Friday, 17 April 2009

Romancing the Rhine

“Stuff picking grapes off those hills,” the scrawny Australian beside me says as we cruise down the River Rhine in the depths of German Rhine Valley. He’s not wrong – ragged mountains tower over the river with vineyards plotted on the impossibly steep hillsides dotted among old-world German villages.

But I have to smile, because we are more than happy to scoff back the wine made from the grapes diligently handpicked from off those steep hills. And it is not bad wine too, I might add.

Several hours later in a dimly lit grotto, a wood fire burning in the corner, we taste the wares of the German people. I quickly decide I quite like German wine tasting; none of this swirling the wine and taking elaborate sniffs; none of this spitting the wine out – something I’ve always considered to be a waste. No, instead, we are encouraged to down the whole, rather large, shot glass of tepid yellow liquor.

For a country that is generally better known for its beer – think Oktoberfest – Germany has an incredibly bustling wine industry. And no more so than in the Rhine Valley where the microclimatic conditions and geography are perfect for growing grapes.

In the small town Rudesheim, where we taste our wine and discuss its properties, we step back in time at the Adolf Störzel Winery. The Störzel family name dates back to the 1600s with a history of wine making and the family owns 15 acres of vineyards scattered around the hills of Rudesheim. Were the vineyards on flat grounds, a machine could pick the grapes within two hours. But the steep slopes prove too much for a machine, so the grapes are gruellingly picked by hand – with eight people roped in to help, it takes three days.

But the hard work is well worth it. The 2006 Rudesheimer Bischofsberg RieslingHalbtrocken with 12 per cent alcohol goes down a treat on this wintry afternoon. The shot glass of warming fluid is quickly followed by the 2006 Rudesheimer Magdalenenkreuz Riesling Spätlese with 11 per cent alcohol. Again, another good drop.

But of course the best is left to last – the schnapps.

Eager to try the distilled alcoholic beverage I brace myself for the punch. Yes, punch would be one word to describe it. My reaction is an immense grimace, a word sounding somewhat like “yuck”, and much coughing and splattering. With eyes watering, a burning throat and a foul taste in my mouth, I admit I prefer the wine.

But not five minutes later, the world takes on a hazy glow and the cold outside is no longer nipping through my clothes. I have to admit, while the schnapps did not taste like apples (more like vodka gone wrong), it still hit the spot and set me up for the rest of the afternoon.

A ride in a gondola up the slopes to the Niederwald Monument, which commemorates the founding of the German empire in 1871, sets out a spectacular scene below – acres on acres of vineyards, with the steel-grey Rhine snaking its way through a backdrop of ragged hills and fairytale castles. It’s easy to understand how the river and the surrounding environment inspired poets like Heinrich Heine, Lord Byron and Victor Hugo. Even Mozart lived for some time on the banks of the river.

But creative inspiration aside, the Rhine has also played an important role as a main trading route, with many of today’s river civilisations dating back to Roman times. The 1,320 km course runs from Switzerland, up through Germany and into the North Sea. Most of the castles perched atop the mountains were in fact built by gangs of wealthy robbers who blocked the passage of the merchant ships and charged exorbitant tolls. Today, the River Rhine boasts the largest number of castles along its banks than any other river.

The Brömserburg castle in Rudesheim used to be a castle of the archbishops of Mainz and then the Knights of Rudesheim. Now it is a wine museum. Makes sense.

What also makes sense is enjoying the sights of the Rhine from a boat; a glass of wine in one hand, a bratwurst in the other. Stuff climbing those hills to pick grapes!

Katrina travelled to the Rhine Valley with Anderson Tours.

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