Monday, May 28, 2007

Life in a Wine Village

Irsch fountain with murals honoring its wine heritage

In 1984, with hardly any knowledge of German beyond "Der Bleistift ist auf dem Tisch" ("The pencil is on the table"; a phrase that doesn't come up very often), I wandered into a bookstore in Saarburg. I was looking, as always, for a book that might tell me how people in Irsch, Zerf, and Serrig had lived in the 19th century. I figured that if I found something written in German, I would somehow work out a way to have it read to me. But without being able to read titles, it was almost impossible to find what I wanted. I asked a clerk who spoke a little English for help. At first she shook her head, indicating the store had nothing. Then she consulted with another clerk, and they went to a shelf where the children's books were kept. She came back with a children's book translated from French into German. In addition to the text, it had wonderfully descriptive line drawings of farm life in a village in Lorraine. I was doubtful. "Would life in this French village be similar to village life here?" I asked. Both clerks gave me an "I can't believe she said that" look, and one of them replied with a smile, "Well it's just right over there across the border." I bought the little volume and, to use an overused but apt cliche, it really is worth its weight in gold.

The book, "Landleben im Jahreslauf" by Jean Morette takes the young reader through the four seasons of the year, with the corresponding work on the farm during those seasons. The time period is the second part of the 19th century. There was a description of the wine harvest, and I have decided to make such an important part of life in the region the topic for this post.

Along with the clear and concise description from the children's book I've described, I've also included material from the guidebook which is published by the staff of the Roscheider Hof Museum in Konz, to try to formulate a good picture of the importance of viticulture in the villages along the Saar, and in the Lorraine region of France as well.

A translation from the children's book, "Landleben in Jahreslauf" by Jean Morette

At one time, wine was one of the biggest sources of income of Lothringen (Lorraine). The Romans had brought the grape vines from Italy and planted them along the Lothringen slopes. In the Middle Ages wine accounted for the affluence of the Lothringen settlements; it was sold to Flanders and Germany.

The grapevines grew along all the slopes of the Mosel, the Meurthe, the Seille, the Saar and the Maas Rivers. They thrived on the sunny side of the slopes, protected from the north wind, and the fog from the river also protected those vines that grew in and near the towns. Wine growing was rather difficult, because the grapevines were tender and affected by weather conditions and by a great number of diseases. The frost in the winter and also in the spring, the rain when the vines were in bloom and hail during any part of the growing season could spoil the harvest.

During the entire year, the wine hills required a great deal of work and care: shortly before the beginning of winter, the hills had to be plowed. They had to be hoed many times in summer. Stakes for the vines had to be set in and then, in off season, pulled out again and piled up in bunches. In winter and summer the vines had to be cut; in spring the branches bound to the stakes.

In October the time came for the wine harvest. The wine farmer sent messages to friends and relatives, in order to recruit hands to pick the grapes and carry the containers filled with them.

When the village clock rang in the morning, the workers started out with baskets and panniers . Each person started in one of the rows and with much skill cut the grapes from the vine and filled one basket after another. The full baskets were emptied into the pannier. The panniers were emptied again into the tubs on the wagons that were parked at the wayside.

A closeup of one of the Irsch murals. A worker wears a yoked pannier

After days of hard work, the harvest, which the wine farmer and his family had worried about the entire year, was about to end. The grapes could be brought to press and one batch after another could be crushed. The press was gigantic; like a overgrown nutcracker...

The sweet wine "must" (juice of the grapes which have been pressed) flowed in steams into earthenware basins or wooden tubs. In time the flow became weaker. When it seemed the last drop was pressed out of the grapes, the men shoved a strong beam under the press and turned the screw with all their strength one more time. They pressed so hard that not one little drop of the grape must escaped them.

From the Guidebook, "Freilichtmuseum Roscheiderhof, Konz."

At the open-air museum at Roscheider Hof, there is a carefully constructed wine growing exhibit which explains the history of vineyards along the Moselle, Saar, and Ruhr Rivers. The following information is from the guidebook and from information printed on a signboard near the exhibit.

It was the Romans who introduced grape vines to the Belgian and German provinces. Grapes have been grown continuously on the Moselle and the Saar for about 2,000 years. The Riesling grape that is characteristic today, however, was not the dominant variety of grape cultivated there until the 18th century. Up to that point there were various varieties of grapes, including the Müller-Thurgau, the Silvaner that is called Rivaner in Luxembourg, and the Elbling, which is still grown on the German banks of the upper Moselle. The Elbling is the grape used as the basis for making Sekt, the German version of Champagne.

Due to the steep slopes of the Saar, wine growing has always been very difficult. However, thanks to the hours of intense sun and the type of soil which absorbs the heat, high quality wines could be produced. Nonetheless there was always the risk in spring that late ground frosts would damage the vines already in bloom. For this reason small heaters were placed in the vineyard, fueled with wood or coal in order to keep the cold frosty air near the ground in motion.

The tools used for working in the vineyards in earlier times are shown in one of the parts of the exhibit. From left to right the staking axe for sharpening and hammering in the vine stakes; double pronged hoes for working the soil in the vineyard; mattock for weeding; hoes for planting vines; trenching hammer with head for trenching and smashing up bigger stones; trenching hammer with "tap" for digging up roots but also for trenching; trenching hammer with large tap; small and large trenching hammers; and the "pick" for cutting furrows.

In the new vineyards, the slate ground had to be broken up with the trenching hammer. Workers used their tools for both "digging" and "moving" the soil. Digging deeply and turning the soil over was done in the spring. Moving or loosening up the surface of the soil was done in the early summer to prevent weeds from growing. Stable manure was the basis of any vineyard fertilizer. Tubs and sleds were used and are sometimes still used to take it out, mostly in the winter from January to March. The manure was spread with a pitchfork along the rows of vines and then dug in with the hoe.

Traditionally the grape harvest was woman's work. The women pinched off the ripe grapes with their bare fingers. Harvesting shears only became necessary in the 20th century with the advent of new graft stock. The grapes, once picked, were put in paniers which were sometimes like baskets worn on the back. Often they had a slanting base because of the steep slopes. Once the baskets were full they were emptied into tubs which were carried by the men. These tubs were so heavy once they were full that they sometimes were raised with a crank frame so that the bearer could get them on his shoulders. The tubs were woven from willow or bramble runners and sealed with pitch.

Once the grapes had been harvested they were crushed either on the slopes of the vineyard or at home in the grape crusher and then taken to the wine press without delay. The grape "must" (juice of the grapes which have been pressed) was separated in the press from the solid parts, known as the "marc" or "pomace." The must was taken straight to the cellar from the wine press. The Romans pressed their grapes in the vineyard. The oldest preserved wine presses date back to the Middle Ages and are similar to the Roman ones in design. They are so-called beam wine presses which worked on the principle of leverage. Because of their typically long horizontal beams, they were housed in special buildings called press houses.

Hungarian beam press reproduction

Roscheiderhof Museum photo of a screw press

Screw presses worked with spindle pressure. They took up considerably less space, which was an advantage.
The spindles were originally made of wood and often unable to withstand the high loads they were subjected to. Turning the wood spindles required a lot of strength. This meant screw presses only began to predominate in the 19th century after the industrial revolution made more effective iron screw presses available.

The next time you have a glass of wine from the vineyards of the Rheinland, appreciate!

Morette, Jean. "Landleben im Jahreslauf", Saarbrücker Druckerei und Verlag, 1983
"Freilichtmuseum Roscheider Hof Konz Museum Guide", self-published, 2001


  1. Kathy,
    Rivaner or Müller Thurgau (named after Mister Hermann Müller in Thurgaus/Switzerland who created this new sort in 1882) is the same while Silvaner is an own sort, maybe coming from southeast-Europe, much older than Rivaner. There are dozens other synonyms for Silvaner in french and german but it is not the same as Rivaner. Silvaner is rare along the Mosel and Saar. It is mostly grown in Franken (near Würzburg/Bavaria) or Rheinhessen. Elbling is said to be the oldest type of wine grapes in Europe. There are also dozens of synonyms in french and german. In old times, Elbling was often grown for home use (Haustrunk), while the more expensive Riesling was sold. By the way: In Piesport/Mosel you can see the reproduction of a huge grape press used by the romans. Archaeologists dug it out some years ago.

  2. Irsch fountain with murals honoring its wine heritage

    i remember,when we visited Oma Telly, my kids always here to play the water.....

  3. When I was stationed at Hahn Air Force Base 1977-1980, I helped in the grape harvest of two seasons. One of my buddies lived in Zell/Mosel, and his landlord was also a vintner. He recruited several American airmen and officers for the harvest, and we drove together early on Saturday morning to Zell.

    It was October or November, the days were already chilly in the Hunsrück where Hahn AFB is home. When we arrived in Zell around 6 a.m., the steep hills were shrouded in heavy fog. You couldn't see up the slopes beyond 4 rows of grapes. Even the town seemed more like Brigadoon than a bustling Mosel River town.

    The vintner's family had made fresh, strong coffee served with steamed milk in heavy ceramic pitchers, and they had bought at the local bakery a huge variety of rolls, croissants, and what we call Danish pastries.

    After this Fruhstück, we climbed the hillside behind a little tractor that pulled a large open wagon. Up at the top of the slopes, we each pulled a long plastic bucket from the wagon and hooked our arms into loops, backpack style. The bucket reached down to below the hips, and its opening was just at the top of the head.

    I was assigned the upper side of a row of vines, and a much taller friend was assigned the lower side of the same row. A team above us worked the top row of vines, and two teams below us worked along like us. Across the steep roadway, other teams worked vines in the opposite direction.

    We spent the morning clipping large bunches of Riesling from the vines, dropping each one overhead into the bucket. The bunches were well-ripened, the green grapes had just begun to turn brown, and fine webs of mold clung to the interior of each bunch. Each vine held 20 to 30 bunches, and the bucket was filled after 3 or 4 vines. As each bucket filled, a worker lifted it off my back, and another worker provided an empty bucket to fill again. While my friend and I clipped more harvest, the first worker carried the bucket to the wagon an emptied it.

    Each row of vines was about a quarter mile long, and the vines were planted about 8 feet apart: all the branches could receive sun, splayed out on the heavy wire, but no space between the vines was left empty. My tall friend and I completed harvesting our row in an hour, and then we moved down to start on another row, returning slowly to the tractor and its wagon.

    By 10 or 11 a.m., the fog had burned off, and the slowly moving Mosel was revealed in a shimmer. All along the slopes, other teams of harvest crews worked the vines. Where the harvest was not yet done, the slopes were mottled with green, yellow, red from the undisturbed vines. Above, the slopes were blue gray from the slate that the harvest had revealed.

    We gathered at the vintner's home for a happy mid-day dinner and returned to the slopes for the afternoon. During the lunch break, we saw other workers at the wine press. The vat was 6 feet in diameter and nearly 8 feet tall. A filled wagon of grapes would fill the press 3 or 4 times, and large barrels, some wooden and some heavy plastic, stood ready to be filled with juice. The vintner told us the wood barrels were for his use, the plastic barrels to be sent to a commercial winemaker who specialized in low-cost bottles of Zeller Schwartze Katz—for export to the U.S.

    1. Great description of your day in the wine village, Tom. I hope you somehow, sometime got to taste that wine (from the wooden barrel, of course)!