To my immense surprise I won! I won a Master of Wine scholarship in 2012 and the prize was a wine trip to Germany, the mecca for all true wine geeks. The bursary provided enough money for a plus 1, so I invited my sister and best friend, an interesting choice as she is not a wine geek by any stretch of the imagination… I might also have glossed over the sheer volume of tasting we would be doing… but I figured her chat would more than make up for that.
We landed in Germany in the midst of a biblical rain storm, swiftly found our hire car and then took about 20 minutes to figure out how to turn the damn thing on (when did buttons replace keys?!), let alone locate the lights/window wipers. Finally we were on our way and fervently praying that google maps would not be disrupted by the torrential rain and thunder because neither of us had a clue where we were going. Of course, neither of us can speak a word of German. This you might have noticed is a family trait much to the disappointment of our linguistically gifted father.
By the time we reached our lodging, the rain had stopped and the little village was eerily quiet. The door was opened by a surly German giant who said not a word but chivvied us down the hall to our ‘bedroom’. To be fair there was a bed, but as for the rest it was more of a 70’s brown and orange prison cell. Not wishing to disturb him to ask where was good to eat (if the room was anything to go by I think we were safer without his recommendations) we wandered hopefully up the road.
We found a little bar for a glass of wine where I could introduce my sister to the beauties of German Riesling and the stress of the journey slowly lifted from our shoulders. We enquired about food only to find that there was none, usually yes, today, no. Excellent! By this point we were really hungry so headed further down the road in search of a meal. Finally we saw an open door, lights on and the sounds of laughter and merriment. Thank goodness! We walked in and asked in our best ‘slow English’ for a table for two. Silence. It was only then that we took in our surroundings. We had walked into someone’s house and we were standing in their front room, family members staring up at us from their sofa’s. Mortified we sprinted for the door shouting ‘so terribly sorry’ and literally commando rolled through the gate and ninja crawled along the low wall trying to keep out of sight. Not the best of starts I’ll admit!
From there on in the trip was everything I had imagined it would be and more. We hooked up with a fellow MW student who had won the other scholarship and his wife, both of whom were, blessing of all blessings, German! He assumed the position of guide, friend and interpreter, and so we formed a merry gang touring some of Germany’s most exciting producers such as Markus Molitor, Clemens Busch, Heymann-Lowenstein, Schloss Johannisberg and Donnhoff among others.
The vineyards, particularly of the Mosel are extraordinarily steep, up to a gradient of 60 degrees. Machines are out of the question and everything is done by hand, and in the steepest vineyards the workers are rigged up to abseil down and tend the vines. The soils are ancient and so diverse that even within a small area you can have many different soil types which impact the way the vine grows and thus how the grapes taste. With such a marginal climate they are also capable of making a huge variety of styles, from bone dry to incredibly sweet. To give you an indication, Markus Molitor has just 22 hectares of vineyards but he makes 70 different expressions of Riesling! We tasted a fraction of that but by the 13th wine my sister had retreated, somewhat unsteadily back to the car for a nap (this was the third tasting of the day to be fair). Each and every winemaker introduced us to a new concept or a new challenge, from the difficulties of working biodynamically in such a wet climate, to managing the as yet untreatable ESCA vine disease. From unpredictable weather to eroding soils, they rise to the challenges each year and continue to make some of the worlds most under appreciated yet age worthy wines.
The Sponsor of this bursary was in fact Reh Kendermann, makers of Black Tower, the Liebfraumilch that dominated the wine scene in the 80’s. They are a far cry from these super premium, boutique producers and are in fact the largest exporters of wine from Germany. It was more like entering Willy Wonker’s factory than the wineries we were used to, boasting every winemaking gizmo under the sun. It is a vast and impressive operation dedicated to creating consistent wines of a recognisable style no matter what the weather gives them. Their dedication to their work was no less because of the scale, and here the marketing department had a strong influence over the winemakers, identifying trends and reacting to them with incredible speed, from low alcohol wines to a weight watchers affiliation. It was seriously impressive stuff.
Germany is a country of such incredible charm and beauty (with the exception of the owner of the ‘hotel’ we stayed at) and the wines they produce are of such ethereal beauty boasting crystalline delicacy yet power and precision that it is enough to make a grown man weep. Drinking these gorgeous wines flanked by insanely steep vineyards dropping down into the river, and guarded by ancient castles, you can’t help but notice that it really is a land of fairy tales and wine.