Kloster Eberbach
Rheingau Musik Festival
Vineyards overlooking the Main River
Food at the Frank & Frei Festival
Frank & Frei Festival
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A tour of two wine-growing districts provided plenty to drink, see, savour and do

It seemed like the ideal trip. I received an invitation to go on a tour to experience the “wine culture” in Germany in June – when the days there are long, and the nights are cool. With Hong Kong’s daily average temperatures at 33+ degrees and 80% humidity, I couldn’t pass up the chance to escape.

I have visited Germany before, but never expressly to immerse myself in its wine culture. The two areas on the itinerary were Franconia or Franken, the wine-growing area along the Main River in Bavaria and, Rheingau on a small bend on the Rhine River.

One of the most northern wine-producing regions in the world, Germany has thirteen wine-producing regions with vine cultivation and wine production dating from ancient Roman times.

Germany, one of the world’s top wine consumers, doesn’t produce enough for its domestic market, so it is also one of the world’s biggest wine importers. Wine exports to other countries feature heavily on its Rieslings, Germany’s most abundant and cultivated varietal.

This is why, in Hong Kong, most people think of “white” and “Riesling” when they mention German wines. It seems like a vast over-generalisation, but it is a correct and truthful local perception of wines from Germany.

I have been buying and drinking German wines since the 1990s. Long before wine became the new “it” drink, German wines were sold by only a few distributors actively promoting and providing wine tastings. These wines were white, syrupy and semi-sweet but of average quality.

About a decade ago, some niche importers brought a new style of German wines – dry whites. Still made with Riesling, these were deliciously fruity and light on the palate. Unlike the German white wines of the ’90s, these came in beautiful green fluted bottles with crystal caps and were of good quality. These wines became my new favourites. But that was all I knew of German wines.

So, with minimal knowledge, I started my German wine culture tour with a lot of naivety.

I learned something new within minutes of meeting my host, Ernst, from the German Wine Institute. “Germany is the third-largest producer of Pinot Noir”.

What? Germany produces Pinot Noir? I had no idea. It was a revelation – my first surprise and just the beginning of my German wine tutelage.

I had never tasted a German red wine. I tasted a few Pinot Noirs (Spatburgunder in German) on this trip. Although it is difficult to say “Spatburgunder”, the wine rolls off the tongue and is velvety smooth and delicate.

Apparently, red wines, although challenging to cultivate in northern climates, have always been produced in Germany. But as Germany gets warmer, more quality red wines are being made from Pinot Noir and Domina grapes.

White wine is the predominant output of the German vineyards, and whites in a multitude of styles were what I drank most throughout my wine culture tour.

In Franconia, the steep slopes along the river are known for producing dry Silvaner wines. It was my first taste of wines made with this varietal.

The vines planted on these slopes are surrounded by the microclimates associated with the Main River. The steep slopes with a southern exposure capture much of the sun’s heat. These slopes are so steep that harvesting is primarily by hand.

Silvaner (also spelt Sylvaner) is one of Germany’s most grown and cultivated white grape varieties. The grape makes fruity wines with flavours and aromas of honeydew, melon, apricot, and apples. First planted in the valley of Franconia in 1659, it is considered the signature wine of the area.

It is an excellent wine that is easy to drink. It is juicy, and the styles range from dry to off-dry to sweet dessert wines. It is an easy-to-drink, light, everyday wine that goes well with food. The sparkling version, Sekt, is wonderfully festive and bubbly. Its effervescent characters are perfect as a welcome drink.

In the city of Wurzburg, the soul of the Franconian wine country, wines are celebrated with festivals throughout the summer and with their Franconian wine queen. A wine queen is selected from each of the thirteen districts; a “German” wine queen is selected from the thirteen. The contest for the German wine queen challenges each candidate on their wine knowledge, poise, and hospitality. The winner will travel the world, representing the German wine industry as its ambassador.

Franconia wine is also tied to the uniquely shaped signature vessel, the Bocksbeutel. It is an intrinsic part of the Franconian wine culture, with an ancient heritage. Celtic settlers developed the container, whose history can be traced back to 1400 BC.

As I toured the Franconian vineyards by electric bike and visited monasteries, vineyards, and centuries-old cellars, it became apparent that wine production is tied intrinsically to the history of its land and its people.

German wine cultivation and evolution are historically linked to the growth and spread of Christianity. Especially during the times of the Medieval ages, churches and monasteries played an important part in wine production and in retaining wine production knowledge. At one point, most of the foremost vineyards in Germany were associated with the church.

Vineyards flourish along the Rhine River in Rheingau, and most produce Rieslings. It is a historically significant region because it is here that late harvest wines made with grapes affected by noble rot, a mould, were discovered.

The story of the first late-harvest wines in Germany originated in 1775 at Schloss Johannisberg, a 900-year-old castle and winery. The tradition was that a message would be sent to the cellar master to permit him to start harvesting the grapes. But for reasons unknown, the messenger was fourteen days late. By the time the message was received, the grapes had rotted. With their high sugar content, these grapes were given to local peasants who made them into wines of fantastic flavour and quality. And a new style of German wine was born.

Besides the late harvest wine, Rieslings from Rheingau are also celebrated. It is the sturdy varietal that is the pillar of the wine industry in this region. The wines are crisp and fruity with good acidity and layers of flavours, such as minerals and honey. The dry Rieslings were refreshing and easy to drink. It makes a great white wine at excellent prices.

The wine culture in Rheingau is deeply intertwined with its arts and music culture. The people here celebrate life with wine.

At Weingut Georg-Muller Stiftung, owner Peter Winter combines his two passions, art and wine, in his 250-year-old cellar. At age sixty, instead of retiring, he bought the winery and focused on producing quality wines and collecting and promoting contemporary art. In the dark caves of his cellar, artworks are featured as if in a gallery amongst his rare vintage wines. The contrast is striking.

At the 900-year-old Kloster Eberbach, a modern wine estate contrasts Gothic architecture and the monastery’s dark cellars, the heart of its history. The monastery was established in 1136 and, throughout the centuries since, has produced wines, first to sustain itself and later for sale to others. The monastery became one of the largest wine estates in Germany and is still one of the largest wine producers in this region.

Kloster Eberbach has hosted significant and historical events and was the location for the filming of The Name of the Rose with Sean Connery. The Basilica is currently the main venue for the annual Rheingau Musik Festival, an event of jazz, world music and cabaret held from June to August. It is one of Europe’s biggest music festivals.

During the intermission of the Rheingau Musik Festival’s opening programme, the audience went outside and, in the bright evening light, headed over to concession stands to buy wine for refreshment.

On my wine tour of Germany, I was introduced to the fantastic wines, gastronomy, art, and culture of two revealing wine regions. Now, I must make plans to visit the others.

Text & Photos Cammy Yiu