The Bridge on the River Moselle: British Wine Critics Fight to Save Beloved Rieslings

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British wine critics are normally a restrained bunch, but the planned construction of a road bridge over Germany's Moselle River, which could threaten some of the world's best Riesling vineyards, has them up in arms. One prominent wine-lover is even calling for a "massive uprising" against the project.

Mosel wines are famous throughout the world. Zoom
DPA

Mosel wines are famous throughout the world.

Manfred Prüm learned the mountain's secret from his father. The brittle shale on the ridge stores precipitation in winter, and in summer water trickles slowly down the slope to the grapevines. "Thanks to the natural drip irrigation," Prüm enthuses, "we have a paradise here."

The 75-year-old winemaker is standing on the steep slope of his Wehlener Sonnenuhr ("Wehlen Sundial") vineyard. The Riesling wine produced here generally sells for €20 to €30 ($27 to $40) a bottle, although top varieties go for thousands of euros. The Prüm family has cultivated wine along the Moselle River (known in German as the Mosel) for centuries, with Prüm's daughter Katharina, 31, next in line to take over the world-famous family business.

But a threat is looming over the paradise Prüm shares with numerous other winegrowers around the town of Bernkastel-Kues in Germany's Mosel wine region. Plans to build a four-lane highway along the ridge would see a 1.7 kilometer (1.1 mile) long and 160 meter (525 foot) high bridge spanning the Moselle River valley to connect the two low mountain ranges of the Hunsrück and the Eifel.

Riesling at Risk

Supporters of the €270 million ($360 million) project promise that it will stimulate the area's economy and tourism. The proposed bridge, however, would be more than just a massive eyesore: It would also jeopardize the existence of one of the world's best white wine regions.

The site where reinforced concrete pillars are soon to stand is home to a unique microclimate sensitive to any kind of change. Vintners like Prüm worry about the shade and winds associated with large bridges. But far more than that, gouging up to 15 meters (50 feet) deep into the ridge to make way for the highway would put the water balance of the entire hill at risk.

For a long time, no one outside the wine region took any interest in the construction project, which has been in the works since the 1960s. Now, though, the Mosel winegrowers have won themselves some powerful supporters. A group of prominent wine critics, led by British wine expert Hugh Johnson and working under the name "International Riesling Rescue," have stepped in to save Germany's white wines from the new B 50 highway.

Johnson's opinions are venerated and feared within the world of wine connoisseurs. Wine companions such as "Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book" have sold 3.5 million copies. Saving the Mosel wines is "an historical question" for Johnson, 71. At stake for him is nothing less than the "jewel in the crown of German wine." He even goes so far as to describe Riesling as the "ultimate white wine."

Impossible to Imitate

Johnson is mainly concerned about the Riesling vineyards below the planned highway, which carry names such as "Graacher Himmelreich" and "Bernkasteler Doctor." In the opinion of the wine guru, the region's special soil conditions make these wines unique and impossible to imitate. It's possible to copy a Bordeaux or a Burgundy, Johnson says, "but not this Mosel Riesling, which is extraordinary in its delicacy, pungency and intensity."

The Riesling vineyard sites in question have a far more illustrious reputation abroad than in Germany. Many non-connoisseurs within the country still largely associate the name Mosel with a 1980s scandal that revealed certain wineries to be mixing a poisonous compound, diethylene glycol, into their wines.

The Wall Street Journal, however, deemed the battle against the Mosel Bridge worthy of an extensive article. Renowned wine critic Stuart Pigott, who lives in Berlin, has also expressed his astonishment "that in Germany, of all places -- a country regarded as ecologically progressive -- such monster bridges slam into the landscape."

But time is running out for the wine-lovers, and workers will soon be cutting down the first trees to make room for the road. Regional media have shown little interest in the topic. Meanwhile the state government of Rhineland-Palatinate under Governor Kurt Beck, the former leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party, simply acts as if the whole matter is none of its concern.

'Any Means Except Violence'

Local winegrowers, generally a conservative-minded demographic, have had difficulty getting a strong citizens' initiative against the state government off the ground. The recent support from abroad, though, has breathed new life into the movement. "Johnson encouraged us and reminded us of our obligation to cultural heritage as residents of the Mosel region," says Manfred Prüm.

The vintners' British supporters are now bringing their fight for the "jewel in the crown of German wine" to the capital. Johnson, Pigott and fellow wine critic Jancis Robinson are planning a protest wine tasting in the Berlin district of Wilmersdorf in mid-April, where they'll raise glasses of Mosel Riesling in a toast against the road project. They will be supported by a couple of prominent oenophiles: Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Green Party floor leader Renate Künast have agreed to make an appearance in solidarity with the Mosel winemakers.

Wine critics may generally be considered reclusive and refined, but when Graacher Himmelreich or Wehlener Sonnenuhr are at stake, they seem to let their inhibitions slip away. "I'm calling for a massive uprising," Pigott declared in an interview circulating online. "I'm calling for the use of any means except violence. Why not publicly burn a figure of Governor Beck?"

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.

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Graphic: Location of planned bridge Zoom
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Graphic: Location of planned bridge



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