Jan 2009 issue
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TERROIR Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Mosel, Germany Jesse Becker, MS
“There’s something I have to do,” I said to my wife as we stood at the edge of the road, looking up the massive vertical face of one of Germany’s most renowned vineyards, toward the Sonnenuhr that belongs to the nearby village of Wehlen.
This giant sundial, built into a rocky outcropping from the perpendicular vineyard wall, has appeared in countless photographs as an example of the steeply angled vineyards found in the heart of the Mosel River valley. Having studied the wines and the pictures for many years, I couldn’t pass up the chance to gain a first-hand perspective on one of my favorite regions and, of course, to make my personal pilgrimage up to the sundial.
The Mosel River winds for 340 miles from its origin in the Vosges Mountains of France, where it is known as the Moselle. Crossing the border in the Lorraine region, it enters southwestern Germany, serving as a dividing line between the Eifel highlands to the north and the lush hills of the Hunsrück to the south, before joining the Rhine River at Koblenz.
Over the centuries, the Mosel has carved through rock and slate to create one of the world’s greatest terroirs for white wines. Together with its tributaries, the Ruwer and Saar rivers, it forms the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer—one of the 13 major German wine regions known as Anbaugebieten —which is roughly delimited by the towns of Koblenz to the northeast and Trier to the southwest. As of the 2007 vintage, the authorities have simplified the name to just Mosel.
The Mosel Anbaugebiete is situated at about 50º north latitude, nearly the same as Winnipeg, Canada. But its Riesling vineyards are planted on the south-facing slopes above the river, where they can capture the sunlight reflecting off the Mosel and thus enjoy a slightly more temperate climate and longer vegetative period. The wines produced here are known for their extraordinary delicacy, tensile aromas, low alcohol, vibrant acidity, crisp freshness, and subtle elegance. Because Riesling is so sensitive to its terroir, this is a style of white wine that cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the world.
A 12-mile stretch of the river between Piesport and Bernkastel-Kues, known as the Middle Mosel, contains the region’s noblest vineyards—including, on the northern end, the Piesporter Goldtröpchen, the Brauneberger Juffer, and the Erdener Prälat and Treppchen. Of particular note is the Ürziger Würzgarten (literally, “spice garden”), which is famous for producing wines with exotic Christmas-cookie aromas, derived from its uniquely red, rather than blue, slate soil. If you keep driving south from Ürzig, you arrive at the village of Zeltingen, boasting its own Sonnenuhr vineyard, contiguous to the Wehlener one in a natural amphitheater with a southwestern exposure. A little farther to the south, Graach an der Mosel presents an impressive wall of vineyards: the Graacher Himmelreich and Domprobst, two steep and soaring sites on classic Devonian blue slate, and the Josephshöfer, an Alleinbesitz (“monopole”) of Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt.
Just before the river takes another sharp turn to the west, it reaches the town of Bernkastel, home of three more excellent sites: the Alte Badstube am Doktorberg, the Doktor, and the Lay. The Badstube provides a more mineral expression of Riesling, while the Doktor shows its grand cru pedigree with a luxuriantly wrapped power. Wines from the Bernkasteler Lay, according to Ernie Loosen of the Dr. Loosen winery, “taste harder and straighter and are more linear” than their Middle Mosel counterparts directly to the north. The Graach vineyards represent a transition from the gracefulness of Bernkastel to the richness that often characterizes the Wehlener Sonnenuhr.
Sundials are found in vineyards throughout Germany—“always on a south-facing slope,” says Loosen—and were often built so that village and vineyard workers could tell the time of day. In fact, the Wehlener sundial can be read from the village of Wehlen, which sits directly across the river on the north-facing side. This and the Zeltingen sundials were both built in 1842 by Jodocus Prüm of the highly reputed J.J. Prüm winery. Even today, most of the blocks in the Sonnenuhr vineyards belong to descendants of the 12th-century winemaker Herhardus Hermann Prüm, although they have since been divided among various branches of the Prüm family.
The major difference between the Wehlener Sonnenuhr and its neighbors lies in its nearly 100% slate soils. I was surprised to learn that there is virtually no topsoil—only slate going down about 2,600 feet—but I recognized this phenomenon as soon as I began my climbing pilgrimage to the sundial. Perched on the 50º slope, pieces of slate ranging from the size of a quarter to the size of my palm slipped and shifted continuously underfoot, making the climb more perilous than I had anticipated. As in other Mosel vineyards, the slate is inhospitable not only to climbers, but to phylloxera, which began to devastate other parts of Germany in 1872. Loosen can still claim completely ungrafted Riesling vines in his Sonnenuhr parcels—perhaps offering another clue to the special character of this terroir.
Loosen says the Sonnenuhr soil is the purest Devonian blue slate of any Mosel vineyard, but Katharina Prüm of J.J. Prüm calls it more of a “grayish black,” telling us that she and Loosen have debated this color difference more than once. Whether it’s gray or blue, the slate is undoubtedly the reason why the wines of this vineyard deliver such an unusual combination of raciness mixed with richness, of purity coupled with force. Prüm adds that “the Sonnenuhr is unique in its ability to produce extraordinary balance at all levels of Prädikat .” I agree—they are the most elegantly powerful Rieslings found in all the Mosel.