Author: Hanno Meier
Pictures: Hanno Meier

Challenging Gradients

Europe's steepest vineyards

Achim Meissner dismissively considers gradients of up to 40% as “flat territory”. Even his €250,000 fully automated grape harvester is able to manage such climbs. The 50-year old vintner cultivates a 1,400 square meter vineyard on the Calmont Hill, which is home to Europe’s steepest grape growing areas.

The Calmont via ferrata is the challenging and rocky alternative route to the well-known Moselsteig. It leads through steep vineyard slopes above the riverbank and is considered one of the most scenically impressive – and challenging – sections of the multi-day tour from Trier to Koblenz. It’s not just hikers who need a sure footing here.   

Because close by, winemaker Achim Meissner and his wife Beate also need good footing on the slope. But 40 percent slope is still what Achim Meissner calls “flat land.” In Calmont, where the Meissners cultivate 1,400 square meters of vineyards in the steepest vineyards in Europe, the slate rock rolls away under the soles of their shoes with every step – at up to 65 percent incline.

The vineyards wants to see the winemaker every day

It is the end of August in Bremm, a village of some 800 inhabitants on the River Moselle. The Moselle is the second longest tributary of the Rhine. In this particular area, it forms one of its most famous loops in order to wend its way around the northern foothills of the Hunsrück upland. In fact, the watercourse makes a full 180-degree turn as it changes its direction of flow from North-West to South-East. Vintners working up on the steepest vineyards on the European continent and passing boatmen on the river below, leisurely shipping their freight to Koblenz or Trier, are both greeted by Bremm’s church tower.  Hikers reaching the summit cross up on the Calmont Hill are rewarded by the spectacular sight of paragliders descending into the valley. It is possible to soar well beyond the vineyard slopes of the Moselle when thermal conditions are good. Some gliders are even said to have landed in Cologne, 100 kilometers away as the crow flies.  

 “A vineyard wants to see its vintner every day,” states an old Moselle proverb. Wine growers have plenty of work to do. Vines need to be tended, pruned and protected. Nevertheless, a good vine will show its appreciation for these efforts by supplying a rich harvest for up to 300 years.  

Capricious weather conditions are the only thing which a vine does not enjoy at all. Last year, Achim Meissner and his team were forced to perform an emergency harvest. After days of rain, the grapes had begun to rot. “You know the value of a good boot when you spend 16 hours a day on your feet,” says Achim.  On the other hand, too much heat and dryness are not conducive to sweet grapes either. Firstly, the individual fruits will take on a rusty color, which vintners refer to as “smut”. As the condition progresses, they will then shrivel into a “mummified” state. 

“It’s looking good this year,” says Achim, as he runs his deeply furrowed hand over the vines. He is confident. “We’ll be ready to go next week.” Achim Meissner has 5 hectares of his own to harvest. The chief varieties he grows are Riesling, Elbling and Müller-Thurgau. And then he and his small team will spend all of the next two months in the vineyards of the neighbors.

High-tech harvest on the steep slope

Achim’s business model is based on the concept of providing grape harvesting as a service. His grape harvester moves along at walking pace between the vines. It shakes down the grapes as it passes by at 5 km/hour and also blows away falling leaves and other detritus which should not find its way into the wine. The harvester collects the grapes in huge tanks that hold 3,750 liters. There are two pedals that need to be sensitively pressed and a steering wheel. Everything else is largely controlled automatically by the machine, as if a ghostly hand were at work.

The grapes are taken to the store for pressing and further processing. Achim’s super shiny stainless steel tanks are capable of holding 175,000 liters of wine. Once fermentation has taken place, the harve sting service also includes bottling and labeling. Everything is provided from a single source.

The label on over 60 percent of the bottles reads “Riesling”, the most popular and most frequently grown variety in the Moselle region. It is, however, also the grape variety which causes most anxiety for the vintners. “It’s getting too hot for the Riesling,” says Achim. His voice is deep, his Palatinate accent even deeper. Riesling is the original grape of the Moselle Valley. But Achim is sure that climate change will cause its complete disappearance in only a few decades’ time. The region will then need to make the switch to different grape varieties. But there is no reason to believe that this will make a vintner’s work in Europe’s steepest grape growing area any easier. And one thing is sure. Good boots will always be needed to negotiate gradients of up to 65 percent, regardless of which grape variety is thriving there.   

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