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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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Featured at Big Glou, Six Natural Wine Producers to Try Now

Image by Lauren Mowery

Trento in Trentino, Italy where Elisabetta Foradori produces natural wines.

The Big Glou, New York’s first fair dedicated wholly to natural wines, made its debut in February at the Wythe Hotel. Guillhaume Gerard (of Selection Massale) and Lee Campbell (wine director at Reynard) wanted to host a New York–based wine event akin to Dive Bouteille in Saumur, France, or Vini di Vignaioli near Parma, Italy. Thus, the Big Glou (that’s French for “gulp”) was born.

Throughout the weekend, a hundred vintners showcased their selections of natural wines at the Wythe. Icons of the natural-wine world — like Pierre Breton from the Loire Valley — were on hand to pour their goods and interact with wine lovers. The two-day affair drew sold-out crowds to the hotel, with long queues of enthusiastic oenophiles curling around the event.

Natural wine is generally derived from organic, biodynamic, or (at the very least) sustainable vineyards. Vintners eschew most modern technology in favor of doing vineyard processes by hand — from pruning to picking. Instead of adding commercial yeast, fermentation kicks off spontaneously, and wines are treated with minimal handling. The ethos of “nothing added, nothing taken away” is key, but if you’re still confused about what’s a “natural wine” and what isn’t — you’re not alone. Not even the French can arrive at a satisfactory definition.

Gerard describes the Big Glou as “controlled chaos,” comparing the festival’s vibe to that of a crowded bar where you can still manage to have a conversation. “I like to think that every table and every producer enjoyed a crowd for a certain amount of time,” he says. “Then the crowd moved on — like bar-hopping.”

Attendees were given tasting glasses —  a festival souvenir worth keeping — and sent on their way through a maze of rooms to sample dozens of wines. Afterwards, natural-wine-friendly venues around the city, like the Ten Bells, filled up with winemakers and bons vivants gathering post-Glou to keep the party going.

Gerard was thrilled by the event turnout and considers the first-ever Big Glou a success. So will there be a part two?

“We certainly have plans to do it again next year,” Gerard says. “It would be a mistake not to keep this going. For now, though, Lee and I just need to rest a little. Pulling this off was quite exhausting. For me, as a wine importer, it basically meant three weeks straight of entertaining winemakers and clients.”

Winemakers from around the world came to the Big Glou, and according to Gerard, they were pleased with the event, too. “It is a very European thing, what we did,” Gerard says. “It wasn’t so much about taking wine tasting notes and having a meaningful conversation with a winemaker — it was more of a big party where one could taste the newly released wines and discover new producers.”

A packed crowd inside the Wythe Hotel during Big Glou.

A few years ago, the natural wine category was much like the Supreme Court’s once-infamous characterization of porn: it lacked clearly defined parameters, but you knew it when you saw tasted it. Wines were funky, textured, cloudy, yeasty, and unpredictable. They were often fraught with bottle variation, fizzy when they shouldn’t be (or did the winemaker intend for the juice to referment?) Colors came in shades of Lipton tea, obscuring the wine’s identity as white, red, or rose.

The wines at Big Glou bore little relationship to the experiments and inconsistencies of the past. They were well-made, fresh, and deeply enjoyable while interesting. But mostly, they tasted alive. They reflected a vigorous energy that’s often lacking in the dull matte of highly commercial, conventionally-produced wines. Are they better? For the moment, that’s an insoluble idea; they are just different.

If you missed the fair or are new to natural wine, here are six producers who poured at the Big Glou and have natural wines available in New York City:

Jean Foillard of Beaujolais, France
A familiar name to longtime natural-wine enthusiasts, Jean and Agnès Foillard’s wine practically quivered with tension. In Beaujolais, the two own a large portion of old vine gamay (a type of purple grape) parcels and sites on Morgon’s renowned Côte du Py. Their Morgon Corcelette 2014 revealed a heady perfume of violet florals and red fruits underscored by a stony, mineral character. In short, it was absolutely beguiling. A single sip will summon memories of your first kiss. Or your first heartbreak. Importer: Kermit Lynch

Foradori of Trentino, Italy
Elisabetta Foradori’s focus is on teroldego, a red Italian grape, which she farms on biodynamic vines in the Northern Italian valley of Trentino. Foradori brought three reds to the Big Glou, and one of them was a true showstopper: the Granato 2011. Derived from her oldest vineyards, the wine had layers of savory earthiness over a pristine layer of bramble fruit and spice. The Granato 2011 is a winning argument to acquaint yourself with teroldego grapes. Importer: Louis Dressner

Enderle & Moll of Baden, Germany
Spätburgunder (or German pinot noir) gets far too little attention in the U.S. — perhaps because very little of it reaches our shelves. Those who can find it are rewarded by a Burgundy-like wine. Much of Germany’s pinot is produced in Baden, one of the country’s warmest growing regions, and that’s where Enderle & Moll is based. While the operation is small and fairly young — Sven Enderle and Florian Moll’s first vintage was in 2007 — it has already established a reputation for achieving the elusive taste balance between power and elegance. Enderle and Moll work everything by hand, turning out pinots (such as the Liaison) using an old basket press. Importer: vom Boden

Breton of Loire Valley, France
Pierre and Catherine Breton have been working on organic and biodynamic wines in the Loire Valley since 1990 and effectively spearheaded natural-wine production in the region. Just don’t call Pierre a legend. “That term is reserved for dead people whose portraits hang on walls,” he jokes. The Bretons make an extraordinary, site-sensitive cabernet franc and chenin blanc from eleven hectares of vines in Chinon, Bourgueil, and Vouvray (though only their leafy-fresh and fragrant cab made an appearance at the Big Glou). Importer: Kermit Lynch 

Andi Knauss of Swabia, Germany 
Swabia sits in the southwestern corner of Germany, and within its boundaries lie the territories Württemberg and Baden, the latter of which gets recognition for its pinot noir (like Enderle & Moll’s, above). Despite being one of the largest grape-growing areas, the designation “Swabian” has rarely been applied — until now. Andi Knauss hails from the Württemberg side of Swabia, producing wines typical of the area: namely lemberger (also called blaufränkisch) and trollinger. He makes several versions of lemberger, which he calls the pinot noir of his area, but Knauss only brought his “Lemberger G” (a Swabian beaujolais and one of his “estate” wines) to taste at the Big Glou. The wine’s mouth-tingling acidity showed freshness and liveliness with a core of fruits and tannins as fine-grained as Mexican drinking chocolate. Meanwhile, Knauss’s trollinger (a/k/a his “breakfast wine”) clocks in at only 9.5 percent alcohol — which means you can have a sip or two with your eggs benedict over brunch. He’s also turning out an excellent young vine riesling with 35-year-old young vines — a commodity that American vintners would love to get their hands on. Importer: Selection Massale

Montesecondo of Tuscany, Italy
This isn’t your parents’ Chianti. Silvio and Catalina Messana — formerly New Yorkers — run Montesecondo just outside of Florence, Italy. The family brought six wines to the Big Glou, including their Chianti Classico DOCG and Toscana Rosso IGT. Each selection had its charms, but the clay-amphora-aged Sangiovese TIN stood out against the rest. The Sangiovese TIN delivered an unusual harmony, with hints of earth, fruit, and acid. If this is the new face of Tuscan wine, we have a lot to look forward to. Importer: Louis Dressner 

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