The German wine region is vast, convoluted and sometimes as difficult to understand as the German language itself. But a wine journey following the Rhein River generates life long memories of picturesque storybook villages and wonderful wines against the backdrop of lush agricultural lands. The dominant grape in Germany has always been Riesling and some documents record the sale of this grape as early as the middle 1400s. Many German producers are seventh generation wine families, or longer, and they are immensely proud of their history and their heritage grape. Riesling of course comes on many styles, from dry table wine, to semi-sweet, to intense and stunningly gorgeous dessert/sweet wines. Rieslings can easily age 20 to 30 years and it’s not uncommon for wineries to pull out a 15 year-old bottle just to show off. Unlike America where we’re obsessed with the most current, vintage German wines are proud of their age-ability and older vintages at tastings are common.
|Jakob Schneider shows me a soils chart|
Of Time, Wine and Long Visits
I visited the wine regions of the Rheinhessen, Rheingau and the Nahe, which accounts for about 50% of all wines produced in Germany. The curious thing about wine tasting in Germany is that, unlike the flamboyant and dominate architecture of Napa, these are old villages with small twisted cobbled streets and fairy tale charm. You’re more apt to sample wine in someone’s living room, sitting at their kitchen table, but that’s the inherent joy. Wine tasting in Germany is a lengthy process, several hours on occasion. Many producers will pull out 15 wines, give you food, and tell you stories of their ancestral heritage. At Jakob Schneider, he pulled down a family bible from the early 1700s for me to look at. Such is the way of things here.
Oppenheim is the gateway to the Rhine wine region, a mere 40-minute drive from the Frankfurt airport. The wineries along the river here are comprised of villages tucked in the flatlands between rolling hills, with similar architectural themes; red tile roofs, a prominent church steeple and white walled façades, punctuated by bursts of color like yellow houses, green shutters and blue walls. Wineries are in most every village and in fact, you’ll be surprised how many wineries co-exist peacefully. In Germany the signs for a winery will read “weingut” which literally translated means “good wine.” Most wineries do not require an appointment, however it’s always best to phone ahead to make sure someone is there. In Oppenheim, Hotel Zwo is situated in the downtown core and its modern rooms are sleek and minimalist, a sharp contrast to the old villages. An afternoon spread of nearly two-dozen cheeses, shrimp, sausages, herring and fresh baked bread is available and this is a terrific home base in which to explore the local wines.
|Many German cellars date back hundred of years|
500 Years and Counting
From there, the drive to visit Groebe and Wittman wineries located in Westhofen are accessed by a 15-minute drive. Groebe has been a wine family since 1763 and their 500 year old cellars beneath the city streets are, like most German cellars, musty, dank and the perfect place to store and age wines. They do not use pesticides or herbicides in their winemaking. Wittmann Winery, run by Phillip Wittmann and his wife Eva, has been a family operation since 1663. Their new tasting room is filled with their personal collection of art, keeping the room fresh and lively. One of Phillip’s cellars, located 25 feet underground, was built during the Middle Ages and he even has behemoth oak aging casks from the 1890s.
Driving south, Neirstein and its narrow curved streets is a perfect example of a Hansel and Gretel hamlet. The cross-timbered construction of many shops in town, accented with flower baskets, thatched roofs and intricately painted details on the facades are classic Germany. Strub Winery, owned by Walter and Margrit Strub, is in its 12th generation. Not one to rest on tradition, Walter told me, “Wine styles are ever changing and you need to change with them.” He makes a Riesling called Soil to Soul exclusively for the U.S. market, knowing Americans penchant for sweeter wines. Strub wines are all restrained, delicate and clean and Water, an affable, portly man with a good sense of humor and good English skills, is delighted to have you taste. Additionally he produces Sylvaner and Gruner Veltliner.
|The Guttenberg House|
Crossing the Rhine River to the north you enter the Rheingau region. The vineyards here scream straight up the steep mountain slopes and some extend nearly to the river itself. The historic village of Eltville is an ideal place to use as a base from which to explore the wineries. Hotel Hof Bechtermunz, built in 2003, has 10 rooms, all with exposed rock walls, hardwood floors and wood beams and modern amenities. A stones throw is Gensfleisch, part of the noble court that belonged to the family of Johannes Guttenberg, the inventor of the movable type printing press which produced the Guttenberg Bible. A short stroll from there is the St. Peter and Paul Church, which began construction in 1350. Currently the church offers concerts and various art exhibits and abuts the old city ruins from 1332. The narrow defensive windows, small enough to just shoot an arrow through, overlook the languid Rhine. There is also a splendid dirt trail for walking and running that hugs the river as you pass by palatial estates. Eltville is a perfect base from which to explore numerous wineries that line the Rhine River.
Schlossing the River
Within a 5-minute drive of Eltville, are wineries like Josef Leitz, and Schloss Vollrads (Schloss means “castle”) whose estate, parts of it built on Roman ruins, houses their own restaurant, wine store and banquet facilities. Just down the road, Schloss Reinhartshausen produces other varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. Tours though the labyrinthine underground caves dating to the mid 15th Century require reservations, but the beauty of old wood casks, historical mining equipment and the dark, musty caves create an ideal photo opportunity. After the tasting, dine at their rustic bistro Schloss Schanke for traditional German cuisine of schnitzel, perch or sausages. They also offer one of the few Five-Star hotels in the area.
|Many vineyards are planted on steep slopes like this heading directly to the Rhein River|
Whatever restaurant you venture into in Germany, make sure you order spundekäs, a concoction of curd and cream cheese with sweet paprika, garlic, butter and egg. It’s a creamy, mildly spicy dip, perfect with fresh chewy pretzels and it has a long tradition in Germany. The name literally means “bung cheese” perhaps as a reference to the way the curd was formed in old casks. Spundekäs is great with whatever wine is served, or a hearty German beer. The best I had anywhere, hands down, was made by Margrit Strub from an old family recipe.
If driving around quaint villages is too daunting, (and certainly it takes time to get used to corkscrew streets, right of way and signs you can’t understand) there are Rhine River boat tours and bike tours to make things easier. However, the true experience lies in navigating the villages on foot in order to immerse yourself in each region and having the time to sit and chat with friendly winemakers. Though German wine is imported to the U.S, a trip to the beautiful historic villages and the chance to meet winemakers face to face trumps simply buying Riesling at a wine shop. After your trip, Riesling will fit nicely on your dinner table once you’ve discovered the beauty of this grape. If you go, get a GPS and learn the rules of the autobahn. Though the region, just west of Frankfurt is an easy drive, it’s tough to negotiate unless you’re absolutely focused. Other wineries to be on the lookout for: Kunstler, Tesch, Donnhoff and Leitz. WINES OF GERMANY