Tradition Meets Evolution in Modern Mosel | Wine Enthusiast
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Tradition Meets Evolution in Modern Mosel

The Mosel produces some of the world’s most iconic wines. It’s a region that incites fervor among sommeliers, critics and collectors alike.

But among wine-loving Americans, it’s often pigeonholed into staid stereotypes. The Mosel conjures images of ancient castle towns and quaint village scenes. Its wines, sold in ubiquitous long necked bottles made from green glass, are often conceived as easy, sweet and fruity.

A closer look at the Mosel, however, reveals a land and range of wines that are much more diverse and dynamic.

The nearly 22,000 acres of vines that span the region yield wines that extend from the most familiar to the exceptionally unique. Beyond the cheerfully sweet whites with which it’s often associated, the Mosel produces extraordinary white, red and sparkling wines of varying styles and varietal composition.

Vineyards here have been painstakingly studied and cultivated since the Romans first established winemaking in the area. Yet, despite that, the unique terroir continues to spark discovery and renewal. It’s a region that embraces tradition but also the challenges of evolution.

Led by an eccentric old guard and an entrepreneurial generation of emerging winemakers, the modern Mosel deserves a new spotlight.

Vineyards in Mosel
The Erdener Prälat and Erdener Treppchen vineyards / Photo by Tim Volz

Inimitable Terroir

The Mosel wine region is a serpentine stretch of vineyards and medieval villages that winds along the Mosel River and its tributaries, the Saar and the Ruwer. Originating in France, the river meets Germany at a border shared with Luxembourg, then travels 150 miles northeast before it converges with the Rhine.

At about 50 degrees north latitude, this is one of the northernmost winemaking regions in the world. But warming effects of the Gulf Stream, combined with jaggedly steep slopes and river valleys, form an environment suitable for quality winegrowing.

While the Mosel boasts a historic diversity of wine production, 62% of its vines are devoted to Riesling. It’s also one of the rare regions where the variety expresses itself in a brilliant spectrum of styles. Here, Riesling varies from lusciously sweet to bone dry and everything in between, though often with similar, well-defined minerality and acidic tension.

These styles can also differ in weight and texture, from lithe, dry trocken wines to zippy, barely sweet halbtrocken (half-dry) or feinherb bottlings and fruity, sweet kabinett or auslese. Almost nowhere else can Riesling ice wine, or eiswein, made from grapes frozen on the vine, and beerenauslese or trocken­beerenauslese, crafted from botrytized grapes, be produced on a consistent basis.

Authentically Mosel — Sweet or Dry?

The sweet, simple wines often associated with the Mosel are just one facet of the region’s winemaking legacy.

Though the region has a long history of dry-wine production along with fruity wines that contain residual sugar, its sweet, mass-produced offerings were popularized after World War II.

More recently, German consumers have exhibited a preference for dry wines, which triggered a revival of similar selections from the Mosel. According to Ernst Loosen, owner and winemaker at Dr. Loosen, these bottlings have been less known globally because they were consumed almost entirely in Germany.

Nik Weis, winemaker and owner of Nik Weis St. Urbans-Hof, says that sweetness, like fashion, swings on a pendulum. When he began working at his family winery back in 1997, 90% of the wines produced were sweet. He now crafts almost equal proportions of dry and sweet wines.

“There’s an increasing demand, particularly among younger consumers, for kabinett again,” says Weis. Kabinett-level wines are not necessarily sweet, but balanced and racy, with just a touch of residual sugar.

It’s a shift that Weis finds heartening. “It wouldn’t be good for the Mosel to produce 90% dry wines because at that point, the Mosel just becomes interchangeable,” he says.

Nik Weis
Nik Weis / Photo by Peter Kunz

The Red Rising

Beyond Riesling, the Mosel offers a range of wines that continue to evolve. In recent years, red-wine production, once banned, is a category that has experienced a renaissance.

Ulrich Stein, winemaker and owner of Stein, is known as a stalwart traditionalist. He produces Riesling from ancient vines planted on the steepest, most perilous vineyard in the world, and his persistent efforts to revive Spätburgunder, the local name for Pinot Noir, led to repeal of the ban on red-wine production in 1986, which had been in effect for nearly 50 years.

“In the 19th century, 15% of the region was planted with red grape varieties,” says Stein. “In the Middle Ages, over 50% of the grapes were red.”

Today, red varieties, led by Spätburgunder, compose almost 10% of the region’s vineyards. Stein named his zippy Pinot “Redvolution” and introduced regional anomalies like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as well. His focus will always be on the “racy and mineral Rieslings typical for our region,” he says, yet, “we also love exploring other new or old styles.”

Recommended Dry White Wines

Dr. Loosen 2016 Graacher Himmelreich Alte Reben Dry Riesling GG (Mosel); $54, 95 points. While the nose is subtle here, suggesting faint whiffs of crushed slate and lime, exuberantly concentrated grapefruit and tangerine flavors await on the palate. Medium bodied and dry, yet silky and penetrating, it finishes long with invigorating strikes of minerals and grapefruit bitters. It’s a lovely wine already but likely to improve through 2030. Loosen Bros. USA. Editors’ Choice.

Zilliken 2016 Rausch Riesling GG (Mosel); $80, 95 points. Light bodied and nimble, this zesty dry Riesling seems initially quite demure. It’s delicately perfumed with just a hint of blossom, and its fruit profile is understated, suggesting crisp yellow-apple and cantaloupe flavors. But it’s a silk-textured wine that should develop in concentration and richness with time. Hold till 2021 and enjoy for many years further. Rudi Wiest Selections. Cellar Selection.

Reinhold Haart 2016 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling GG (Mosel); $65, 94 points. Mineral intensity and textural richness are the foundations of this dry, intensely steely Riesling. Its fruit profile is restrained, offering bracing concentrated hits of lemon, green apple and lime. The palate is rich and silky yet deft, lingering with a firm phenolic grip. It’s a taut nervy wine to hold back till 2023 and enjoy for years. Rudi Wiest Selections. Cellar Selection.

Dr. H. Thanisch (Erben Müller-Burggraef) 2016 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Trocken GG (Mosel); $35, 93 points. Smoke and slate mingle into luscious peach and pineapple in this lithe yet concentrated dry Riesling. Piercing lemon-lime acidity and honed strokes of steel build a feeling of tension on the palate with each sip. Gorgeous already but likely to intensify in complexity through 2030. Winesellers, Ltd.

Ulrich Stein in his Mosel vineyard
Ulrich Stein in his Mosel vineyard / Photo by Vom Boden

Recommended Off-Dry White Wines

Maximin Grünhäuser 2017 Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett Grosse Lage (Mosel); $34, 94 points. The nose offers more spice and mineral than fruit here, but the palate introduces layer upon layer of juicy white grapefruit, lemon and tangerine. It’s joyfully semisweet, yet bracing in acidity. This is an ethereally light yet concentrated wine to enjoy now–2028. Loosen Bros. USA. Editors’ Choice.

Egon Müller 2015 Scharzhof Riesling (Mosel); $54, 94 points. While feather light in stature, this semisweet Riesling stuns with intensity. From nose to finish, dark earth tones and luminous stone fruit and cherry flavors meld seamlessly. It’s intensely ripe, almost tropical in tone, but an electric tang of acidity and minerality keeps it rooted firmly in the Mosel. Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd. Editors’ Choice.

Dr. Pauly Bergweiler 2017 Berncasteler alte Badstube am Doctorberg Old Vines Riesling Kabinett (Mosel); $27, 91 points. Dark shades of earth, candle wax and pollen lend nuance to fresh, primary white grapefruit, peach and apricot in this forward but nuanced Kabinett. Delicately off dry in style, it’s a penetrating, juicy wine offset by racy acidity. Enjoy now–2024. Enjoy now–2024. Winesellers, Ltd.

St. Urbans-Hof 2017 Nik Weis Wiltinger Riesling Kabinett (Mosel); $21, 91 points. Ethereal yet deeply penetrating, this light-footed wine offers layers and layers of yellow peach, apricot and tangerine intensity. It’s luminous and ripe yet racy and lip-smacking, finishing on smoky notes of slate and crushed mineral. A powerful, electric Kabinett to enjoy now through 2028. HB Wine Merchants. Editors’ Choice.

Considering Climate Change

While climate change poses threats around the world, the warmer, longer growing seasons here have been largely a boon, helping winegrowers in the cooler extremes of the region who have historically struggled to ripen their grapes.

“In my grandfather’s generation, people were happy if they got three or four ripe vintages in a decade because the other three to five vintages could be disasters,” says Loosen.

“[Difficult vintages] would produce dry wines that were thin and acidic,” says Weis. Today’s riper harvests have produced higher-quality wines with greater consistency. Higher potential alcohol levels also facilitate the production of drier, fuller-bodied wines.

Warmer temperatures endanger classic wines that are dependent on cold weather.

Climate change is not without peril, however. According to Loosen, it’s increased erratic, unpredictable events like spring rains, devastating hailstorms and new disease threats.

Warmer temperatures also endanger classic wines that are dependent on cold weather, like eiswein, and zesty, low-alcohol feinherb and kabinett bottlings.

Additionally, many winemakers consider racy, light-bodied Rieslings central to both their production and the Mosel’s identity as a whole. And as hotter, riper vintages become the norm, “production of these wines is increasingly difficult,” says Stein, who relies on the style.

Rather than resorting to manipulations like acidification or abandoning a trademark style, Stein is determined­ to adapt.

“One just has to work a bit harder in both the vineyard and the cellar,” he says.

Recommended Sweet White Wines

Fritz Haag 2017 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Auslese Grosse Lage (Mosel); $44, 97 points. Intensely ripe aromas of pineapple and blossom perfume this exuberantly sweet auslese. It’s a stunningly concentrated, intoxicating wine, laden with sweet honey and stone-fruit flavors balanced by streaks of zippy lime acidity. Fresh and primary now, it is nuanced enough to gain complexity for decades to come. Loosen Bros. USA. Editors’ Choice.

Joh. Jos. Prüm 2017 Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Auslese (Mosel); $33, 94 points. Silken layers of honey and tropical fruit burst from this light-footed yet powerfully fruity Auslese. It’s lip-smackingly sweet and palate clinging but balanced zestfully by streaks of lime and lemon. Spicy mineral tones and hints of chestnut-pith linger long on the finish. It’s a lovely wine already but likely to meld and improve through 2035. Valckenberg International, Inc.

Schloss Lieser 2016 Thomas Haag Niederberg Helden Riesling Auslese (Mosel); $60, 94 points. Layers and layers of pristine sweet honeydew, watermelon and white peach collide in this light-footed sweet Riesling. It’s spine-tingling and feather light yet unctuous and rolling in texture. An intensely fragrant, fruity wine now that should intensify in complexity well through 2035. Rudi Wiest Selections. Editors’ Choice.

Dr. Heidemanns-Bergweiler 2017 Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Auslese (Mosel); $33, 93 points. High-toned aromas of lemon and lime zest introduce this laser-edged, penetrating wine. It’s light as a feather yet lip-smacking and sweet, offering loads of pristine, ripe honeydew, grapefruit and tangerine flavors. Electric acidity shines a spotlight through a long, dazzling finish. Enjoy now–2030. Miller Squared Inc.

Vineyards and a river in Mosel
Photo courtesy of Deutsches Weininstitut

Progress and Preservation

Modernity has posed distinct challenges for ancient viticultural traditions of the Mosel. The region’s iconic slate vineyards, some angled up to 70 degrees, are among the steepest and most labor intensive in the world. Many have been worked exclusively by hand for centuries.

When demand for inexpensive Mosel wines increased dramatically after World War II, widescale land restructuring was done to increase plantings, yields and efficiencies.

Efforts to revitalize forgotten vineyard sites and protect the region’s traditions have intensified in recent years.

A series of laws intended to streamline and simplify the wine industry were also passed. Mosel vineyards were expanded outside of traditional steep slopes to flatlands that were better suited for mechanized farming. Many vineyard owners opted to have tiny, disparate land holdings consolidate­ into more convenient single plots. And vineyards were reshaped and replanted to allow installation of access roads, modern trellises and machinery.

But these laws were not without negative effects. Many of the region’s historic slopes were abandoned for more convenient, often lower-quality vineyards. Precious old vines with low yields were pulled and replaced with newer, higher-output plantings. The consolidation of thousands of single-­vineyard sites, often with less prestigious plots, wiped away centuries of knowledge on vineyard specificity.

Present-day vineyards in the Mosel are often a patchwork of ancient landscapes juxtaposed by modern reconfigurations. Jagged slate slopes with old vines that date from the late 19th century can be found adjacent­ to fine-shaved slopes and terraces lined with young vines on wired trellises.

Efforts to revitalize forgotten vineyard sites and protect the region’s traditions have intensified in recent years. Throughout the Mosel, winegrowers like Stein and Weis work to acquire and cultivate abandoned vineyard plots. A movement coined bergrettung,­ or mountain rescue, has also been developed by the Klitzekleine Ring association, a community of about 10 producers located in and around the town of Traben-Trarbach, with a mission to recover and maintain steep slope vineyards.

Weis, who also operates a nursery business, traversed ancient vineyards for years to preserve cuttings of the region’s oldest pre-­phylloxera vines. He describes the collection as “a Noah’s ark of Riesling genetics” that will help preserve the region’s historic vine diversity.

The modern Mosel is best epitomized by a complex collision of past and present forces. It’s a wine region that’s deeply connected to its unique, ancient winemaking traditions, but also fueled by a passion for quality and innovation.

Some vineyards in Mosel
Photo courtesy of Deutsches Weininstitut

Recommended Red Wines

Stein 2015 Waechter Spätburgunder (Mosel); $45, 93 points. Ripe, concentrated blackberry and cherry flavors are shaded by savory tones of bramble, dried herb and fur in this surprisingly weighty Mosel Spätburgunder. Rich and deeply textural,­ the Waechter is a marked contrast to Stein’s more zippy, ethereal Red Light Pinot Noir bottlings. It maintains the producer’s trademark freshness and electricity as well as a long, lingering finish edged by spice. Vom Boden.

Maximin Grünhäuser 2016 Pinot Noir (Mosel); $72, 93 points. Subtle whiffs of violet and beetroot accent ripe blackberry and cherry flavors in this surprisingly unctuous full-bodied Mosel Pinot Noir. It’s a rich but pertly balanced wine, with soft ripe tannins and delicate hints of vanilla and spice on the finish. Ready now, but it should drink well through 2030. Loosen Bros. USA.

Bischöfliche Weingüter Trier 2015 Kanzemer Altenberg Pinot Noir (Mosel); $28, 92 points. Violet and bramble tones perfume this lavishly floral red. Brisker and brighter than Germany’s warmer-climate Pinots, this Mosel Pinot Noir offers concentrated but crisp black cherry and berry flavors rimmed by a fine edge of bitter tannins. It’s silky in texture, with a long, lingering finish. Drink now through 2025 to enjoy its freshness. Schmitt-Söhne USA.

Günther Steinmetz 2014 Kestener Paulinsberg Unfiltered Pinot Noir (Mosel); $43, 91 points. Plump with ripe black-plum and cherry flavors, this single-vineyard wine offers a greater density of fruit than the producer’s entry-level Pinot Noir. Still, it shares a ghostly elegance marked by faded whiffs of dried violet and lavender, dusty spice-box and earth notes. Vibrant acidity lends finesse to the palate along with a meandering finish of fine grained, bitter tannins. Broadbent Selections.

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