It’s an exceptionally chilly morning for late March. Random snow flakes are falling down from the steely sky. Spring is late. ”Look around you, there may still be stashes buried in the ground”, the winemaker of Staffelter Hof says, standing on the verge. The vineyard is steep enough to cause vertigo even when viewed from the bottom, not to mention from all the way up. He lets go his signature trait, a booming hearty laughter, and stuffs his hands deep into pockets. Stone’s throw away runs the river Mosel, steadily, the way it has done for generations, just like it should.
Mosel is one of the very best, maybe even the best, white wine region in the world. It has cracked the code of success a long time ago. If you compare contemporary scenery to black and white photos of the area, the region appears to have remained unchanged for decades. Immutable to the point of being uncanny in perseverance. The vineyeards continue as far as eye can see, conforming to the shapes of the arduous hills that seem to guard the river flowing through it.
But let’s introduce the man properly before we continue with his story. He is Jan Matthias Klein, the latest generation in helm of Staffelter Hof Weingut that produced its first vintage year 862. Yes, you read correctly, there is no 1 in front of the number. We are talking seriously old school. Think about Crusades, Black Death, Little Ice Age, Thirty Years’ War and many other things written in Capital letters. Staffelter Hof has withstood and witnessed all of them. It is in fact one of the worlds oldest businesses still operating.
Career in wine was never self-evident for Jan. As a youngster he wanted to become a mathematician. Now as a man in his thirties, he works with wine. Gravity of the family heritage, I suppose. While not working in the vineyards, he drives a van around Mosel listening to strange industrial German hip hop with metal influences (and apparently owns only one CD). But let’s not hold these things against him, because he makes great wine and has a story waiting to be told.
”The stashes…” he says. ”We have to go back a bit in time to understand. You know, back in the day Mosel wines used to fetch top prices on the markets. Like really high prices. That’s why the impossible slopes were cultivated in the first place. Then something happened. Namely we, starting two World Wars (put here a booming laughter). The prices never quite recovered.
Back in 1945 the Nazi regime was about to collapse and the French troops marched into Mosel. They were a thirsty bunch, cause French know how to appreciate wine. Locals had been making wine through the war as well as they could under the circumstances. When they heard the sound of the boots, they tried to save their stock by hiding bottles in the most imaginative places. Some were hidden behind fake walls, some buried below ground, into the soil, at vineyards. Who knows how many stashes were recovered after the chaotic times?” Klein asks rhetorically. Group of Winelovers listening seem to look around their toes like they’ve just lost something.
One of the local winemakers tells a story about his grandfather. During the days wine making was a dangerous profession. His grandfather was relieved from the military service for being the oldest son in the family. Nevertheless, without seeing any real trenches, he almost ended up getting shot in front of his own winery. Drunken French soldiers decided to shoot the man cause he didn’t surrender them more wine at late hours.
Now if someone is willing to take a bullet before giving his wine away, he must love his wine enough to dig deep, I think to myself and take another look at the vineyards trying to think like a stubborn German wine maker. Where would I bury my treasure?
Though Jan tells stories about the regions past in a chattering manner, the weight of history is present in many layers. The fleeting moment at the vineyard kind of crystallises Mosel to me.
Klein, in his thirties, is making organic wine, still considered progressive in Mosel, in a winery that has a track record of whooping 1151 years. That is seemingly a paradox. Like most companies of the region, Staffelter Hof is still family run and relatively small in size, so very much traditional way. Still in his chatter the past intertwines with the present seamlessly. His story and history are the same thing. And while talking about it, he wears a neon green beanie and looks more like surfer than a wine maker. …And it all makes perfect sense.
Mosel keeps making moreish wines with power, focus and finesse and its people keep finding new ways to express its unique features, whether we’re talking about Thorsten Melsheimer’s hands off natural wines that keep fermenting for a year, Staffelter Hof’s Riesling und Electro parties in the middle of a medieval dorf, the crazy project of Tobias Treis at the red soiled slopes of Sorentberg or Konstantin Weiser’s Riesling with Weiser-Künstler that carries a striking preciseness, structure and freshness. As old as its primeval soils, as young as its beanie wearing winemakers working at the steepest vineyards. This is Mosel.
The beanie generation has no need to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t have to break anything in order to thrive. From a winelovers perspective, the region works like a charm offering superb wines with modest prices. The new kids have inherited the wisdom of the previous generations (Jan also got the booming laughter of his father). But small adjustments, minor tweaks here and there… Definitely, absolutely.
What the future holds for Mosel remains to be seen, since it is in a constant slow transformation without a clear goal, like most wine regions. One thing is clear though: meanwhile the region marches to the fresh beat of the drum of Jan, Thorsten, Tobias, Konstantin and others alike, the mythical wine stashes buried deep into the soils are left lingering in our tickled minds.