Wirsching Bocksbeutel
photo courtesy Weingut Hans Wirsching

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.
You want to take the train from Frankfurt Airport to Würzburg, home of the magnificent “Residenz,” an enormous and gorgeous hunk of Baroque and Rococo architecture, which deserves an article unto itself. As does the city of Würzburg where—if there is time only for this one stop (and it’s within walking distance of where you’ll rent your car)—you must visit the Weingut Juliusspital, which continues the medieval tradition of incorporating wine making and marketing with care of the indigent and ailing. It’s an excellent place to begin your education intoFrankenweine. While some winemakers are switching to burgundy bottles, most Silvaner* still comes in traditional Bocksbeutel, which translates to “goat scrotum.” Apparently the shape originated in the Middle Ages when goatskin pouches were used to hold liquids. According to Kordula Geier of the Juliusspital, “When you plopped one of the goatskins on the table, they fell into the Bocksbeutel shape, and this was retained when glass fabrication started.” Unfortunately, the shape retains for many Americans the memory of a sweet rosé popular in the ‘70s…surely it’s time to move on. I can guarantee that the Sylvaner tasting experience will be worthwhile and unique.

 

steep hillside vineyards

Roses at the end of orderly rows of steep hillside vineyards serve as an early warning system for mildew

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.
After picking up your car at the train station, drive 40 minutes to the small village of Frickenhausen as your headquarters for what should be a minimum 4-day circuit of this region. Several words of caution: German road signs (local and interstate) do not give east/west, north/south indications, they simply list towns along the way. Quite challenging for the non-resident, I can tell you. You’re on B13, but do you go right or left at this intersection? Certainly the catalogue of tiny towns is of no help at all. Which means that GPS or “navi” is crucial. Of the two rental car companies at the Würzburg station you want to go with Sixt rather than Europcar, which doesn’t honor auto vs. stick reservations, isn’t open on Sundays, and doesn’t have personnel versed in GPS instructions. The well-spoken young man at Sixt reminded US visitors to book before-hand to avoid the 19% tax on local rentals. And “there are always great packages on our

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.

The quiet lanes of old Frickenhausen serve as the base for exploring Franconia's wine country. Photos by Susanna Gaertner

The quiet lanes of old Frickenhausen serve as the base for exploring Franconia’s wine country.  Photos by Susanna Gaertner

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.

rainbow over Weinparadis
Whimsical Weinparadis produces Franconian wines of excellent value.

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.
This is a good time to mention Heckenwirtschaft, a Franconian custom which allows wineries to serve food during certain weeks in April/May and October/November in order to show off their culinary prowess, or just to showcase their wines with what they consider appropriate food pairing. Similar culinary wine weeks take place in other parts of the country, sometimes under the name Strausswirtschaft.

Weingut Horst Sauer

Weingut Horst Sauer

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!
Weingut Sauer boasts two Grosses Gewächse, a dry Riesling and a dry Sylvaner, both from the Escherndorfer Lump, both from reduced yield, old vines—here that means 35-40 years—and both of stunning depth and clarity. The 2006 Escherndorfer Lump Silvaner Auslese is full-bodied yet fine-boned with superb candied fruit aroma and a sensuous, honey finish; this bottle is a resounding BV at 15.50 Euro. And you cannot leave without sampling the 2006 Escherndorfer Lump Silvaner Trockenbeerenauslese, which is like a fairy-tale of old forests, a caramel and cinnamon dream. Even if you think you don’t like sweet wines, try this.

Steep steps climb the hill of the Castell vineyard.
Steep steps climb the hill of the Castell vineyard.

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.
My final stop: Weingut Hans Wirsching in the charming little town of Iphofen. The Wirsching family has been making wine since 1630, enough time to get it right. Armin Huth, whose job description literally translates to “vineyard engineer,” has been working here for several decades and clearly knows every grape cluster and when that cluster is to be culled. In one of the comfortable tasting rooms you will sample some of the best Franconian wines, those grown on the Julius-Echter-Berg, another parcel of vineyard perfection which traps heat and lends great depth and minerality to the grapes grown in its special confines. A dry spätlese is a thing of beauty for many years: thick and luscious but with perfect acidity. Try the 2006 Iphöfer Julius-Echter-Berg Silvaner Spätlese trocken “S”: dry, yet redolent of white peaches with a smooth, palate-enfolding finish. If you enjoy Sylvaner, you will give yourself time to taste all six or seven on offer. No better place than here to compare the better with the best.
Wirsching also carries a fine selection of Franconia’s lesser-known varietals: Kerner, Bacchus, and—my personal favorite among the minors—Scheurebe, which Herr Huth admits is “the specialty of the house.” I tasted the 2006 Iphöfer Kronsberg Scheurebe Spätlese trocken, whose tasting notes claim it is “a symphony for the senses.” Indeed! Actually it’s not unlike a superior Viognier. At the other end of the scale, I find another BV: the 2006 Iphöfer Julius-Echter-Berg Silvaner Auslese, a dessert wine of outstanding purity with 9.5% alcohol and 132 Oechsle which would be phenomenal at twice its price of 8.50 Euro.

Frau Mauer with her famous Lebkuchen

Frau Mauer with her famous Lebkuchen

photo by Susanna Gaertner

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.
Speaking of transport, you may bring back up to 3 bottles (legally) as checked luggage and most wineries provide plane-worthy packaging at no or nominal cost. But many people just label the box “household goods” and go ahead with six bottles. Or even twelve. You didn’t hear it from me. When you’ve decided on your favorites, you might want to opt for this solution, since very little Sylvaner gets exported.

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!


*In Germany the grape is spelled Silvaner, while in America we know it as Sylvaner.

Steep Schloss Castell vineyards

IF YOU GO:
For a nominal fee you can have personal, English-speaking wine docents accompany you on your travels to the wineries. If you want hands-on experience with Franconian wines there is “Wengert,” a term which describes vineyard management and bottling sites.
Contact Franconian tourism at both of these sites:
www.franken-weinland.de
www.frankentourismus.de
RAIL EUROPE
There’s an information and booking service for European train travel that will get you the best value for short or long trajectories. Americans are accustomed to the one-size fits-all Eurailpass, but that is not necessarily what’s best for your itinerary.
RailEurope will find the best option and save you money!
Voted best site for European train travel by Travel & Leisure magazine.
www.raileurope.com

HOTEL: www.hotel-meintzinger.de

CAR RENTAL: www.e-sixt.com

WINERIES:

www.juliusspital.de
www.weingut-hirn.de (this is the Weinparadis site)
www.weingut-horst-sauer.de
www.wirsching.de
www.sommerhausen.com
www.castell.de

 

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