In Praise of… Elbling?

The Mosel river valley is among the most impressive wine growing regions on earth. Towering, steep hillsides sheath the winding river on both banks, sparkling with slate. Riesling vineyards planted on impossibly steep slopes cast shadows over ancient and gorgeous villages lifted straight out of the adorable vignettes festooning the region’s wine bottles. Today I’m not talking about those vineyards.

Reality has not been kind to this fantasy camp for wine lovers. A fifty-year campaign of mis-information and cynical cash-grabbing[1] has left wine drinkers from every walk of life with the truly bizarre opinion that Riesling is anything but the finest and most versatile grape variety ever fermented into wine.[2] It’s a myth I struggle against with evangelical zeal, but today I’m not talking about Riesling.

Between the confluence of the Saar – the Mosel’s most Mosel-like tributary – and the border of France[3] is the bit called the Obermosel, or Upper Mosel, where the river is Germany’s border with Luxembourg, where the river cuts a straight path north and slightly east between gently rolling terraced limestone banks, where the bitter cold winds of the North Sea roll unhindered through vineyards and not even Riesling – one of the hardest grapes in the world – can ripen properly before winter. This vaguely defined area is the only region on earth to specialize in Elbling.

Your life will still be complete if you never have a glass of Elbling wine. It’s not required drinking for connisseurs the way Riesling is. No one will ever claim Elbling is a noble grape; no one will ever build a major marketing campaign for it and invite hipsters in Brooklyn and San Francisco to all the coolest bars for Elbling Week. It is a curiosity; a grape that survives only because no one can make decent wine from any other vines in an obscure corner of the wine world and because it’s sort of always been there. But you know what? I spent almost a week drinking a single bottle of this fresh, lemony, slightly grapey wine with pure and straightforward flavors and a lightning strike of acidity[4] and the last sip on the last day was still buzzing and as fresh as it was at the winery. There’s a place on everyone’s table for a wine that can do that.

[1] Did I say fifty? More accurately, Germany’s marginal vine growing climate has doomed the wine industry’s reputation there to a cycle of boom and bust for more than a millennia.

[2] I’ll entertain arguments for Chenin Blanc but if you come at me with Cabernet Sauvignon, I don’t know what to tell you.

[3] And the beginning of the utterly obscure but sometimes sublime Moselle region.

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