Poll Americans about visiting European wine regions and chances are Germany will come in fourth at best, behind France, Italy and Spain. That’s just not fair.
All of these countries boast great wines, delectable food and world-class accommodations. But Germany has something more to offer: unfettered speed.
Only on portions of this country’s famed autobahn system can you mash down on the accelerator without fear of encountering gendarmes, carabinieri or policia. And that’s just what I did on my last trip, visiting portions of the Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz wine regions.
Every German wine lover has their favorite regions and producers, and one of the best ways to discover yours—or reconnect with them—is by visiting. There’s no substitute for seeing the steep slate-covered slopes of the Mosel, the aristocratic estates of the Rheingau or the gentler slopes and charming villages of the Pfalz.
All of these regions are easily accessed via Frankfurt, Europe’s busiest airport. With so many flights and carriers, it’s a breeze to find fares and schedules that work for you, and the airport features many rental car agencies and ample rail connections.
Despite the crowds, it runs with stereotypical German precision. Don’t be late for your boarding time, or you may miss your flight.
Grab your car and head for the countryside. In only 45 minutes, you can be crossing the Rhine on the Mainz-Wiesbaden Bridge and entering the Rheingau, where Riesling accounts for nearly 80% of the vineyard plantings.
The sleepy village of Kiedrich is home to the dynamic Weingut Robert Weil, which recently completed yet another expansion. Contrast the old family home (now offices) with the modern, steel-accented tasting room that’s painted in abstract to evoke vineyard themes: sun, water and earth.
Also in Kiedrich, the Hotel Nassauer Hof makes a fine base from which to explore the region. Its buffet-style breakfast offers a variety of breads, charcuterie and smoked salmon daily, so you can lay down a healthy foundation before a long day of wine tasting.
In such a quiet village, revving a Porsche 911’s throaty engine early in the morning may wake even some heavy sleepers. Cool.
Almost every large winery in the Rheingau has a public tasting room with regularly posted hours. Schloss Johannisberg, which towers above the Rhine at 50˚ N latitude, even has a restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining areas. Schloss Reinhartshausen is a winery, but it’s also a luxury hotel, conference center and restaurant.
So is the complex at Kloster Eberbach, where Benedictine monks, arriving from Burgundy, first established themselves in 1136. Visitors can see the historic cellars, including examples of wooden wine presses from centuries past.
The brand-new, working winery is just down the hill, next to the famous Steinberg. After tasting, purchase a snack and a glass of wine at the small kiosk in the vineyard and admire the view across the Rhine.
The best preserved of the big aristocratic estates is Schloss Vollrads, which was in the same family’s hands during parts of seven centuries (it’s now owned by a regional bank). The striking yellow buildings sit high above the valley floor and house a tasting room and restaurant.
On weekends, visitors can take guided tours of the main house, including the reception room, sheathed in 17th-century Spanish leather hand painted in Belgium, a symbol of the family’s wealth.
Visits to small, family-run estates are often best made by prior appointment, but many of them have tasting rooms as well.
At Baron zu Knyphausen’s comfortable tasting room in Erbach, sample the rare Roter Riesling. Don’t miss the dry Rieslings at Weingut Künstler, in Hochheim, which offer a stunning lesson in the effects of geology on the finished wine.
At the opposite end of the Rheingau, stop in at Weingut Georg Breuer in Rüdesheim, now run by his youngest daughter, Theresa. Bring your most comfortable walking shoes and head up into the Rhine’s steepest vineyards.
At the top, Germania looks out over the countryside, commemorating the unification of Germany and the end of the Franco-Prussian War. Less hardy travelers can ascend via gondola.
Another branch of the Breuer family runs the centrally located Rüdesheimer Schloss, a wine-centric hotel and restaurant. Heinrich Breuer offers his niece’s wines at cellar-door prices, and numerous selections from other local producers. Ask to see the reserve list, which features vintages back to 1893.
In Johannisberg, another family estate worth a stop is Weingut Johannishof. In addition to the current releases, the Eser family nearly always has a library release—normally about 10 years old—available for tasting and purchase.
Summer weekends draw big crowds from nearby Mainz and Frankfurt, so try to visit during midweek or during spring or fall. That will also make it easier to nab a reservation at one of the many small restaurants in the region, which tend to fill up rapidly.
Visitors could do far worse than to get lost in Hattenheim’s three excellent restaurants, which Rowald Hepp, the general manager of Schloss Vollrads, calls “the Bermuda Triangle of the Rheingau.”
Zum Krug—relatives went on to found the Krug Champagne house—dates back to 1720. The inn has eight traditional rooms above the restaurant, and eight more modern chambers in an adjoining building built in 1719.
The wine list is an encyclopedic paean to the Rheingau, at affordable prices. Yet, said Hepp on the night we visited, “It’s the only place I’ve never looked at the wine list. I always rely on Herr Laufer to bring a wine.”
The night we dined there, Laufer recommended Kloster Eberbach’s 1990 Rauenthaler Gehrn Kabinett for approximately $50, and a 1976 Spätlese from the same producer and vineyard for $100.
His son, Josef, is now in charge of the kitchen, and he’s added new dishes to the kitchen’s repertoire. They’re listed in a separate section of the menu, so guests have choices beyond the traditional specialties.
Around the corner is Die Adler Wirtschaft. Here, the wine list isn’t quite so long, and many of the dishes reveal Francophile tendencies, courtesy of chef Franz Keller’s stint with Paul Bocuse.
A bit fancier (and recipient of a Michelin star) is Kronenschlösschen, where Patrik Kimpel is a leading member of Jeunes Restaurateurs d’Europe. The association of more than 350 members is a roster of up-and-coming chefs, including honorary member Harald Rüssel, of Rüssel’s Landhaus St. Urban, in the Mosel.
Rüssel is considered a founding father of the locavore movement in Germany, a renowned chef who has focused attention on native ingredients and regional specialties to raise them to new heights.
The Michelin-starred hotel-restaurant, nestled in a park-like rural setting away from the river itself, is an idyllic escape. Trout swim in the neighboring brook, and the ones that make their way onto dinner plates seem just as fresh.
Heading south, the steep riverside slopes of the Mosel and Rheingau ease back and the Rhine’s valley widens. There’s more room to explore gears six and seven while blowing the doors off hapless Opels.
The vines shrink back from the river, hugging the hillsides around the picturesque villages of Deidesheim, Forst and Wachenheim.
Here in the Pfalz, the valley floor is broad and flat, farmed for grain, asparagus and other crops. Vineyards climb the hillsides, although with their gentler grades, walking the vineyards is much easier than in the Mosel or Rheingau.
Around Forst, a walking path through the village’s vineyards includes placards that identify the various plots: Pechstein, Kirchenstück, Jesuitengarten and Ungeheuer, among others.
The three Bs—the estates of Dr. Bürklin-Wolf, Reichsrat von Buhl and Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan—are the Pfalz’s standard bearers. All have public tasting rooms where visitors can sample broad ranges of the local wines.
Bürklin-Wolf, in Deidesheim, also owns Zur Kanne, a charming restaurant in the middle of town, whose sign proudly proclaims, “Gasthausseit 1160.” The saumagen, a traditional local dish of stuffed pig’s stomach, is especially good.
At von Bassermann-Jordan, while the wines are traditional in style, the food is modern. The estate houses the Ketschauer Hof luxury hotel, which offers visitors two dining options: the Michelin-starred Restaurant Freundstück or the more casual Weinbistro Bassermännchen.
In the bistro, the meal is served tapas-style, allowing guests to sample several of the inventive, Mediterranean-influenced small plates. The fare is a far cry from grandma’s sauerbraten.
The wine connection is still strong, and the list includes a good selection from the Pfalz, with a sprinkling of offerings from friends in other parts of Germany, like Heymann-Löwenstein and Van Volxem from the Mosel, Emrich-Shönleber and Dönnhof from the Nahe, and Wittman from the Rheinhessen.
The cooking and presentations are inventive without being over the top, like a spring roll appetizer of salmon trout, crayfish and glass noodles served with warm mango-lentil salad and papaya-chili sauce.
Check ahead to see if any of their special wine dinners are taking place during your stay.
Bad Dürkheim is the largest town in the Pfalz, and home to the Fitz-Ritter estate. The town has grown around the original 1785 house and winery, leaving it surrounded by fewer than nine acres of vineyards and gardens (the family owns other vineyards outside of town).
Although Riesling accounts for 60% of the estate’s plantings, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay are specialties here. Take a stroll through the award-winning gardens and linger under the shade of a 400-year-old oak.
“My grandfather used to say it’s so healthy because the roots go into the wine cellars,” says Johann Fitz, who is gradually taking over management of the estate from his parents.
Having spent time at university in California, Fitz represents a new generation of German wine growers, well versed in English and possessing insight into the global wine markets.
More broadly, it’s this generation of Germans—widely traveled, open to international influences, yet rooted in centuries of tradition—that makes the country so intriguing to visit.
The juxtaposition of old and new, reflected in many of the restaurants and wineries, makes for fascinating eating and drinking and should move Germany near the top of your must-visit list.
Plus, you can drive really fast.
Timing Your Trip
Germany’s wine-growing regions lie farther north than the Lower 48, and the stakes in the vineyards make the slopes unsafe for skiing, so most travelers will want to avoid visiting during the winter months. Many cellar doors and restaurants also have reduced hours of operation during the winter.
Spring comes with the promise of warm weather and the debut of many of the previous year’s wines. Asparagus—a hugely popular crop in the Pfalz—will be in season. You might be sick of it before you leave.
Summer gives the warmest weather and the lushest landscapes. Despite the latitude, the most exposed vineyards can get unbearably hot on sunny days. The evening and twilight hours linger blissfully, giving visitors more time enjoy the outdoors.
In September, the VDP (Verband Deutscher Qualitäts- und Prädikatsweingüter—an association of top German wine estates) holds a series of regional wine auctions. The presale tastings are open to the public at very reasonable prices, and provide a tremendous opportunity to taste special bottlings. With autumn comes unpredictability in the weather. Cool, rainy intervals and sunny spells of Indian summer occur with frequency. But the colors in the vineyards and the chance to experience harvest time are not to be missed.
Pimp Mein Ride
In a week of driving the 911 Carrera S Cabrio pictured on the opening spread, I barely scratched the surface of the car’s capabilities. I was a bit apprehensive navigating narrow village streets and bumpy vineyard tracks in a $164,000 car. And, truth be told, that’s not the car’s natural environment.
This car wants to go fast. In low gears, the car strains and pushes for speed, growling impatiently. But turn it loose, and it roars, going from 0–60 mph in a reported 4.1 seconds.
Without a stopwatch, I can only tell you it gets going fast enough to accommodate even the shortest on-ramps, and effortlessly jumps from 130 kph (80 mph, the speed limit on much of the autobahn) to 190 kph (118 mph) when asked.
Because of traffic and road conditions, I didn’t get it up any higher than that. Maybe next time—the top speed is electronically limited to a spine-tingling 185 mph.
Not everyone has a press hook-up at Porsche, but any U.S. resident can still take advantage of the company’s European delivery program. Pick up your car at the factory in Zuffenhausen, near Stuttgart (purchasers of Panameras or Cayennes, go to Leipzig), drive it for up to six months, then drop it off at the factory or any one of 15 European locations for shipment to your local dealer in the U.S. Or choose one of these other German rides.
Just like Porsche, pick up your ride at the factory and museum—M-B’s facility is in Sindelfingen—and have it shipped home from cities like London, Paris or Madrid.
Take delivery in Ingolstadt (near Munich), with drop-off at one of the 14 European sites. The racy midengine R8 is assembled and available for pick up in Neckarsulm, near Stuttgart.
Pick up in Munich can be accompanied by a complimentary factory tour and museum visit. The comapny offers 12 drop-off locations, including Frankfurt, Paris and Geneva.
If the idea of a car as European souvenir is overwhelming, luxury rentals like the Porsche Carrera Cabrio start at about $550 per day.