Sometimes things just come together harmoniously. As I arrive at the stately Albrechtsberg manor house and vineyard on the outskirts of Dresden, the sun suddenly breaks through the clouds to light up the scene. In the headily floral-scented castle grounds, the vintner is preparing the day’s first wine tasting.
Wine touring is not an obvious reason to visit eastern Germany – home to just two of the country’s 13 wine-producing regions. However, what Sachsen (Saxony) and Saale-Unstrut lack in size they more than make up in charm, diversity and pedigree. Wine-growing in eastern Germany is as old as the hills – older in some cases, since Berlin’s skyline features a man-made hill built from World War II rubble, whilst Saale-Unstrut has had vineyards for over 1,000 years. Ever since medieval monks realised the golden grape value of cultivating their own holy meal beverages, wine has been entrenched in the cultural development of the area. Saale-Unstrut wines can even be purchased in the shop at the impressive medieval cathedral of Naumburg.
Along the wine routes of Sachsen and Saale-Unstrut, small vineyards are interspersed with castles, forests, orchards, meadows and rapeseed fields in a patchwork landscape perfect for relaxed tours. My morning wine-wander around Albrechtsberg manor is just the start. I am tempted to linger and take a boat trip along the Elbe River to historic Dresden, at the centre of the Sachsen region – but more wine stops beckon.
Although the yield in both regions is low – typically just one bottle per inhabitant per year in Sachsen – there is a surprising range of different grape varieties. White wines, including Müller-Thurgau, Traminer, Riesling and Sachsen’s unique Goldriesling, dominate, but there is some red Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) in the mix. Cultivating such diversity is a labour of love for the region’s vintners. Drei Herren Winery, in leafy Radebeul, doubles as an art gallery where you can try (and buy) the local specialities whilst browsing an eclectic and intriguing collection from local artists. I’m sure I see new layers of symbolism in the works with each revitalising glass of Sekt (sparkling) and trocken (dry) wine I “taste”.
Art and wine is not a new partnership in eastern Germany. Famous local artist Max Klinger (1857 – 1920) owned a vineyard near Naumburg, in Saale-Unstrut – where he lived out his controversial later life, having left his partner for his young muse. Klinger is now buried in the grounds, his works are exhibited in the house and the vineyard is going strong. Just down the road is a sculpted sandstone wall, or “stone picture book”, dating to 1722. Among the Biblical scenes are images of Jesus treading grapes and Noah tending grapevines. Recently four bottles of 17th century wine turned up on the site.
I find some slightly less ancient wine nearby in the cellar at Kloster Pforta Winery. The bottles from the year of my birth are covered in a disconcertingly thick layer of dust and the vintner admits – as we sip some far younger, very palatable wines under the vaulted ceiling of the oldest cellar in Saale-Unstrut – that the year in question was not a great vintage. Probably best to stick to 21st century offerings for now then.
A twilight visit to Pawis Winery in Freyburg wraps the day up perfectly. The Pawis family relocated their winery to a run-down manor house in 2005 and transformed it into a combined wine tavern and art gallery. At dinner the candle- and fire-lit tavern, with its red brick walls and medieval-style chandeliers, is brimming with romantic atmosphere – helped by the steady flow of wines matched to the four courses. The restaurant is only open on weekends during the wine-touring months of May, August, September and October, but there are events and tastings on other days. For daily wine tours, Wackerbarth Castle, an elegant vineyard-filled Sachsen estate, is another good bet.
With quality trumping quantity, the fine wines of Sachsen and Saale-Unstrut are rarely exported, so best tasted locally – although happily a good few bottles make it to Berlin. City breakers are well served by extensive, great value lists at stylish wine bars and restaurants, such as Rutz, Aigner and the Grand Hyatt’s Mesa.
Wine tasting whilst touring eastern Germany may not be an obvious combination, but it is certainly a harmonious one. Viewing the area through a wine glass is a unique way to experience its other charms – culinary, artistic and historical.
by Thea Macaulay
Photography copyright: Danny Levy Sheehan