Forget Oktoberfest, German wine country is where it’s at
A gentle jaunt around German wine country
Wednesday 30 March 2022
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“Bier trinken macht aggressiv und Wein trinken macht fröhlich!”
It’s a phrase that’s stuck with me since I first visited Germany nearly seven years ago and found myself tasting wine in the village of Rudesheim am Main just west of Frankfurt. I was in town researching a story about why travellers should plan a trip around German wine instead of the stereotypical Oktoberfest trip to Munich. Now with nearly a decade of German travel under my belt – not to mention plenty of beers and bottles of wine – I can say with utmost confidence: German beer culture can’t hold a candle to its wine country.
I was with a local tourism representative who was translating and showing me the region when I first stepped into German wine country all those years ago. A man at the cable car station that lifts hikers and wine drinkers over the surrounding vineyards started chatting up my host. I decided to try my broken German I’d been practicing with Duolingo.
“Warum Wein und nicht Bier?” I asked, slowly. “Why wine and not beer?’
“Drinking beer makes you aggressive and drinking wine makes you merry!” he said with a wide smile.
It made sense to me. I’ve seen beer drinking go from a pleasant, communal experience to something ruined by that one guy who went too far; his drunken illusions of grandeur firing up his testosterone to take on the world.
Don’t get me wrong. I like beer. I like it a lot, especially teeing up a cold Maß at a Biergarten on a hot summer’s day. But I don’t worry that if someone goes too far with wine, they might start a fight and crush a bottle against their head, channeling the ancient ape ancestor still buried in their DNA. That’s because wine is a more subtle drink. In other words, you generally don’t chug or bong a bottle of wine (though I’m sure someone would love to prove me wrong).
“You drink wine to remember,” a man by the name of Ulrich Allendorf told me at the Allendorf Winery headquarters in Oestrich-Winkel on the Rhine. His family has been in the wine business since the 13th Century, so I trust his guidance in the ways of booze.
To him, beer is something you drink to forget a bad day or a bad breakup. A good bottle of wine is something to celebrate a special occasion with, and remember for the rest of your life.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t just the wine itself that made it all a “merry” experience. It’s where the wine is that, as the man at the cable car station suggested, makes me merry.
Not long after that wine trip to the Rhineland, I got a job and found myself moving across the Atlantic to Düsseldorf with my wife and ornery pup, Moses. Düsseldorf is the kind of city English-speaking scriptwriters like to use as a German character’s hometown because it’s so delightfully Germanic-sounding with its first-syllable umlaut and “dorf” ending. It’s one of the most populous cities in the country, and just a three-hour train ride down the Rhine River back to Rudesheim am Main where my education about German wine began.
Though perhaps “education” is the wrong word. Truth be told, I’ve learned very little about the wine itself since moving here that you couldn’t just Google yourself. Perhaps you already know that Riesling is the bread and butter of German wine, though they do grow other varieties – and it’s not all sweet white wine.
Beyond grabbing a bottle of something “Trocken” at the grocery store, I remain incredibly unfussy when it comes to wine. I’ve found that some folks, especially aficionados of Napa Valley and Bordeaux, hold their nose at the idea of drinking German wine as if it were fermented garbage. Why German wine doesn’t have a better reputation abroad is beyond me and I don’t particularly care to find out. I have a good thing with German wine. Why ruin it by “educating” my palate just enough to find it supposedly inferior to other wines?
Besides, I’m not drawn to German wine country for the wine itself. I’m someone who can generally enjoy and be grateful for whatever swill you put in front of me. It’s the hiking along the forested trails that surround German wine country that truly puts me in my happy place. You can take a lazy stroll up to Weingut Kloster Marienthal in the Ahr valley for a glass among the centuries-old ruins of a monastery along the aptly named “Rotweinwanderweg” or “Red Wine Trail.” Or, you can saddle up for a multi-day slog, stomping across wine country’s plentiful long-distance trails that cut through various cities, towns, and villages with no shortage of wine taverns to keep you motivated and help rejuvenate your battered body at the end of the day.
Truly, some of the absolute best hiking and scenery in the country rests alongside the rivers Rhine, Mosel, and Ahr in western Germany. You wander alongside slanted, forested hillsides covered in vineyards before finishing the day in a new village at a cosy, wooden-floored Weinstube (wine tavern) for a nightcap. This is where you stumble across the Medieval castles that star in German postcards, like the Instagram celebrity that is Burg Eltz – often surrounded by an eerie fog that makes you feel as if you mistakenly wandered into the beginning of a fairytale.
And that’s how German wine country trumps its beer culture. Sure, you might find a nice Hütte (hut) with a vista of the landscape you just trotted alongside where you can enjoy a mid-hike beer before heading back down. But German wine country is a multi-day experience. Hop on the train to Frankfurt for some Apfelwein (apple wine) at Zum Gemalten Haus where the Bembel (a stoneware pitcher with blue floral prints) constantly flows copious pours to the brim of your clear glass.
Then it’s onward to your river of choice – and you really cannot go wrong. The Mosel, Rhine, and Ahr valleys are lined with the kind of charming villages you want to see in Germany. All that can be said to really differentiate them is that the Ahr seems to be lesser-travelled by non-German tourists despite offering the same heart-stopping scenery across their 90-kilometre AhrSteig hiking trail. (Unfortunately, the Ahr valley did suffer historic flooding in 2021 brought on by climate change and the region is still fighting to get back on its feet. All the more reason to visit and support their efforts.)
A picky traveller might stay clear of Cochem on the Mosel, arguably the tourist hub of the river where river cruises start and end their journeys, dropping packs of lemmings onto the city square with their mobile phones hoisted into the sky to save a vertical image of Cochem Castle. The sights are splendid but they can be had all the same elsewhere down the river, like the thimble-sized Beilstein that truly feels like a step into the Medieval past – at least, a romantic version of that period without the crippling poverty, rampant disease, or general threat of painful death by sword, arrow or mace if you were really having a bad day. I could waste no shortage of days in the candlelit glow of Zehnthauskeller, sipping Mosel wine under the stone arches of the cellar before heading back out for another stroll amongst the vineyards. Preferably in the autumn, when the colours make Van Gogh look dull.
I’ve since moved to Berlin – as most immigrants inevitably do. And though the city questionably celebrated as “sexy but poor” is full of its own struggles, the city has grown on me considerably.
Nonetheless, as the world seems to spiral further out of control, I can’t help but find myself occasionally yearning for a quiet life in a German wine village, surrounded by impressive hills, valleys, and history you can touch. It’s a slower pace of life where the greatest stresses of the day are where to take your nap and deciding if there’s time to bake cookies so they’re ready for after dinner. (There’s always time.)
I think back to Ulrich’s suggestion that you drink wine to make a memory. I’d say the tattoo of the region I got on my shoulder is a pretty permanent memory. But nothing beats being in those hills, those lusciously green forests dotted with honest-to-God castles, and the promise of a shared bottle at the end of the day. The more I write about it, the more I realise just how much I’m looking forward to making the next memory.
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