Along the Moselle river in southwestern Germany, the vineyards carved into the ancient stony hillsides are among the steepest in the world, and one of the jewels of German wine culture.
This is Riesling country. Believed to be indigenous to this area, this most traditional and widespread grape variety was mentioned as far back as the 16th century by Hieronymus Bock, the German godfather of botany, who cited it in connection with the region.
Over generations, faced with the steep terrain and limited sun, local wine growers developed a special method to cultivate this difficult landscape: the single stake vine training system. Each plant has its own stake made of two canes bent into a heart shape to support the growing tendrils.
But today in the Moselle, as well as many other places, this method has become rare. The inclination of the vineyards – at least 30% – as well as very close rows makes it difficult or impossible to use modern cultivation methods. Harvest, as well as all the other work, can only take place by hand. The terroir literally becomes an obstacle for wine growers and production has become unprofitable.
Many old vineyards now lie fallow, with the habitat they provide for numerous animals and plants, such as the Western green lizard, Apollo butterfly and the white stonecrop, diminishing.
Slow Food Germany believes that these steep vineyards – Steillagen in German – can and should be recultivated. For more than a decade it has run the ‘Vineyard Patrons’ project. Patrons ‘adopt’ a small lot of the vineyard and pay a yearly contribution, enabling wineries to once again produce high-quality Riesling, and thereby protect the biodiversity and cultural heritage of this unique ecosystem.
Currently, there are two vineyards involved in the project, both of them in the old town of Traben-Trarbach – once a thriving hub for wine commerce. They are cared for by Slow Food’s partner wineries Böcking and Müllen.
The Böcking family cultivates the Trarbacher Ungsberg vineyard, including its most prestigious central part – the Pfarrwingert, which already appeared in the 19th-century Prussian tax registers as a prized vineyard. Its southern exposure and blueschist soil leave their imprint on the wine, creating a fresh, minerally Riesling with long length and a particularly herbal and spicy character. Parts of this great site had been lying fallow and overgrown until Böcking planted it with new vines.
“We are glad to work with Slow Food, as it enables us to cultivate the vineyards which are particularly dear to us – the old classic terraced vineyards with ungrafted Riesling vines that had been spared by the phylloxera epidemic,” says Simon Trös, winemaker and manager from Böcking.
Just a few kilometers away the Trarbacher Hühnerberg vineyard, cultivated by the Müllen family, was classified among the best sites in the Moselle Valley in 1897. This terroir produces wines with intense herbal notes, but also a ripe aroma of dark fruits like blackcurrant and blackberries. It had been left partially fallow over time, or planted with varieties not typical of the region. Here too, the winery has recultivated the ragged slopes with Riesling. “It is beautiful when other people appreciate the huge effort of the manual work we invest into our wine production,” said Martin Müllen.
The patrons can taste the results themselves, as they receive wine from ‘their’ vineyard after the following harvest. “As a patron, you have a unique opportunity to follow the development of the vineyard and to establish a substantially deeper relationship to ‘your’ wine,” says Robert Friedenberger, vineyard patron for a decade. “After having helped with the harvest some years ago, I look at the glass of wine with a different perspective.”
Every summer, patrons are invited to a special Vineyard Patron fest, to visit the vineyards and cellars, and enjoy some typically ‘slow’ conviviality.
Slow Food Germany sees the Patron project as a concept which could be expanded further and applied to other at-risk productions to help preserve valuable but disappearing landscapes..
To find out more:
Slow Food Deutschland e. V.