For a group of distinguished British wine writers, German plans to drive a four-lane autobahn across the Mosel river are proving a bridge too far. Fearful that the vast crossing threatens to destroy the character of some of the world’s most sought-after wines, including the best Riesling vineyards on the planet, they will gather in the unlikely environs of a Chinese restaurant in Berlin for a last-ditch attempt to halt the project this weekend.
Deploying the tactics they know best, Hugh Johnson, the world’s best-selling wine writer, Stuart Pigott and critic Jancis Robinson will be joined on Sunday by former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer where they will protest their cause by raising a few glasses of the threatened valley's most palatable offerings.
Schemes to span the river valley where the most northerly vines in the winemaking world have flourished since Roman times were first mooted in 1960 when Nato planned it as a quick get away route in the event of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Today the pressures to continue building the bridge are of a more commercial nature – to make it quicker for lorries carrying freight and coaches laden with Ryanair passengers to reach Frankfurt-Hahn airport from the neighbouring Benelux countries.
But winemakers fear that the huge reinforced concrete pillars which will hold up Germany’s largest bridge and support the new B50 autobahn on its way between Wittlich and Longkamp will unsettle the unique micro-climate responsible for wines such as Graacher Himmelreich or Wehlener Sonnenuhr. Yet despite the scale of the threat and the country’s reputation as a leading environmental nation, say the British writers, the Germans have been strangely muted in their response. Campaigners have been e-mailing the German Chancellor Angela Merkel directly for the past year and staging various protests but so far to no avail. Meanwhile the road creeps ever nearer.
“This really is a very special place,” explained Jancis Robinson yesterday. “We Brits have had to shake them up a bit and say to them `don’t be so supine’. The French are very effective at standing up to these proposals. I cannot think of another project this enormous being allowed anywhere near such unique vineyards anywhere else in the world,” she added.
Mr Pigott, who is an authority on German wine, has gone further calling for opponents to burn an effigy of Kurt Beck, Governor of the Rhineland-Palatinate. Critics say Mr Beck is determined to leave the 270m euro bridge as a monument to progress and a lasting economic legac for the region as a new tourism hub. "I'm calling for a massive uprising," Mr Pigott said in a recent interview. "I'm calling for the use of any means except violence.”
Hugh Johnson, author of The World Atlas of Wine, said the wines of the region cannot be replaced. "The whole world has nothing comparable to Mosel Riesling. You can imitate the wines of Bordeaux in the Napa Valley. But there is nothing that even starts to imitate Mosel Riesling. Do you really understand what a treasure of an inheritance this is?" he urged locals in an impassioned call to arms.
As well as being a visual eye sore, it is feared that the bridge, which will be taller than Cologne Cathedral, will create unpredictable winds and gusts across the valley. Engineers will have to dig 15m into the rock potentially threatening the ancient waterways.
The natural irrigation system in which winter rain is stored in the brittle shale and then trickles slowly down the slope to refresh the thirsty vines has created a winemaking paradise producing 860,000 hectolitres, most of it for export growers say. Jancis Robinson said that while other types of wine have been successfully copied elsewhere it is not the case with the Riesling. “They simply don’t have the same elegance as those produced in the cooler climate. They are a long way from the equator and they have this extraordinary delicacy. They can give enormous amounts of flavour without being very alcoholic” she said.
Manfred Prüm, owner of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr (Wehlen Sundial) vineyard, is thankful to the intervention of the British-led International Riesling Rescue team. “Johnson encouraged us and reminded us of our obligation to cultural heritage as residents of the Mosel region," he said. Mr Prun, whose family have grown grapes here for centuries, sells his Rieslings for between €20 to €30 a bottle, although top varieties can fetch thousands.
Roman winemaking traditions were kept alive in the valleys of the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer by monks and are the oldest vineyards in Germany. They are ideal for producing late ripening Riesling because the steep slate slopes absorb warmth during the day and slowly release it at night – preventing disastrous frosts before harvest. Connoisseurs say the wine's quality – its delicate fruit, bone dry palette, special acidity and mineral aftertaste and special acidity is surpassed only by the best white Burgundy from France.