Veronica Leonard is a Canadian travel writer specializing in wine tourism who blogs at http://thewinetourist.wordpress.com .Follow her on Twitter as @travelprose. Her previous article for Wine Tourist Magazine was published in August 2015 Colours to Fall For, Nova Scotia’s Fall Wine Festival
I’m a wine tourist, not a connoisseur. I love hearing the back stories of the wineries, meeting the vintners and the winemakers, learning about the growing conditions, the choice of grapes, the processes of wine making, the terroir and the challenges. I love unique underdog vines, experimental and specialty wines. However, my photographer and designated driver husband is not always as enthusiastic.
For us, the ultimate wine touring experience has been by river cruising. Over the course of several days, we can explore the region, its history, culture, and wines. The cruise offers more than the experience of tasting, it is a wine cultural immersion and he doesn’t have to drive.
Cruising the Mosel Valley and the Rhine Gorge has been on my bucket list for years because of its historic villages, castles, vistas and wines. The relaxation of five star accommodations, dining, entertainment and the tranquil beauty of leisurely travel all add to this golden experience even when it is chilly or overcast.
We chose Avalon Waterways for our recent cruise from Trier, Germany to Amsterdam because we had thoroughly enjoyed a Danube cruise with them in 2014, but there are many excellent cruise lines to choose on that route often catering to specific nationalities and interests. We passed ships from AmaWaterways, A-Rosa, CroisiEurope, Emerald, Excellence, Grand Circle, Scenic, Tauck, UniWorld, and Viking, often sharing a berth at the end of the day because of a lack of docking space.
Our journey and Germany's wine industry began in Trier
The trip and the wine all started in Trier, believed to be Germany’s oldest city. Legend has it that Trier was first settled by Trebeta, an Assyrian prince, 2000 years BC. It was inhabited by the Celts when it was conquered by the Romans in 15 BC. The early Romans planted the first Elbling grapes and they thrived on the steep slate hillsides. By 320 AD, Trier was an Imperial city and commercial centre with a population of close to 100,000 and wine was among its exports. Trier remains the major city of the Mosel to this day.
Trier’s Roman roots and ruins are everywhere: the baths, the amphitheatre, the Protestant Konstantin Basilica formerly the Imperial throne room and the massive Porta Nigra city gate through which the barrels of wine and other produce would have passed.
By today’s standards, Elbling is not a fine wine, but it’s a dry gutsy white that goes well with cheese, breads and sausage. In a moment of whimsy, I lifted my glass saluting an imaginary Roman centurion across the town square relaxing after a long march.
As we slowly cruised the winding valley of Mosel stopping in at its historic towns, we discovered that grapes were integral to the growth of the Mosel region. Their image is everywhere: in the town crests, noble coats of arms, paintings and statuary. The half timbering of many old buildings is rounded and edged with stylized buds to denote productive vines.
The landscape tells the social history of the region. The steep hillsides are a patchwork of small vineyards, divided and subdivided over centuries bequeathed to the sons of sons. From the fertile riverside lands, the vineyards climbed higher and higher over the centuries, up seemingly impossibly steep slopes where only the strong roots of grape vines could bore their way deep into the rocky soil and thrive. Growers will tell you that the vines grown in these precarious places often produce the finest wines.
For centuries, the land was owned by the church or the nobility and leased to the peasant families who paid their tithes and taxes with their best wines. Taxes could also be paid in chestnut flour and walnut oil as both species of trees line the river.
Bernkastel is home to the Doktor Wines, among the most expensive wines in the world. The wines from this area are predominantly Riesling which were developed in the 15th century. Its earlier antecedents which include Weißer Heunisch and Traminer were the wine of 14th century legend. We learned that Bohemund II, Archbishop of Trier, became very ill while staying at Landshut castle, his summer residence, above Bernkastel. None of the conventional treatments helped. In desperation, his servant brought up a cask of the finest local wine from the cellar and said it was the best medicine he had to offer. After several days of drinking nothing else, the bishop made a miraculous recovery. In thanks, he gave the grower of the vines, title to his 3.5 acre vineyard and called the wine Bernkastel Doktor and declared it the only true medicine.
The Doktor vineyard faces south south-west overlooking a bend in the Mosel River. It is high on slopes of the mountains with a steep 45–68º gradient and dark weathered blue slate soil. The current vines are up to 80 years old and prized for their spatlese and auslese late harvest wines which can be aged for up to 100 years. Their Eiswein, which is very rare and aged, is valued in hundreds of euros for a 250 ml bottle.
The medicinal qualities of the Doktor wine led to a general belief that a bottle of wine a day is good for your health. In fact, monks in the Middle ages were encouraged to drink three bottles a day! Bear in mind, the alcohol content was less than today and the wine was probably safer than the water.
Doktor wines are far out of my price range but the entire Bernkastel Lay wine region is celebrated for its wines. Part of our cruise included a visit to VinoThek a wine museum with a self-serve tasting cellar. With over 100 dry to sweet (troken to auslese) wines in a range of quality to choose from, the options were overwhelming. Fortunately, our cruise director, Tibor Saho, provided a list of his favorites and the visit became something of a scavenger hunt through the cellar tunnels.
Knowing my interest in Mosel wines, the ship’s hotel manager presented me with a bottle of R Prüm troken riesling. The S.A. Prüm winery in Wehlan near Bernkastel dates all the way back to 1156 and Raimund Prüm is an internationally celebrated winemaker. It is now being cellared for a special occasion.
The steep vineyards require very labor intensive viticulture. Each vine is handled 16 times during the growing season and the grapes are usually hand picked as machinery is impractical on the steep slopes. It is hard and dangerous work. Each vine is staked separately without connecting wires which allows workers to tend the vines horizontally along the slope rather than vertically. We saw helicopter spraying for fungus and insecticides; no land based machine could have done the task.
The growing season is from April to October with average temperatures of 53°F. The soil is predominantly Devonian slate and shell limestone, ideal for fruity, white, low alcohol wines. The river water keeps the temperatures from going too low in winter and the rocky soil absorbs the sunlight keeping the plants warm at night. The hilltops are forested to limit soil erosion, trap the valley’s warmth and block prevailing winds.
Although Riesling is the predominant wine of the Mosel, other vines include Müller Thergau described as a “quaffing” wine, Auxerrois, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Kerner. Pinot Noir and Dornfelder are among the more recently introduced reds.
Along our journey, we were also introduced to some other local specialties. In Cochem, our guide told us about the peach liqueur made from red vineyard peaches. The original trees had been introduced by the Romans and grow well on the steep terraced fields of the Mosel Valley. The skin is a fuzzy grey while the flesh is a brilliant fuchsia red. The peach liqueur picures above were from the website of www.weinbergpfirsich-dreis.de/ who produced my souvenir bottle.
As the Mosel twists into the Rhine Gorge, the vineyard covered slopes are even steeper and crowned with castles where territorial barons would routinely stop water passage to collect tolls from passing ships. There are no tolls anymore but the hundreds of barges and river cruise boats continue to provide a lucrative source of income for the entire area.
At Rudesheim am Rhein wine is distilled to make Asbach Uralt brandy. A local speciality is Rudesheimer Kaffee. The brandy is poured over sugar cubes in the base of a special pottery mug, flambéed and stirred until the sugar dissolves. Strong coffee is added, followed by a topping of thickly whipped cream and sprinkled with grated chocolate. The brandy is also good for sipping and flavoring desserts.
There is so much to do and see in Rudesheim. The mechanical instrument museum is a must-see and so is the gondola ride up the mountain above the steep vineyards to Niederwalddenkmal monument built in 1871 by Kaiser Wilhelm 1 to commemorate the founding of the German Empire. The view is spectacular.
With a bottle of Prinz von Hessen Riesling from Johannisberg im Rheingau and a concert on board by La Strada, a trio of two violin players and classical guitarist, we celebrated our final night in the Rhine wine region.
We awoke the next morning to a panorama of the prosperous modern cities of the North Rhine without a vineyard in sight. In the artistic and free-spirited city of Dusseldorf, our guide extolled the virtues of altbier, old style beer, and the Altstadt where four of the city’s breweries line the old city centre, describing it as the longest beer garden in the country.
I was still mourning the loss of the picturesque mountain vineyards, and historic cobblestone towns, but my overworked photographer husband breathed a sigh of relief, plunked down his camera, and ordered a beer.
Story by Veronica Leonard, Photographs by Colin Leonard