The rise of the Riesling
Discovering the German white in the company of a 13th-generation winemaker in Mosel
Clambering up a steep vineyard lined with neatly planted grapevines, Jobst Karp reaches out to a tender grape shoot, pulls it towards him and explains to me that the plant is exactly three months old as of today. All around us, the gently undulating peaks of Mosel, laden with Riesling vineyards, rise and fall. Far below, the waters of the Moselle river unfurl like a slate-grey ribbon.
We’re at Brauneberg, a town of 1,200 inhabitants in the middle Mosel region of Germany, renowned for its Rieslings. Karp is a 13th-generation winemaker, poised to cash in on the rising popularity of wine by increasing the acreage of his Karp-Schreiber vineyards. I catch a glimpse of a Riesling tattoo across his forearm, inked in an ornate font, as he rolls up his sleeves while giving me a tour of a newly acquired vineyard, accompanied by his wine-consultant girlfriend Belinda Weiß.
“We have been making wine for more than 13 generations but the records of our family’s history were lost in the 1680s’ war," Karp says. That war, called the War of Grand Alliance, in which Louis XIV of France sought control of the continent, raged from 1688-97, and many of the churches where these records were kept were burnt to cinders.
Though its fairy-tale-like vineyards and castles bordered by the gently flowing Moselle hold immense potential for wine tours, the region hasn’t really found a place on the tourist circuit. In the absence of organized tours, the winemakers—mostly family businesses—conduct the tours themselves on prior appointment.
Though counted among the top three white wine varieties, alongside Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, the Riesling’s popularity is not at par with the other two. But with new winemaking techniques, enthusiastic young growers with good education and organizations like Generation Riesling, an umbrella organization of the German Wine Institute, the Riesling is now making a strong bid for market- and mind-space.
My first brush with the Riesling happened when a friend brought me a bottle from, of all places, Dubai: The fruity, full-bodied wine, with its palate-cleansing acidity, quickly became a favourite. I started looking for the Riesling wherever I went and keenly followed Sula’s experiments with the grape in India. But the ultimate, of course, was seeing how the grape worked in its home territory, in Mosel.
The Riesling wine region extends from the city of Trier to Koblenz along the Moselle river. According to one legend, when the Romans arrived in Mosel around 28 BC, they realized the slate-rich soil was more suited for white wine grapes than those that produced the reds they preferred. They compromised by making white wine and dyeing it red with colour from berries—a practice shunned soon after. The region still produces a limited quantity of reds (without dyes, no fear) but their significance is considerably dimmed by the glory of the whites.
Karp himself produces two types of red, he says, as he guides me to his underground wine cellar, the yeasty sweetness of wine fermenting in barrels rushing to envelop me in a heady fog. His geriatric German Shepherd, Scampy, follows us on ungainly legs. “We work with the old 1,000-litre barrels, made mainly between 1960 and 1967. They are called fuder and are made out of German oak. We use these barrels because they oxidize the wine a little, helping it mature better."
The wine made to be drunk young—in great demand right now—is stored in stainless-steel tanks. In the five years since he took over the business from his father, Karp has experienced a steady increase in exports. “For example, we exported 13,000 bottles of the 2015 vintage dry Riesling just last year. In 2010 it was only 1,200 bottles, 10 times less," he says. “I had earlier experimented with other grapes but, for the past five years, it’s only been Riesling."
Stuart Pigott, wine journalist and author of Best White Wine On Earth: The Riesling Story, writes to me in an email that a marked improvement in the quality of Riesling since 2000 has spurred demand. “This has created the situation today where the quantities of good and great Riesling wines produced are many times higher than 30 years ago and the stylistic diversity of these wines is immeasurably greater than back then," he adds.
Running his family’s wine business was a no-brainer for Karp, who grew up in his family’s Weingut—as German wine agricultural enterprises are known—with his wine aficionado parents. “My mother told me I didn’t have to take over the business but my father was hopeful that I would," he says.
Its natural beauty notwithstanding, Brauneberg is a small town and wine-growing can be a task demanding a young man’s lifelong, undivided commitment. After years of hands-on training and trips to various vineyards all over the world—the US, Australia and New Zealand—Karp’s work is taking shape. Karp now wants to dedicate his entire attention to the wine business and even shut down the eponymous restaurant on the property.
Run between July and October by his mother, who is as enthusiastic about cooking as she is about wine, the restaurant is known for its speciality weekends. “We have had tapas and asparagus weekends last year. I would love to have an Indian weekend. Maybe you can help," Karp’s mother, Sibylle von Schuckmann-Karp, tells me over breakfast one morning.
Listening to the fiesty Sibylle discuss her recipes, I once again realize the extent to which wine is intertwined in their lives. She talks about collecting wild cherries, hawthorns, sea buckthorns, vineyard peaches for marmalade. “I preserve everything in wine so my marmalades will taste of wine," she mock-grumbles. “Who’s complaining," I think to myself, eyeing the huge mason jars of green pine cones and elderberry flowers suspended in Riesling on the windowsills.
She pulls out a notebook with its bulging belly and shows newspaper cuttings of recipes she has collected over the years. In summer, she gathers huge wild mushrooms and, when there’s enough, they have a mushroom weekend at their restaurant, she tells me. She recently read a recipe that uses green walnuts and hawthorn flowers to make salads—she wants to try it next. “Each year, I do something different, and I don’t repeat recipes," she says with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a child. “Maybe you should publish a book with her recipes," I suggest to Karp. However, he thinks his mother is already overworked, and doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about the idea.
That night, Karp, Weiß and I taste glass after glass of Riesling in varying vintages as a gentle rain pitter-patters on the windowpanes. I slowly gather the patience and tongue to identify notes: I can taste pineapple, I say, after sipping a fresh Riesling bottled in 2014. Karp and Weiß patiently explain to me the characteristics of each bottle as I grow tipsy by the glass. By the end, I decide to buy a bottle of Riesling along with another bottle of iridescent Rotling, a blend of red and white grapes—much like Rosé, but even better tasting.
My choice of Riesling hasn’t surprised Karp or Weiß for I have picked one of their best-sellers—a 2015 vintage of dry Riesling named My Karp. Weiß and Karp exchange looks, smile impishly and he says, “The world can just not get enough of fruity, fresh Mosel Riesling."
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