German wine regions bring people together

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FREYBURG, Germany — Our guide, Daniela Bothe, led us through the cool cellar, softly illuminated with shadows dancing across rows of sleeping bottles. I wondered what adventures might be ahead for these bottles, full of the sparks to ignite unseen romance. “Borders are made to separate people,” Ms. Bothe told me with a wink in her voice. “Champagne is made to bring us together.”

The wines of Germany’s Mosel and Rhine regions have a fine international reputation, earned over decades, and even centuries. Now the wines of other German regions, old but obscure in recent years, are making their mark.

I had come to the vineyards in Franconia and the Saale-Unstrut region in eastern Germany to investigate silvaner and the bubbly “sekt,” which is what Germans call their champagne, deferring to the French who insist that no wine produced outside France’s Champagne region can be properly called “champagne.”

Borders no longer separate fine German wines as Germany’s eastern vineyards have joined with the west to offer visitors some fascinating tours.

In the tiny town of Freyburg on the banks of the Unstrut River, Rotkaeppchen produces almost half of all German sparkling wine. Vineyards here have been producing grapes for more than 1,000 years, growing on steep, terraced slopes, between ancient stone walls and among small huts. The huts, some nearly 500 years old, are used mostly to store equipment and to shelter vineyard workers from the wind and rain.

The origin of the word “sekt” may come from the Latin “siccus,” meaning “dry,” or from the French “sec,” but a merrier version holds that a famous Berlin actor, calling for a glass of bubbly, invoked a line from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “Give me a cup of sack, rogue.” Since “sack” in German is translated as “sect,” the name stuck.

The bottles of Rotkaeppchen — it translates to “Little Red Riding Hood” — are capped with red foil. The company had a sekt state monopoly under the East German government until reunification in 1990, and produced inferior wine. Since then, Rotkaeppchen has been in private hands and offers tours daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The tour includes a glass of excellent sekt and an introduction to how sekt is made through in-the-bottle fermentation.

Radebeul, a Saxony town down the road from Dresden, is home to Schloss (Castle) Wackerbarth, where the Count of Wackerbarth started wine cultivation with the purchase of several hillside vineyards in 1836. The wine company now is owned by the Saxon state. The elegant Wackerbarth castle has been renovated, the winery modernized. The gardens are open for visitors and tours are by appointment.

The Naumburger Wein & Sekt Manufactur is a single-owner operation. Shortly after the reunification, Andreas Kirsch purchased a 19th-century sandstone building on the banks of the Saale River just outside the town of Naumburg, with cellars and miles of tunnels, some dating to medieval times, built by monks of a nearby monastery. The tunnels are ideal for maturing wine, in particular sparkling wine. Mr. Kirsch’s cellar, lit by candles, is crowded with casks and bottles of sparkling wine fermenting for the nine months required by law. The winery operates a four-room bed and breakfast.

The sekt wineries produce still as well as sparkling wine, but in Franconia, only white and some red are produced. Wuertzburg, an hour from Frankfurt by fast train, is the capital of Franconia, where the silvaner is the grape of choice. Germans like slightly sweet wines, but wines from both the silvaner and mueller thuergau grapes can be fine and dry.

The region is famous for its flattened, bulbous green wine bottles, called “bocksbeutel.” The name, used since the 18th century, derives either from the sack (“beutel”), used to carry prayer or song books in medieval times, or from its shape, which Franconians see as similar to the scrotum of a goat — “bocks” in German.

Grape-growing began in Franconia in 777 on a land grant from Charlemagne. The oldest vineyard site is the “Wuertzburg stein,” and there is a single bottle of a 1540 Steinwein, or stone wine, said to be the oldest still drinkable bottle in the world, and stored in the cellars of the Buergerspital (Citizens’ Hospital of the Holy Ghost).

There are three important wine cellars in Wuertzburg: the Buergerspital, the Juliusspital (both medieval charity hospitals for the sick, the poor and the needy) and the cavernous 12th-century cellars beneath the elegant prince-bishops’ Residence, which is graced with a magnificent staircase and a huge ceiling painting by Giovanni Tiepolo.

All three cellars have cask-lined tunnels, the beautifully carved casks illuminated by candles. All three offer tours with wine tastings. Although most tours are in German, English guides sometimes can be arranged.

The Buergerspital dates from 1316. The first vineyards were acquired in 1334 to finance the hospital, and as per agreement, every man and woman in the hospital was, and still is, entitled to a daily liter of wine. The hospital continues to function and specializes in geriatric rehabilitation.

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