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Mosel Vineyards

Food Explorer #12: A South African food scientist does rivers and Riesling

Lisa Ronquest is one of South Africa’s top young food scientists, now transferred to the Netherlands in a global food R&D role by Mars. She’s been sharing her European impressions, insights and travels with FOODStuff SA readers in a regular blog, and we’re proud here to publish her 12th episode. This time, Lisa explores rivers and Riesling….

Autumn has come to Europe and the leaves are changing from bright green to the most gorgeous yellow, orange and red hues. So with the kids on holiday we head south east to the Rhine region in Germany, the birth place of the Riesling grape variety.

Germany is the world’s largest grower of Riesling and allocate 20% of its vineyards to it. We head to a small, popular tourist town called Cochem situated on the Mosel River.

The weather didn’t exactly play along with us, but the incessant rainfall is very indicative of the region. So we decided to take a ferry trip along the Mosel River to visit a small, medieval town called Beilstein, otherwise known as ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

As the ferry glides along we notice the vineyards growing at an incredibly steep incline on a very inhospitable looking rocky slopes. The benefit of the inclined slopes is that it allows for more direct sunlight and longer contact with the vines.

As the river banks are so steep its’ impractical to harvest them mechanically so they are harvested by hand. This is almost seven times more labour-intensive than that of flatter terrains. The soil is mainly blue, grey, red slate rock, which is ideal for drainage in areas of heavy rain. This terroir gives Riesling a transparent and mineralic flavour.

As we reach Beilstein, we leave the warmth of the ferry and walk up into the petite village along the narrow cobble stone alleyways. We have two hours to explore the small town and climb up the hill to the remains of an old castle.

Wet through and with the cold setting in, with ice cold fingers and noses, we find refuge in a 440-year old wine cellar called Zehnthauskellar with a raging fire inside its stone walls.

We sit down as comfortably as we can in the make-shift tables and chairs made from converted wine barrels and try to warm up, promptly helped along by a tasting of six wines, requesting specifically their dry or ‘trocken’ Riesling wines.

RieslingIn South Africa, cultivation of Riesling grapes has declined over the years and there is some confusion on labelling Riesling such as Cape Riesling, when really they are just a Crouchen Blanc and not anything to do with Riesling.

So as a South African I’m really not familiar with Riesling. In fact, like many people, I guess, I’ve always avoided it as I’ve imagined it to be too sweet. I found that this preconceived idea to be completely untrue. It’s actually a very versatile grape that is able to be made into dry, semi-sweet, sweet and sparkling white wines.

Riesling is an aromatic grape variety displaying flowery, perfumed aromas with high acidity. Riesling is estimated to be the world’s 20th most grown variety and considered in terms of quality as one of the top three white varieties together with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Considered a ‘terroir-expressive’ variety its character is influenced by the wine’s place of origin. In a cool climate like Germany’s it exhibits apple and tree fruit notes with noticeable acidity that is balanced through residual sugar. Due to both the high acidity and strong fruit flavours, Riesling has excellent aging potential.

The next day we continued our Riesling exploration by visiting an old cellar and wine shop in the centre of Cochem, Walter J Oster. The family has been making wine for 15 generations!

Some of their vines are 80 years old, growing on steep slopes, one of which is the steepest vineyard in Europe. We navigate this extremely impressive shop with all manner of wines, liqueurs and whiskies in wonderful glass bottles of all shapes and sizes.

The twins are jumping around trying to catch fruit flies that are swarming around the open flasks of fruit-flavoured liqueurs and threatening to crash into one of these fragile displays. This does nothing to help win over the one already unfriendly wine assistant with my endless questions on ‘how is this made?’ and ‘can I taste that?’.

The language barrier in Germany is significant and one we’re not used to in the Netherlands where every Dutch person can speak English. Eventually an older gentleman comes to my rescue and offers me a tasting of the wines I’ve selected. Luckily he did. as a few of them were so dry I’m not sure I could have managed to get through a full glass.

These Riesling’s are, again, in the main, delicious and unique, depending on how their acidity and sugar levels have been balanced.

So all in all a wonderful four days exploring castles, rivers and Riesling.

Lisa GuinnessAbout this blog:

Lisa Ronquest is currently Head of Product Development – Global Food R&D at Mars Inc, based in The Netherlands. The intention of this column is to be both a personal and professional account of a South African food scientist exploring life and work in a developed market.

You can contact her at

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