Drunk and Disorderly!
Trip Start May 16, 2013
99Trip End May 16, 2015
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We left the campsite in Schweich just managing to beat a quick path to the front of the queue of sixty or so VW Beatles all lined up on the driveway ready to start their rally. I have to say that our own van commands great respect on these campsites. We have had numerous people, especially guys just stand and stare at the front of our van trying to work out what the hell it is, because, being a Jap import, they just do not recognise it at all. If we have the back up for ventilation, they often just rock on up and ask us....it is a great talking point....especially if you are a guy and into all that stuff! In three months of living on campsites, we have only ever seen one other Nissan Elgrand; In fact, we are getting quite fond of the old girl....maybe we will keep her!
As we meandered slowly up the Mosel, one of our main objectives was to drink lots of wine.....well, taste a lot of different wines and learn something about the wines, as I know very little about wine, so a basic Wine 101 was required here. We also wanted to get a real flavour of the Mosel villages and towns and stay a few days at a couple of them.
The Mosel river, (Moselle in French) is actually a tributary off the Rhein, so we are heading up to its source where it comes off the Rhine at Koblenz and then heading down the Rhine to compare those wines. I will probably be in no fit state to write a blog by then, as having just returned from a wine tasting session in Cochem, and still under the influence....I am struggling now, especially as we rode back to the van on our bicycles with two bottles of wine in the rucksack which will join the one already in our very small fridge!! Anyway back to the Mosel!
The Mosel flows from the Rhine south west to the German border, through Luxembourg and into France. At 546 km long, it is the longest tributary of the Rhein. Vines are cultivated along its full 250km length in Germany and along both its tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer and have been for over 2000 years. Remains of roman villas, estates and more importantly wine presses dating back to the first century all bear testimony to romans cultivating wines on the steep slopes of the Mosel and believe me, some of these slopes are seriously steep, as in, difficult to even stand still on, without sliding......I have tried it. The Mosel has the largest continuous steep slope wine growing area in the entire world! And it is the only place where the vintners (winegrowers) have one leg longer than the other!
When the romans disappeared, the monks took over the vineyards and developed the techniques of wine growing further. Monks were very much into wine and beer in those days. Their drinking habits were well developed. They were not allowed to grow red wine as it was the colour of the blood of Christ and so, only cultivated white wines. This legacy remains with Mosel being renowned for its fruity white wines and red wines not even making up 5%. Due to some tenuous link to Jesus turning water into wine, they were allowed to drink up to 5 litres each per day....I did wonder whether this number had been translated correctly....sounds like the monks were not making too many sacrifices!
Well, enough about wine for now, let me tell you about Bernkastel-Kues. This is a little town in the Middle Mosel, not mentioned in Lonely Planet and not mentioned on the coach tour itineraries that you find in the travel brochures and yet, of all the towns on the German part of the Mosel, this would be the one that we would recommend above all the rest.....and easily. We had Lady Luck on our side anyway because we arrived right in the middle of the Bernkastel-Kues wine and food festival. The campsite was lovely too, situated on a small island in the middle of the river, accessible only by bridge and we parked up in a corner looking out across the river and meadows. You could almost forget you were on a campsite and believe you were parked in the middle of fields. What's more, it was the first campsite that did not charge extra for hot showers. Bernkastel and Kues were in fact two separate towns originally, one on each side of the bridge that goes across the river but they roll so easily into each other, they are as one anyway.
The street was packed, the atmosphere was much more than lively, bubbly, humming. Couples were dancing, singing...it was fantastic and it went on well past midnight even though it had taken over a residential street. The following night, different bands and a little quieter, being Sunday, but nevertheless, worth a second visit....if only for the wine tasting and foot tapping!
Bernkastel, the town itself, is like Monschau which I have previously raved about, but bigger, with a lot more buzz about it and with a very distinctive"wine" flavour to it. Brightly coloured half timbered medieval houses in abundance, quaint squares with too many bakeries, patisseries and cafes to count, cobbled streets and narrow alleyways but with vines hanging across the alleyways casting a welcome shade from the heat and a multitude of wine tasting rooms (WeinGutStube), all dark and inviting!
Having done a fair amount of wine tasting around Stellenbosch in South Africa, and naturally in Australia and New Zealand, we had been driving up the Mosel looking at the hectares of vines which carried the name of the wine estate or vintner on a large signpost large enough that it was normally visible from the river and looking for where you would taste wine on the estates, but they don't do it like this in the Mosel, maybe because it is so steep and probably not very practical. Instead, each wine estate or vintner seems to have his own wine tasting rooms in the nearest town, so you can literally stagger from one to the next, if the desire so takes you.
And if this absolute gem of a place, complete with its wine festival is not enough, throw in a ruined castle, perched high on a hill, and from where you can see several bends in the river as it twists and turns below, the steep terraced slopes of the Riesling grape rising from the water on both banks. What's more, this castle is beautifully lit up at night, so much so that it looks like it is suspended in mid air in the darkness. it reminded us of the fort at Muttrah in Oman. If you want one place to visit on the Mosel, this has to be it.
Having spent a few days in Bernkastel, we set off again in our little van following the river bank and passing through more delightful little villages like Beilstein until we reached Cochem. We thought we had picked a good campsite for Cochem. It ran for about 500 metres along the actual riverbank and we paid an extra Euro to be on the front row, so to speak....with the seaview!! What we hadn't reckoned on was the railway tracks directly opposite on the other bank, probably taking trains from Koblenz to Trier or further. Anyway, we are talking lots of trains, carrying everything from containers to cars to steel girders and occasionally passengers and we are talking all night....and loud, very loud. So inbetween the roar of trains, we relaxed to the gentle lapping of the water on the bank!!!
Cochem, we had been told was worth visiting and it is definitely a coach tour hotspot, so we fully expected it to be crowded....and it was! Nice town, worth seeing, but not a patch on Bernkastel. The first sight of the town as it comes into view though is striking. High up on a hill to the left, a fully restored, multi turreted castle sits a good 100 metres above the town and the river. We took a guided tour around the castle complex, complete with its own separate guesthouse, chapel and a great mural of St Christopher on the outside of the tower wall. It was very good as was the 180 degree view over the town and the Mosel. From there we then charged up a zigzag path marked "Schlectrsweg" (bad path) up to a big cross on the opposite hill for a different perspective! We didn't think the path was any worse than most you get in NZ and certainly excellent compared to some of the Nepalese ones!! However on our ascent, a woman did come down with a bloodied nose!
Now it was in Cochem where I learnt a bit about wine and so for those of you who are not wine buffs and are interested in the absolute basics, I will share my learnings with you! First off the ranks in Wine 101 - "terroir". The grape's terroir is the interplay between four things: soil, climate, vine and vintner, which gives the wine it's characteristic taste and aroma.
The steep slopes of the Mosel are mineral rich dark slate; it is one of the warmest places in Germany with mild winters, warm summers, the right amount of rain and no frosts. Nevertheless we are talking 1500 hours of sunshine a year compared to the 2000 hours that you get on the Mediterranean, so a slower ripening grape is required. Add all this up and the most perfect grape is Riesling. In fact, the Riesling grape takes up over 60% of the area. Where Italy, Spain and France harvest in Aug/Sept, the Mosel vintners in Germany can harvest as late as November. This long ripening period produces a very fruity wine.
So that is the soil and the climate and the cultivation of the most suited grape - where does the vintner do his bit? Well, he decides the rest of the taste and he can make it great or completely stuff it up. Not only does he decide when to pick, he decides how to pick and he decides on the length of fermentation, all of which change the taste. Virtually all steep slope Riesling is picked by hand, mainly through lack of choice. What this does mean is that the experienced pickers act like the first filter on quality leaving the rubbish on the vine. When you stand on the roads and look up these truly steep slopes, they must really take their lives in their hands.
With white wines, the juice is pressed from the grape and it is not clear, like in the bottle, but a milky white. They then add yeast cultures to the grape juice to get it to ferment. This is where the yeast converts the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Grape juice starts off with more sugar in it than coca cola! Now here is the clever bit. It is the length of the fermentation period that determines a lot of the taste - it determines the acidity level, the alcohol level and how much sugar or sweetness is left in the wine. If you want a sweet wine, you ferment for a short time (4-6 weeks), so that the yeast has not had a chance to convert all the sugar to alcohol. Not only is there some sugar left, hence it is sweeter, but it is also a lower alcohol level. If you ferment for 8-10 weeks, you convert all your sugar into alcohol and end up with a more acidic, drier, higher alcohol content wine. If you continue to ferment ad infinitum, you will end up with vinegar!!
So, based on my "101 learnings", if you like a sweet wine, look for an alcoholic content of around 7% and if you are impartial to a very dry wine, then go for the 13%! At least, if you have a sweet tooth, you can drink more before you get drunk!