Gone are the days when, if we thought about German wine, we thought of Blue Nun’s rather unsophisticated Liebfraumilch or the equally cheap and cheerful Niersteiner Riesling. They satisfied our undeveloped palates and our similarly undeveloped wallets a few decades back. (Although, as a colleague points out, “if there’s a church, nuns, or monks on the label, it’s a good wine. The monks were the first winemakers.”)
Germans have long been party to what we have now discovered – there’s a wealth of wonderful wines in their country with a centuries-old history.
Germany is among the world’s top producers of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc and discovering these and other varietals in-situ can be the framework for a delightful tour.
Attend the festivals, stay in a winemaker’s chateau (or simpler abode), sip the nectar on a wine-tasting tour, hike or cycle the trails between the wineries, or enjoy a river cruise with frequent stops in the wine-making areas. However you choose to discover Germany’s wines, chances are high that you’ll gain a new appreciation for them. And you’ll find many labels that we don’t see in Canada.
Thirteen distinctive growing regions call Germany home, many set along romantic river valleys like the Elbe in the north.
This is the Saxony region where wines have been produced for almost nine centuries and where – thanks to moderate weather courtesy of the Gulf Stream – grapes thrive along the same latitude as Labrador.
The Elbe connects Dresden and Meissen to the North Sea port of Hamburg. Festivals, exhibitions, and guided tours throughout the state show the importance of wine in local history and culture. In the late summer and early fall harvest season, wine even overshadows the area’s famous porcelain, a 300-year-old industry in itself. (But visits to the factories add an interesting dimension to any tour.)
Saxony’s wine route is part of Germany’s smallest wine district where charming villages and small towns boast architectural gems and centuries-old art and culture.
An easy Wine Hiking trail (it’s about 90 kilometres, the length of the region, so plan for several days) takes walkers past vineyards, alongside baroque castles, through historical town centres, and to some of Saxony’s great viewpoints.
Hiking and cycling routes in other wine and brewery regions give Germany an outstanding network of trails totalling some 200,000 kilometres. Some tour packages include luggage transfer from hotel to hotel, and some offer electric bikes to ease the effort.
As for festivals, they’re not difficult to spot, especially in August and September.
About 1,000 events span the regions, ranging from the enormous to small local festivals along the Elbe, Main, Rhine, and Mosel rivers. “Enormous” relates to the one in Bockenheim in southwest Germany, claiming to be the world’s largest. It’s on the country’s best-known wine route, an 80-kilometre-long road winding through Rhineland to the French border.
One of the regions – Hesse, in west-central Germany – has created an informative seven-kilometre circular “Wein and Stein” route in the town of Heppenheim, ending in the Vino-Kino with samples of the region’s finest. On the east side of the Rhine, Hesse is another small wine growing area and produces some excellent Rieslings – hard to find outside the district because locals like to keep it for themselves. And who can blame them?
A highlight of the regional festivals is choosing the nation’s Wine Queen. She’s one of 13 candidates (each region selects one) and becomes Germany’s wine ambassador for a year, travelling internationally and at home to promote the product. These women are no empty-headed “I-want-to-save-the-world” beauty queen candidates. They’re often young wine industry professionals, sometimes the offspring of winemakers who have grown up with the business.
Talking about festivals, Germany’s most famous has more to do with the hop than the grape. Oktoberfest, in Munich, is an experience not to be missed. Next year’s dates are September 22 to October 7, and admission to the beer tents is free, but get there early, or make a reservation. (More information from www.oktoberfest.de/en)
Bavarian beer is considered among the world’s best, and for a study of the subject beyond the confines of Oktoberfest a tour of Bavaria’s villages and towns, lakeside resorts and hilltop monasteries – sharing the common bond of good breweries – will satisfy the most ardent aficionado.
Stay in “brauereigasthof,” small inns attached to micro-breweries. They’re usually charming, well-kept, and economically priced.
A favourite brewery is Kaltenberg run by Prince Luitpold of Bavaria from his fairytale hilltop Kaltenberg Castle near Munich. He’s the several-greats-removed grandson of Crown Prince Ludwig (later Ludwig I) whose 1810 wedding was the reason for the first Oktoberfest. (And each July, Prince Luitpold and his wife Princess Beatrix host Europe’s largest medieval jousting tournament at the castle, bringing in thousands of spectators.)
Frankfurt Tourist+Congress Board
Whether you choose a wine or beer route or a combination of both, you’re likely to enter the country through Frankfurt if you fly direct from Canada.
Do yourself a favour and add a couple of days at either end of your trip to see this interesting city, too often bypassed by travellers. Germany’s financial capital has plenty of facets to fascinate a broad spectrum of interests.
Most of the town was razed by bombs in the Second World War and the resulting new architecture is breathtaking, particularly the skyscrapers. Every bridge spanning the Main River is unique in design and character and the faithfully restored old-town architecture encompasses a diversity of periods and styles. The buildings resemble an open-air museum, especially in Romerberg Square.
Sachsenhausen, possibly Frankfurt’s liveliest corner, is a must-see and sampling its apple wine in an ancient tavern or restaurant is a must-do.
Germany’s genius writer/Renaissance man Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1842) has a huge presence in many parts of Frankfurt, and his house is one of the most visited museums in the city. And there are many museums to choose from.
Whether your quest is to tour the vineyards, the micro-breweries, or both, you’ll discover that there’s much more you want to see in Germany than you allowed for in one trip. You’ll be back. And meanwhile, Prosit!
For more information, visit www.germany.travel/en