Sunday, November 1, 2009

German Wine Country: Culture and Cuisine sans Kids

Mülheim, Mosel River Valley, Germany

Ahhhh, a weekend in wine country.. why? Because it’s harvest season! Because we had two willing babysitters (suckas!)! Because you can drink effervescent two-day old wine with grape pickers in ancient caves while surrounded by hundreds of plastic gnomes! And Napa is seriously lacking in the gnome department.

Welcome to the Moselle (Mosel), Germany's picturesque wine producing area in the southwest of the country between Trier and Koblenz. The Mosel valley boasts the steepest vineyard on record worldwide and is the third largest wine producer in Germany famous for its riesling which makes up 90% of its overall production.

After depositing the kids into the capable hands of the in-laws, we roll south along the Rhine until we enter the Mosel river valley. One kitchy sign after the next beckons us to stop at one of the many straußwirtschafts and having no idea what the hell a strauswirtschaft is, but intrigued by the aesthetic of their advertising, I am keen to stop at the one with the most gnomes out in front as well as the poster of the 1992-94 wine princess Ms. Melanie I (that's Melanie, the first), and see what the fuss is all about.

The straußwirtschaft used to be sort of the equivalent of an apres ski-like gathering for grape pickers. At the end of a long day of picking, some of the vineyards would set up a makeshift café, serving a light meal and drinks such as federweisser - a grape juice that is 2-3 days into the fermentation process making it relatively low in alcohol content and slightly effervescent. Federweisse is only served at harvest time because it cannot be bottled and shipped - in the early stage of the fermentation process, bottling is too premature - basically it is impossible to cork - because of the building pressure the bottle would explode.

Pickers fashioned bouquets out of vines and hung them outside of the straußwirtschaft - usually located in a wine cellar or a garden - to let others know that this was the spot. These days strauswirtschaften draw tourists and other customers as well as the harvest crew. We stopped and had a glass of federweisser - typically served in these thick green stemmed chalises - and zwiebel kuchen, literally 'onion cake', an onion quiche with a thick focaccia like crust.

I dig it.

Our hotel, the Richtershof, was something that I had found in the travel section of the New York Times. The writer was so taken with the hotel that by the end of the article so was I. In fact, it is part of the reason that we wound up in the Mosel – that and the fact that it is only an hour and a half from my in-laws and free babysitting.

The hotel opened less than a decade ago but the winery that is its foundation is more than 300 years old. On Friday evening, we toured their wine cellar and did a tasting of local wines led in two parts by Hans, an elder gentleman who has worked at the winery since the 1950s and recited poetry that he wrote about his homeland – the Mosel – while a prisoner of war in Britain; and Herr Bauer, the vintner from the winery around the corner.

Ninety percent of the wine produced in the Mosel is riesling, contributing to the fact that riesling is Germany’s leading grape variety. The grapes are primarily picked - or read (trauben lesen) as Germans say - from late September to late November, though some stay on the vines as late as January. These overripe and slightly frozen grapes make eiswein, ice wine, a sweet and pricey – the latter due to the limited amount that is produced – dessert wine.

Eeeeuwwww, sweet wines, I hate sweet wines, you're thinking. Please don’t mistake all rieslings for dessert wines, however. While low temperatures in the fall and winter months in the Mosel used to halt fermentation, thereby producing wines high in natural sugars and low in alcohol content, technology now proffers a controlled environment so that vintners are no longer slaves to the weather – at least on the production side. Sugar levels at the time of harvest are crucial in wine production and the sweetness of the wine is measured by what is called prädikat levels. Rieslings are catagorized as trocken – dry, halbtrocken – slightly dry with a sweet finish, and beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese – sweet and even sweeter, respectively.

German riesling is usually solely riesling, i.e. it is not blended with other types of grapes. It uses own yeast rather than added commercial yeast and it is uncommon to find it fermenting in oak barrels – though we did see this at one winery. For more information on the technical science of wine making and riesling varietals I suggest you speak with someone in the business. For more insight on how the wine tastes with delicious dishes made with locally produced ingredients, stick with me.

After the tasting, we needed a meal to wash down our wine, or so. Dinner at the Wintergarten Baldachin looked something like this:

The 'amuse geule' or grüß aus der Kuche, greeting from the kitchen as German chefs call it: a leek foam, tomato essence pyramid and pesto. Our geules were extremely amused.

A fine garlic soup with sauteed shrimp: and fiiiine it was. A cappucino-frothy, light but creamy, garlicy-without-being-overpowering soup with a scrumpcious little shrimp swimming in the middle. Divine.

Grilled zander fillet with bean pits and fried potatoes in balsamic jus.

Someone recently asked me what my least favorite food and I blanked. I consider myself a lover of all and hater of none but then I saw the above photo and thought – it's not true. With advance apologies to my lentil loving friends: I am a bean basher. I blame my mother for not letting me leave the table until I ate every last one of those damn kidney beans in my chilli – those little sacks of sawdust were tasteless, dry and meally. I would sneak them into my napkin and then excuse myself from the table claiming a weak bladder where I would flush the little bean bomb down the toilet. Lentils, black beans, cannolini beans, black eyed peas, garbonzo beans – no thank you. I admit, I make exceptions for lentil soup and occassionaly daal but otherwise – don’t bother. I can think of 1,000 other ways to get my starches.

Reeling in this rant – a mixture of beans, combined with potatoes – another starchy vegetable that I usually only eat if I am still hungry at the end of the meal – and you lost me at hello. This fish was delish and the balsamic reduction was devine but I did without the rest.

Apricot sour cream tarte with Johannisbeer sorbet. Ingo went for the tarte which I thought was a bit too sweet – as I mentioned before, I mourn the loss of my sweet tooth but THANK GOD I don’t suffer from the most vile plague of recent times – lactose intolerance. Hence, the cheese plate please.
A brie, a goat, a blue, some local, some French, all creamy or pungent or sly or sassy. I was punched in the nose between each contender by the sinus clearing spoonful of fig mustard. Whoa!

The amount of delicious food, effervescent wine, plastic gnomes, poetry reciting vintnors, breathtaking scenery and eerily empty wine-tasting towns on this trip necessitate two separate posts.

Part two to follow shortly: driving through the Mosel and dinner at Culinarium R.

1 comment:

  1. jiff - it all looks so good! Sadly we did not eat quite as well on our weekend without child....carter