But you don’t have to be wine geeks like us, blissed-out on sunshine and slate, to commune with the surroundings here. The vineyards, fragmented as they are, seem less like private fiefdoms and more like public parks, their names written in large white letters across the landscape, Hollywood-style. The only obstacle we found to entering vineyards in the Mosel was the heart-pumping climbs. We hiked a footpath above a vineyard called the Trittenheimer Apotheke, which offers perhaps the best panoramic vista of the valley. The river loops tightly around the village of Trittenheim, and as it turns, the vineyard opposite the village rises to form an arena in the earth. Hiking along the über-nosebleed section of this bowl, the land rippling out in all directions below, the Mosel appeared as smooth as glass. We’d been told that water-skiing was an entertainment option, if we were so inclined, and winced as we imagined the buzz of an outboard motor cutting through the serenity. Just then we heard a clicking sound at our feet, and looked down to find a very large, very tasty-looking snail inching its way across the gravelly slate.
The visual scale of the Mosel is undeniably vast, but traveling through the valley, we continued to encounter its endearing, small-town intimacy. That night at Rüssel’s, an ambitious restaurant in a pine forest not far from the Trittenheim overlook, we took a wild stab at the wine list and wound up with a stunning Riesling by the wunderkind A. J. Adam, who almost overnight gained a reputation for his small-production wines, which are maddeningly difficult to find stateside.
“You like the wine?” our waitress asked.
Did we ever, we said.
“Oh, good,” she replied, “my brother’s the winemaker.”
Adam’s winery—one of the smallest producers in the Mosel, with only 7.4 acres of vines—came into existence only a decade ago, and his presence in the marketplace, limited as it may be, is one harbinger of change around here.
Another change, and one the Riesling cult might be keeping under wraps: the area is starting to turn out some seriously delicious red wines. The same global warming that threatens to rob the Mosel of its excellent ice wine has added precious degrees of temperature, which has lifted the quality of the Pinot Noirs.
So, to sate our hankering for red wine, though a party of German corporate guys at a neighboring table ordered oceans of French Burgundy, we did something we never thought we’d do in Riesling country. We ordered a local Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder. Our waitress brought it with body language that practically apologized for what was about to unfold.
She needn’t have worried. The wine’s name was, yes, difficult to wrap the brain around—Weingut Robert Schroeder 2007 Mehringer Goldkupp Spätburgunder Rotwein “S” Trocken—but the liquid itself was ridiculously easy to love, a ripe, elegant wine that held nothing in reserve.
Such changes—new wineries, new wines—create a thrilling and very real tension between old and new. Driving downriver from Trittenheim, we passed through town after town, each adorable and ancient, with a workaday bakery, a mom-and-pop grocery, and a clutch of grand manors huddled around them: Neumagen, Wittlich, Piesport. We took great delight in spotting houses made entirely of thin blue-and-red slate, tightly stacked as wads of cash, that would be the envy of any American stonemason. At the town hall in Piesport, we browsed a flea market with cool vintage gas-station signage, loads of antique kitchen tools, and cork pulls from every era. In Neumagen, we nearly missed what some archaeologists have called the region’s second most important Roman artifact next to Trier’s Black Gate: an A.D. 205 stone memorial sculpture of a merchant vessel loaded with—you guessed it—wine barrels.