It’s the fifth day of our trip through the German vineyards of the Mosel Valley, and we’ve had a lot of wine.
But not as much as Georg.
Georg has spent the evening as he spends most evenings: stopping by each table, welcoming people to his winery. And, being a hospitable sort, he has had a glass of wine at each stop.
Georg’s wife, on the other hand, is quite sober. A 40-something woman with sensibly cut brown hair, Hildegard is low-key but affable. When we arrive, it’s about 6 in the evening, and she’s saying goodbye to a table of college-age women who are sprawled, laughing, around a table laden with six empty wine bottles. I’m guessing that it has been a long afternoon.
We’re here for a winery tour and dinner, so Hildegard takes us around the 200-year-old Von Nell winery. She nods toward the pictures of six generations of Von Nells as she leads us briskly into the bowels of the Weingut G.F. Von Nell, on the outskirts of the ancient city of Trier, in Germany’s Mosel Valley. One great-uncle in this very Catholic part of the country was a Jesuit — the redoubtable-sounding Professor Doctor Oswald von Nell Breuning S.J. — but all the other paintings and photographs are of vintners whose faces display various degrees of mirth, and burst blood vessels. Sometimes, there’s a stolid-looking woman nailed up alongside.
Hildegard takes us to the big, modern fermenting room, with its shiny 2,000-liter stainless-steel vats. Farther along, there’s the old brick cellar her grandfather-in-law built. She points out notable crates of wine from various good years over the decades, including a stack of 1997s, from the year her son was born. We go deeper still, into the dark and tiny stone cellar built by her great-grandfather-in-law, with some bottles from her husband’s birth year that his parents had set aside. Back up the stairs, we emerge into the main dining room — a rustic, low-ceilinged affair faced entirely in rough-hewn wood — for supper.
Though we’ve ordered just two dishes, my fiance, Ryan, and I are still chipping away at them an hour later. The room is slowly emptying of its mostly German clientele. One last couple lean into each other, cuddling, as a waitress empties their last bottle into their glasses. Hildegard ushers Georg to our table. Her husband of 20 years lands on the bench beside me with a happy thud.
“How’s the wine?” he asks, eyeing our G.F. Von Nell 2010 Elegance, a feinherb (meaning that it’s slightly sweeter than half-dry but not as sweet as semi-sweet), wondering whether this is our first bottle. It is, and it’s almost empty. He waves his hand and gets us a bottle of Riesling, a Kabinett trocken, which indicates that it’s of moderately good quality, made from ripe-but-not-too-ripe grapes and on the dry end of the relatively sweet Riesling spectrum. (The Germans’ wine vocabulary, we’ve learned by this point, is as precise as their grammar.) “This is for drinking, not thinking,” Georg says of the roughly $12 bottle. He sips. We sip. There’s the characteristic Riesling fruitiness that, if you’re not paying attention, you might confuse for sweetness. It’s very light.
“I think you have to taste this twice to taste it,” he adds, taking a healthy swig this time. He smiles into his glass for a moment and takes another. We drain our glasses, and then the bottle, in short order. More bottles appear. An hour passes. We’re alone now. The staff is cleaning up, setting the tables for tomorrow, but Georg is already at home. He drapes his arm along the back of the bench and stretches his legs out under the table.
“You know, I didn’t want to go out with her in high school,” he says, swallowing and pointing at Hildegard, who’s standing across from him wearing a thin grin that says this is a story she has heard before. “But she wouldn’t leave me alone.”
If you haven’t spent an evening with a tipsy seventh-generation vintner, I’m guessing that you haven’t spent much time in German wine country.
German wine gets short shrift in most of the rest of the world, written off by enthusiasts as not being as exquisite as French, as hearty as Italian, as playful as Californian or as cheap as Chilean. Before this trip, I might have bought an Ontario Riesling or a California Gewurztraminer, but I wouldn’t have thought to look at the tiny selection of German wines that an average liquor store might have scraped together. But that was before.
In Germany’s Mosel Valley, though beer is usually on tap, you see almost no one drinking it. It’s wine, wine and more wine, served in stemware, tumblers and mugs. There’s even a soft-drink version, Federweisser, which is white wine in its half-fermented, bubbly state. It tastes like Fresca. Much of the wine here is grown from grapes you don’t find anywhere else, such as the translucently green Elbling, brought by the Romans, or the deep red Domina, developed by a German viticulturalist in the 1920s, which makes a surprisingly substantial and individual wine.
There are subtleties in the wines here. Over the course of many, many glasses, we noticed peach, vanilla, passion fruit, Bing cherry, cinnamon and a host of melons and berries. And that’s aside from the not-so-subtle pepperiness that underlies so many of the Rieslings, offsetting their mostly well-balanced fruits and acids.
So the drinking, we found, was at least as pleasant as the drink. As it should be.
Earlier on the day we met Hildegard and Georg, while driving along the banks of the Mosel, we pulled into what looked like a private driveway in the town of Schleich (pop. 192), after seeing a sign for a winery called Reh. A happy black-and-white dog of indiscriminate parentage, wearing boxer briefs, waddled over and barked desultorily until Winfried Reh came out. He was a big man, maybe in his late 40s, of the sort you’d never mistake for anything other than German, with a broad forehead, a broader face and a belly that was broader still, covered by a bright red polo shirt that matched his cheeks. He saw us looking at the dog’s nether regions and explained: Ben had just had surgery, and the briefs were the only way to keep him from pulling out his stitches. Fair enough.
We said we’d like to try some of his wine. Winfried pointed us to a bistro table in his driveway-cum-courtyard and went back inside. He emerged with a dry 2010 Riesling, followed by another, this one a Hochgewachs, which, he explained, meant that it was made from 100 percent Riesling grapes that were riper and of a higher quality than average. That was followed by a Schieferterrassen (Riesling grown on terraced hills of slate) and a Layet 1900 (grown from vines planted that year). Finally there was a Beerenauslese, a type of very sweet late-harvest wine, usually with some noble-rot involvement, that is less syrupy and more flavorful than ice wine. It was gorgeous, but he said that it would be better in three or four years.
I should perhaps mention that this was all free of charge, as it is at hundreds of similar Weinguts, or wineries, throughout the region. The hope is that you’ll buy some wine, but a purchase is not required.
Winfried and Ryan (the designated driver) sipped while I gulped. Winfried brought out a clipping from the previous day’s paper that listed his wines as the 30th best in Germany. He’d been working in his family’s vineyards since he was 16, he said. Would we like to see them?
The three of us and Ben hopped into his old Mercedes and took the 10-minute drive to his seven hectares (about 17 acres). The hills were steep and terraced and overlooked the river. Harvest was about a week away. The leaves on the vines were bright yellow, the grapes pendulous and succulent. With Winfried’s permission, we plucked a few. They were cool in an afternoon heat that seemed hotter up here.
Driving us back, Winfried filled the car with reminiscences of harvests past, how he had walked up here as a teen, how those late-season yellow leaves still give him a Christmas Eve-like sense of impatience. Ben was curled up on my feet, the picture of a relaxed well-being that we were all feeling. We pulled into the Reh place, bought a bottle of that Beerenauslese for about $13 and drove off along the obscenely scenic B53 — a.k.a. the wine road, which follows the serpentine Mosel — and on to Trier, to spend the evening with Georg and Hildegard.
Archer is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about travel.