A Guide to Germany's Wine Districts

Germany's wine regions boast some of the country's most beautiful scenery, finest food and best touted tourist attractions. Castles, lordly manors, great landscapes and fine cuisine are natural components of wine country lifestyle.

Most of the regions are concentrated within an hour or two of the Greater Frankfurt metropolitan area, close to Cologne, Heidelberg and Stuttgart, as well as Würzburg. With Autobahn, rail and regional road, all are easily accessible, including Germany's two newest appellations -- Sachsen, (near Dresden) and Saale-Unstrut, (between Leipzig and Jena.)

The best times to visit the vineyards are from late April into the summer and then, depending on weather conditions, immediately after the harvest in autumn. There are hundreds of open-air wine festivals (Weinfest or Winzerfest), a perfect opportunity to taste the wines, mix with people, dance and enjoy local taste treats. There's frequently dancing, and a parade led by the reigning wine queen. Spectacular fireworks displays brighten the skies at the biggest fests, and major culinary events are scheduled at local restaurants.

Well-marked foot and bike paths follow the rivers where the wine abounds. The website of the German Wine Institute (www.deutscheweine.de) can tell you everthing you want to know about such things as wine regions, festivals, visitor-friendly wineries, grape varieties, how to cook with wine and lots more. There is even a video.

We present here sketches of the country's 13 designated wine areas

Some are famous for their wine, some for their tourism, some for both and some for neither.

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer

The Mosel River, as it snakes its way between the Eifel and Hunsrück regions, has carved a valley that is so narrow that there could be no significant urban development. The steep slopes and slate soil, though, are just about ideal for wine production. The vines don't shade each other and the slate soil retains the sun's warmth through the night. For this reason the Mosel wines are much in demand abroad.

Towns along the Mosel include Trier, Germany's oldest city with the biggest concentration of Roman ruins north of the Alps. Another is the idyllic town of Bernkastel-Kues, home of "Bernkasteler Doktor" wine, which the late Chancellor Konrad Adenauer made famous by presenting cases of it to visiting dignitaries. You can sample it at one of the town's festival. One other Mosel town of note is Cochem, with a famous hilltop castle that hosts a wine festival in August.

Rheingau

Though the Rhine flows mainly in a northerly direction, it makes a rather sharp bend near Wiesbaden and flows west for about ten miles. This means that the vineyards on the right bank have a southern exposure and get more sun than most others. This area is called the Rheingau, and it too produces top wines, including the much honored Johannisburg.

You can enjoy a glass of Johannisburg on the terrace of the monastery that gave the wine its name, with a spectacular view of the river and the valley. And you can buy a few bottles to take with you. The principal town of the Rheingau is Rüdesheim, with its very narrow fun street, the Drosselgasse, and a wine museum. Rüdesheim has its wine festival in August.

Mittelrhein

This is the storied part of the Rhine that you have always heard about; idyllic, half-timbered towns and vineyard-covered slopes topped by castles. It starts right where the Rheingau leaves off and extends almost to Bonn. Most of its delicate white wines are consumed locally, but you can try them out at the festivals at some of the region's best tourist attractions. The pretty town of Bacharach, which was named after the wine god Baccus, holds its festival October. St. Goarshausen, near the Loreley rock where singing maidens supposedly lured boatmen to their deaths, has a festival in September. And Braubach, near the Marksburg, the best preserved castle on the Rhine, has its festival in early October.

Baden

This area includes the upper Rhine, from the Swiss border to about Mannheim, and also part of the Neckar River, a Rhine tributary, and the shores of Lake Constance. People drawn to the area by such attractions as Heidelberg, Baden-Baden and the Black Forest also have some interesting wines to try. Probably the most noted Baden vintage is the fiery red wine from the volcanic Kaiserstuhl region. The village of Achkarren, near the Kaiserstuhl, has a wine museum and a festival each September.

Sachsen

This is one of the two wine regions in the former East Germany that got added to the western regions with reunification. It runs along the banks of the Elbe River on a stretch that includes Dresden and the famed porcelain-making city of Meissen. These two cities are among the most popular tourist attractions of the so-called "new states," so the dry wines produced there, the ones savored by the Saxon kings and Martin Luther, should become better known. Traditional eastern German foods work well with them. Dresden has a wine festival in July and Meissen has one in September.

Franken

The wine from this area, mainly along the Main River to the west and east of Würzburg, is noted for its use of the round, squat bocksbeutel bottle, and for its dry, earthy "Steinwein,:" which comes from a famous old vineyard in Würzburg. You can try it at Wüzburg's Weinfest am Stein in July.

Pfalz

This region, which produces more wine than any of the others, is the warmest in Germany. Its vineyards don't need the shelter of river valleys and certain Mediterranean fruits, such as figs and lemons, can be grown there. It is there that we find the "German Wine Road," the first to be established of the numerous named roads that abound in Germany today.

One of the cities along the Wine Road is Neustadt, site of a festival where the German Wine Queen is crowned each year. The festival runs every October. The largest community on the Wine Road is Bad Dürkheim, home of the annual Sausage Market in September. Actually it's a wine festival, too, and a big one. It is held in front of "the world's largest wine barrel," made strictly according to coopers' principals but big enough to contain a restaurant.

Württemberg

The vineyards of this region line the banks of the upper Neckar River, from about Heilbronn to Stuttgart, but very little Württemberg wine makes it outside of Württemberg, much less Germany. But those who try these wines find them the perfect foil to French and Swiss culinary influence in Swabia and the Black Forest, Germany's gourmet paradise. You can visit quite a few festivals without leaving Stuttgart. Districts of the city holding them include: Obertürkheim, Feuerbach, Uhlbach, and Untertürkheim.

Hessische Bergstrasse

The hills along the Rhine's east bank, from near Darmstadt to near Heidelberg, are especially known for their fruit trees, which produce a delightful spectacle when they blossom in the spring. The same hills also produce good wines, but they are little known outside the area. The place to sample them is the festival in Heppenheim in June and July.

Rheinhessen

This area on the west bank of the Rhine, between Mainz and Worms, is Germany's largest wine region in area and is second only to the Pfalz in the amount of wine it produces. Rheinhessen is where the sweet Liebfrauenmilch, a big hit in Britain and America, was developed. It originally came from the vineyards around the Church of Our Lady (Liebfrauenkirche) in Worms. A famous Rheinhessen festival is the Kellerwegfest in Güntersblum. It extends for a mile through the vineyards and is lined with ancient wine cellars carved out of the hills. Many of them are turned into taverns that ring with music and laughter during the festival.

Nahe

This is still another tributary of the Rhine, which it reaches at Bingen. The center of the wine region is Bad Kreuznach, which holds its wine festival in August.

Ahr

This region, along the banks of a tributary that joins the Rhine at Remagen, is one of the least known wine areas. It produces a good red wine but you'll probably have to attend a festival to taste it. The principal city of Ahrweiler hosts a festival in September.

Saale-Unstrut

This area, to the west of Leipzig in the former East Germany, is little known touristically and most of its earthy, fruity wine is drunk locally.

When it comes to picking a destination for a day's outing or a weekend, or even a brief vacation, there's hardly a better choice than to pick one of Germany's wine regions, even an obscure one, as a destination for an excursion.