Wine’s best kept secret? Germany’s great whites

The village of Piesport in the middle Mosel, home to some of the greatest Riesling vineyards in the world

It’s often said that the journey is more important than the destination but when cycling 80 to 90 kilometres each day in 35 degrees Celcius heat (and warmer, in parts of the journey), the destination starts to take on an extremely appealing allure. This is how my travel companion and competition cyclist boyfriend and I felt as we peddled our way past many of the world’s greatest Riesling vineyards, in August last year. Surrounded by wine but not a drop to drink, due to the long cycling days and hot nights in front of us. Even the Mosel River felt warm on the frequent occasions that I plunged into it to cool down. Actually, the part about not drinking wine is not strictly true, I devoured an extensive tasting at the beautiful Weingut Schloss Leiser, hosted by Lara Haag; grand daughter of the great winemaker, Wilhelm Haag, who I met last time I was in Germany back in 2001 (and whose 2000 Weingut Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr I was lucky to have bought, cellared and drank with my daughter when she turned 18 in 2018). Talk about come full circle. And there was plenty of wine at the end of each cycling day, proving that the destination was worth the amazing journey.

And here, by popular request from food and wine friends, is the story, for those who missed it a couple of months ago.


The following story first appeared in NZ Winegrower magazine, October/November 2018

Another day, another impossibly steep vineyard perched on the slopes of the Mosel River.

We are here to cycle and I can’t help but marvel at the mountainous terrain above the flat pathway we are speeding along in the 35 degree European heatwave. It’s enough to give anyone pause for thought, let alone those of us cycling upwards of 80 kilometres a day.

Now we’re talking steep… Pundericher Marienburg Vineyard

German winemaking has changed changed over the past 20 years. Climate change has significantly altered the types of wines made – and the grapes they are made from. German wine production in the 1990s was 90 per cent white, 10 per cent red. Today, it’s 60 per cent white wine, 40 per cent red. Pinot Noir has doubled and there is now more of it in Germany than in New Zealand and Australia combined. Germany has 11,783 hectares of Pinot Noir and they call it Spatburgunder. It’s not new there either; Spatburgunder has been in Germany since the Middle Ages.

I first visited this region nearly 20 years ago when my wine writing career was in its infancy and so was my daughter, Ruby, who took her first steps on the banks of the Mosel River while her father and I watched on proudly.

That journey was a combined work trip and family holiday and I have wanted to cycle the length of the river ever since. This year I finally did, although my new partner and I trimmed the trip in half, peddling 220 kilometres in three days rather than six, due to time constraints.

One of the steepest and rockiest vineyards along the Mosel River in August 2018

The Mosel has many claims to fame. It’s the best known of Germany’s 13 main wine regions. It’s the longest tributary of the Rhine River and it’s home to the steepest vineyards in the world with gradients of 65 to 70 degrees showing a spectacular determination to ripen grapes in a cool climate. It is hard to imagine how these grapes are planted or pruned, let alone harvested. Many appear to be growing on ledges that look like a challenge to a skilled abseiler. Needless to say, it’s all about hand harvesting.

Riesling is queen of the Mosel, occupying at least 60 per cent of the region’s vineyards. The balance is a smidgeon of Pinot Noir (approximately 10 per cent) a little Muller-Thurgau and a smattering of other whites.

The best wines from the Mosel have historically tended to be light in body and alcohol with high residual sugar but change is afoot. Climate change is having a dramatic impact here.

The region’s winemakers now pick earlier than in the past and at higher oeschle (the German must-weight – grape sugar – measurement, which determines the alcohol content of the wines). This means the wines often contain higher alcohol levels and are drier than they used to be. This doesn’t mean they taste austere or hot. Far from it. The wines of the Mosel that used to contain 7% alcohol are now nudging 10% or 11%, at a pinch.

The highlight of our three day cycle tour was the beauty of the place and the great wines of Weingut Schloss Lieser. And being there. Our journey began in Trier, the oldest city in Germany. We finished in the city of Koblenz. Its name means confluence and it’s where the Mosel and the Rhine meet. On the first day of our trip, we popped in to Weingut Schloss Lieser for an extensive tasting that I had arranged prior to leaving New Zealand. The winery was originally established in 1875 and was taken over by winemaker Thomas Haag in the 1990s.

Talk about a blast from the past. When I first visited the Mosel region 17 years ago, I met his father, Wilhelm Haag, of Weingut Fritz Haag. This time round, it was another generation – Thomas’ daughter, Lara, who gave us an outstandingly insightful tasting through the great Rieslings of this small family owned winery.

Her grandfather (who I met all those years ago) is a member of the powerful VDP (Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter); a body of people who have transformed the quality, style and the perception of German wine.

Her father, Thomas, is following in his father’s footsteps with great wines made from vineyards such as Wehlener Sonnenhur, Piesporter Goldtropfchen, Graacher Himmelreich and Niederberg Helden.

This trip was all about coming full circle, for me. In January this year, I finally opened one of the bottles I brought back from my first visit to the Mosel all those years ago. The 2000 Weingut Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Auslese is from my  daughter’s birth year, so we opened it to celebrate her 18th birthday. And we did so with trepidation. Wine lightly chilled and good glassware on hand, I gingerly tried to extract the cork, which disintegrated, so I sieved the wine into our glasses. It was fresh, luscious, like lemon zest and liquid honey. It was an incredible wine. Just like the region it comes from – and the 18 year old I shared it with.


Vineyards in the village of Alken hint at the precipitous slopes typical of vineyards growing on the banks of the beautiful Mosel River
Cochem is one of the biggest towns on the Mosel River with its distinctive castle hovering formidably over its residents

Our 220 kilometre cycle in Germany’s heatwave was incredible. Hot, fresh, breath taking and, at the end of each long cycling day, also delicious.

Next time, I’m going to take it slowly and drink Riesling along the way. I’ve seen Koblenz now. And it’s the journey that counts, after all. Apparently.

German wine importers in New Zealand

MacVine International,

Oh So Pretty,

Dhall & Nash,

Great Little Vineyards,

The Wine Importer,

Author: Joelle Thomson

I am a wine writer, author and educator... first bitten by a big buttery Chardonnay on a dark and stormy night in the 1980s and there was no turning back... Follow my tastings and join some too on this new site.

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