“Ah, classic aromas of petrol on the nose.” Professional wine speak can sound silly at the best of times, but the description that invariably makes punters splutter into their Paris goblets is the one used to describe the smell of mature riesling. We cork dorks can try talking about kerosene or garage forecourts instead, but the reaction is always the same. As John McEnroe once put it in another context: “You cannot be serious.”
We don’t mean it literally, of course. But that may change if a new highway, currently under construction in Germany, is completed. If the politicians in the Rheinland-Pfalz get their way, the B50 between Wittlich and Longkamp will include a 500 foot high road bridge over the Mosel River. The snappily-entitled Hochmoselübergang will pass close to Ürzig, home of some of the most celebrated riesling vineyards on earth.
Several issues are at stake here. The first, according to Knut Aufermann of the Pro-Mosel pressure group (www.pro-mosel.de), is that the bridge is unnecessary and will waste millions of euros of German taxpayers’ money. It was originally mooted in the 1960s as a fast track between the American military bases at Bitburg and Hahn. Now that the Cold War is over, it is being touted as a link between the North Sea ports and Frankfurt, despite the fact that the journey can be done much faster using the current road network. Even the EU has declined to back the project.
The second issue is about aesthetics. The Mosel is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, right up there with the Douro Valley, the Cape Winelands, Central Otago, the Languedoc and parts of northern Argentina. There are plenty of existing (and considerably more discreet) bridges across the Mosel, so why build an over-sized concrete monstrosity high above one of its loveliest sections?
The third issue is about damage to a fragile eco-system. Once it has crossed the river, the B50 will pass close to other famous wine villages, including Graach, Zeltingen and Bernkastel. Winemakers are worried that the deep trenches that will be dug to accommodate the highway will affect the complex drainage system in the vineyards, leading to problems with drought. There’s also the question of pollution. Will diesel fumes affect the grapes? Will the resulting wines smell more strongly of unleaded?
If there’s a silver lining to this particularly gloomy cloud it is that the protest against the bridge, supported by wine writing luminaries Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, has focused people’s attention on the unique qualities of Mosel Riesling. At their best, these are some of the lightest, purest and most ethereal whites of all. Wine professionals invariably nominate Mosel Riesling among their favourite tipples.
Sadly, these wines struggle to excite most consumers, partly because they are wrongly associated with sugary Liebfraumilch and other cheap German brews, despite the fact that Lieb is made in a different place and from different grapes. At their best Mosel Rieslings are certainly sweet, or at least medium-sweet, but they never seem heavy or cloying thanks to pronounced levels of natural acidity in the wines. The balance between sourness and sweetness is everything.
The good news for fans of German Rieslings, and not only those from the Mosel, is that they are ludicrously cheap. If you leave out the top dessert wines, produced in small quantities at correspondingly high prices, you can drink delicious, medium sweet Kabinett and Spätlese for less than £15, sometimes with considerable bottle age. Germany has had an unprecedented run of good to great vintages – 2006 was the only problematic harvest of the last decade – so there are plenty of good wines on the shelf.
Low prices come at a cost, however, at least for the winemakers. Plantings in the Mosel have fallen by 25% in the last 10 years, with some of the best sites left bare. The younger generation is reluctant to farm such steep vineyards, labour costs are high and the return is poor. The proposed Mosel road bridge would undoubtedly affect the region, but the neglect of wine drinkers is arguably more damaging still.
2008 The Naked Grape Riesling, Pfalz (£6.49, 11.5%, Booths; £6.99, Waitrose)
Produced in the more southerly Pfalz region, where the wines tend to be a little drier and higher in alcohol, this entry point German riesling is juicy and faintly exotic, with flavours of white peach and nectarine.
2008 Dr L Riesling, Mosel (from £6.79, 8.5%, Majestic, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Oddbins, Booths, Tesco)
Some retailers may have moved on to the 2009 vintage of this ultra-reliable Mosel brand, but don’t worry: both years are equally good. This is crisp, appley and light-bodied with just enough sweetness for balance.
2008 Mineralstein Riesling, Pfalz/Mosel (£6.99, 11.5%, Marks & Spencer)
Clever old M&S have combined grapes from the Mosel and the Pfalz here, to create a wine that combines flavours from both regions. Perky and just off-dry, this is floral and fresh with racy acidity and classic Riesling finesse.
2002 Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese, (£8.99, or £8.49 each for two, 7.5%, Majestic)
It’s amazing that you can find mature riesling as good as this on the market for less than a tenner. The wine has just started to develop those delicious bottle-aged characters of fresh lime, toast and (dare I say it?) petrol.
2008 Meulenhof Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett, Mosel (£9.90, 8.5%, Tanners, 01743 234500; www.tanners-wines.co.uk)
This is a bit of a mouthful to pronounce, but utterly wonderful on the palate: light, bright and youthful, with apple orchard aromas, a touch of spritz, pin point acidity and haunting balance between acidity and peachy sweetness.
2008 Dr Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett (£12.49, 7.5%, Waitrose)
The Mosel bridge would pass very close to this amazing riesling vineyard, which produces famously spicy wines. This is still very young, but it’s already a very complex wine, with notes of blackcurrant leaf, pepper and yellow peach.
Originally published in The Times