The Saar is where the confluence of vineyards that
go under the title of Mosel (until 2007, known collectively and rather more informatively as Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) really begins. Here we are just a few miles from the border with France, and not
very far at all from the vineyards of Alsace. Indeed, the Saar rises in the Vosges mountains, which form the spiny boundary that separates Alsace from the rest of France. The river flows for just
over 150 miles from its head to where it meets the Mosel at Konz. Much of these 150 miles, a little over half in fact, are in France, and in Germany much of the Saar landscape is industrial. It
is only in the final twenty miles, as the river meanders past Saarburg, does the basin play host to a small handful of Germany's finest vineyards.
In truth, however, this is a very small handful, although there are some good vineyard sites here, and names such as Ockfener Bockstein and Oberemmeler Hutte will be familiar to all regular drinkers of German wine. Few, however, challenge the dominance of the great sites of the Middle Mosel, such as Wehlener Sonnenuhr and Ürziger Würzgarten. The prime candidate to do so is surely the Scharzhofberg vineyard, which runs east-west between Oberemmel and Wiltingen, flanked on either side by the smaller Braunfels and Rosenberg sites (not every vineyard is indicated on the map, for clarity). Scharzhofberg lies on the southerly slope of the Scharz Berg, which runs down to one of the Saar's tributaries, the Praveltsbach. As the map hopefully illustrates, this is the case with most of the vineyards of the Saar; they tend to run along the valleys carved by the tributaries, rather than along the Saar itself. This is because the south-facing slopes alongside these streams and rivers, from the Serriger Bach in the south to Oberemmeler Bach further north, offer the best aspect for catching every last drop of warmth from the sun, this being a recurring theme in all of Germany's major wine regions, but especially so here in the Saar. The notable exception to this rule is the wall of vineyards from Gottes Fuss around to Altenberg near Kanzem, where the Saar turns southwest for just a couple of miles, and vines jostle for position along the steep valley sides.
The soils of the Saar are not particularly unique, being predominantly slate, as is the case throughout the vineyards of the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer, but they do tend to be less uniform and more stony than those found further downstream, and they retain less heat. In addition, the Saar and her tributaries are merely streams and small rivers, and they do not have the same moderating influence on local temperatures as a much larger body of water such as the Mosel would. Finally, as we are further upstream here we are at a slightly higher altitude, and consequently the climate is a little cooler, a touch more marginal. These characteristics of the Saar have a profound effect on the wines; it is frequently said that many vintages here fail, with perhaps only somewhere between three and five vintages every decade producing successful wines. Global warming may be tempering this characteristic, but nevertheless the distinction remains; this is a more difficult region for viticulture than the Mosel, downstream, and this shows through in the wines. In warm vintages, however, the unique characteristics of the Saar may result in the finest, balanced, freshest wines of all Germany. The wines have a steely character, with a more marked, lime-infused and very precise acidity; it is these characteristics, when combined with the honeyed fruit and floral nuances of ripe Riesling in a successful vintage, that puts the wines of the Saar in such demand.
The Top Vineyards of the Saar
As with all the German wine regions, the vineyard classification is confused, contentious and certainly open to debate. As I alluded in my account of the German wine classifications, I am inclined to disregard recent attempts such as the 2002 VDP classification, and tentatively suggest the following vineyards as being the most worthy of your attention. First and foremost, and already discussed, the Saar's only true contender for a 'great growth', the Scharzhofberger vineyard is located on the Praveltsbach, as above. It's leading exponent is undoubtedly Egon Müller, famed for the astonishingly high prices at which his top ausleses sell at the annual VDP auction, as well as the pure quality of his wines. Other leading exponents include von Hövel and von Kesselstatt.
Many other sites throughout the Saar offer high quality, but never quite challenging that of Scharzhofberger. High up the Saar is Serrig Schloss Saarsteiner, one of the few prime sites that does lie adjacent to the Saar. This vineyard is the equivalent of a Burgundian monopole, owned in its entirety by Schloss Saarstein. Further downstream is Saarburg, the largest town in the valley and the one that bears the river's name; on the right bank here is Saarburger Rausch, with the Antonius Brunnen vineyard directly behind it on the slope. Undoubtedly the leading producer of wines from the Rausch vineyard is Geltz Zilliken. Continue downriver, meandering past the vineyards of Niederleuken and we meet two significant vineyards; the first, on the right, is Ockfener Bockstein, and then on the left Ayler Kupp. The Bockstein vineyard is a large site running up the hillside directly overlooking Ockfen, petering out at about 300m when the vines give way to trees. The leading proponent here is Dr Heinz Wagner. The Kupp vineyard has a very similar aspect to that of Bockstein, and sits overlooking Ayl closer to the river; the best producers here include Peter Lauer, who acquired his vines from Dr Heinz Wagner, once a noted exponent of this site, and also Johann Peter Reinert.
As the Saar continues northwards it flows past the aforementioned Scharzhofberg on the right; beyond that, however, lies the Oberemmeler Hütte vineyard. This is a small but well regarded site just outside the village of Oberemmel, von Hövel being one of the leading proponents. The vineyards of the Saar then begin to peter out, with those around Kanzem and Filzen the last remaining few. Having said that, those of Wiltingen and Kanzem are notable for being, as alluded to above, the only significant stretch of vineyards that looks down onto the Saar rather than one of her tributaries. In addition, some, such as Wiltinger Braune Kupp and Kanzemer Altenberg, have a particularly good reputation. The former has its most profound expression in the wines of Le Gallais.