Palatinate--Pick of the Lot

Palatinate dwellers are queer, I’m thinking.
I’ll wager that other folks find us so.
For when we’re merry‚ we go a-drinking,
And when we’re sad, a-drinking we go!

So runs S. F. Hallgarten’s translation of a poem which has been the motto for hundreds of years of the winebibbers of Bad Dürkheim, the unofficial capital of the RhinePalatinate wine district, the sunniest, biggest, and most productive in Germany. However luscious the wines of the Rheingau, however fruity those of Rhine-Hesse, and however elegant those of the Moselle, for me the Palatinate produces the pick. If I were taking a wine holiday in Germany, I would, ideally, put three days aside for each of these four regions, and slip in quick visits to Bad Kreuznach on the river Nahe, Würzburg on the river Main, and the Kaiserstuhl hill west of Freiburg im Breisgau. But if I had to plump for a single district, then the Palatinate.

It seems to me to have everything that a wine district should have. In the first place, it is off the beaten, or at least the badly beaten, track. The valleys of the Rhine and Moselle are today main thoroughfares for overcompctitive motorists‚ just as ready to mow you down as to deafen you with their noise and poison you with their exhaust fumes. The wines of the Rhine-Palatinate are grown along the Weinstrasse, the wine highway, which runs to the west of the river Rhine, parallel to it and a comfortable fifteen to twenty miles away from it. Along its fiftymile length is a string of unspoiled villages. Only two of them, Bad Dürkheim and Neustadt, have real pretensions to be called townships.

Along this lovely rambling road, life still moves at a dignified pace, especially during the vintage, the grape-picking season. Then, oxcarts carrying huge vats full of grapes creak down the Weinstrasse, and the horn of the impatient motorist is greeted with wonderfully phlegmatic stares from faces very nearly as bovine as those of the beasts of burden. It is good to be in country where the motorist takes second place.

It is equally good to be in a winegrowing area which has a real landscape. The castles of the Rhine Valley and the homelier country houses of the Moselle are all very well in their way, but there is a hint of claustrophobia about a view which ends less than a mile away on the ridge opposite (give me the Bordeaux country any day in preference to that of Burgundy or the Rhône). The Rhine-Palatinate vineyards lilt lazily over rolling ground, up to the lower slopes of the Haardt mountains. From those lower slopes one can look thirty miles eastward, to the hills of Hesse and Baden, delicate blue on a summer’s day, shading to indigo in the evening. In between are orchards and fields of grain, patches of woodland and green pasture, but in the foreground only vineyards and ever more vineyards, more acres of them than exist in all other famous German wine districts combined, with close on 200 million vines, an army of 35,000 growers, and 200 named wine communes, with a single, best business in life.

The Palatinate — German “Pfalz” — has another advantage‚ its accessibility. This has not always worked to its gain. Down the centuries the armies of France, Austria, Prussia, England, and the Holy Roman Empire have marched through this area, ravaging and burning. But in a Europe at peace, the Palatinate is a major road junction, with signposts pointing to Belgium and Luxembourg‚ to the Rhine and its castles, to Heidelberg and the valley of the Neckar, to the Black Forest and Switzerland, and to Alsace and its rival vineyards. The sober and unhurried motorist can drive in a morning to Worms and back, to see its cathedral and Balthasar Neumann’s baroque altar, or to Speyer, with a wine museum as well as a cathedral, or to Heidelberg’s university and castle, with its gigantic wine vat, or to the lovely little rococo palace of Schloss Favorite. The Palatinate gives the winebibber every chance to sight-see in the bargain.

Finally, the weather. Germany has one well-defined east-west “weather line. This runs along the valley of the Main and the westward projection of the MainzBingen stretch of the Rhine. South of this line you are no longer in Northern Europe. The Palatinate, as it happens, has more sunshine than any other part of Germany. Climatically, it is really a part of Alsace, immediately beyond Schweigen, the last village on the Weinstrasse and the proud possessor of the Weintor, or Wine Gateway. Alsace is protected by the Vosges from cold north winds and from snow and rain from the west; the Palatinate is similarly protected by the Haardt mountains.

The southern benevolence of its climate has given the wines of the Palatinate one inestimable advantage: even in a bad wine year they are drinkable, The year 1951 was such a one; 1954 was a shocker, and 1960 was not much better: the wines of the Moselle rasped palate and throat; the wines of the middle Rhine turned sour in one’s belly. But in each of the summers following the lean years, I passed through the Palatinate and drank cheap “open” wines in carafe, with no repugnance or ill effect. In a bad year buy only a Rhine-Palatinate wine —just as in France one can play safe by buying a wine of the Rhône.

For that matter, drink “open” wine at lunch, and reserve your palate and your cash for something better in the evening. The wines of the Weinstrasse are “big” — they have plenty of body and a high alcoholic content. This gives them the advantage of being very drinkable with every sort of food, with meat and cheese as well as fish and eggs and fruit. The purist will drink only red wine with red meat, but the purist is then up against a problem in Germany. Seven eighths of its wine is white, and most of its reds are hard, overdry, and blended with imported “neutral” French or Algerian. There are virtually no rosés. Why should a man go wine drinking in Germany if as a meateater he is going to have to order Burgundy and Bordeaux? In Germany, one should sink one’s principles and stick to white.

Choosing his food accordingly, he should ask for local specialties and settle for veal and venison steaks rather than beef or lamb. He will enjoy veal stuffed or rolled in bread crumbs, or chicken on the spit. The Palatinate produces good hard cheese and ham, and some of the best asparagus in Germany is grown between the Weinstrasse and the Rhine. The Haardt produces a dozen varieties of mushroom, and you are also on the fringe of dumpling land, with Leberknödel, or dumplings made with minced liver and beef, dumplings in clear soup, and dumplings with the roast, seasoned with chive and onion.

The great wines of the Palatinate are legion. The most famous growers are the “three B’s”—von Bassermann-Jordan, von Buhl, and Buerklin-Wolf. The most famous vineyards are in the communes of Deidesheim, Wachenheim, Forst, and Ruppertsberg, all to the south of Bad Dürkheim. Some of the bestknown names are the Hohenmorgen, or “high acre,” and the Kieselberg, or “slaty hill,” of Deidesheim, the Ungeheuer, or “monster,” and the Jesuitengarten, or “Jesuits’ garden,” of Forst, the Reiterpfad, or “riding path,” of Ruppertsberg, and the Gerümpel, or “rubbish dump,” of Wachenheim. Their wine is made from the Riesling grape, the prince of German grapes. But beautiful wines are made too from the more bourgeois Sylvaner grape, with its distinctive earthy bouquet and its merit as thirst quencher, and the Traminer‚ fruity‚ scented, and the ideal accompaniment to pudding‚ fruit, or ice cream. There are dozens of fine wines made from individual vineyards. Their names are always clearly inscribed when they are bottled, and are certificates of quality. The German wine laws are exact, and people who break them are often more severely punished than for such mundane crimes as assault and battery.

A brief note on these fine wines, for those who are daunted by a title such as “1959 Burg Wachenheim Riesling Auslese Buerklin-Wolf.” In fact, this title merely gives the year (a very good one), the vineyard location of the “Burg” or castle (the commune of Wachenheim), the grape (Reisling), the name of the grower (Buerklin-Wolf), and the distinction of “Auslese,” meaning that the wine has been made from late-picked, selected bunches of the best grapes. One down from an Auslese in the order of nobility is a Spätlese, also late-picked but less carefully selected, while higher up the scale are the Beerenauslese, with individual grapes sorted before the wine is made, and Trockenbeerenauslese, a title given only to a Beerenauslese in an exceptional year. It can cost around $20 and is something for the connoisseur, but there are plenty of good wines in the Palatinate hotels and restaurants at $3 a bottle and less, although the great 1953s and 1959s are now almost unobtainable. Since 1959 there has been only one really good (not great) year, 1964. Once again, the Palatinate scores over other districts with perfectly drinkable wines in other years ranked mediocre by the pundits.

A note‚ too, on Liebfraumilch‚ a name which bulks large on the wine lists of restaurants and in the catalogues of wine merchants. In Worms there is a church, the Liebfrauenstiftskirche. Since the early Middle Ages wine has been made from vineyards in the very shadow of the church. It still is made and is called Liebfrauenstiftswine. But Liebfraumilch is simply a trade name. If it is bottled in Germany it can be made from grapes gathered anywhere along the Middle Rhine. If it is bottled outside Germany it is, likely as not, made mainly from grapes gathered in other parts of the world. It may be drinkable, but it will not, cannot, have a distinctive taste. Hilaire Belloc, who had very set (and sometimes zany) views on wine, would have said succinctly, in Germany don’t drink Liebfraumilch. It isn’t necessary for there are so many good and genuine wines to choose from.

The “season” on the Weinstrasse, late August to late September, is for those who appreciate the boisterous and the bonhomous. Every village has its wine festival, where often as much beer as wine is drunk. (Germans generally lay claim to possessing both a beer thirst and a wine thirst and will extoll the merits of both with profound pedantry.) Bad Dürkheim lays on, in the first week of September, its gargantuan Wurstmarkt, or “sausage market.” Visitors and locals eat and drink mainly in the open, at sausage stalls, and from casks of wine stood on wheelbarrows. Each year about 150,000 gallons of wine are drunk, and the food consumption runs to around 400 pigs, 100 oxen, and 100 calves, and several million sausages and chickens on the spit. Neustadt’s wine festival culminates with the election of Germany’s wine queen, while the final scene at the smaller places may be dancing on the village green or a punch-up. At Deidesheim a billy goat is put up for auction, and the money from its sale is used to provide free wine for the needy.

The Germans take their pleasures seriously. For my part, I would sooner go to the Weinstrasse in May‚ when the blossom is out, or in October, when the wooded slopes of the Haardt are at their best and a feeling of peacefulness has succeeded the rush and scurry of the vintage. I might seek the good and inexpensive food and homely charm of the Golden Ox at Maikammer, or grander fare at Edenkoben’s Schlosshotel Ludwigshöhe. If I were provident I would book well in advance at the Kanne in Deidesheim, which has only half a dozen bedrooms but the best restaurant on the Weinstrasse. Deidesheim houses the Bassermann-Jordan cellars and wine museum, in a pleasantly Celtic, state of disorder but containing a fine collection of Roman shards, wine jars, and drinking vessels of every kind. Bad Dürkheim is probably the easiest “center” for the cream of the vineyards, with half a dozen good hotels and one, the Leininger Hof, especially good value. And Dürkheim has a restaurant of character, the Käsbüro, with stuffed veal, rye bread, and hard cheeses as its specialties.

The people of the Palatinate are friendly and receptive. And they are very religious. Every St. John’s Day wine growers take a bottle of wine to the Deidesheim parish church to have it blessed, and they use it as medicine thereafter. They pray to patron saints of wine, who include Saint Cyriakus, Holy Walter, Saint Genevieve, and Holy Werner. At that rate their wine is almost bound to be good. And it very nearly always is.