So many wonderful wineries located in some of the most beautiful small villages in all of Germany: welcome to Franconia. Located about a two-hour train trip southeast of Frankfurt, Franconia is home to one of the world’s most ancient and venerable grapes: Sylvaner. Think of it as an older cousin of Riesling, similar acidity and fruit interplay but less racy; fuller, earthier, “woodsy,” as the derivation of its name implies. Since there are roughly 6,000 Franconian winemakers—and even though half of those are in consortiums—we can only visit a few. The wine region is geographically concentrated: depending upon your time frame, try to enlarge on the outline below.
They will help you in English at the Juliusspital, indeed everywhere on this itinerary, but I recommend advance notice so a winery really can have an English speaker on hand. My favorites at Juliusspital include the 2006 Würzburger Stein Silvaner, whose acid underpinning nicely supports the tropical fruit medley; try it right before the Grosses Gewächs (think premier cru) version of the same thing…you’ll get more pepper on the tongue and a flinty feel from the limestone sponsored minerality. It’s as though the wine’s fruit resided inside the minerals. Really great, dry Sylvaners achieve this with ease.
The approach to Frickenhausen delivers you into its midst by one of several medieval towers, visible already at some distance, as you coast past the serenely meandering Main River. No billboards, strip malls, pre-fab anything here, just the stately flowing river overhung with weeping willows and other romantic foliage. Many of these towns started in the Middle Ages as weekend homes for Würzburg’s better-heeled residents. What sets Frickenhausen apart is that its larger homes served the nobility and clergy, hence the streets are wider, and the proportions everywhere grander and more ambitious. Other villages are also cobble-stoned and half-timbered but somehow more pinched, less stately. Speaking of which, give the town of Volkach a wide berth: this is a package-tour destination with the predictable hordes streaming down the narrow sidewalks.
I looked at several inns and guest houses but Frickenhausen’s Hotel Meintzinger is head and shoulders above the rest. A physically outstanding building with a lovely wine bar and a staff that is singularly concerned with your comfort. Clientele is predominantly sophisticated German upper middle-class; I spoke with several couples from Hamburg who have “discovered” Hotel Meintzinger for weekend getwaways. The only sounds at night will be the clock chimes from the town square…you really can expect a good night’s sleep here. The breakfast deserves mention for its Lucullan offerings: I counted 16 cheese choices, 10 wurst (cold meats), 3 breads, 7 rolls, 4 yoghurts, 5 cereals, 5 pound and Bundt cake varieties, along with eggs and juices. Also, excellent coffee. And the prices are the same as everywhere else: 50-75 Euro for a single, 60 and up for a double, breakfast included. Eating this enzymatically active breakfast looking past a gorgeous orchid on your windowsill overlooking medieval rooftops and without any annoying Musak is a wonderful start to the day.
Which you will spend sampling mostly Sylvaner, though the region also produces Riesling, Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder), Müller-Thurgau, and Scheurebe. Drive up to Untereisenheim to see the “Weinparadis,” a kooky but likable architectural confection by Hundertwasser, who also designed the Quixote winery in Napa. Untereisenheim is REALLY hard to find, so allow yourself plenty of time. It’s a pleasant shock to round a bend in the quiet landscape and suddenly find yourself in front of this little monster. But the wines are worth the trip for their taste/value ratios (not to mention the wonderful labels). In fact, Weinparadis got my Best Value (BV) recommendations on two of their wines: the 2006 Silvaner Kabinett trocken (4.5 Euro) and the 2003 Faberrebe Auslese
(9.95 Euro). The former is simply unbelievable at that price and
the latter has a concentrated passion fruit, date, and apricot vitality coupled with an elegance that you would expect from an Auslese at twice the price. Plus, Faberrebe is an uncommon varietal that you will probably never get to sample outside of Franconia.
A twenty minute drive away is the must-see Weingut of Horst Sauer, a delightful man of sunny disposition (the absolute opposite of his “sour” name) with a modern winery set like a jewel in its medieval setting. Mr. Sauer wins many awards, is passionate about his product—“In Franconia, Sylvaner achieves peaks of excitement and quality that are matched nowhere else in the world,”— and has one of the best sequences of wines for tasting: not too many, and most of them from the fabeled Escherndorfer Lump, a plot of vineyard paradise right up there with the Julius-Echter-Berg. The Lump’s protected location and limestone soil yield long-lived wines with intense, concentrated fruit. Sylvaner is the predominant variety here (34%) ; there’s even blue Sylvaner, an ancient varietal which is hard to find (the other fine example is at Schloss Sommerhausen). Blue Sylvaner has more acid and 3-5% higher Oechsle [ed. note: a scale that measures sugar content (ripeness) of grape must]. By now you will have tasted enough regular Sylvaner to appreciate the difference!
Imperative to your itinerary is a visit to the Fürstlich Castell’sches Domänenamt (“Castell” will get you there), the first to plant Sylvaner in Germany, in 1659, in fact, as their archives prove. This was not so very long ago, when you consider that the Castells have been here since the 11th century and that the current head, Graf Ferdinand, is the 26th generation of his family to run the enterprise. A dapper well-spoken (in English, as well) gentleman, Graf Ferdinand walks through the vineyard in wingtips with the perfect long-haired pointer loping on ahead. The history lesson ends with a stop in the Archive Building, where I admire a wine inventory from 1259…these documents are of course very valuable to oeno-historians. And in case this hasn’t impressed you, just across the street is the Castell Bank – one of the few remaining private banks still in operation. Finally, there is the stunning Baroque church with its alabaster altar dating from the 1780’s and an unusual pulpit-above-the altar construction in the markgräfler style: Baroque exterior and Classical interior…come on a Sunday, if you can, to enjoy the magnificent organ in this gem of a chapel, where the proportions are as perfect as the acoustics. The half hour spent here marked one of the highlights of my trip. Alas, wine-sampling here will have to await another trip.
Back in Frickenhausen, stop across the street from the hotel to visit the Kurt Mauer bakery where you must try some Frickenhauser Lebkuchen. Mrs. Mauer makes a red and a white wine version of Lebkuchen, the latter featuring Sylvaner, and was recently featured on Bavarian television with her creation (“but even they didn’t get my recipe”). Lebkuchen have been around forever, a dense hazelnut based cookie thought to have originated in Nüremberg and commonly eaten at Christmas, but the demand has become such that Mrs. Mauer now makes them year ‘round. The attractive little cookie packages are the best bring-back gift…now that we can no longer put a bottle or two in our hand luggage.
The best way to find Sylvaner here is to source “German Sylvaner” on wine-searcher.com; the largest US importer, Rudi Wiest, brings in about 700 bottles a year but, he says, “I’m trying to raise awareness. Blue Fin, in NYC, serves Sylvaner with sushi and that appears to be going well.” The other successful and even harder to pair food that complements Sylvaner is white asparagus. Make that any asparagus. Or no food at all. Sylvaner’s subtle complexities let it fully stand on its own legs…pun intended!
IF YOU GO:
CAR RENTAL: www.e-sixt.com
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