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Alternate Routes · Europe · germany · Germany · Anothertravelguide.com

Along the Riesling route

Author: Anothertravelguide.com0 COMMENTS

Along the Riesling route

"...Die Luft ist kühl und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fließt der Rhein..."

It's an early September afternoon and I'm standing atop the Loreley rock. "The air is cool in the gloaming / And gently flows the Rhine"... all around me dark clouds gather threateningly, and I feel I should flee the approaching storm, but I stand there mystified - why is it that this place, like unto a holy place, retains its allure? The enticing aura of the massive rock is tangible despite its unfortunate status as a tourist trap. The sense of mystery I experience in solitude is fleeting, the work of the storm; countless buses ferry endless hordes of tourists to the Loreley day after day. The rain begins to come down. Seen from the Rhine, the rock made legendary in the Heine poem is really little different from nearby cliffs. Even so, from its summit, the panorama pulls you in like a whirlpool. The Rhine flows majestically below, isolated barges swaying in its waters. Some twenty kilometres further is the Rheingau, the birthplace of Germany's most famous wine, Riesling.

Foto: Along the Riesling routeFoto: Along the Riesling routeFoto: Along the Riesling route

Innumerable legends are woven around the great river, the Rhine of memory and longing, its mythic flow ruling life in the valley since the beginning of time. In its lengthy course from south to north, it makes a dramatic turn at Wiesbaden, where the Taunus Mountains block its waters and the Rhine flows from east to west for about fifty kilometres. Geographically and geologically, this stretch of the valley is unique - the embrace of slopes and forests shield it from cold winds, and the waters of the Rhine provide a mild climate. The land here is composed of gravel, clay, quartz and loess, ideal for vines that suffer and survive; only suffering makes for a great wine. The soil closest to the river is considered the worst, since it permits the vines to flourish instead of forcing them to put their energy into the grapes and the accumulation of sugar. The vineyards mostly face south and are enriched by the warmth of the Rhine, giving the grapes honeyed, blossomy, fruity notes blended with robustness. The character of the grapes in this region has no equal.

Foto: Along the Riesling routeFoto: Along the Riesling routeFoto: Along the Riesling route

In the name of wine
There are a host of legends about the origins of Riesling. One relates to Louis II, King of East Francia in the late 9th century, later known as "the German" because most of his lands were in Germania. He is said to have been the first to plant grapes in the Rhine Valley. Others believe that Riesling is a mutation of indigenous wild grapes. Still others bestow the honour of creating the wine on monks from the Cistercian Order, who are said to have brought the vines from Burgundy. Winemaking was one of their successful industries, so they attempted to replicate their success in Burgundy in other regions.

Foto: Along the Riesling routeFoto: Along the Riesling routeFoto: Along the Riesling route

Arriving at the Rhine in 1136, they took up life at Kloster Eberbach, and this monastery soon became a significant milestone in the history of Riesling. The road to the ancient monastery leads through the small town of Eltville. Its historic central district with narrow, winding streets, the buildings draped with vines, seems to be adorned with the residue of ages past. The monastery itself, its architecture reflecting the Romanesque as well as early Gothic, late Gothic and Baroque styles, is reminiscent of a village. The name derives from "Boar's Brook" - when the Cistercian abbot, the Archbishop of Mainz, visited Eberbach, a wild boar emerged from the woods and leapt across the stream.

Foto: Along the Riesling routeFoto: Along the Riesling routeFoto: Along the Riesling route

The first vines planted here were Pinot Noir, but the monks quickly realized that red wine produced here could never compete with Burgundy. The finally found that Riesling grapes grew best here on the steep slopes with their unusual soil and specific climate. Wine was what made the monastery rich, transforming it from the sanctuary and dwelling of a mere thirteen monks into the largest and most important monastery in Germany. Later, even some of the monks' cells were converted into wine cellars. The Rhine aided the enterprise, serving as the major artery of transport. The monastery ceased to function in 1803, with secularisation, but its wine lived on. Since 1945, the monastery has been administered by the state of Hessen. It includes 200 hectares of vineyards and six separate estates. The monastery also hosts the annual Rheingau Music Festival. There's another magnet that draws thousand of people each year to Eberbach: The Name of the Rose. The interior scenes for the palimpsest of Umberto Eco's novel was filmed here in the early 1980s, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring the legendary British actor Sean Connery as a Franciscan monk invited to investigate a mysterious murder. The story is set in Italy (where the outdoor scenes were filmed), and nothing resembling the thriller ever took place at Eberbach, but the monastery did see plenty of action in war and robbery. In 1525, the monastery was attacked by peasants, who demolished the wine cellars. In the 19th century, invaluable manuscripts from the devastated library were sold for almost nothing as worthless paper. Some of the rare books later found there way to the British Museum and various private collections. Today's monastery is a mixture of history and the latest winemaking techniques, a pleasant serenity and the flashing cameras of countless tourists. When you succeed in finding yourself in a silent space, alone, the monastery is still a magical place.

Foto: Along the Riesling routeFoto: Along the Riesling routeFoto: Along the Riesling route

Less than half an hour away is another legendary site - Schloss Johannisberg, a majestic hilltop castle surrounded by vineyards, its ancient walls overgrown with colourful hollyhock. The vineyards stretch down a steep hillside almost to the Rhine, which glimmers in the distance. The scene could be from olden times except for a couple of smoking factory chimneys. There was once a Benedictine monastery here, but in 1715 it was acquired by the prince of the Fulda Abbey, who constructed a three-storey castle here in its stead. He planted 294 000 Riesling vines in 1720, making it the first winery where only Riesling grapes were grown. This is also where a fateful accident led to the late harvest wine known as Spätlese - in 1775, a courier who was sent to Fulda annually to get permission for to begin the harvest was delayed for two weeks by circumstance - history doesn't tell us how many taverns he dallied in on the way.

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All of the other vintners had already harvested their grapes, but the Schloss Johannisberg vines had been touched by "noble rot". The vintner harvested the grapes despite this, and the resulting wine, with its characteristic high level of sugar, later became the trademark of the estate. There's a monument to the legendary courier at the castle. Down in the cellars, at their very heart, there's the Bibliotheca subterranea, a nearly sacred store of rare old wines, the oldest a 1748 Riesling.
One of the attractions of fine wine is attempting its description, stimulating the sense of taste among connoisseurs and adding a verbal dimension to the noble beverage that may or may not exist outside our imaginations. Honey, herbs, citrus and toasted bread are all appropriated to describe the bouquet of a Riesling. A well-aged bottle may also possess a note of kerosene, which some think is good and some do not delight in. The German Wine Institute has developed a circle of aromas to describe different Rieslings, with myriad suggestions for the varied tastes, from the temptingly natural to the synthetic and revolting. A trip through the region is therefore a wild, ideal ride for the senses. The road is along the Rhine, the vine-laced hills occasionally topped with romantic castles. The journey is somehow outside time and beyond the trivial cares that fill ordinary days. The list of wineries is extensive, but among those that mutn't on any account be missed are Schloss Johannisberg, Joseph Leitz, Barth, Joachim Flick, Peter Jacob Kühn, Fürst Löwenstein, and Wilheim Mohr.

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The windings of the Moselle
To a wine lover, terroir is everything - the soil and the specific conditions of each vineyard are what give wines their character. Although all three of the great Riesling regions - Rheingau, Mosel, and Pfalz - are a mere hour's drive from Frankfurt, saying that they differ as strongly as night and day would not be an exaggeration. You'll come to believe the contention that it isn't possible to create as complex a Riesling anywhere else in the world.

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In Koblenz, not far from the monument to the German emperor who presided over the country's unification, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Rhine meets the Mosel and a very different story begins. The road is again along the river, but the Mosel is a winding river and the landscapes that meet you around each bend are postcard perfect in the truest sense, as though you'd gotten one of those postcard series that open like an accordion. The architecture in the villages mixes sweetness and heaviness, a bouquet like that of the wines produced here. Mosel wine is known for its sweetness... so beware of waking with cotton candy in your head if you taste too many of the classic wines here. The climate is cooler than along the Rhine, and the area has more than 11 000 hectares of vineyards. The cool means it takes longer for the grapes to ripen, which is the cause of the sweetness. The steepness of the banks makes tending the vines quite difficult. The heart of this region is Traben-Trarbach - at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, it the most important city for the wine trade after Bordeaux. Its years of triumph left their mark on the city's architecture - there are fabulous Art Nouveau landmarks here. Among the must-sees are the Villa Breucker and Villa Huesgen, the latter built for the vintner Adolph Huesgen in 1904.

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There is another notable episode that left its mark on the wines here - until quite recently, the region's wines were collectively called Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, honouring the three rivers that are so significant to the character of the wines. In 2007, the designation was simplified to Mosel. There are still definite differences in the wines themselves, though - those from near the Saar are considered the best. The Saar being at a higher elevation than the Mosel, the climate is cooler - that influences the character of the wines. The climate is also capricious, however, so not every year is a good one. When there's a good harvest, however, the resulting wine has a more balanced character and pronounced citrus notes than an ordinary Mosel.

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The Saar is a minor European river, its source in the Vosges, in northern Alsace. The landscapes here are not as sugary as those of the Mosel, but there is a serene peace in the valley. The Saar was always a special waterway, the windings of history affecting its culture - it was long a bone of contention between Germany and France. After 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles took effect, the Saar was separated from Germany and given autonomous status. Until a 1935 referendum, the Saarland was administered by France. 90% of the inhabitants voted to be part of Germany. In the Second World War, Hitler joined it to Lorraine, which he'd taken from France. After pitched battles, it came under French military administration at the end of the war. In another referendum, in 1947, the inhabitants voted for economic union with France. A major stumbling block towards the establishment of good relations between the two adversaries, its status was finally decided in yet another plebiscite in 1957, when it officially became a part of the German Federal Republic.

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Ayl, a little village with only 1420 residents, is a fascinating destination for wine lovers. The slate in the soil gives the wines here a refreshing bouquet with flowery notes. Peter Lauer is among the most well-known wineries. It's been in the same family for four generations. Weinhaus Ayler Kupp is located there. It's a gourmet restaurant with a peaceful terrace surrounded by trees - a perfect place to relax on your tour.

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The German wine road
The official route - Deutsche Weinstrasse - stretches through Pfalz, beginning at the border with France. A massive gate marks its beginning. The other end is at Bockenheim. The total length of the road is 85 kilometres, and it's considered the oldest official wine road in the world. Josef Bürckel, the leader of the local Nazi party, ceremonially declared it open on 19 October 1935. The previous year's harvest was good, but winemaking was thrown into chaos with Hitler's rise to limitless power. The road was meant to be an instrument of propaganda, developing tourism in the region. It is indeed spectacular, with scenic hills covered with vines. Some call it the German Tuscany. Though you will see the effects of past industrialisation here and there, you should certainly try a side road - that means literally disappearing into the vineyards. You can enjoy the clouds, the grapes, and inimitable pastoral scenes. Though the nearness of Alsace can be sensed in the architecture, the atmosphere here is quite different. Here and there, prominent villas suggest the prosperity of this region. There are well-marked hiking routes and attractive bike trails.

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The road is closed to automobiles on the last Sunday in August - bicyclists take over. The entire length of the route is transformed into a festival of eating and wine tasting. It's a very German affair.
The centre of the Pfalz is Deidesheim. The main square of this small city gleams - it's scrupulously washed every morning. The church-bells share that sense of propriety and precision, ringing every half hour both day and night. Everything is honed and compact. The city was a favourite of the chancellor who presided over reunification - Helmut Kohl met man major leaders here, including Thatcher, Gorbachev, and the King of Spain, receiving them at the Grand Hotel. Across the main square is the Gasthaus zur Kanne, the oldest tavern in the Pfalz. It's been here since 1374. The Deidesheim Museum boasts the oldest wine in the world to retain its liquid state - the bottle was filled around the year 325.

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This region has long been considered the most modern of Germany's winemaking regions in terms of marketing, tourism, and and ability to adapt to new trends. It's also the warnes, with 225 sunny days a year (unless global warming takes its toll). Figs, kiwi, lemons and lovely almond trees share space with the vines. The warmth is notable in the wines. The secret to the terroir here is the Haardt, a continuation of the Vosges on the French side - they shelter the Pfalz from wind and rain, making the climate almost Mediterranean. It's home to Germany's legendary "3 Bs" - Weingut Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan and Reichsrat von Buhl. Reichsrat wine was served at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 - at the time it was among the most expensive wines on earth.

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The Dr. Bürklin-Wolf is the largest family-owned windery in Germanywith 86 hectares of grapes. Its seat and its tasting room are in an elegant villa in the small town of Washenheim. Though the winery has 500 years of history, it is still among the most innovative brands in the Pfalz. Biodynamic technologies that make the wine organic have been in use for some time. No pesticides or herbicides, or any other chemicals, are used to battle pests or nature - natural solutions are sought instead. The skins of grapes and the seeds are used for compost, winter crops are planted to keep the soil fresh, and the wines are bottled in harmony with the phases of the moon. Dr. Bürklin-Wolf uses no tractors - instead, two horses are used, their hooves not compacting the soil like tyres would. The winery is a living organism, and all of this is done with virtuoso care. When we visit the tasting room, there's only one other couple there, along with a massive dog at their feet. The beast doesn't prick up its ears when the next bottle is uncorked. A rumpled but well-dressed man also enters. Two bottles are placed side by side - the vineyards their grapes came from are only 100 metres apart, the vintage is the same... but the terroir is totally different. One came from sandstone and limestone soil, the other from volcanic basalt. Terroir is indeed everything! Covering such vastly different regions in only a few days - all three are practically next to each other, after all - is like taking three different trips to three different worlds. In vino veritas - there's no reason to doubt the Latin phrase!

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