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A Beginner’s Guide to Visiting Germany’s Wine Regions

Mosel Valley in April. (Photo by Lauren Mowery)

Mosel Valley in April. (Photo by Lauren Mowery)

Originally published in USA Today on August 18, 2016.

Seeking security, my right hand grasped at the nearest wooden pale as my left foot slid on the loose slate. I needed to stretch my camera two more inches beyond another row of stakes, each one supporting a heart-shaped Riesling vine, to get a clean shot of the valley.

I risked more than my dignity by dangerously leaning over the steep crest of the Mosel Valley’s fabled Piesporter Goldtröpfchen vineyards. Below, the region’s namesake river slipped around a wide curve with such stillness and grace, it appeared a watercolor of dappled blue and green. The quaint village of Piesporter straddled the bend, another fixed detail of the still life fanned out before me. The scene deserved the skill of a painter’s hand, not me and a Canon 70D, I thought.

Village of Piesporter in the Mosel.

Village of Piesporter in the Mosel.

Showstopping scenery abounds throughout Germany’s wine regions. Minimal development keeps the countryside bucolic; combined with the classic architecture and fachwerk homes (timber-framed), the effect transports visitors to another century. The other recurring theme across all thirteen appellations or anbaugebiete (“ahn-baw-jeh-beet”): Riesling. Deutschland serves as the spiritual home for the noble white grape, which accounts for almost a quarter of all plantings. The wines come in various styles from dry, off-dry, to sweet, and a range of quality levels. (Tip: Look for the acronym VDP with an eagle logo on the capsule. It designates a wine from a members only association committed to high farming and winemaking standards.)

However, climate change and the domestic predilection for red wine has given rise to black grape plantings, notably Pinot Noir (aka Spätburgunder.) A relative secret outside of Europe due to small production levels, Germany’s Pinot competes with the finest from Burgundy (and Switzerland). So, book your flight to Frankfurt and bring an empty suitcase; these three regions should top any first time visitor’s list.

VonWinning Vineyards in Pfalz.

VonWinning Vineyards in Pfalz.

Pfalz
Located in the far southwest corner, Pfalz, by German standards, boasts balmy weather. The climate favors a range of agricultural products like almonds, and citrus trees, as well as grapes. All those warm, sunshine days translate into bigger, more opulent wines with Riesling generally fermented dry. The region is a wine tourist’s paradise that few Americans have tapped into. It’s easy to navigate around the rolling, vine-covered hills. Wineries, open daily, are commonly staffed with English speakers and often have leafy, outdoor restaurants attached.

Base yourself in the cute village of Deidesheim, about 90 minutes driving from Frankfurt. There are several tasting rooms in town, relieving visitors of driving duty.

Weingut Von Winning in the Pfalz.

Weingut Von Winning in the Pfalz.

Weingut Von Winning
Walk from your hotel to the winery for a tasting, then stay for dinner at the excellent tavern called Leopold. If the weather cooperates, opt for a seat outdoors on the patio. Their wines have good distribution across the U.S., so don’t feel compelled to squirrel away bottles in your luggage. Von Winning takes the unique tack of fermenting its grand crus in oak. While the top wines can get expensive, the basic, delicious Win Win Riesling is affordable at less than $15. VDP member.

Modern marketing drives Schneider Wines.

Modern Marketing Drives Schneider Wines.

Weingut Markus Schneider
Markus Schneider has eschewed the heavy, nay somber interiors of classic German homes for modern, airy, and sleek. And that dismissal of tradition extends to his contemporary branding and gregarious personality, all of which nearly steal the spotlight from this striking project’s wines. If he’s on-site, feel free to engage with him on topics such as food, travel, and naturally, wine. Whether he’s a marketing genius or giving the people what they want, his atypically bold reds, especially the Syrah, have been wildly successful.

Exterior of Reichsrat von Buhl.

Exterior of Reichsrat von Buhl.

Reichsrat von Buhl
Founded 150 years ago, von Buhl Rieslings were served at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Today, the estate bottled wines are made from organically farmed grapes in a bone-dry style, which you can sample by walking to the historic winery (open daily) from your hotel in town. Don’t miss the sparkling wine Germans call Sekt. VDP member.

Vineyards in Rheinhessen.

Vineyards in Rheinhessen.

Rheinhessen
Rheinhessen sports a roster of the country’s most dazzling winemakers. With a focus on dry Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc (called Weissburgunder), a young group of open-minded, quality-driven producers helped stage the appellation’s resurgence with critics and collectors. While the prized red soils of the Roter Hang were once the dominant source of Rheinhessen’s top wines, good juice now can be found throughout. Two names to know — Wittman and Keller – make some of the most sought after bottles. Keller doesn’t sell at the cellar door, so consult wine shops or restaurants for his small production (and expensive) Riesling and Pinot Noir.

Wittman in his cellar in Rheinhessen.

Wittman in His Cellar in Rheinhessen.

Weingut Wittman
A local leader partially responsible for reviving the legacy of quality winemaking in Rheinhessen, Philipp Wittman’s reputation doesn’t preclude access to his wines by wine lovers of modest means. Tastings of the biodynamic line-up occur in a modern facility off a garden oasis, and can be had by anyone, by appointment. His entry-level Gutsriesling is a great value, as well as introduction to the Wittman style, at less than 20 Euros. VDP member.

Joch Dreissigacker at his winery in Rheinhessen.

Joch Dreissigacker at His Winery in Rheinhessen.

Weingut Dreissigacker
Former apprentice to icon Klaus-Peter Keller, the current proprietor of Dreissigacker, Jochen took over this family winery in 2001. He instituted critical changes, most notably converting the estate to organic viticulture. He is another example of Rheinhessen’s current generation of quality-over-quantity focused vintners. Taste through his well-priced range of dry Rieslings in the winery’s stylish tasting room in Bechtheim, by appointment.

A line-up of excellent wines at Schätzel.

A Line-up of Excellent Wines at Schätzel.

Weingut Schätzel
Step into the depths of Kai Schätzel’s centuries-old cellar, and smell the fragrance of history clinging to the damp earth and walls. Many vintages of Rheinhessen Riesling have passed through this room, and an earnest Schätzel will regale guests with stories of his family’s winemaking past. Kai, however, took over in 2008, raising quality and earning entry into the prestigious VDP. Tastings are conducted by appointment in the dark-timbered main house, appointed in traditional Germanic décor.

Mosel Valley in April. (Photo by Lauren Mowery)

The Charming Village of Bernkastel-Kues.

Mosel Valley
At some point during a first trip to the Mosel, you’ll wonder if people actually live there. It has a quaint, quiet movie set perfection. And due to its cool location at 50 degrees latitude, Mosel is one of the northernmost quality wine regions in the world. But yes, people reside in the Valley and have made wine in it for nearly two millennia, since land-grabbing Roman conquerors spread cultivated grapevines to its slate-rich soils. In fact, the locations of recently excavated Roman presses discovered along the river, coincide with today’s top growing sites. The namesake river has two tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer. All three valleys produce delicate, aromatic, and vivid wines, often enhanced by a touch of sugar. As reward for their singular character, Mosel Rieslings accompany Bordeaux and Burgundy in the cellars of prestigious restaurants.

Nik Weis in the Vines

Nik Weis in the Vines on Slate-Covered Slopes.

Weingut St. Urbans-Hof
Nik Weis, third generation vintner, has become a global ambassador for the Valley, traveling regularly to educate and promote Mosel wines. But his tasting room and winery in Leiwen remain open, even when he’s on the road. While he produces a variety of dry Rieslings, he believes Mosel wine has an inherent affinity for a cushion of residual sugar, and makes several examples dedicated to that style. Because the region’s Riesling has naturally high acidity, a touch of sugar serves to soften the sharpness, not make it taste sweet. VDP member.

Wine Bottles at Carl Loewen's Tasting Room.

Wine Bottles at Carl Loewen’s Tasting Room.

Weingut Carl Loewen
A father and son run this family winery founded in 1803. Based out of a modest property in Leiwen (not far from St. Urbans-Hof), guests can make an appointment to taste Riesling from some of the oldest vineyards in the world. Production hits the 8000 case mark, and the wines are imported into the U.S., but they are hard to find outside major cities. Definitely save room in your luggage for a few bottles, especially the “1896”. This Riesling, named after the year the vines were planted, is made in a style akin to methods used during that time.

Dr. Loosen's Cozy Living Room.

Dr. Loosen’s Cozy Living Room.

Dr. Loosen
Family-owned for over two-hundred years, the Dr. Loosen estate owns some of the finest, ungrafted, old vine sites in the Middle Mosel Valley, with six of its holdings equating to grand cru, or Grosse Lage quality. The current owner, Ernst Loosen, is building a beautiful new tasting room addition to the main house outside of Bernkastel. It should open to visitors this fall. In the meantime, tastings are available by appointment, booked via the website. Try to sample the small production “Reserve” line, denoting dry Riesling from top sites subject to extended aging. VDP member.

Mosel Valley Hotels

In the Countryside
Landhaus St. Urban
If you’re eager to enjoy more Nik Weis Riesling over an elegant dinner in the countryside, book a table at Rüssel’s Landhaus. Run by his sommelier sister Ruth and her talented chef and husband Harald Rüssel, the duo turns out gorgeous plates of locally-inspired fare paired to regional wines in a converted mill. Enjoy the terrace in the summer or sit inside the chic, recently renovated dining room. If you over-indulge, make a reservation at the adjoining hotel. The rooms are simple, but the scenery is the star anyway.

Weinromantik Hotel in Mosel Valley.

Weinromantik Hotel features a spa and several restaurants near the vines.

Near the Vineyards
Weinromantikhotel Richtershof
Near the banks of the Mosel River on the site of a winery dating from the 1600s, sits this mid-size, old-fashioned property. The floral motif in a pastel palette may evoke your grandmother’s notion of romantic décor, but its dated sensibility works in the setting. Several restaurants including a bistro bar, and an upscale dining room replete with wine cellar, keep guests busy after a day at the Roman-style spa and beauty salon.

Marchenhotel in Mosel Valley.

Marchenhotel has fairytale theme rooms and a snug restaurant.

In The Town of Bernkastel
Märchenhotel
Occasionally, you’ll want to dine in town and walk home rather than drive (because wine.) The village of Bernkastel-Kues offers a good selection of restaurants, wine bars, and time-capsule scenery without feeling garishly touristy. Towards the back of the Bernkastel-side and along the wall where the vineyards begin, is the Märchenhotel. The half-timbered, boutique property dates back to 1640. Room are decorated individually, each with a fairytale theme. (Märchen means folk- or fairy-tale.)

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Here’s Why You Should Care the Lowest pH Riesling in the World Comes From Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

BCValley

All Images by Lauren Mowery

If you missed my Village Voice column, here’s a second look…

Acid: wine needs it for balance. It makes your mouth salivate, cuts through fat and cream, keeps wines fresh, especially sweet ones, and helps them age gracefully in the bottle. But too much of it, and the drinking experience mimics sucking a tart, mouth-puckering lemon. Too little of it, and the wine tastes flabby, or flat, or even syrupy like bad, store-bought Margarita mix.

Bright, zesty wines have long been considered the provenance of the Old World. Self-proclaimed “acid freaks” who love the crackling, electric tension (myself included, to the detriment of my teeth), track regions where high-acid levels occur naturally. Chablis, Austria, Germany, and Northern Italy, for example, reliably produce laser-sharp, racy whites. But pH levels taken from a global pool of rieslings uncovered an interesting phenomenon: the semi-desert grape-growing region of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada — the New World — delivered some of the lowest numbers ever recorded.

Acid, naturally occurring in grapes, diminishes as they ripen, especially in warm climates. The general backlash against the over-ripening of fruit, and trend towards picking earlier to create wines with “balance” (simplified: less ripeness in grapes means lower sugar levels and higher acid, which makes lower alcohol and higher acid wines) is in full-throttle, but not all growers have the luxury of retaining acid levels naturally after fermentation. Wines from hot zones like South Australia and Central California often require an addition of tartaric acid (which comes as a big bag of white powder, and gets measured and dumped in like sugar in a cake recipe).

Let’s geek out for a moment on pH. This scale from zero to fourteen measures acidity versus alkalinity. A pH of seven is neutral. The higher the number, the more alkaline or basic the substance, like root vegetables. The lower the number, the more acidic the substance is, like apples. Most white wines fall between three to four pH; reds lean a bit higher, depending on the variety.

Riesling specialist Stuart Pigott ran a story on the variety’s range of pH levels in the December 2013 issue of Wine & Spirits. The lowest pH wine he’d ever encountered in the world was “the off-dry 2012 Platinum from Cedar Creek in the Okanagan, with an astonishing pH 2.73.” He noted that “the only wines that sometimes match that figure are chardonnay base wines for Champagne, deliberately picked early to get that acid.”

You might be wondering why anyone would want to drink a wine with such a low pH if high acid levels equate to a jarring tartness. Well, sometimes you wouldn’t. Just as acid can be added to wine, it can also be removed. But the key here is balance; Okanagan rieslings have equilibrium because their fruit expressions soften sharp edges, as do the occasional, small amounts of sugar left in some wines. (Think about lemonade: the synergy of sugar and lemon juice is greater than the sum of its parts.)

PaintedRockVin

While this isn’t exactly fresh news to the industry, the revelation lacked relevance to the average New York consumer because British Columbia’s wines weren’t available in our market. Until now.

Recently launched on the Wines of B.C. website, an e-commerce platform makes available select bottles from a small portfolio of boutique producers, directly to New York consumers. The selection won’t overwhelm you into indecision, but there’s enough to whet your palate. Plus, shipping costs are relatively nominal (although the wines are rather expensive).

Located a four hour drive east of Vancouver in south central British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley has around 130 producers spread across sub-regions like Kelowna, Naramata, Oliver/Osoyoos, Summerland, and the neighboring Similkameen Valley.
The Okanagan is considered the northernmost fine wine producing region in the world. (Although climate change is pushing the latitudinal reach of vitis vinifera further into Northern Europe).

The lake- and wilderness-dense countryside encompasses a stunning 125-mile swath of patchwork vineyards running south to the border with Washington State. The semi-arid desert climate provides hot, dry summers and long sunlight hours for the ripening of grapes, with cool nights helping to retain fresh acidity.

Not sold on Wines of B.C., but available in the New York market, are the rieslings of Tantalus. Winemaker David Paterson and vineyard manager Warwick Shaw are experts at transforming the grape into a transparent, piercing expression of their vineyard sites. Tense, almost quivering, lemon-lime notes snap like pop rocks above a chalky, mineral complexion.

Riesling isn’t the only grape to enjoy the favor of the climate and soils. Vivid pinot noir, chiseled syrah, savory cab franc and attractive Bordeaux blends, show promise in the red category. Available on the B.C. site, Meyer Family specializes in pinot, and Black Hills Estate and Painted Rock produce some of the region’s most serious red blends. Until more producers penetrate the competitive NYC market, however, my best advice for exploring Okanagan Valley wines: go there, and bring along a big suitcase.

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