Wine Tour in German Wine Country
The Mosel, Ahr, and Franken Regions of Germany
When we think of German wine, we visualize a bone-dry German white or perhaps a clear sweet Riesling to enjoy with dessert. Prized as these wines are, they usually come with a hefty price tag. While going to France or California to visit wineries and buy wine has become a common vacation destination, buying wine in Germany has its own rewards, and not just those of price. One can taste the wine at the source, enjoy outlying attractions, and hike in the picturesque German river valleys. Learning a bit of wine German is also fun.
Nearly all the vineyards are in the south of Germany in steep river valleys. The Romans brought the vines to the Mosel and Ahr valleys, and they realized that the valleys protected the grapes from the wind, and kept them warm, as the sun hits the ripening vines perpendicularly with greater heat.
Armed with this information and my partner’s knowledge of enough German to buy wine, book trailer sites, and order cakes at German bakeries, we took a self-directed wine tour of the Ahr and Mosel valleys, including a side stop to Franconia. We went in the latter part of September to take advantage of the harvest season and small wine festivals in the villages.
Our first stop was the Ahr valley, staying in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler with its steep slopes and slate soil. This region surprisingly is known for red wines, primarily Spätburgunders and Dornfelders sold in little stalls on the street, marked Weinkauf (wine for sale). Though 20 years ago German reds were pale and sweet, now they are in a class by themselves, still delicate, but more tannic and with a complexity of flavor that makes them perfect when a light red is required.
To buy wine at a stall is fairly straightforward. After the usual pleasantries, it is usual to ask: “Ich möuchte weinprobieren, bitte.” (I would like to taste wine please). It is also useful to be able to know the terms for dry (trocken), sweet (lieblich) or half dry (halb trocken). To request something dryer or sweeter, ask: Habensie etwes trockener (do you have something dryer) or sußer (sweeter). Often you will be given something that looks like a Chinese restaurant menu with the varieties of wines numbered, indicating percentages of acids, alcohols, and sugars. I would usually ignore all this information and splurge on the prize medal winners (look for kammerpreismunze); with quite drinkable wines ranging at €3 or €4 euros, mid-range prize winning wines at €4 to €7, and the most expensive wines at €18 we could afford to be indulgent, requesting Zwolf flaschen, bitte (12 bottles, please)
After stocking up on red wines and Roman trivia, we decided to travel to the Mosel Valley the next day to buy Riesling. Riesling is a cold-weather grape, giving it a distinctive taste. In the late 1970s, German wine producers started making dry Rieslings. Though their first attempts were a bit of a hash, now they have many superb halbtrocken vintages on offer. Other excellent wines from the Mosel come from Elbling and Kerner grapes which have a very long ripening time, longer than for Bordeaux or for Cabernet. And, we found we were not confined to sweet dessert wines.
After all that wine tasting and our meals in the trailer, we decided it was time to sample the local cuisine. During harvest time, amongst all the usual schnitzel and products of pig, we decided to try the Federweisser, a partially fermented very young wine with the yeast often still intact, and Zwiebelkuchen, onion cake or tart. Federweisser (Feder = feather, Weisser = whiter) looks like a slightly turbid milk which is light and sweet, made after the annual grape harvest from grape juice. As it is still completing fermentation, the bottles have to remain open to avoid unintentional explosions (we learned this the hard way). The composition of onion cake, other than the onions, is variable from region to region. In Aachen it is more of a quiche, in the Mosel a proper cake with bacon.
The version below is a good approximation:
Zweibelkuchen (German Onion Pie)
4 thick slices of bacon, diced
2 cups peeled and chopped yellow onion
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sour cream
1 tblsp flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 9-inch pie shell, unbaked
Preheat oven to 400 degrees farenheit
Saute bacon. Drain most of the fat from the pan. Add the onions and saute until clear. Do not brown. Set aside to cool.
Beat the eggs and sour cream together in a medium-sized bowl. Sprinkle the flour over the top and beat it in. Stir in the salt and pepper.
Prick the bottom of the pie shell several times with a fork. Spread the onions and bacon over the bottom of the pie shell. Pour the sour cream mixture over the top.
Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees farenheit and bake for another 15 minutes or until pie is nicely browned. Serve hot!
To aid digestion of the onion tart, a hike to Burg Eltz Castle is not to be missed. Spared from the ravages of warfare, it has been within the Eltz family for 820 years, and compared to most castles which were bare fortifications with cold stone walls, it exudes cozy domesticity with tapestries, fresh flowers, and ample flush toilets dating back several hundred years. Life as a German princeling could be civilized. A tour includes a gander at the treasure room of family silverware, drinking vessels, and a remarkable ring made in 1730 which belonged to the Prince Elector of the family. The Electors voted for the Holy Roman Emperor and had to be fashion conscious when carrying out their official duties, so the ring has 48 different removable stones to match the wearer’s clothing of the day.
On our way to Würzburg, the capital of the Franken region, we decided to make one last wine stop. Franken is 50 miles east of the Rheingau centered upon the River Main. The wine there is distinctively dry and peppery, designed to cut through rich German food, made either out of the Silvaner grape, or a Scheurebe which is a cross between a Riesling and a Silvaner. Distinctively bottled in the squat green flasks called bocksbeutels, Franken wine is fairly difficult to get outside of Germany, as winemaking is usually a sideline in this region. It thus is in high demand, and a bit more expensive than wines from the Mosel and Ahr, but a joy to drink.
One of the nicest towns to visit in the Franken region is Sommerhäusen, south of Würzburg. Home to the Tortumtheatre, goldsmiths, antique and craft shops, it is a lovely place to wander. Wine buying here can be via stalls on the streets during festivals, but more usually there are discreet signs posted in front of private residences. On the Casparigasse, we visited Hans and Betty Schmuck to buy Scheurebe. We were escorted into their living room, and the wines were brought out and poured for us to sample.