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Wine-Tasting Tour of Germany

Straw wine. Sauerbraten. Oompah bands. T+L heads to the source to taste Germany’s best wines.

By Matt Lee, Ted Lee

Sundown at the main market in Trier. As the light faded behind the roofs of the half-timbered houses that border the main market square, the produce vendors folded their tables, stacking crates of endives and carrots. But in a small tent at the square’s eastern edge, a strand of lights flickered to life: the Weinstand was open. A kiosk, really—no chairs, just an open-air wine-bar-in-the-round, and in its center, a young man and woman pouring wine. We ordered glasses and turned back around to watch the flower vendor amble across the cobblestones, her lilies quivering in their pails. She ducked down an alley between the ranks of row houses—this one pink stucco, the next yellow. And then, in an instant, she was gone.

Fortunately, our wine arrived before the mood departed, and the first cool sips of the pale, straw-colored liquid—the elixir that had sparked our journey—delivered us back to our senses.


Yes, Riesling. Tarnished, inscrutable, misunderstood—these are the adjectives you’d use if you felt there was a glimmer of hope for a wine like this. Many Americans, us included, gave up on Riesling years ago. Even if you weren’t intimidated by those Third Reich fonts on the labels or the unpronounceable place-names (Piesporter Goldtröpfchen, anyone?), you’d have a hard time cozying up to a wine so cloyingly sweet and hollow. Recently, though, we’d come under the spell of Paul Grieco, sommelier and co-owner of the New York City restaurant Hearth and the de facto leader of a crew of whip-smart wine professionals with a passion for the Riesling grape. They were among the first stateside to proclaim the good news out of the Mosel River Valley (also known as the Moselle), that something fundamental had changed: a new generation of growers and winemakers were bottling wines of quality and nuance. It didn’t hurt their cause that the grape yields such a range of expressions—steely to fruity, bone-dry to Sauternes-sweet—that it makes the beverage a dynamite pairing for notorious wine-challengers such as egg dishes and fiery foods. Grieco & Co. made good sport of their advocacy, organizing confabs devoted to the underdog. One guy’s forearm flashed a lettered tattoo: Riesling.

But for all their fervency for Mosel wines, the cultists were maddeningly vague about the actual place, and when we asked what it was like to travel to the region, the mystery only deepened: “Drink the juice, know the land. Enough said,” Grieco wrote us. Another was equally terse, if a tad less cryptic: “Elderhostelers on cycle tours.”

None of this squared with the reports of a youthful wine-making scene, not to mention the electricity soaring out of our stemware, so we decided to see for ourselves, mapping a route through the “middle Mosel”—site of the region’s most famous vineyards—starting in Trier, a commercial center just 10 minutes from the Luxembourg border, and lazily tasting our way downriver.

Had the Riesling-heads ever visited the Weinstand—a city-owned bar hosting a different winemaker every night? The kid pouring that evening wasn’t just the bartender; he was the owner (and grower, and winemaker) of a winery south of town. A couple in suits toasted the end of the day; a Fräulein walking a dog settled in for a glass and then launched into a spontaneous aria. We hadn’t anticipated Trier to be much more than a launching pad for the journey (Germans often dismiss it as deadly dull), but even here things seemed to be looking up.

By our second glass, we were making connections. A doctoral student of medieval wine-making to our right put us in touch with Lars Carlberg, a wiry German American raised in the States who’d done time in the wine department at Christie’s in New York City. Carlberg checked out of the rat race a few years back to commune with his German roots and pick grapes at the Mosel winery Knebel, and ended up as an exporter of under-the-radar bottlings, working from a laptop in a rented garret. He invited us to meet him at a party at a client’s winery, and so later that night we motored through a downpour to a mountaintop in a village called Alf. We arrived to find Wolfgang Niedecken of BAP, Germany’s biggest pop band—essentially the country’s Bruce Springsteen—rocking out to a standing-room-only crowd of stylishly shaggy German boomers in a large parlor. Carlberg introduced us to the owner of the winery, the long-haired iconoclast Ulli Stein—by no means a youngster but a revolutionary in his fiery advocacy of sustainable, back-to-basics wine making—who was celebrating his victory in a nine-year battle with German authorities to legalize “straw wine,” a sweet wine made by sun-drying grapes on straw mats. His niece Dana, who had completed internships at wineries and is next in line to make wine at the property, sat on the terrace nursing a glass and nuzzling a terrier, slightly aloof from the older crowd partying in the living room.

The following day, we drove south of Trier to the valley of the Saar River, a tributary of the Mosel, where Florian Lauer, the Puma-shod twentysomething winemaker at Weingut Peter Lauer, led us through a tasting of his family’s wares and gave us our first insight into the Riesling renaissance from a local’s perspective. After years of living in denial about the merits of their culture—“There are more Italian restaurants here than German ones!” he grumbled—Germans have recently begun to see their own food and wine as valid, and to take pride in them. It took non-Germans loving Riesling to make the grape hip here again.

“The good news out of the U.S., the points from Robert Parker, winning international wine awards—that’s when Germans realized other countries were drinking more of our wine than we were, and were better educated about it,” Lauer said.

It took years of hard work by family-owned wineries, Lauer noted, to overcome the stigma that bulk Riesling producers (who make plonk using shortcuts and additives) had wrought. “At those wineries, nobody is responsible because the owner’s name is nowhere on the bottle,” he said. “My name is on my label, so if my wine is bad, I’m definitely not happy.”

We found a similar pride—not to mention spectacular old-school German food—on display that evening back in Trier, just beyond the Kookai and Esprit outlets, at Zur Glocke, our dream Wursthaus and this city’s answer to Joe Allen or the Ivy. Under a heavy timbered ceiling, tables of smartly dressed locals toasted important occasions with rounds of schnapps, and we had the crispest and best schnitzel of our lives, smothered in creamed chanterelles. The sauerbraten—beef braised in vinegar, wine, and super-rich beef stock—the waiter told us, we wouldn’t find anywhere else. We followed the example of the Germans around us and drank not wine, but rather stein after stein of König Pilsener.

The next morning we left Trier behind, heading out of town on a hectic, traffic-choked autobahn. Just a half-hour outside the city, however, we dropped south and almost instantly were tracing the broad river as it bent, in lazy S-curves, through the vineyards. The slopes rose precipitously from the riverbank and stone walls braced the hillsides in some spots. Tending vines in this landscape is difficult, time-consuming, and done entirely by hand, and yet these sites are by far the most coveted in the Mosel because the steepest, south-facing rows of vines closest to the river soak up direct sun throughout the day, as well as an additional dose from the rays reflecting off the river. At this latitude, every sunbeam counts.

But you don’t have to be wine geeks like us, blissed-out on sunshine and slate, to commune with the surroundings here. The vineyards, fragmented as they are, seem less like private fiefdoms and more like public parks, their names written in large white letters across the landscape, Hollywood-style. The only obstacle we found to entering vineyards in the Mosel was the heart-pumping climbs. We hiked a footpath above a vineyard called the Trittenheimer Apotheke, which offers perhaps the best panoramic vista of the valley. The river loops tightly around the village of Trittenheim, and as it turns, the vineyard opposite the village rises to form an arena in the earth. Hiking along the über-nosebleed section of this bowl, the land rippling out in all directions below, the Mosel appeared as smooth as glass. We’d been told that water-skiing was an entertainment option, if we were so inclined, and winced as we imagined the buzz of an outboard motor cutting through the serenity. Just then we heard a clicking sound at our feet, and looked down to find a very large, very tasty-looking snail inching its way across the gravelly slate.

The visual scale of the Mosel is undeniably vast, but traveling through the valley, we continued to encounter its endearing, small-town intimacy. That night at Rüssel’s, an ambitious restaurant in a pine forest not far from the Trittenheim overlook, we took a wild stab at the wine list and wound up with a stunning Riesling by the wunderkind A. J. Adam, who almost overnight gained a reputation for his small-production wines, which are maddeningly difficult to find stateside.

“You like the wine?” our waitress asked.

Did we ever, we said.

“Oh, good,” she replied, “my brother’s the winemaker.”

Adam’s winery—one of the smallest producers in the Mosel, with only 7.4 acres of vines—came into existence only a decade ago, and his presence in the marketplace, limited as it may be, is one harbinger of change around here.

Another change, and one the Riesling cult might be keeping under wraps: the area is starting to turn out some seriously delicious red wines. The same global warming that threatens to rob the Mosel of its excellent ice wine has added precious degrees of temperature, which has lifted the quality of the Pinot Noirs.

So, to sate our hankering for red wine, though a party of German corporate guys at a neighboring table ordered oceans of French Burgundy, we did something we never thought we’d do in Riesling country. We ordered a local Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder. Our waitress brought it with body language that practically apologized for what was about to unfold.

She needn’t have worried. The wine’s name was, yes, difficult to wrap the brain around—Weingut Robert Schroeder 2007 Mehringer Goldkupp Spätburgunder Rotwein “S” Trocken—but the liquid itself was ridiculously easy to love, a ripe, elegant wine that held nothing in reserve.

Such changes—new wineries, new wines—create a thrilling and very real tension between old and new. Driving downriver from Trittenheim, we passed through town after town, each adorable and ancient, with a workaday bakery, a mom-and-pop grocery, and a clutch of grand manors huddled around them: Neumagen, Wittlich, Piesport. We took great delight in spotting houses made entirely of thin blue-and-red slate, tightly stacked as wads of cash, that would be the envy of any American stonemason. At the town hall in Piesport, we browsed a flea market with cool vintage gas-station signage, loads of antique kitchen tools, and cork pulls from every era. In Neumagen, we nearly missed what some archaeologists have called the region’s second most important Roman artifact next to Trier’s Black Gate: an A.D. 205 stone memorial sculpture of a merchant vessel loaded with—you guessed it—wine barrels.

While we were driving through Brauneburg searching for Günther Steinmetz, a winery we’d heard about from a shopkeeper in New York City, a cat darted across the street and we screeched to a halt. Fortunately, we hadn’t hit “Ramses,” because when we ultimately found the villa-winery-gasthaus, there he was, lounging on the stoop. And when Stefan Steinmetz opened the door, the cat trotted in, promptly curled up on a chair in the parlor, and went to sleep.

Steinmetz is another of the valley’s young stars. Though he’s 31 now, he bottled his first vintage at 20. His father had a heart attack while Steinmetz was at viticultural school in Trier, and he assumed complete operation of the winery. He made some swift changes: he sold his father’s machines; acquired a new pneumatic press, pump, and crusher that’s gentler on the fruit; reduced yields to concentrate ripeness in fewer, better grapes; and also did away with manufactured yeasts for Pinots and red wine grapes, so fermentation would be spontaneous, slower, more natural.

With his mother puttering in the kitchen across the hall and his father and Ramses looking over our shoulders, Steinmetz led us through a tasting with thrill-upon-thrill: our first Pinot Blanc of the trip was but one of these. We also tasted two Rieslings from the same vintage, made in the same style, but from parcels just a few hundred feet from one another, that had such astonishing differences in structure and flavor that they might as well have been from different continents. After the tasting, we ducked through a trapdoor in the kitchen and descended underground to the medieval stone basement where a season’s worth of wine sat in barrels.

The stillness of the cellar put us in a contemplative mood—the thought of all that wine resting—as we drove out of Brauneburg, but we were instantly jolted from our reverie upon arriving in Zeltingen. A street festival was in full throng, brass bands belting out oompahs that reverberated throughout the town. Vendors sold grilled sausage andWeinstands were everywhere, shoehorned into the medieval streetscape. Families were out enjoying the balmy evening, toddlers dropping their hot dogs on the cobblestones.

Our final morning in the Mosel, the sun shone brightly on the water and the paved paths that follow the river were alive with runners and cyclists. We decided to rent bikes of our own, and rode up into the vineyards behind the town, pedaling lazily across the Himmelreich vineyard and stopping every so often when the wind whipped up to launch a kite. On a bicycle, you experience the vines close enough to discern plots that are tiny—only one row wide—and plots whose owners felt the need to plant pumpkins between the rows. Hand-lettered wooden signs (in the case of smaller owners) and plastic logos (the corporate behemoths) mark the boundaries, which are otherwise invisible to the naked eye. We got the sense that growers here know each vine personally, and that had an effect on us that week. Anytime we’d felt rain or a chill, it was as if those were our grapes getting cold and wet. Now that the sun was out, we felt that, too—the joy, the warmth, more fully than before.

We rode across the river and up into the vineyards there, for a look back at Zeltingen. But as the grade got steeper, we became winded and began to walk. Just then, a pack of cyclists sped noisily by. It was a group of septuagenarians pedaling their way past us.

Matt Lee and Ted Lee are T+L contributing editors.