Choose wines with skill from the Mosel Valley and learn why this region has been considered the best place for Riesling in the world.
The Mosel River weaves dramatically through the Eifel mountains. Source bing maps
The Mosel (aka Moselle) River begins in France and flows into Germany where it twists sharply for 150 miles (250 km) and deposits into the Rhine on its way to the North Sea. It is along this winding river gorge that we find the most classic Riesling wines in the world.
So what makes the Mosel Valley so special for this wine and grape? As you’ll find out, it’s a combination of geology, geography and history (Riesling was first recorded in Germany in 1435) that makes the Mosel wine region unique. Learn how to navigate the German classification system, the vintages, and what areas within the Mosel grow the best grapes.
Grapes of Mosel Valley
The Mosel Valley is home to more grapes than just Riesling. That said, Riesling does account for over 60% of the vineyard land. Other grapes worth investigating further include Elbling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Kerner and Auxerrois. You’ll find some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here too, often used in Sekt which is the German traditional method sparkling wine.
Mosel Riesling Tasting Notes
Mosel Riesling ranges from bone-dry to sweet but the primary aromas and taste profile are distinct and easy to identify. Mosel Riesling is a great wine to try blind tasting.
- Color: Wines start out with a pale straw color and become deep yellow as they age.
- Aroma: Young wines have medium-intensity aromas of lime and honeydew, sometimes with slightly reductive smells of plastic or mineral notes. As wines age, they reveal high intensity aromas of honey, apricot, Meyer lemon and gasoline (petroleum). The smell of petrol might be off-putting to some, but to others it’s a classic indicator of German Riesling.
- Taste: The structure of this wine is what makes it so intriguing. It has intensely high acidity, usually balanced with some level of sweetness. Wines that taste bone-dry will usually have around 6–10 g/L of residual sugar and wines that taste barely off-dry may have as much as 30–40 g/L of RS. The acidity lingers on the palate and tingles. Generally speaking, Mosel wines have low to medium low alcohol ranging from 7.5–11.5% ABV.
How long can it age? German Riesling is known to age well. A wine by a quality producer from great vintage will last up to 40 years. Even modestly priced wines can age for 5 years and develop a deep golden hue with aromatics of honey and petroleum.
Finding Great Mosel Wines by Classification
Classification is the first layer of identifying quality in German wine. There are essentially 3 classifications to know in the Mosel: Qualitatswein (QbA), Pradikatswein, and VDP.
A wine produced in the Mosel region that meets a minimum ripeness level is a QbA. Quality varies in this category, from bulk wines like Black Cat Riesling to decent quality everyday Riesling wines sourced from all over the Mosel.
Pradikatswein bases quality on ripeness and the amount of grapes affected by noble rot (actually a good thing). Because the region has traditionally been so cool, ripeness has been the determining factor of wine quality. Of course as global warming continues and our desire for dry wine increases we might see this change, but for now, Pradikatswein is the most common designation you’ll find in the Mosel Valley. Here are the levels:
- Kabinett: Wines that are dry with around 10% ABV or off-dry (partly sweet) with about 8.5% ABV. You’ll find a great deal of Mosel wines in this category. Many are great.
- Spätlese: “Late Harvest” Wines that range from dry to sweet using riper grapes. Wine will be dry with the words “Trocken” on the label.
- Auslese: “Select Harvest” Grape bunches are hand selected and have some level of noble rot which adds subtle notes of beeswax, saffron and ginger to the taste profile. These wines range from dry to sweet, and the dry styles will have high alcohol (usually around 14%+ ABV)
- Beerenauslese (ba): “Berry Select Harvest” Grapes are hand picked that have higher levels of noble rot. Wine created in this level are exceptionally sweet.
- Trockenbeerenauslese (tba): “Dry Berry Select Harvest” The most raisinated noble rot grapes are selected for the highest end sweet wines of the region.
- Eiswein: “Ice Wine” Only when grapes freeze and are harvested frozen can a wine be labeled as ice wine.
VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter)
The VDP is an association of German wine estates that classifies wines by the quality of the vineyard. Wines are rated as Gutswein (regional wines) all the way up to Grosse Lage which designates the very best vineyards of Germany. While the association has invited only about 200 wineries in Germany, you will see these vineyard classifications on the neck of a bottle of Mosel Riesling.
Finding Great Mosel Wines by Vintage
The second layer of finding great quality in the Mosel is knowing, and respecting, vintage variation. Very simply, cool climate wine growing regions like the Mosel Valley tend to be more susceptible to variable weather conditions. It’s possible that great producers will still make great wines on less favorable vintages, but bulk/value wines usually suffer. As a general rule, great vintages (like 2015) offer amazing wines at all price points, whereas less-awesome vintages (like 2016) require some buying finesse.
|2016||7+||Tough vintage. Lots of rain and insect problems.|
|2015||10||Just freakin’ awesome. Please save some for me.|
|2014||9||A cooler vintage overall, leading to wines with more acidity. Could actually age quite well.|
|2013||8||Great producers did well but others, not so much, mainly because of rain and rot problems.|
|2012||7||Really inconsistent grape bunch development meant only the fastidious producers made out.|
|2011||9+||A great vintage in the Mosel that was slightly ahead of schedule. Wines have awesome structure and depth.|
|2010||8||A challenging vintage for ripeness but some producers expect these wines will last for decades.|
|2009||9||A long warm vintage (well, warm for Mosel) that produced rich wines.|
|2008||9||Maybe not as good as the 2007s, a little more herbaceous and inconsistent, great producers are making age-worthy wines.|
|2007||10||Wow. Wow. If you can still get it, drink with glee.|
|2006||7+||This vintage started out awesome, but it didn’t end so well.|
- 10: I would buy without limit and cellar (if only budget wasn’t a limit!).
- 9: I would buy and drink, and buy again, and drink again.
- 8: I would buy and not take too seriously unless it was from a favorite producer.
- 7: I would be very, very picky with my producer choice. Basically, if you’re a pro, you know how great an unloved vintage can be.
Finding Great Mosel Wines by Sub-Region
The third layer of finding great quality Mosel wines is understanding the region. Not all of the vineyards here are created equal. The northernly latitude (Mosel is along the 50th parallel) means longer days during the growing season, but only certain vineyards are situated to receive these sunshine hours.
There are over 500 named vineyard sites in the Mosel Valley, so unless you’re doing your master’s thesis on the region, it would be a great challenge to memorize them all! Instead, here’s some logic on how to locate where the best vineyards are found:
Areas that face south receive up to 10 times more sunlight (check the sources for details) during parts of the year than those facing north. Also, vineyards located on slopes receive even more horizontal irradiation (sun power) than the flat lands. It’s no wonder then, that 40% of the vineyard acres in the Mosel are located on steep slopes (at or over a 30% pitch) and the best vineyards typically face south.
The steepest vineyard in Europe is located in the Mosel, called Calmont vineyard, at a 68% grade.
The view over Bremm (in the shade) in the Mosel. Calmont vineyard faces south (in the sun). photo by Barnyz
What To Look For On The Label
- Producer: This will give you a general impression of the winemaking quality and producer size.
- Village Name: The village/commune will be mentioned first, usually appended with “er” indicating that it’s that particular village’s vineyard. The reason for this is because there are a lot of vineyards called “Würzgarten” (spice garden), “Sonnenuhr” (sun dial), “Rosenberg” (rose hill) and “Honigberg” (honey hill).
- Vineyard Name: Want to find the exact vineyard location? We found a great map on Wines of Germany’s website. First, find the city, then, zoom in and you’ll see the vineyard names pop up.
- Sub-Region: The 6 sub-regions of Mosel all offer different expressions of Riesling. While the most planted sub-region of Bernkastel attracts the most attention, the other regions, including Saar and Ruwertal, make great wines as well.
The slate in the Mosel was once layers of sediment at the bottom of an ocean 400 million years ago. photo by Megan Cole
Finding Great Mosel Wines by Soil Type
There are 2 primary types of slate soils found in the Mosel Valley: blue slate and red slate. Although both soils are relatively poor, the red soil areas generally have more clay producing a richer, more lush style of Riesling whereas blue slate wines are generally more floral.
The slate soils offer a few unique benefits to wine growing in the Mosel. First, the vineyards in the Mosel are well-drained which is good during wet growing seasons. Second, the slates hold heat which can be beneficial on cool vintages. Finally, the region’s natural microbes (yeasts and bacteria) that thrive in these soils play a roll in defining the taste of minerality in Mosel wine.
The geology of the region dates back to the Devonian Period (the Paleozoic Era leading into the 4th major extinction event) when the Mosel area was once an ocean and deposits settled on the sea floor forming sediment layers as thick as a mile. Over time, pressure of two super continents joining to create Pangea (Gondwana and Laurasia/Euramerica) compressed this sea floor which metamorphosed into slate. The slate was later pushed up during the Variscan Orogeny about 100 million years later. The Rhenish Mountains, as they are now called, were carved out by the Mosel River revealing this geological history. The slate soils here are very poor for most agricultural purposes (they’re hard to farm!), but in the case of wine growing, they produce more structured and concentrated wines.
The Mosel Valley is stunningly beautiful. And, since only one-third of the wine is exported, it’s well worth visiting.
A great Mosel-focused blog by Lars Carlberg. This article discusses history of the tiny upper Mosel.
A detailed brochure on Mosel wines from Wines of Germany (pdf)
More info about Devonian slate and rocks (pdf)
Detailed research paper highlighting the effects of global warming on the Upper Mosel region (pdf)
Regional Tectonic Setting and Geological Structure of the Rhenish Massif
List of the 5 major extinction events during earth’s existence
Looking for someone writing on German wine? Check out Joel B Payne.