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Mosel Bridge Divides

Winemakers are fighting construction that could damage some of the world’s most famous Riesling vineyards

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: June 13, 2011

The wines of Germany’s Mosel River are among the most celebrated expressions of Riesling in the world. But the steep vineyards of the Mittelmosel surrounding the towns of Ürzig, Zeltingen-Rachtig and Bernkastel-Kues, first made famous by the Romans, are currently threatened by a major construction initiative. Winegrowers worry that a proposed highway and bridge across the river will damage or even destroy their vines. And they complain the project is unnecessary.

“We’re talking about the whole hillside. Everybody there will possibly be hurt,” said Ernst Loosen of Bernkastel’s Weingut Dr. Loosen. “It’s not only us, it’s J.J. Prüm, it’s all the famous winemakers who have vineyards in this mountain range who are very worried about what will happen in five, six, seven, eight years.”

Conceived during the Cold War to shuttle men and equipment between airbases, the Hochmoselübergang—High Mosel Crossway—comprises the Hochmoselbrücke bridge and a new stretch of the Bundesstrasse 50 (B50) highway, which will run along about 5 miles of pristine vineland. The Rheinland-Pfalz parliament approved the structure in May. Plans for the project lay dormant for years because private contractors were uninterested, but federal stimulus money has revived them.

Though the bridge itself could deprive certain vineyards of sunlight and damage fragile terrain, the larger concern comes from the B50. The plans involve digging a trench for the highway that could run 215 feet wide and 50 feet deep in some places, through the forest on the plateau above the vineyards. Winegrowers say the forest acts as a water reservoir and helps their grapes achieve ripeness even in dry years.

“Ultimately, it’s going to have an effect on the water distribution to the vineyards,” said Sarah Washington, leader of Pro-Mosel, the group that has organized against the project. “The problem is that the government hasn’t answered that point. There has been no proper study of that.” Washington, a British artist living in Ürzig, said that the hard slate under the topsoil of the slopes sloughs rain off the plateau and down through the vines. The depth and width of the trench, as well as its proximity to the edge of the plateau, will cut off the slopes from much of this water source.

“For thousands of years, there has been a great underground water support system for these vineyards. We cannot say how severe the damages for this water system [would be],” said Manfred Prüm, proprietor of Weingut Joh. Jos. Prüm. “If there are big damages, this would be a great disadvantage for hot and dry years.”

Officials at the Rheinland-Pfalz Ministry of Home Affairs disagree about the potential harm. A study by the Regional Authority for Geology and Mining in 2009 reported that “the drying out of vineyards could not be verified,” said Joachim Winkler, an official in the ministry's press office. “For the most part, the forest above the vineyards has been retained; it does not function as a reservoir. In fact, the forest draws rainwater from the slope.”

Loosen says that he and other opponents of the project asked universities for independent analysis, but none were willing to conduct research that might contradict the government’s findings. “We just want our questions answered before they do a project that is irreversible,” he said.

Particularly frustrating to the project’s detractors is the perception that the local government is only pursuing the project because the German state is offering stimulus money to provinces that can provide projects to spend it on. Before the recession, “Rheinland-Pfalz couldn’t find a private investor, because all the investors said, ‘No, this is a stupid motorway. There’s no traffic. You can never make money on it,’” said Loosen.

According to the ministry, Winkler said, the bridge will bring more tourists to the region and serve as an important link between Belgium and the Netherlands and the Frankfurt/Mainz metropolitan area—particularly the Frankfurt-Hahn airport. “Given the forecasts of growing traffic, the construction of the bridge crossing is still justified,” said Winkler. Access to the city, he argued, would help “keep the young people and families in rural areas” like the Mittelmosel. Winkler insisted that all local interests were heard and considered by the government before it made its decision.

Not everyone in the area opposes the project. “It’s a really local, parochial system,” said Washington. “The village around the corner who can’t see the bridge, they say ‘Everybody who doesn’t go to those villages will come to us.’ It’s completely, unbelievably small-minded. People are jealous of the international winemakers—they’re called the star vintners. If they stand up and say, ‘We’ve got better wine here than a place around the corner,’ everybody else gets upset.”

The parliament represents interests outside the Mittelmosel, and Prüm characterizes the typical attitude from other areas as, “I do not feel any disadvantages, so why not?”

The leaders of the bridge opposition have grown especially bitter since the Rheinland-Pfalz parliamentary elections in March. They worked to help Alliance ‘90/The Greens, Germany’s green party and longtime opponents of the bridge, gain a sizable presence in the parliament for the first time, with 15.4 percent of the vote, compared to 4.6 percent in 2006. By May, the Greens had reneged on their position, joining the Social Democratic Party in green-lighting the Hochmoselübergang. (Representatives of the party did not respond to requests for comment.)

“We had been fighting for them," said Loosen. "I convinced my whole family to vote for the Green party. My poor mother, who is coming from a family that is three generations [Christian Democratic Union]. My great-grandfather had even been a member of parliament for the [CDU].”

Now that the contract to erect the bridge and lay down the highway has been signed, Pro-Mosel and its allies are running out of options. One is to petition the E.U. on the unique environmental and cultural qualities of the construction site, but that is an expensive process.

“It’s so stunning here,” said Washington. “It’s a place that if it were in the U.K., it would be a national park, and it would be regarded as a national treasure." Construction is scheduled to begin later this year.

Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  June 14, 2011 2:04pm ET
The Mittelmosel is a national treasure, in fact, it is a world treasure, too bad more Germans don't realize this. The unique conditions in that little strech of river valley yield wines of surpassing delicacy and nuance. They are virtually impossible to reproduce anywhere on Earth. Once the damage is done, it will be too late. The government of the Rheinland-Pfalz will forevermore be famous for painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Nice going!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
John Keffer
US —  June 14, 2011 2:08pm ET
Absolutely gorgeous area. Yes, a little challenging to drive to and around the area, but that's part of the charm. I've been there multiple times, and I don't see how the proposed bridge won't impact the ecosystem.
Thomas D Nichols
Houston, TX —  June 14, 2011 10:40pm ET
Smells of curruption. If this were the US I would be sure that some of the politicians were bought off by the construction industry. Surely this could not happen in Germany!
Scott Richardson
Orlando, Fl —  June 15, 2011 10:42am ET
A Bridge Divided –
I just got off the phone with my friend and the only American wine producer in Bernkastel, Germany (Mark Wallraff). Your article is full of “maybe’s” and “speculative possibilities” versus reality.
To put some perspective and context to what this bridge will do in the long term. There will be more value in having this bridge than not having it. There was a bridge built further along the Mosel (Cochem) over thirty years ago; this bridge did very little damage to the vineyards, slate and underground water systems.
First, I don’t see where Ernst Loosen has room to complain. Mr. Loosen lives nowhere near the bridge. From his house, he cannot see the bridge as it is a little over 6 km from there. Second, this bridge and highway will only help commerce in the town of Zeltingen-Rachtig and other towns nearby. Industrial parks will be built just off the highway, which means jobs are created. Third, the bridge will shorten the time and distance for transportation of the wine and other goods to the north to Belgium, saving fuel which is now ten dollars a gallon. E.g. imagine not having the Golden Gate Bridge or the Bay Bridge a main thoroughfare leading to wine country? Would Napa or Sonoma be as they are now? Or the Severn Bridge connecting England and Wales… how would that affect commerce to and from London?
Another point to make is only five acres were used to build this bridge (to place the pylons in the ground), not many vines were damaged. Contrast this to a recently move by wine growers in that same area to destroy all their vines that were producing quality fruit to make room for larger roads to be built so that they can bring in new equipment to help cultivate their vines, paid for by the DLR. All in the name of progress! By the time these newly planted vines produce quality fruit (4-7 years), the fruit planted in and around the pylons of this bridge will be producing quality fruit.
The bottom line… in the of progress and long term economic initiatives, the bridge will be built. Ernst Loosen and J.J. Prüm will enjoy the benefits of this bridge. Thirty years from now no one will remember why they didn’t want the bridge in the first place.

Angela T Carlson
Alameda, CA —  June 22, 2011 1:45pm ET
I love German wine and it pains me to think that anything could impact the vineyards that produce such delightful flavors. It doesn't help the bridge builder's cause that the thing is just really big & ugly and doesn't fit in with surrounding landscape.

I signed the first petition to stop the bridge and I'll let my local chapter of the German Wine Society know that the project is moving forward.

It really irks me when politics could possibly get in the way of a excellent glass of Mosel Riesling.

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