The Moselle River valley (Mosel in German) is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world. From Trier to Koblenz the river meanders 190 kilometers through precipitous slate hills, although as the crow flies the distance is half that.
Despite slopes with a gradient of 1:1 (one meter up for one meter forward), vines cover every hillside with southern exposure. In many places as few as two or three rows at a time are planted on cliff faces that would challenge a mountain goat, let alone a vineyard worker toting his own weight in grapes in an hotte on his back.
As if this weren't bad enough, these vineyards are among the northernmost in Europe and really good years are infrequent. Both 1921 and 1929 were exceptional vintages but every year in between was a near catastrophe.
What keeps the determined Moselle growers going is a tradition reaching back at least as far as the Roman occupation and a growing postwar demand for their luscious, flowery wines.
After tending their all but inaccessible vines, the growers who do not sell grapes or wine to cooperatives or big exporting firms, like Deinhard in Koblenz, go on to make and bottle their own wines, mostly for consumption within West Germany.
The Moselle in its upper German reaches produces simple little white from the Elbling and Mueller-Thurgau varieties. But the soil here is chalky and it is Riesling grapes planted on slaty soil that make the best wines, generally sweet, that are renowned for their elegance and floweriness.
The Riesling is one of the world's great wine grapes, on a par with France's Cabernet-Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. But without the slaty soil it would not attain the eminence it achieves in the Moselle, just as the Chardonnay is at its best on the Côte de Beaune's limestone.
The slate provides minerals necessary to the vine but it also reflects the sun's warmth during the day and releases stored-up heat during the night. As it disintegrates into soil, from time to time new slate is carried up and spread over the slopes.
The Moselle River itself is another essential ingredient in the quality of the wines. From Trier to Koblenz it flows in a general southwest to northeast direction but at any given meander it can be flowing west before reversing itself to run straight east, due north or south.
Thus, no chilling winds can sweep up and down the length of the river. The broad expanse of the water also acts as a reflector of the sun's rays and helps to create a mild microclimate on a latitude with Newfoundland.
Another striking aspect of the Moselle is the universally high level of wine making. Everywhere you go, to a small grower in an area of little renown, to a big wine firm or to a producer of one of the Moselle's world-famous wines, you will find well-made, clean-tasting wines.
Some of this must be due to the strict German wine laws, but they only reflect the general German tendency to do things meticulously well.
Prices of wines vary according to fame, vintage and type but in every charming medieval wine village along the Moselle it is possible to taste all sorts of wines for very little. Weinstuben (wine bistros) are everywhere you turn and most advertise Weinprobieren (wine tasting).
In Kobern at a hotel called the Weinstube Hahn, the Weinprobieren is set up so that one can taste any of all of the wines produced by the family who also owns the hotel. They have plots in four different local sites and offer several years and qualities of each in small three-glass lots, by the 20-centiliter carafe or by the bottle. The vineyards of Kobern have no special reputation, but everything I tasted was very pleasant, whether from the very good 1976 vintage or the poor 1977.
But the truly great wines are an unforgettable experience. Both rich and lively, with a slight tingle on the tip of the tongue, they are sweet but not very alcoholic. Their bouquet is honeyed, flowery and fruity with a hint of spices. The taste lingers tantalizingly long after the wine has been swallowed.