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The Mystery of Plat 211
Unknowingly, a determined Mosel grower may just have acquired the world's oldest Riesling vines.

by David Schildknecht
May 20, 2019

In 2015, the yellowish-green strip of scrub (foreground) below Steinmetz’s four steep terraces had yet to reveal its ancient vines.

It wasn’t about the vines at first. After all, a lot of old vines carpet the Mosel’s slate slopes. Some date to that region’s Belle Epoque heyday. It was the fate of one particular block that caught the attention of Jochen Clemens. For years, he watched as the vines succumbed to scrub and saplings, invading a neighboring parcel once farmed by the illustrious Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt. The block sits on a small stretch of slope that used to be known as Vorm Berg (before the mountain); the massive Wintricher Ohligsberg and Neuberg vineyard sites tower above it. Clemens recalls as a child taking his father’s hand and descending the mountain on a rocky path, skirting four gargantuan step-like terraces (nowadays farmed by his friend Stefan Steinmetz). “It was quite a thrill,” he recalls, adding “as an adult, it still is.” He warns his visitor to tread cautiously and not get carried away by the view.

In the 1990s, a twenty-something Clemens assumed control of his family’s 12 acres, while also managing vineyards for the distinguished Piesport grower Theo Haart, who had recently purchased parcels in the Ohligsberg. “I got to be good friends with a fellow who was also a passionate wine drinker,” relates Clemens, “and he rhapsodized about this one [Vorm Berg] parcel owned by his family. We tasted 1968s, 1971s, 1975s, 1979s, and sure enough, wines from there tasted fresher and fruitier than those from other sites.” So why had it been abandoned? One reason probably also helped explain the quality: Yields here were much lower than in this family’s other vineyards. And the 1980s were economically hard times to be a Mosel grower. “The more I tasted, the more interest I had in trying to buy this vineyard,” explains Clemens. But he kept getting put off by his friend’s father, Heinz Erz, who was reluctant to part with family land. Finally, in March, 2016, the two reached an agreement.

Local authorities assumed this parcel must be registered as brach (“fallow”), which would have complicated the sale. By EU regulations, if a grower intends to replant fallow land, he or she must first relinquish an equal acreage in vines before claiming the abandoned property, no matter how steep or stony. But, as it turned out, the parcel was still officially vineyard. At the notary’s office, Clemens learned that its identifying number was 211, reflecting a three-digit cadastral system dating back to Napoleonic times. That brought to mind something that octogenarian Heinz Erz had reported: Years back, his maternal grandfather claimed to have been told that this vineyard was 100 years old. Clemens asked a cousin who worked at the State Office of Surveying and Land Registry to research the property. He also contacted several vine nurserymen, explaining that he had just acquired some allegedly ancient vines, and would they be interested in having a look? Given the small size of Clemens’s holdings, the nurserymen didn’t see it as a commercially interesting prospect: Barring lengthy quarantine and an expensive regimen of tests and treatments, only the owner of old vines from which cuttings are taken is allowed to purchase or plant stock propagated from that budwood. In any case, Clemens decided to defer an assault on the trees and bushes until his cousin reported back. Maybe the vines were worth trying to save.

In 1830, Johann Philipp Bronner—possibly the world’s earliest vine scientist—unabashedly characterized riesling as “the noblest of all grape varieties.”
What Romans were growing along the Mosel back when Ausonius sang its vinous praises has not been conclusively determined, but considerable evidence points to its having been the same grape—elbling a.k.a. kleinberger, klemmer, klemper, etc.—whose dominance on these slopes lasted well into the 1800s. The earliest known paean to riesling on the Mosel dates from the late 17th century—roughly two centuries after this grape was first mentioned anywhere: Johann Hofmann, a school principal in Trarbach, praised riesling for its finesse and fragrance when planted in favorable sites, drawing an unflattering comparison to bigger-berried, higher-yielding kleinberger. On a 1788 visit to the Rheingau—where riesling gained an early foothold—Thomas Jefferson remarked on “the Klemperien, of which the inferior qualities [sic] of Rhenish wines are made,” whereas “the Rhysslin grape ... is small and delicate, and therefore succeeds only in chosen spots.” By 1803, when Napoleon’s ongoing classification of vineyards for tax purposes reached the Mosel, certain top-rated locations—notably Brauneberg, Piesport and Zeltingen—had become inextricably associated with riesling.

In 1830, Johann Philipp Bronner—possibly the world’s earliest vine scientist—unabashedly characterized riesling as “the noblest of all grape varieties.” And advocacy of riesling on the Mosel was among the aims of a Society for the Advancement of Viticulture on the Mosel and Saar; the group was founded by growers and other professionals in 1836 with aid from the Prussian monarchy. Such lobbying efforts were so successful that a half century later, as this growing region experienced its first international surge in recognition, Moselwein was widely understood to imply “Mosel riesling.”

Nineteenth century observers—including leading ampelographers—frequently referred not to “riesling” but to “rieslings,” plural. There were red, white and gold rieslings, but much was also made of berry size and aromatic intensity—two of the grape’s defining features. In this pre-clonal age, not only was each vine genetically distinct, but quality-conscious growers employed personal criteria for selecting favored vines and propagating their budwood for subsequent plantings. Individual estates or communities thus gradually developed their own distinct riesling populations. When Burgundian growers and commentators mention “pinot fin” one could easily imagine that they are talking about a particular strain of pinot noir. But they’re really referring to any especially tiny-berried, sparse-clustered products of massal selection. The same is true for most Mosel growers who enthuse about old vines. Deep roots and a predisposition to low yields offer qualitative advantages. And because slate slopes regularly resisted phylloxera, old Mosel vines are often not grafted but on their own roots, which many growers argue confers a further qualitative edge. But the true genius of old vines is how they combine genetic diversity with traits that reflect adaptation to site and painstaking vine selection over a lifetime or generations.

Up on the Ohligsberg and the Neuberg, the distinct characteristics of the ancient vines reflect selective labors by the Böcking-Huesgen family, whose stewardship brought these sites renown. Many of these vines are now cared for by Theo and Johannes Haart, Theo’s nephew Julian, Stefan Steinmetz and Clemens, all of them reviving this process of selection. “These vines,” observes Steinmetz, “have their own look, their own ripening pattern and are remarkably resistant to any sort of rot.” As a result, their tiny berries ripen slowly, to heady perfume and transparent green-gold. “If they put me in mind of riesling anywhere else,” adds Steinmetz, “it’s probably of Egon Müller’s remaining old vines in the Scharzhofberg.” While the oldest datable riesling vines on the Saar and Mosel go back to the last quarter of the 19th century, they doubtless reflect vine selections inaugurated when Bronner and his colleagues were successfully convincing vineyard owners to get behind that grape. As for what sort of vine material those pioneers of the 1830s had to work with, we have had only a few descriptions from that era to go on—at least, up to now.

Months went by, and Clemens was getting impatient. When some of his neighbors correctly interpreted the delay as an indication that he was considering restoring the existing vines rather than replanting, they told him he must be crazy. “Gnarled” is a woefully insufficient cliché for describing the torturously twisted remnants of vines that had since largely disappeared from view. In trying to free themselves from the underbrush, some had come to resemble corkscrews. There was no way to tell how many remained on these 4,736 square feet, let alone how many were still living.

Clemens’ cousin had turned up some records at the State Land Registry. He referenced a map from 1812, part of a series commissioned by Napoleon which, to the Emperor’s annoyance, cartographer Jean Joseph Tranchot had elected to execute on a militarily impractical scale of 1:20,000, replete with details of land usage. According to that map, Vorm Berg was unplanted at the time; whereas the adjacent Ohligsberg and Neuberg are studded with “V”s (for vignes). The next-oldest map that Clemens’ cousin could unearth was dated 1829, based on a survey conducted two years earlier. And there, in vivid color, was plat 211, with accompanying records testifying to its status as vineyard. Fast forward to a map from 1922, and there had been a change. The neighboring strip, formerly numbered 210, had been assimilated, and the lower reaches of both were drawn as a separate block, all of this now shown as owned by a family Felten from Wintrich, the maternal ancestors of Erz.

As for what sort of vine material those pioneers of the 1830s had to work with, we have had only a few descriptions from that era to go on—at least, up to now.
But Clemens’ cousin was still searching the records to determine in what year the current generation of vines had been planted. A record had to be somewhere, he explained, because, then as now, authorization and documentation of grubbing up and planting were required. In April, 2017, Clemens rented a tractor to begin removing brush and trees. It was slow, dangerous going—virtually impossible to avoid disturbing the vines—and he had only managed to strip a few dozen square meters when he received a breathless call from his cousin. “I’ve been going over all of the relevant records in the State Archives at Koblenz—all of them. There’s nothing. This parcel can’t ever have been replanted.”

“When I heard this,” says Clemens, “I was in a state of shock, and my heart bled for all of those vines I had already run over.” He was certain of one thing: The rest of this reclamation would have to proceed surgically. And nearly certain of another: that these vines were planted sometime between 1812 and 1827.

Jochen Clemens Jochen Clemens
Clemens rang back Hermann Jostock, the vineyard manager at Nik Weis’s St. Urbans-Hof estate and the nurseryman responsible for Weis Vine Selections, coveted by riesling growers throughout Germany. Now, Jostock wasn’t just interested, he was excited. “Give me as much vine wood as possible to work with,” Clemens recalls Jostock telling him. Clemens determined to let every living remnant of vine leaf-out and spread shoots so that in another year there would be something to train to posts. “I thought for sure that we were going to lose some of the vines before that could happen,” he says. “But not a single one was lost—not even those I had already run over with the tractor.” Jostock took cuttings from a full range of vines, in the process noting that a few of them were not riesling, as was typical for 19th century Mosel plantings.

Year one in the new life of these vines had been all about wood and foliage. But in 2018, not only were dozens of them dutifully climbing their way up the aluminum posts that Clemens had installed, many also flowered and fruited. Already by mid-September, their juice tasted enticing, not to mention concentrated. As you receive this issue of Wine & Spirits, that juice has recently become wine. But this was only possible because the Erzes agreed to sell Clemens the small lower block of plat 211 that they had continued to farm. Its younger vines will thus overwhelmingly dominate the blend.

The next round of thrills will come in a few years. The rest of plat 211’s denizens will have recovered from the shock of rediscovery but they will be badly in need of reinforcements, as there will still be far more “misses” than vines. The material now being tested at research institutes in the Pfalz and Franken will come back—hopefully not degraded in the interest of freeing it from viruses—ready for grafting and a return to its two-hundred-year home overlooking the Mosel.

This feature appears in the print edition of February 2019.
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