Usually, growers working their steep Riesling vineyards in Germany’s Mosel Valley are dealing with wild boars come harvest time. If regional politicians have their way, the growers will soon be saddled with pork of a different kind.
About a month ago, I first heard about B50, a four-lane highway and proposed bridge traversing the Mosel Valley from the villages of Ürzig to Zeltingen-Rachtig. The bridge itself is a mile long and elevated more than 500 feet at its tallest point. The cost of the proposed project is estimated at 270 million euros, paid for by the taxpayers of the Rhineland-Palatinate (German news websites Zeitong and Ad Hoc News report that the federal government is picking up 250 million euros of the tab). The cost is likely to exceed this estimate.
The B50 history goes back about 40 years, to 1968. Various governments, legal challenges and lack of funding have delayed its construction until now. My associations with the Mosel Valley go back more than 20 years, so I was surprised not to hear about this project earlier. But that’s another story.
I recently saw Katharina Prüm, whose family owns the excellent Joh. Jos. Prüm estate, in New York. Their vineyards could be adversely affected. She told me ground was broken for the project in late April. Even in the best-case scenario, the project will desecrate a stunningly beautiful valley. "The Mosel should be a UNESCO cultural heritage, but that won’t happen with the bridge," she bristled. "It’s a bad idea but nothing can be done against it."
At its worst, the bridge and road may seriously impact the nearby vineyards. The section of vineyards from Zeltingen to Bernkastel is the largest contiguous slope of Riesling vines in the Mosel Valley, including top-quality sites such as Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich and Domprobst and Bernkasteler Doctor. On the other side of the river lie the Ürziger Würzgarten and Erdener Prälat vineyards, also prime Riesling sites.
While the construction won't pull out many vines, it will clear the forested land above the vineyards for the road. That vegetation helps to regulate the water supply to the vines below. Growers are concerned that drainage patterns and water supply will be significantly altered, with risk of flash flooding and erosion in areas.
The woodlands also currently protect the vines from cold air behind the valley; their destruction will change the mesoclimate. In this northern region, the unique combination of slate soils, temperature moderation from the river and the late-ripening Riesling grape that result in the delicate Mosel style of wine could be threatened.
There is also concern about damage during the construction itself, from the use of heavy equipment, dust and debris. Once the bridge is completed, it will shade certain vineyards.
"I am not sure whether or not it will affect the vineyards in the region, but it will certainly affect the vineyards in the immediate neighborhood, that is, a kilometer above and below the bridge, because of the shading effect and also the flow of some cold air from the hillsides down where the bridge cuts through the crown of the hillside, removing the protecting forests," explained Johannes Selbach, owner of Selbach-Oster in Zeltingen. "It may very likely affect some of the Urzig vineyards and some of the vineyards between Rachtig and the bridge."
Finally, the project is likely to affect the local tourist business, with possible hotel and restaurant closings.
While many growers oppose the project, one told me that there have been no adverse effects from a similar bridge built downstream at Winningen 30 years ago. He remains optimistic about the future of the vineyards in the immediate vicinity of the bridge.
The B50 highway and bridge will improve access to the Frankfurt-Hahn airport, speeding the trip from the ports of Belgium and the Netherlands by 30 minutes. According to German-based wine writer Stuart Pigott, the regional government wants to convert the airport to a cargo hub by connecting the Rhine-Main region to the North Sea ports instead of the current revenue-losing passenger hub for the low-fare airline Ryanair.
Pigott goes on to say that the Minister President of the Rhineland-Palatinate region, Kurt Beck, hopes the project will revive his political career. Beck, the former chairman of the Social Democratic party, resigned less than a year ago amidst recent crises facing the party.
Some growers have mounted a last ditch attempt to scuttle the project, spearheaded by Ürzig resident Sarah Washington. She wrote a letter to German chancellor Angel Merkel opposing the project a day prior to the ground-breaking ceremony. However, Selbach, who fought the project during the planning and decision-making phases, feels it’s a "done deal" and nothing more can be done.
I have a vested interest in this outcome because I buy, cellar and enjoy many wines from the vineyards that may be affected. I have reviewed, on average, more than 250 wines each year from the Mosel Valley, for the past 11 years. The style of Riesling coming from these sites is unique in the wine world and can’t be replicated anywhere else. It would be a shame to negate 2,000 years of history and culture for short-term political gain.