Wine 29 October 2020

From Champagne to the Mosel, via Salon and Egon Müller

A poignant journey between the two renowned regions yields stunning scenery, a painful history and two revered wine estates

Words by Guy Woodward

Photography by Philip Lee Harvey

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The 200-mile journey from Champagne to the Mosel Valley spans what are the world’s most northerly vineyards producing fine wine. Winemakers in England and – who knows – further north may quibble in future years, but for now, this is fine wine’s upper limit.

Despite the region’s prestigious image, most routes into Champagne are far from picturesque. Whether you approach from London, Paris or Burgundy – from north, west or south – you’re largely confronted with an unchanging landscape of industrial agriculture (mainly wheat and beet) that doesn’t fit Champagne’s romantic idyll. The chill winds that sweep in unimpeded from the North Sea only add to the barren feel – while, of course, helping to lend the wines their signature tension.

There is one exception, however. The road east, from northeastern France to another marginal viticultural climate in western Germany, offers a striking, poignant contrast. The route splits a region that has been fought over relentlessly down the ages, served as the frontline of that most bloody of wars, WWI, and which still bears the evidence in its Frenchified Germanic names. Though the road is initially wheat fields, warehouses and factories, it evolves into stunning landscapes: forested hillsides, hidden valleys, deep green meadows, streams and lakes. At its heart is Verdun, home to some of the most gruesome scenes of WWI and still home to so much arsenic that trees can’t grow in its old battlefields.

Photographer Philip Lee Harvey made the journey from Champagne to the Mosel via two revered houses. Salon (a sister house to Delamotte, under the ownership of Champagne Laurent-Perrier) makes just one wine which it produces, on average, only four times a decade – a blanc de blancs from the slopes of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger which it famously sells without recourse to marketing. Then, across the German border in the village of Wiltingen, the equally exclusive Egon Müller estate makes the most expensive white wine in the world – the legendary Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese – in tiny quantities.

Philip Lee Harvey is an acclaimed photographer and filmmaker. Based in London, he is a contributing photographer for Condé Nast Traveler magazine, and his career has taken him to every continent, via commissions from the likes of Lonely Planet magazine, The Telegraph, Travel + Leisure, Vanity Fair and Tatler. You can see more of his work here

Epernay is the spiritual capital of Champagne, although Reims is the bigger city. Neither, though, is exactly a metropolis; their skylines have remained largely unchanged in decades, even centuries.

Champagne represents the northern limits of global fine wine production; its marginal climate is one of the major factors behind the complexity and longevity of its sparkling wines.

The roads out of Champagne are largely unremarkable – drab even – for those seeking a picturesque drive. From Epernay, the river Marne offers a more attractive option.

The tiny village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Côte des Blancs is home to two of Champagne’s most celebrated wines, the prized cuvées of Salon and Krug’s Clos de Mesnil, each of which is produced in only exceptional vintages.

The ‘Jardin de Salon’, one of 20 plots that make up the parcels Salon draws upon for its production of roughly 60,000 bottles (in those years when the wine is made), seen from the drawing room of the house.

Didier Dupond, the president of Salon, puts the quality of the wine down to a key criterion: selection. ‘Selection on the vine, selection of the grapes, selection of the wines,’ he says. ‘It means excluding a great part of the production.’ The wine is among the most coveted – and expensive – of all Champagnes.

Only 39 vintages of Salon have been produced in the last century. Aged for a decade prior to release, it is, according to Essi Avellan MW, ‘shy and tight in youth, goes through a difficult teenage period before blooming expressively in adulthood, and even more majestically in its old age.’

The journey through the Mosel Valley offers rather more photogenic opportunities: steep, deep green hillsides buttress both sides of the Saar river en route to the village of Wiltingen, home to the legendary Egon Müller estate.

The world’s most expensive white wine (it starts at upwards of £10,000 a bottle), Egon Müller’s Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese is made from botrytised grapes grown on the eponymous mountain vineyard. Only around 150 bottles are made each year.

Egon Müller’s Scharzhof estate was bought by the current owner’s great-great-great grandfather, Jean-Jacques Koch, in 1797. The French-German hybrid name reflects the troubled history of the regions, on either side of the countries’ borders, that have been fought over for generations.

Egon Müller IV is the sixth generation to lead the estate; his 20-year-old son, also named Egon, is being groomed as his successor. ‘With a family business, you have a big obligation to pass the business on to the next generation. Five generations before me could have sold the business and spent the money, but they didn’t. Every generation that passes it on adds a bit to the burden.’

Riesling vines are planted all the way along the steep-sided Mosel Valley, its villages as characterful and charming as its wines.

Though the style of wines they produce is markedly different, the Mosel and Champagne are only 200 miles apart – and intrinsically linked by history. The village of Trier in the Mosel, seen here, could conceivably have been transported from Champagne’s Côte de Blancs.