I recently took a WSET tutoring session in which I was given quite a few test questions in order to prepare me for the written portion of the exam. Rumor has it, this is where most students have difficulty for a number of reasons, including not using their own deductive reasoning. Just like those nasty word problems you’d get in math class as a kid, sometimes it’s about taking what you do know to help you figure out what you (think) you don’t know.
The above image is from a Simpson’s episode entitled “Visualize the Problem.” I thought this appropriate because I’m about to share a little “proud of me” moment when I did just that. The question was about the Mosel region of Germany:
Due to the challenging climate in the Mosel, all the very best vineyards share similar characteristics. Explain what the climatic challenges in the Mosel are and identify and explain how three of those characteristics help to overcome these challenges.
[Answer(s) based on WSET Level 3 material]
I had a major uh-oh moment, thinking “I read about Mosel, but I do not remember anything about Mosel.” Ok, I remembered that Mosel was in Germany. That’s a great start. Then I remembered something else—Mosel is the northern most part of the German wine region. It also lies off to the west, very close to the border of France. And that’s when I was able to “Visualize the Problem.” I was able to picture my handy wine map wall (yes, I’ve created a wine map wall…) and recall that Mosel is very close to Alsace. And, for some reason, I have a major fascination with Alsace and can remember loads of characteristics about that region. So I gave it a go and guess what? I got the answer right. Confidence my friends. Patience and confidence are key.
So you want to know what the answer is?
Mosel, like much of Germany, has a cool, continental climate. If you recall from my climate breakdown post, this means that the region experiences seasonal extremes: hot dry summers and cold, often frosty winters. What’s more, is these temperature shifts happen quite rapidly, which means the growing season is very short—which impedes grape ripening (think: less development of those sugars that eventually turn into alcohol). As such, grape growers need to take certain considerations in the vineyard:
- Vineyards are best planted on steep slopes with a south or south-eastern aspect in order to receive the most sunlight during the day. Facing south/south-east means also that the vineyard is facing the Mosel River. Large bodies of water both reflect sunlight and absorb and retain heat much longer than the surrounding land mass so can therefore continue to warm the area. And SCIENCE FACT: Warm air rises and cold air sinks, so all that frosty detrimental air will roll down the slopes and into the underlying valley floor.
2. The grape grower would want to make sure that the soils where the vines are planted are filled with stony soils (which most of them in this region are), as stony soils absorb heat. Therefore, even when the temperature drops, there’s still enough stored warmth to comfort the chilly vine.
3. Those vines planted on the slope, that are able to avoid that frost, will need to be trained low to the ground, so they can absorb the heat retained by those stony soils. For those vines planted lower on the slope or, perhaps the valley floor, these vines are typically head pruned, individually staked, and canes tied to the top of the stake to maximize the grapes’ exposure to the sun and the grapes off the frosty cold floor. (Think of it as tying the canopy into a Marge Simpson look, to keep a theme going…)
I think/hope that adequately answers the questions. Any thoughts out there?
FUN FACTS! Want to hear some other German wine FUN FACTS? (These are literally things I marked in my book as “Fun Fact!”)
•Germany is the country producing the highest volume of Riesling.
•Ok, but let’s give out medals for the rest of the class: Muller-Thurgau (or Rivaner) comes in as Germay’s Number 2 grape; it’s a crossing between Riesling and Madeleine Royale. Third place goes to Silvaner (see my last note below for a separate FUN FACT on that variety.) And let’s at least give an honorable mention to Spätburgunder aka Pinot Noir.
•Wines in Germany are classified by must weight (referring to the level of sugars in the grapes at harvest).
•It is possible (when conditions are right) to make a botrytized sweet wine in every winemaking region of Germany. (They have loads of rivers.)
•VOLCANO FACT: The best vineyards in Baden (the most south, and therefore the warmest of Germany’s wine regions) are planted on the south-facing slopes of Kaiserstuhl (literal translation: “The King’s Seat”), which is an extinct volcano. (Talk about hot rocks…hahaha).
•Sylvaner is kind of a reject grape in Alsace (lacks distinct varietal character, is used mostly for blending purposes, and is actually being ripped out and replaced with the Noble grape varieties). But in Franken, a wine region kind of off to the east and away from the other (major) regions, grape growers can achieve a concentration to these grapes unlike anywhere else in the world. (Shhhhh…don’t tell France…Also, does anyone have one I can taste???)
So now that I’ve talked a bit about Germany, can I wax on a bit about Alsace? I promise you’ll be rewarded with a wine review if you make it to the end.
I won’t go on and on about the topography like I did above because the story really is quite similar. But the one thing I will add is that the major difference is that Alsace is not in proximity of a major body of water. Indeed, the Mosel and the Rhine are really too far to have an affect on the vines. The defining geographical feature here are Vosge Mountains that protect the region from cold, rain-bearing winds from the west. Alsace is, in fact, the driest grape growing region in France. And it is that shelter from the mountains that helps extend the growing season so that the grapes can fully develop.
Ok, here we go ALSACE FUN FACTS!
•Unlike the rest of France, Alsatian wine is varietally labelled, indicating 100% of the labeled grape variety is used. (Ie., Riesling is Riesling through and through)
•The exception to that rule: Auxerrois. For no real rhyme or reason. Seriously. I just listened to a podcast and the interviewer asked, “Why is that?” And the winemaker interviewee just answered, “Because that is how it is…” Auxerrois has a similar flavor profile to Chardonnay and is often blended with Pinot Blanc, and it will still be varietally labeled as Pinot Blanc. (I think it’s to give the wine a bit of weight on the palate, but that’s a personal opinion, not WSET approved…)
•There are, indeed, some cheap blends made in Alsace: they are either labelled Edelzwicker or Gentil (or simply carry the producer’s brand name).
•Because Alsace is the driest winemaking region in France, vineyards are not as susceptible to rot or mildew. Thus, grape growers don’t need to do a lot of chemical spraying. The fun fact here: Alsace has one of the largest (if not the largest) populations of organic and biodynamic vineyards.
•Pinot Noir is the only black grape permitted in Alsace.
•PERSONAL FACT: I figured out why I don’t like Gewurtzraminer. It’s an early ripening grape variety whose acidity tends to drop quite quickly, but maintains a higher level of sugar content. So, the wines are low in acid and high in alcohol—sometimes above 14% ABV. So, they can be a bit heavy on the palate, oily in texture, and their overtly floral characteristics are front and center—and I’m a girl that needs a fruit and acid balance.
Patience is a virtue my friends, let’s review some wines! In keeping with the theme, I’ve got one Riesling from Alsace and one from Germany. And, as you can probably tell from the descriptors above, despite the fact that the regions share some topographical similarities, it’s those differences that really make the, well, difference in the wine. This was an experiment I decided to do in an effort to boost my studies. As a side note, both of these wines were purchased at my local Whole Foods and each are under $20. So if you’re looking to experiment yourself, you can do so without breaking the bank (or have to wait forever for wines to ship).
Stay tuned for more. Let’s see what WSET question I pull out of the hat tomorrow for you cool kids. If you happen to have a Pop Quiz you want to give me, leave it in the comments…. Thanks for helping me study!
About the Wine: Romernof Kabinett Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Appearance: pale lemon
Aroma: Youthful, pronounced aromas of hay, petrol, chamomile, gooseberry, peach and apricot
Palate: Off-dry, high acid, low alcohol, light body and a medium (+) flavor intensity. Flavors: lychee, peach, nectarine, chamomile, honeysuckle, and green apple. Long Finish
Conclusion: Based on the WSET criteria, I would say that this is a Very Good Riesling from the Mosel region of Germany. There was enough acidity to balance out the residual sugars and the fact that the wine was only 8% ABV (a quality I almost barely noticed). Like many German Rieslings, I would say that one could enjoy this wine now, but it has the potential to age over the next three years, developing notes of honey and hay and deepening the complexity a bit (which is the one thing it lacks at the moment)
About the Wine: Trimbach Alsace Riesling
Appearance: pale lemon
Aroma: Youthful, aromas with a medium level of intensity. Aromas: petrol, chamomile, nectarine, wet stone, acacia
Palate: dry, medium (+) acidity, light body, medium alcohol, medium (+) flavor intensity. Flavors: Lemon pith, lemon zest, chamomile, agave, grapefruit, herbal qualities (I know I don’t get a point for that one but I really couldn’t place it)
Conclusion: Based on the WSET criteria, I would say that this is a Very Good example of a Riesling from Alsace, France. However, in this case, I would say that you can enjoy it now, but it does not have the potential for aging.
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