As I exited the German autobahn towards Bernkastel and onto the local roads which bordered on forests and plains I started to wonder if I was in the right place — could there be vineyards around here? After two turns and a rather steep descent there was no doubt I had indeed arrived — the Mosel Valley, home to some of the best Rieslings in the world. At first glance it’s breathtaking — rows of vineyards perched on steep slopes descending towards the river, offering up a spectacular visual display of rock and vine. I asked myself, why have I never been here, only a 40 minute drive away from my home town in Luxembourg? It seemed ridiculous to never have visited until now.
As I focused my attention back to the road towards the winery of VinConnect partner Dr. Loosen, my thoughts turned to the difficulties one must encounter to working such magnificent vineyards. I can only imagine trying to harvest grapes here — some of the slopes are almost vertical cliffs.
On arrival to Dr. Loosen I met with Ernie Loosen, who quickly whisked me out into the vineyards to get a real sense for the terrain. As I clambered my way up into the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Vineyard behind Ernie my predictions of the arduous conditions were confirmed as I struggled to stand, let alone climb. Ernie must have some talented vineyard workers — I certainly wouldn’t be much help, more of a hazard. I was both surprised and shocked when Ernie told me that the vineyard work was about to get much easier. How could it get easier, I wondered? Will they have better shoes or better picks, or an easier method of climbing? No, they won’t have any of those things, but they will have better and easier access to the vines through the “reorganization” of this vineyard.
The “reorganization” of vineyards is a concept which was started in 1953 in the Pfalz region with the objective of regrouping vineyards into larger parcels so that a given winemaker would have all of his Grand Cru, 1er Cru or Village vines in a given parcel consolidated as much as possible, rather than in dozens of different areas. It also includes the development and insertion of roads into the steep hills to enable winemakers access to their vineyards from both above and below.
In vineyards that have not been reorganized a winemaker may own vines of various classes in various areas. For example they may have one row of vines in one area but then also own another 5 vines a couple rows to the left of that which are of the same class, and then 4 more a few rows after that — it’s all amazingly disorganized. This chaos stems from “Napoleonic Law” which centuries ago ensured that family property would be split up equally between male children, and which has had a similar impact on Burgundy vineyard holdings. As time passed vineyards were divided again and again until eventually individuals owned only a few vines here and there.
To give you an idea, Dr. Loosen before reorganization owned about 11.5 acres total in the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Vineyard that were made up of some 186 separate parcels. Each of these parcels was not directly accessible by road and often had to be hiked into to perform vineyard work and the harvest. This made for a tremendous amount of work, approximately 1600 man hours per acre, which is not surprising given the extreme landscape and number of times workers had to trek all over.
Although most of the vineyards in the Pfalz region of Germany have been reorganized by now, some such as Wehlener Sonnenuhr Vineyard continue to undergo the process and others simply do not have enough winemakers in favor of reorganization. In order for a vineyard to begin to undergo the reorganization process ⅔ of the vineyard surface owners must agree to it — if not then nothing can be done. In the case of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Vineyard it only took 20 owners who own ⅔ of the total surface of the vineyard out of total 120 to implement the change.
The reorganization process is a long (about 10 years) and costly one, with the growers responsible for paying 30% of the total cost of the construction and administration, as well as any costs associated with re-planting once the new vineyards have been redistributed. When the reorganization was announced in the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Vineyard many small growers decided to sell their parcels, either because it was too disruptive or too costly — thus this vineyard of 100 acres went from having 120 owners/growers total to now only 30.
As soon as the reorganization is approved, the state takes control and ownership of all of the vines. In addition to paying 30% of the total cost of the reorganization each grower must be willing to give up 10% of his total property which he will not get back. The 10% essentially is developed into roads above and below most of the vineyards. This means that if they had of total of 10 acres before reorganization (5 acres Grand Cru, 3 acres Premier Cru and 2 acres of village) they would get back 9 acres after reorganization (4.5 acres Grand Cru, 2.7 acres Premier Cru and 1.8 acres of village). During the reorganization growers are given the opportunity to trade up or down in quality if there is enough demand and supply. The state determines the rate of exchange and if you are willing to give up 1 acre of Premier Cru for example you might be able to get your hands on .75 acres of Grand Cru.
After the reorganization of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Vineyard is complete Dr. Loosen will have increased their holdings to about 25 acres (from the purchase of sold vineyards) across only 9 parcels, as opposed to the 186 they had before. Man hours of labor per acre are estimated to be reduced from 1600 to around 400, a huge difference! Unfortunately Dr. Loosen will have lost 3 acres due to the placement of roads, but it’s all for a much better cause so I don’t think they are too unhappy.
As we headed back to the winery to taste through the wines from the different vineyards I sensed an overwhelming amount of respect and relief for those who are out performing vineyard work. While the can’t escape the steep gradient of the vines they will at least have better access to them and an easier time working and harvesting the grapes from the various parcels.
There is so much that goes into to producing these elegant and mineral driven gems, more than most people would think. We taste through wines from the Ürziger Würzgarten, Erdener Treppchen, and Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyards, and at various levels of sweetness such as Kabinett, Spätlese, and Auslese, all have such uniquely different characteristics and flavor profiles. Perhaps the most interesting of all though iwa unlabeled bottle of 1987 Riesling which was fabulous – these wines can really age spectacularly well, this one in particular still had incredible freshness.
After a day in the vines and a fabulous tasting I headed back to my hotel into the tiny village of Bernkastel and told myself I must come back again soon and really take advantage of a full weekend here, to do the popular river cruise and taste through many more Rieslings.