Heroes of the Terrassen: Mosel's steepest vineyards

5/15/23 -

The Northern stretch of the Mosel from where it empties into the Rhine at Koblenz down about 100km to Punderich is home to Europe's steepest vineyards. The Mosel Terraces form a unique landscape, very different from that of the more famous Middle Mosel.The microclimate is warmer, the vineyards more vertiginous, and viticulture more difficult here. The hand-built terraces that give the region its name have always been essential to enabling vines to grow in the cold macroclimate and steep terrain.  These vineyards were largely abandoned by younger generations from the 1950s onwards, as the siren song of city life and less backbreaking and slippery work lured many away. Although planted to vines by the Romans, the High Middle Ages was the epoch when manual laborers began to build stable terrace walls - based on skills learned in constructing castles in challenging engineering situations on rocky ridges and above steep precipices. The terrace walls were mainly of dry stone construction because the amount of mortar required for the irregular rubble stone used would just have been too expensive. As these vineyards were slowly abandoned, their terraces also fell into disrepair. The focus of this email is to highlight a new generation of young viticultors who are reclaiming this lost territory, painstakingly rebuilding the old, crumbling terraces and cultivating the sometimes 100+ year old vines. Some are following in their fathers' footsteps; others are drawn to the relatively inexpensive  real estate for the Mosel and viticultural challenge to pick up the gauntlet. In short, the region is becoming a hotbed of young,  extreme viticulture heroes. Today's email will look at these three: Franzen, Knebel and Materne& Schmitt.

Kilian and Angelina Franzen atop the Calmont in Bremm

We start our trip heading north along the Mosel at the home of Franzen in Bremme. Kilian and his wife, who were childhood sweethearts & classmates at the renowned Enology University in Geisenheim, had to suddenly return from school to take over when Kilian's father suddenly died in a tractor accident on the steep slopes. They didn't hesitate to take over and continue the hard work his father had started in the 80s. At the start of the 21st century, Ulrich Franzen started to buy up all the small adjoining plots to unify the 2 kilometer long Calmont into one amphitheater  (of which they now own and farm 12.5 acres). He also started installing extensive monorail systems ( no more falling tractors). The last thing you’ll hear from Kilian and Angelina are complaints: “Even though the maintenance of the steepest vineyards in Europe is one of the most physically demanding and intensive tasks we have, the preservation of this cultural landscape and continuation of hundreds of years of tradition fills us with pride and motivation every day. We tumbled into the adventure of our lives and know to treasure every moment of it". The Calmont vineyards are dominated by quartzite and red slate, the color coming from oxidized iron content. The ground here warms faster and stores heat better than elsewhere in the Mosel due to the optimal exposition, numerous rocks and walls, and high percentage of stone in the soil. The vines’ root systems struggle for water and cope with limited supply by giving lower yields and smaller berries, making the Calmont wines in Kilian’s words, “a bit more powerful, a bit wider, and with a little more character.” We will honor the Franzen's commitment and sacrifice with their famous Zeit cuvee that takes over a year to ferment, an hommage to Riesling winemaking of yore. Continuing up north along the Mosel, our other Heroes can be found in  the town of Winningen: Mathias Knebel and Materne& Schmitt.  Before we enter Winningen, we drive  past one of the greatest Riesling vineyards in Germany, the Uhlen. The mighty terrace system looks extremely archaic; this slope is sometimes compared to the facade of a mighty Gothic cathedral. And because the microclimate can sometimes be subtropical here in summer, it is an ideal habitat for snakes, lizards and a particularly rare butterfly, the "Apollo Vinningensis". The main difference between the southern and northern part of the Terrassen Mosel is that the northern vineyards are all grey and blue slate whereas the southern are mostly red slate, hence a little spicier. However, just a little farther south on the border of the Terrassen Mosel and the Middle Mosel, Clemens Busch has vineyards of all three colors of slate respectively, so there are no general geological rules.

Uhlen vinyard with it's terraces and vertical monorails


Mathias with a pix of him looking at his vineyards

Like the Franzens, Mathias Knebel and Materne & Schmitt are also Geisenheim alums. However the family histories are different.  Like the Franzens, Mathias was just starting school at Geisenheim when his father Rheinhard suddenly passed away. But  his mother Beate took over the helm for the next 4 years allowing Matthias to attend and complete his studies before returning and working with a group of interns and temps. 8 years later, he was invited to join the VDP. His focus has been mainly on dry Riesling that showcases the difference between vineyards in soil type and exposure. All his wines are fermented and aged in stainless as his goal is to showcase every angular singularity between the terroirs and vintages. Unfortunately, the single vineyard wines, such as the UHLEN pictured above, are still on a boat, so we will offer his "entry level" riesling which is nonetheless sourced from all these terraced vineyards for a ridiculous low price!

Hanging out on a terrace wall...

Mathias's neighbors are the lovely and feisty Rebecca Materne & Janina Schmitt. They met while attending Geisenheim but unlike the Franzens and the Knebels, do not come from wine families or even regions. After finishing school, they left to intern in various regions such as South Africa, Napa Valley, Provence, Austria, the Rhine and the middle Mosel! In 2012 the friends united to share the position of cellar master for the legendary Heymann-Löwenstein in the Terrassen Mosel. It was then that they started plotting their own empire and slowly started leasing vineyard sites and making their own wine from the nearby villages of Winningen, Kobern, and Lehmen. They decided in 2014 to go full time with their own estate of 40 scattered sites and moved into their own winery in Winningen.

"Sisters are doing it for themselves" should be our song.....
  "Right?" says Janina
"Hell yeah" says Rebecca

I had the pleasure of meeting Germany's Thelma and Louise at a seminar at their distributor's office in New York. They were showing us lots of slides and maps of the vineyards. One of the pictures was of them with their  hubbies. When they were describing how hard it was for them when they started out and had to rebuild the crumbling terraces, I asked if they had a monorail. Janina looked at me and said "Yes, but then you have to carry that f*ing heavy stone from the monorail fifty meters to the part of the terrace you're working on. I couldn't do it, it was too heavy." I then stupidly asked why their husbands didn't help. She smiled and said "Well, they have their own wine project of course, they're not going to have their wife be their boss!" So in honor of our scrappy ladies, we are offering three of their single vineyard wines which their hands and legs climbed up and down, rebuilt, cultivated and harvested: 2019 Winninger, Koberner and 2020 Lehmener. Each one has different soil types: Winninger is grey slate with quartz, iron and sulfur; Koberner is mostly blue slate and Lehmener is grey-blue slate with fossils from an ancient coral reef.

These young heroes offer us a chance to taste three different styles/ tiers of riesling ; a dry entry level; a feinherb with an extremely long fermentation and three single village dry wines. Naturally, I say get one of each and help support these young heroes in their valiant undertakings!

Giselle Hamburg

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