I recently scrolled through the pictures I took on a visit to the Fritz Haag vineyard in 2017. Fritz Haag’s vineyard has been around since 1605 and as far as anyone knows, it’s been in the family ever since. The white haired gentleman you see in the pictures is Wilhelm Haag who took over from his father Fritz who was, need I say it, not the original Fritz. At 80 Wilhelm still nimbled up the extremely steep hill to show us the Brauneberger Juffer Sonneuhr, the “Brauneberg Maid’s Sundial” on which you should not rely for the time at all.
The idea to plant a vineyard on an extreme slope may seem foolish, but in decades past, the weather on the Mosel River wasn’t as hot and sunny as it is now and the angle of the hill caught the sun at a perpendicular, giving heat to the vines even in a dull summer. Of course it is impossible to use any kind of harvesting machines here, so everything from ploughing to pruning to harvesting is done by hand. The pickers are harnessed, because one misstep could send you plunging hundreds of meters down the crumbly slate hill and into the river.
It may sound hard to believe, but you can actually taste the slate in the wine (schist just made for a better headline). Terroir, that mythical animal, religion to some and pretentious fancy to others is really nothing but the wine’s ability to speak of where it comes from. It doesn’t need to be a great and expensive Chateau bottle to express terroir. If you return every year to that little village in Italy, or Portugal, Greece or wherever the innkeeper makes a little wine just for home consumption, you will recognise that wine instantly, no matter where you come across it. Your mind instantly takes you back to that inn, the sun in your face and a glass of cool wine in your hand. That is really all terroir is. Oh and while I’m talking, terroir isn’t just the soil, it’s a combination of all factors; soil, sun, weather, rainfall, flora, fauna, everything that defines the place.
Terroir is what distinguishes a “regional” wine, for lack of a better word, from an international, commercial wine of generic taste. Think of an indistinct oaked Chardonnay, or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a wine so Internationally successful that old world winemakers were falling over themselves to plant Sauvignon Blanc grapes and cash in on the trend.
I’m not saying these wines are bad. Some make for very pleasant drinking and they are so reliable, year in, year out, they make a very safe buy. Safe, but boring. Because after a while you feel like you are drinking the same bottle over and over again. These wines are produced to a specific taste profile, there is no bottle variation, not vintage variation, nothing. They don’t talk about the landscape, the heat, the dry arid soil or the winemaker’s passion, it’s just pleasant and pleasant will not do in the long run. We all need a slap in the face every now and again.
There is obviously no better way to understand wine and its terroir than to actually go there, see the landscape, smell the air, talk to the wine maker and taste lots and lots of wines from one region. Fat chance of that at the moment! Every two years, Eddie and I join an eclectic band of friends for wine and culture (not too much culture, though). It’s a group that was started by our friend Thilo, who through a convoluted series of circumstances became friends with one of Germany’s foremost wine writers and this fine gentleman leads our tours.
It’s enormous fun and not at all serious, but you still learn a huge amount about each region and its wines. After tours of Sicily, Steiermark in Austria, Puglia, and the German Mosel we were planning another tour of Sicily in October, but damn it if the pandemic didn’t get in the way! So many pictures, so many memories, so many hilarious moments, but as they say; you had to be there.
At the danger of boring you out of your wits, I’m going to share more stories of our past travels soon. We don’t know when there will be future ones.