to Wetzlar. The BMW had covered just under 500km and I had my first glimpse of a wine region that I must return to again in the future, as I know I barely scratched the surface.

Prost!

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