The planned bridge that could ruin Germany's cherished Mosel wine region.

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Sept. 10 2009 11:53 AM

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A planned bridge could ruin Germany's cherished Mosel wine region.

Steep slope viticulture, Zell (Mosel), Deutschland. Click image to expand.
A Mosel vineyard

Tomorrow afternoon, protesters will gather on a vertiginous German hillside in an effort to prevent what would be one of the worst acts of desecration that the wine world has ever seen. Led by famed British wine writer Hugh Johnson, the group will be demonstrating against plans to build a four-lane, mile-long highway bridge across the Mosel river, a project that threatens a handful of Germany's most celebrated vineyards. The Mosel is Riesling country, and the endangered vineyards yield some of the most delicate, distinctive, and enthralling wines around. The possibility that these charmed plots of land may suffer lasting damage on account of a bridge should alarm oenophiles everywhere. The fact that the Mosel Valley, whose viticultural tradition dates back 2,000 years, is arguably the most beautiful wine region on the planet only compounds the travesty.

The protest will be held in the village of Ürzig, at the top of the Ürziger Würzgarten vineyard; it is from here that one side of the bridge will protrude. Crews are already laying down the roadway, which will be part of a highway known as the B50, and they are now just 3 kilometers from Ürziger Würzgarten. After crossing the river, the B50 will run above a clutch of other fabled sites, including the vineyards of Zeltingen, Graach, Wehlen, and Bernkastel. Deep trenches will be built to accommodate the 40-meter-wide highway, and winemakers fear that this could adversely affect water distribution in the vineyards. They are also concerned about the impact that all the dust and debris will have on the vines. Construction of the 20-kilometer stretch of road that includes the bridge is expected to take seven years at a cost of 270 million euros.

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Obviously, some of the worries are speculative, and opponents of the bridge plainly have an interest in talking up worst-case possibilities. (Click here to check out their Web site.) But one need only cast a glance at these vineyards to understand the anxiety; the slopes are breathtakingly steep, and it's plain to the eye that this is not land that should be subjected to a lot of jostling. Stuart Pigott, a British writer who specializes in German wines and who will be taking part in tomorrow's protest, put it well when I spoke with him earlier this week: "This is going to be tampering with a very fragile ecosystem which some of the world's best wines happen to depend on."

A bridge spanning the Mosel has been in the planning stage since the 1960s. Apparently, the original, Strangelove-ian motivation was to create a quicker connection between the U.S. military bases at Bitburg and Hahn in the event of nuclear war. The German authorities have now decided to go ahead with the project because the latter facility has been converted into Frankfurt-Hahn airport, which is owned by the state of Rheinland-Pfalz; the thinking seems to be that the bridge, which will shorten the trip from Belgium and Holland, can help turn the airport into a regional cargo hub. Sarah Washington, a British expat residing in Ürzig and one of the organizers of the protest, suggests that local politicians also have an edifice complex and are smitten with the idea of building an architecturally dramatic bridge—the road will be more than 500 feet high—over the Mosel.

Washington, who moved to Ürzig in early 2008, took up the fight against the bridge in part because few others seemed inclined to; there had been several failed attempts to get German courts to prevent the project from moving ahead, and with all the major political parties, save for the greens, in favor of the bridge, many locals had resigned themselves to its construction. Washington told me she has written letters to German Chancellor Angela Merkel asking her to reconsider the bridge but hasn't heard back; her invitation to Merkel to attend Friday's demonstration has likewise gone unanswered. But some prominent local winemakers—Manfred Prüm, Willi Schaefer, Markus Molitor, and Erni Loosen—have all come out against the bridge and will be attending Friday's rally. Washington hopes that their participation, along with Hugh Johnson's, might generate enough international headlines to shame the German authorities into shelving the project.

This isn't the first time that a major wine region has come under threat in the name of progress, real or imagined. In the mid-1980s, plans were hatched to tear up the Vouvray appellation in France's Loire Valley in order to make room for the TGV. But local vintners, led by Vouvray's leading winemaker and its longtime mayor, Gaston Huet, waged a vehement campaign to derail the rail link and eventually forced a more palatable solution: The French authorities decided instead to build a tunnel through one of the hills, and the TGV now passes underneath the vineyards. In pressing their case, opponents of the project were able to point to the fact that the French government had previously extended special protection to the vineyards of Vouvray, which were considered a national treasure. Unfortunately, opponents of the Mosel bridge have no such card to play. Although there has been talk of getting UNESCO to designate the Mosel Valley a World Heritage Site, the German government has not pursued the matter.

American importer Terry Theise, who has done more than anyone to popularize German wines in this country and represents a handful of growers who will be affected by the bridge, told me that he doesn't feel he's in a position to judge its possible environmental impact. He says it will unquestionably diminish the beauty of the Mosel region and may well have harmful consequences for the wines, and what most troubles him is the fact that the politicians pushing the project just don't seem to care. "This is a de facto statement about what they cherish or don't cherish, and to go ahead with this is a philistine's judgment," he says. In a statement that will be read at Friday's gathering, Theise points out that the wines of the Mosel "constitute a symbol of Germany's contribution to the cultural heritage of humanity. It does not seem wise to devalue such a thing, or to risk desecrating it for the sake of a motorway."

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