Sundown at the main market in Trier. As the light faded behind the roofs of the half-timbered houses that border the main market square, the produce vendors folded their tables, stacking crates of endives and carrots. But in a small tent at the square’s eastern edge, a strand of lights flickered to life: the Weinstand was open. A kiosk, really—no chairs, just an open-air wine-bar-in-the-round, and in its center, a young man and woman pouring wine. We ordered glasses and turned back around to watch the flower vendor amble across the cobblestones, her lilies quivering in their pails. She ducked down an alley between the ranks of row houses—this one pink stucco, the next yellow. And then, in an instant, she was gone.
Fortunately, our wine arrived before the mood departed, and the first cool sips of the pale, straw-colored liquid—the elixir that had sparked our journey—delivered us back to our senses.
Yes, Riesling. Tarnished, inscrutable, misunderstood—these are the adjectives you’d use if you felt there was a glimmer of hope for a wine like this. Many Americans, us included, gave up on Riesling years ago. Even if you weren’t intimidated by those Third Reich fonts on the labels or the unpronounceable place-names (Piesporter Goldtröpfchen, anyone?), you’d have a hard time cozying up to a wine so cloyingly sweet and hollow. Recently, though, we’d come under the spell of Paul Grieco, sommelier and co-owner of the New York City restaurant Hearth and the de facto leader of a crew of whip-smart wine professionals with a passion for the Riesling grape. They were among the first stateside to proclaim the good news out of the Mosel River Valley (also known as the Moselle), that something fundamental had changed: a new generation of growers and winemakers were bottling wines of quality and nuance. It didn’t hurt their cause that the grape yields such a range of expressions—steely to fruity, bone-dry to Sauternes-sweet—that it makes the beverage a dynamite pairing for notorious wine-challengers such as egg dishes and fiery foods. Grieco & Co. made good sport of their advocacy, organizing confabs devoted to the underdog. One guy’s forearm flashed a lettered tattoo: Riesling.
But for all their fervency for Mosel wines, the cultists were maddeningly vague about the actual place, and when we asked what it was like to travel to the region, the mystery only deepened: “Drink the juice, know the land. Enough said,” Grieco wrote us. Another was equally terse, if a tad less cryptic: “Elderhostelers on cycle tours.”
None of this squared with the reports of a youthful wine-making scene, not to mention the electricity soaring out of our stemware, so we decided to see for ourselves, mapping a route through the “middle Mosel”—site of the region’s most famous vineyards—starting in Trier, a commercial center just 10 minutes from the Luxembourg border, and lazily tasting our way downriver.
Had the Riesling-heads ever visited the Weinstand—a city-owned bar hosting a different winemaker every night? The kid pouring that evening wasn’t just the bartender; he was the owner (and grower, and winemaker) of a winery south of town. A couple in suits toasted the end of the day; a Fräulein walking a dog settled in for a glass and then launched into a spontaneous aria. We hadn’t anticipated Trier to be much more than a launching pad for the journey (Germans often dismiss it as deadly dull), but even here things seemed to be looking up.