I face a tasting of one hundred and forty wines at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. We are in Bernkastel, Germany, on the Mosel River to which our ship glided over crystal calm waters reflecting steep hillside vineyards and colorful buildings of the still sleepy town. We are at the heart of German wine country, the region known as Mosel-Saar. Riesling is king here.
We have traveled up the Rhine, a much wider, busier river lined with storybook castles, and turned into the Mosel, its tributary, at Koblenz, sailing though small, scenic German towns spread along the river. The surrounding hillsides are steep and planted with vineyards. They are a collection of small plots, the scale of the agriculture small here compared to California. Numerous ma-and-pa wineries toil their land laboriously, one thousand human hours per hectare. The grapes are hand picked.
We take a walking tour of Bernkastel, witnessing its charming squares lined with ornate facades, a rickety slanted building off on one side peeking through a small side street. The castle that gave rise
to its name is high atop the hill with a large construction crane overpowering its profile. Our tour guide explains that with global warming the quality of wines here has dramatically increased and there have been no bad vintages in the last decade. “Spatlese can now be had every year,” he says.
We visit the most famous vineyard in Germany. Doctor’s Vineyard is, like all others, on a steep slope of 45 to 60 degrees and covers only 8.1 acres of land. Like To Kalon in Napa it is a named vineyard that has achieved fame beyond its own confines. It produces Riesling for the H. Thanisch winery and commands prices higher than others.
There is a legendary story behind its peculiar name. In medieval times, it is said, a certain Boemund II, Archbishop of Trier, a larger town upriver, took ill and was dying. No remedy could cure him. Then someone offered him some wine from this vineyard. You can guess the miracle and subsequent fame that followed. So it acquired the name Doctor’s Vineyard.
We then walk across the river to the town of Kues, to visit the Mosel Vinothek for a unique tasting experience. This is touted as a wine museum run by the non-profit Hisanus Foundation, but it is actually a cooperative that features local winemakers’ products. The format is most unusual. There are 140 different labels, all available for sampling at a modest price. They are located in a basement cellar complex beneath a small tasting bar upstairs.Dark and dank, with multiple crossing corridors, it is a self-service place, where wine bottles are uncorked and available in open cylindrical cooling units.
Each bottle is numbered and the numbers correspond to posters that describe the winery, winemaker and wine in great detail. The walls of the cellar are fully lined with these posters. They are in German but key elements are easily decipherable for a non-speaker like myself. Wine language is universal.
It is a Riesling heaven here, over 80% being this varietal, in numerous styles. Most are bone dry, some with floral aromas, others with the classic motor-oil nose, some of higher extraction, others crisp and mineraly. One small hallway is devoted to sweeter Rieslings. It comprises only a quarter of the offerings. Who says German whites are all sweet?
I sample a few. I spit them all out like a professional. It is, after all, 10 a.m.There are other varietals here. The reds, segregated into a small corridor are uniformly bad. A few unusual white varietals, Auxerrois, Rivaner, Elbling provide a change of pace. I walk along all the hallways and scan the posters. After randomly tasting about a dozen I discover the only Gewurztraminer in the entire place. Its floral, full bodied texture provides a welcome coda for the experience. So I think.
I would like to spend more time here, try to appreciate the nuances of all the Reislings. But the ship is due to sail soon. I depart the dark basement for the sunlit tasting bar upstairs where, we were told, we could sample a Thadisch Riesling from the famous Doctor Vineyard. It’s a 2013, with a wonderful nose, deep golden color, thick buttery texture, a sweet mid-palate of mostly tropical fruits – pineapples in particular – and a long acid finish. Very nice.
By now I am the only one left there from our group. I hastily depart and cross the scenic bridge over the Mosel back to our ship in Bernkastel. A strong fruity aftertaste lingers in my mouth and I wish for more wine. But it is still morning and we have more cruising and sightseeing to do. It will have to wait until dinner.