Land of Wine and Wall
--German Life / Feb.-Mar. 2007
Photos by Bill Stephens
Sitting in a cozy Leipzig coffee house on a cool November afternoon,
I had just completed an assignment that acquainted me with many churches and
museums, but few eastern Germans.
When the local tourism department woman casually mentioned that
eastern Germany boasts two of the country's 13 wine regions, I was curious. My
map showed that the small Saxony and Saale-Unstrut wine regions are far north
and east of western Germanyís famous wine regions. They seemed too cold for wine production. And
I wondered about winemakers in a former socialist state.
In the heart of the Saale-Unstrut wine region, I was greeted at the Naumburg
train station by 41-year-old local winemaker Stephan Herzer. Driving into town,
Herzer told me Saale-Unstrut is an old wine center and Europeís northernmost
wine area. During most of eastern Germany's socialist German Democratic
Republic (GDR) period from 1949 to 1989, he said all Saale-Unstrut wine was
made by the state-owned wine coop and Landesweingut state-owned winery. Used
mostly as currency, the wine was unexceptional.
everything's totally different, " Herzer said. "Some
winemakers like me moved here from western Germany. And many local people
studied winemaking in the west. Now a third of production is from small private
wineries. Everyone is using modern
techniques and equipment. Wine is sold to consumers and the quality is much improved.
Local wineries offer wine tasting and touring."
In quaint Naumburg, we drove into Weingut Herzer, which looks like a
mini-medieval fort. In his wine tasting room Herzer began pouring. When the Wall crumbled in 1989, Herzer
says he was a wine student in West Germany. "Interested in eastern Germany, I
traveled here as a tourist and met local people." Herzer moved to the Saale-Unstrut region in 1992, rented a
vineyard, and began growing grapes. Eventually he made his own wine.
It was tough at first for the new local private winemakers, he said,
because eastern Germans craved western products. "Now that a new
generation has improved the wine, there's local pride. Our wineries are wining
awards. We've made a huge leap in 16 years. Saale-Unstrut wine is a curiosity
for west Germans."
I knew eastern Germany is now a hot tourist destination, with its
historic feel, scenery, and socialist era
mystique. Herzer said visitors who come to Naumburg for the cathedral
and Neitzche's house are often surprised to find wineries. In addition to the
coop and Landesweingut, there are now more than 20 family-owned commercial
wineries in Saale-Unstrut. Visitors can follow a wine road of local wineries,
where they can taste, tour, and increasingly eat and sleep. Saale-Unstrut towns
Naumburg, Freyburg, and Bad Kosen host wine festivals.
After Iíd sampled Herzer's wines, he showed me his winery and
introduced me to his wife Andrea, who helps with marketing and manages their three
children. With five employees, Herzer makes 13 wines, two-thirds of which are white.
He sells directly to winery visitors, and to wine shops, hotels, and
restaurants locally and around Germany.
As we toured Herzerís 50 acre vineyard in the rain, he acknowledged
that the northern climate is a challenge. "Late spring frosts can mean a
low crop harvest. But white grapes like Riesling, Muller-Thurgau, and Silvaner
do well. Because of cool nights, our grapes ripen late. So local wines have an
intense, fresh, fruity, taste."
Herzer told me he's happy with his eastern Germany life. "I want
to keep improving quality and have time for my family. I love working in
After the tour, we drove into Naumburg for a lunch at a traditional
restaurant. I had a good feeling
about the Herzers, especially when I later learned Stephan has helped local
people learn winemaking. Later I heard more Saale-Unstrut stories.
--When the Wall fell in 1989, Klaus Bohme was a young Freyburg area
farmer and hobby winemaker. After working in a West German winery, he returned home to
start a small winery in an old farmhouse in 1991. It was difficult because in GDR time
people didnít learn how to run a business.
He later grew to 25 acres and improved the winery facility. He sells
wine to restaurants locally, and in Berlin, Leipzig, and Weimar. To visitors,
he offers tastings, tours, and snacks. "The future's good for
Saale-Unstrut wine. More tourists are coming, and the wine's getting better
thanks to better machinery and techniques."
--With reunification, Freyburg native Bernard Pawis said his hobby
winemaker father decided to become a full-time winemaker after visiting western
German wineries. After taking over the small business in 1998, Bernard grew the vineyard to 27 acres
and built a modern wine cellar. He offers vineyard tours for visitors, who come
from all over Germany and Europe.
recently moved in the process of moving to a new location where he'll have he has a better cellar and tasting room, plus a restaurant and will have food and guest rooms room.
I finished my Saale-Unstrut visit at sprawling Rotkappchen Winery in
Freyburg. My guide, Tobias Rost, led me through fermentation, bottling, and
tasting rooms. "Rotkappchen is a very old sparkling wine company that
became state-owned in GDR time," he explained. "After reunification,
sales dropped sharply during the fever for western products."
In 1993, former managers bought and privatized the firm. They
modernized, boosted marketing, and welcomed tourists. Today, Rotkappchen is
Germany's biggest sparkling wine producer, with 115,000 annual visitors.
* * * *
After I set up in Dresden, a short train ride got me to Meissen, a historic hilltown overlooking the Elbe
River. It's in the heart of the Saxony wine region, Germany's smallest and most
Local tourism and wine association people told me monks produced
local wine in the twelfth century. The GDR part of the story sounded familiar.
Wine production was restricted to the state winery in Radebeul and state wine
cooperative in Meissen. Wine was used for barter and wasn't high quality. Good
equipment was scarce and wine tourism limited.
Since reunification, I learned,
many small private wineries have started up, helping boost quality and
tourism. Some winemakers came from western Germany, and many local people went
west to learn. Modern equipment became available and techniques improved. Today,
in addition to the two large wineries, there are more than two dozen small
Driving along the Elbe River below Meissen, I saw bikers and
steamboats. Saxony wine country tourism, I was told, is growing. Wine routes
are available for bikers, hikers, motorists, and river travelers. It's
increasingly possible to visit a winery for tasting and touring, and also for
dining and staying overnight.
At Weingut Schloss Proschwitz near Meissen I tasted wine, toured the
cellar, and rode into the hills to inspect the owner's historic castle and
Winery owner Prinz Georg zur Lippe later told me his old Saxony
family's many businesses and lands were expropriated by Russian-trained German
officials in 1945. The family was
sent off penniless to West Germany. Born in 1957, Prinz Georg earned
agriculture and economics degrees and did business consulting. After 1990
reunification, Prinz Georg's visited Saxony to learn about the family's former
Standing in the family's old hillside vineyard, he was moved. Just
then an ag coop man drove up.
"We've been expecting you," the man said, indicating there was a chance to buy part of the family's former wine
"I'm interested," he replied.
In 1990 and the following
years, Prinz Georg
bought back parts of the former wine estate step by step. Because of the region's low wine
quantities and high costs he focussed on making quality wine showing the
authentic fruity, intensive
character of Saxony wine. He replanted the entire vineyard and acquired modern
equipment. In 1997, he refurbished
an old ag building into a wine cellar and eventually offices. In 2002, a wine tasting area, wine shop, and
guest rooms were added. He also bought the old family castle in the nearby
hills for special events.
"It was risky. But coming back to my family roots and starting
my own business provided the emotional drive."
Prinz Georg sold his wine directly to customers, and also at fine
restaurants and specialized wine shops in Meissen, and increasingly throughout
Germany. Today Weingut Schloss Proschwitz is the largest private winery in
eastern Germany, with 137 producing acres and 330,000 bottles annual production. In 2007, more guest rooms will be added at the
main wine estate location and at the castle. A restaurant is also planned.
Noting that Prinz Georg routinely greets visitors, one wag said: "Where else can do you see a real
prince and live in his castle?"
Prinz Georg also sells internationally to gain recognition for his
wine. His Pinot Gris was well rated in recent European contests. The winery has
a Taiwan client and U.S. potential.
Prinz Georg is not only a role model for local Saxon wineries, he
gives advice and at times processes their wine in his cellar.
--One of those he helped is 28-year-old Karl Friederich Aust. A local
grape grower and hobby winemaker as a teenager, Aust moved to America after
reunification to work at a winery. Back in Saxony, he learned from books and
other winemakers. Today, Aust produces nearly 20,000 bottles per year and welcomes visitors
to his winery and vineyards for tasting, tours, and dining. "
--Klaus Zimmerling was a young Dresden engineer with a hobby vineyard
when the Wall fell. He moved to Austria to work at a winery in 1990 for a year.
He returned to Saxony where he bought a small vineyard and started a winery
with limited funds. Today he toils long hours in his vineyard and makes
highly-regarded Reisling. His artist wife designs his wine labels. "Because
I love making good wine I donít ask how many hours I work," said
--At large Schloss Wackerbarth winery in Radebeul there is much to
see: a modern cellar, manicured hillside vineyard, gardens, a baroque chateau,
tasting area, and restaurant. The western-trained kellermeister told me
"west German's think it's too cold to grow wine in Saxony. But with better techniques our quality
is going higher and higher."
My Saxony wine exploration took me to Walter Schuh Weingut in Soernewitz. In his winery
restaurant, Schuh told me he was in the wine business in West Germany at
reunification. Though some told him
it was crazy, he and wife Martina
moved to Saxony. "I wanted my own winery business, a new beginning,
adventure, and a chance to realize my ideas."
In 1990, Schuh planted
new grapes on 12 hillside acres he bought and he refurbished two old buildings
into a wine cellar. Later, he added a wine shop, restaurant, and small hotel.
The first few years he bought grapes from others while he waited for his first
grapes. Today Schuh produces 15
wines and 75,000 bottles per year.
He sells most of his wine in Saxony--much at his own wine shop and at
restaurants and wine shops. Schuh benefits from growing Saxony tourism. Tourists often drink his wine in Dresden
or on Elbe River cruises, then visit his winery. Most visitors come from east
and west Germany, and also from around Europe. "There's now local pride about
eastern German wine, which is considered a little exotic," he says.
Schuh's winery restaurant and inn, run by his wife Martina with help
from daughter Katharina, are key. Their restaurant and hotel guests buy a lot
of wine in the restaurant and wine shop, said Martina, who notes more guest
rooms and a new wine shop are being added.
Walter Schuh leads popular hikes through his hillside vineyard. On
our way there we greet his 18-year-old son Matthias. After driving up a dirt
road, we proceed on foot. Rows of vines are neatly marked by variety. The top
features an Elbe view. Schuh says
the Elbe River Valley micro-climate is not as cold as some think. At any rate,
he says cold weather is good for white wine because the grapes grow slowly. He
says there's quality wine now in Saxony, but it's not yet widely known.
"Producing quality wine is the best advertisement."
Schuh's eyes grow moist. "After 15 years since we built this
business, we are happy. I've realized all my dreams." He paused. "My son Matthias recently told me
he wants to learn the family business. It' wonderful news."
After I said good-bye, I thought about my eastern Germany winery
experience. By visiting family wineries I actually got to know some eastern
Germans. That, and of course the wine tasting, made the trip worthwhile.