Land of Wine and Wall

--German Life / Feb.-Mar. 2007

Story & 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.

"Today's,  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 nature."   

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. He's   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 eastern.

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 commercial wineries.

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 vineyard.

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 firms.

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 estate.

"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 Zimmerling.

--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. 

 

 

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