Wine is a tradition that connects many regions and generations in Germany. The wineland, which runs around the Rhine, the Palatinate and southwestern Germany, has been used for wine production for nearly 8000 years. August is a month of wine festivals in Germany. The wine making process, the region and the taste are all discussed.
Black-haired, thickset, a little rumpled, and brimming with intellectual energy, Jochen Gummersbach greeted us as we clambered off the bus. But his first words came as a surprise: "Welcome, welcome. I know that you have come from Munich, but now you are in the real Germany. Now you are in wine country."
Several years ago, I had joined a small group that was visiting castles and sites of historic interest in southern Germany. After touring Munich, we had arrived in Wurzburg, Bavaria. "This is not really Bavaria," said Gummersbach. "Officially it is, but we are really east Franconia. And Franconians are Catholic and drink wine, as does all Germany. Beer is Bavaria. Wine," he declared, "is Germany."
I was vaguely aware of a German wined industry, but I had not anticipated a fervent wine culture. Munich had lived up to all my stereotypes and hopes about Germany, particularly regarding good living, hearty food, and an unashamed love of beer. But these were my only real expectations of German life. Both the sense of nationalism imbuing the culture and identity of each state and the importance of wine as a historical common ground between those "countries within the country" were revelations.
Gummersbach was a wonderful guide and an enthused authority on Wurzburg's rich architectural and social heritage. As he led us through the city's magnificent ducal palace, he exuded fascination with its extraordinary Tiepolo ceilings, magnificent central staircase, art galleries, and ornate Baroque and Rococo decorative indulgences. But every now and then his commentary would include asides about the importance of wine. "Culture in Wurburg is time spent between glasses of wine," he commented as we studied the palace's marvelous gardens from the gilded ballroom. And he promised us lunch in the town's finest wine lodge. "We have sixty churches and more than two thousand pubs," he grinned.
In the chapel he mused on the once terrible divisions between Protestants and Catholics in Germany, then offered a homespun theology: "In Wurzburg, a good Christian drinks wine."
Gummersbach described the Wurzburg craftsmen who had built such magnificence. They lived in relative poverty and probably were never able to set foot inside the property once it was finished. He mused on the fact that such remarkable treasures were built on a grossly unequal social order, noting than in our century social disparities have been eliminated and, with them, the class system that could fund such great works. This insight provoked a woman from. Beverly Hills, who haughtily derided such thoughts as "socialist nonsense." Stung by the reaction, he continued our tour with an empty discussion of aesthetics.
Afterward I offered my apologies for the woman's rudeness. We talked of regionalism, the influx of "Easties" into the area, and their difficulties in being assimilated into, and being accepted by, west German society. "There are no walls," he said quietly, "only walls of the mind."
And a little later, he enigmatically confided: "Wine connects."
The Wine Road
I recall nodding in sage agreement, then busying myself with my camera as he headed off. As to that comment, I had no idea what he was talking about. I vaguely assumed he meant the hazy camaraderie shared by drinkers. But today, having had the opportunity to travel Germany's "Wine Road," I think I begin to understand more clearly what my friend was implying those few years ago.
Wine is Germany's common culture. It flows from generation to generation, transcends regional and social differences, symbolizes a good life of simple, shared pleasures, and gives continuity to an authentic sense of national heritage. Germany is a collection of once independent small nations, forcefully cobbled together in recent centuries. Now that those tendencies have been put to rest, the sense of national unity comes not so much from economic advances and political cohesion but from Shared traditions. In that sense, wine "connects."
The winelands occupy almost a quarter of a million acres, mostly throughout southwestern Germany, the Palatinate, and most predominantly around the Rhine and its tributaries. They are the world's northernmost vignoble, or wine-producing area. Indeed, the most northerly region, surrounding the Saale and Unstrut Rivers in Saxony-Anhalt, is officially celebrating one thousand years of viticulture in 1998. The anniversary dates from a charter for a vineyard given to the Memleben monastery by Emperor Otto III in 998. It is not known to what extent, if any, vines were cultivated here before that time.
Wine making has been practiced for at least eight thousand years, according to the scientific record. But viticulture was established in what is now Germany by the Romans in the second or first century B.C. The real foundation of the modern industry, however, is vineyards developed by monastic orders--primarily the Cistercians--in the Middle Ages. The monks created traditions of excellence, in vineyard care and consistent wine standards, that still inform modern wine making. Church lands were seized and divided following the Napoleonic conquest at the turn of the nineteenth century. Many of the requisitioned vineyards, now either privately or state owned, are still productive.
The Rhine region is especially favorable for viticulture. Protective hillsides and proximity to the river help temper the climate. The waters reflect heat so that day and night temperatures do not vary greatly, and morning mists protect vines from frost. Soils and inclines also contribute, and vineyards are laid out to face south for the best sun advantage. The Rhine flows from south to north but turns due west around Mainz, continues past Rudesheim to Bingen, then turns north toward Koblenz. This westerly stretch of the river is considered an optimum location for vines. It has also become the heart of what is commonly known as the "Romantic Rhine." The small towns, thriving wineries, castles, and monasteries scattered along these riverbanks have become a tourism magnet.
The winelands extend from Koblenz and the Bergisches Land in the north to around Baden-Baden in the south, and from the Mosel and Saar Rivers in the west to Saxony-Anhalt. It is an area of extraordinary beauty, intriguing small cities like Heidelburg and Wurzburg, and a profound heritage embodied in medieval castles and Reformation-era sites. But wine defines the everyday reality.
Koblenz is an important marketplace, trade center, and river confluence. The city boasts a "wine village" that commemorates Germany's different wine regions. "We have winefest here all summer long," commented Elke Scheid, an adult education teacher in the town. The season starts on Good Friday, and regional festivals are held here throughout the summer.
The "village" is essentially a collection of the region's typical brown and white, half-timbered buildings, each a restaurant or bar, forming a beer garden-type square centered around a great oak. The original structures were built in 1925, as an exhibition, and then subsequently rebuilt. It even has its own very small vineyards. Local vintners are trying to redevelop red grape varieties traditionally grown in the Bergisches Land region prior to the 1780s, before the Riesling grape became utterly dominant.
The month of wine festivals
Koblenz's celebration may be summerlong, but every region--indeed, every wine-producing town or village--has its own annual celebration. August is Germany's month of wine festivals. In Wiesbaden, for example, hundreds throng the stone-flagged market square during the weeklong festivities. These are days when everyone is a connoisseur, and a vintner's reputation can be made or lost.
Beneath the bright canopies of their stalls, wine sellers ceremoniously pour samples and explain each wine to passersby. Prospective buyers studiously inspect each offered bottle's label, then take a glass and peruse the nectar's color, smell, and taste. There is a moment, a pause, an almost palpable tension and expectation, and then relief, pleasure, nods of agreement and comments of studied appreciation. After choices are made and bottles purchased, the buyers move on and others take their place.
The crowd's motion is constant, seamless, and unhurried. The air is full of laughter and satisfied chatter. People sit and compare their finds, eat market-bought cakes and sandwiches, and wander off in search of more wine. It is a day of profit and pleasure, and the festivity will last for a week. "Wiesbaden is called the `City of Sparkling Wine,'" says Sylvia Heverty as we weave our way through the market's crowds. "But it's much more."
Elegant and voluble, she brims with enthusiasm for her adopted city. Originally from Switzerland, she has been here for thirty years. "Look," she says, her hand sweeping an arc to indicate the buildings and market shaded by scattered trees and the impressive red brick spires and central tower ("92 meters," she says with pride) of the old church. "We are called the "Garden City" because of our parks, flowers, and trees." Trees in the city are registered and numbered."
"This is also the city of Historicism, an architectural style reproducing and combining earlier designs. Every building has a different facade and style. The owners had to choose from a catalog when the city was developed as a royal residence and vacation center."
Although its development as a city is recent, Wiesbaden (the name means "bathing meadow") traces its origins to a Roman settlement and spa. The Romans bathed in hot springs that emerged in a grassy field. This area is preserved as a park, between the spa house casino and the elegant Nassauer Hof hotel. "If the Romans had not been defeated by Arminius, we [Germans] would all speak a Romanized language today, not a Germanic one," Heverty declares. But the great legacy of the Roman conquest was the introduction of wine making.
Not half an hour's drive from Wiesbaden, Eltville sits amid vineyards on the Rhine's north bank. The secluded village, like towns throughout the wine region, comes alive with its annual wine festival each August. "We are known as `the village of roses and sparkling wine,'" says Ingeborg Mehner, marketing manager for the palatial Schloss Rheinharthausen hotel that dominates the hamlet. She explains that "sparkling wine," or Sekt, is the term used to describe the German version of champagne. By international law, so as not to confuse the French product with any other, they are not allowed to use the name Champagner.
The Romans also established the first vineyards on these banks, but the foundations of the current fields were laid around the fourteenth century, when the castle (now the hotel) was established as a royal summer residence. A Prussian princess lived here in the nineteenth century and bought up most of the local vineyards. Today the hotel owns most of the village vineyards and has a cellar and bottling plant on its premises. Wines are exported to the United States and Japan (the hotel's cellar master is actually flying to Tokyo on the day of my visit). The Japanese are becoming an important market--they "are aware that wine is not just French," says Mehner--and demonstrate a rapidly growing interest in German wines.
Wine is the reason
"Wine is our life," states Suzanne Breuer flatly. "For three generations, wine has been the first thing we [the Breuer family] think about." Slim, bespectacled, with thick, dark red hair, Breuer manages the Rudesheimer Schloss, the family's restaurant and hotel in the Drosselgasse in Rudesheim.
She exudes energy, darting back and forth from our lunchtime conversation to oversee and correct service in the restaurant. Warm, traditional-looking, and wood-beamed, the bustling dining rooms contrasted with the sparsely elegant hotel behind them. (Each quiet and spacious room has its own distinct style, created by a chosen local artist.) "Tourism is No. 1, our biggest money-earner," she declares. "But the tourists come for wine. Wine is the reason."
Her comment is instructive. Rudesheim is the biggest tourism town on the Rhine, and the Drosselgasse--a cozy alleyway of ornate, carved half-timbered buildings leading up the hill from the river--is the town's biggest attraction. Cameratoting Americans and Japanese are as familiar a sight here as are German families on a day-trip. But since 1074, when the settlement was first mentioned in historical records, the town's chief business has been wine.
Later in the day, taking car ride above the vineyards that surround the town, her point becomes even clearer. Immaculately tended vines march across the rolling hillsides in a patchwork of perfect symmetry. The precise rows, allotments of vines distinguished only by the different colors of their mulch and soft preparations, create striking visual effects. The town seems to nestle into a roiling cloak of geometric designs.
The Breuer family produces wines under the label Georg Breuer and has two wine cellars. One is primarily a shop that caters to domestic buyers and visitors, offering cellar tours, wine tasting, and the chance to buy a bottle or two. But the main cellar, where the label's wines are made, is in the eastern part of town, away from the tourist bustle. Here, in the narrow streets beneath the gabled roofs and balconies of residential homes, one feels only the quiet solidity of stone.
Steps descend into the dark, slightly dank wine cellar. The stones are steep and a little slippery. Oak barrels sit quietly beneath the arched ceiling. "The [small patches of] mosses on the walls indicate that the atmosphere is good," comments the cellar master, Hermann Schmorantz. "A little moisture helps the barrels."
In one discreet alcove is a small collection of bottles, each thickly covered in dust. Valuable old wines, I wonder? Schmorantz shrugs. The bottles are retained out of professional curiosity, he explains, to see how long the wine will keep. Each will be opened and tasted eventually. The process is called discourging. Wine doesn't get better or more valuable with unlimited aging, nor does it keep indefinitely. Old wines can become "oily." He adds that twenty years is about the maximum shelf life of most wines, provided they are stored properly in a cool, dark, quiet, place. Also the bottles must be laid on their side, not stood upright, because the cork must be kept moist. If it dries, then it sours, or "corks," the wine.
The cellar is around two hundred years old, and about 130,000 liters of wine are produced and stored here annually. Although the company is considering introducing some red, Georg Breuer primarily seeks to make a dry white Riesling. Schmorantz explains that his main concern is to carefully select each wine's balance of sweetness (from the grape's natural sugars) and "acid" (the bitterness of alcoholic content).
Schmorantz has been the Breuer family wine master for the past eight years. Before that he managed the forty-plus acres of the family's vineyards, and his bearded features have the ruddy weathered tan of a life spent outdoors. He is responsible for the wine-making process as well as the vineyard's four full-time employees and thirty or more seasonal workers. He takes evident pride in working for one of the premier smaller wineries. (Georg Breuer is considered one of the ten best private labels.)
The big wine cooperatives are owned or run by the states (that is the local, not the federal, government). Some, especially in the south, are huge and produce wine in million-liter tanks. "I always ask myself, how do they clean those things?" wonders Schmorantz. As for the wine produced, he shrugs with a faint grimace: "You can drink it."
Tasting the wine
In the end, of course, drinking the wine is the only point. Florian Schneider, cellar master for the Schlosshotel Lehrbach, a fourteenth-century mansion in Bergisch Gladbach recently converted to a hotel and remarkable for its collection of original Max Ernst lithographs, forty of which hang in the bar, explains the rudiments of wine tasting to me.
First, one should look at the color. He suggests holding the wine up against a white napkin for clarity. White wines are really a pale yellow, tinged between gold and green, and every wine should be clear and unclouded. Sweeter wines often tend toward a deeper gold hue. Perhaps the lightest color is found in wines from the southwestern region of the Mosel-Saar Rivers. "This area [Bergisches Land] is known for its traditional red wines," Schneider comments. "At least 80 percent of the local production is for red wine, made in wooden barrels."
The second consideration is the aroma, the "nose." One should hold the glass by the stem, so as not to warm the liquid (or stain the glass), and swirl the wine to help release the bouquet. The smell should be fine, elegant, fresh, and light, perhaps reminiscent of minerals, flowers, or the fruit. "Use your imagination!" Schneider instructs.
Finally, one may taste the nectar. The wine maker strives for a balance between the fruit's natural sweetness and the sour taste of the alcohol. "There should be a mild fruit flavor. Can you taste the grape?" he inquires. The finish should be "long," that is, the flavor and taste should linger in the mouth. The taste should be clean; there should be no unwanted bitterness. But there is perhaps no right or wrong. Ultimately, it is all a matter of personal judgment: "If the wine pleases you, it is good."
And if it pleases you, then all the hours of work, the lonely toil on the hillsides tending stubby vines, the meticulous and watchful care in the quiet of the cellars, are fulfilled. The enduring skills and wisdom of a craft practiced for a thousand years are satisfied, and a heritage that binds Germany's generations and regions is extended.