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Neville Walker takes the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz R-Class luxury tourer for a journey through the Pfalz, Rheinhessen and Baden to rediscover these classic German wine regions
If only Germany lay in the path of the annual autoroute dash to the Med, its charms might have been discovered by British holidaymakers years ago. The southwest of Germany offers a wonderful précis of what the country has to offer: castle-topped hills, half-timbered villages of Hansel-and-Gretel cuteness and stately cathedrals soaring above the banks of the Rhine at Mainz, Worms and Speyer. Not to mention some fantastic wines. Slow the pace down and there’s a week’s easy touring and tasting here. My travels took me north from Stuttgart through the Pfalz and Rheinhessen regions on the western bank of the Rhine, before swinging south again to Baden on the opposite side of the river.
Stuttgart is the home of Mercedes-Benz and is everything you’d expect it to be – rich, sophisticated and modern, with a superb quality of life far removed from any outdated notions of dirty factory towns. The campus-style Mercedes-Benz HQ, where I picked up the keys of a long, tall, seven-seat R-Class luxury tourer, seemed more like a classy, modern university than a mere office building. Mercedes-Benz claims the R-Class is the most spacious car it has ever built, and it looks it – the spotless white R280 was the most striking thing on the piazza in front of the HQ (and in a piazza filled with Mercedes-Benz cars, that’s saying something).
After a short interlude while I mastered the car’s push-button starter, I was pitched into the maelstrom of the A8 autobahn heading west out of Stuttgart. The traffic was heavy, and in classic autobahn style there was a nerve-jangling mix of slow-moving lorries and headlamp-flashing racers. But the Mercedes-Benz took it all in its stride, the seven-speed automatic gearbox delivering the necessary oomph to power it past the trucks despite the steep gradients on the hilly stretch between Stuttgart and Karlsruhe.
The Germans are fond of linking places of interest on themed tourist routes, so beyond Karlsruhe, I was able to leave the main roads behind and take to the blissfully quiet Deutsche Weinstrasse, or German wine route. The old rule of thumb – that wine is usually grown in beautiful places – certainly held true here, for the wine route is a relentlessly pretty road that winds up through the Pfalz region for 85km, from the border with Alsace along the eastern fringe of the Pfälzer Wald, the largest continuous area of forest in western Germany.
In the Pfalz, the landscape and terroir have much in common with neighbouring Alsace, so it was not surprising to find wineries offering Gewürztraminer alongside the ubiquitous Riesling, nor that the wines were a little higher in alcohol and lower in acidity than those from further north. Typically, these wineries are small, family-run affairs, so if you want to taste it’s advisable to call ahead. My first stop was at Ökonomierat Rebholz in Siebeldingen, an innovative family winery run according to organic principles and committed to producing ‘slow wines’ that age well. Particularly prized are the top-growth dry Rieslings from the steeply sloping Kastanienbusch vineyard above the nearby village of Birkweiler, the name referring to the sweet chestnuts that fringe the plot. Rebholz produces naturally sweet wines, including a sublime Gewürztraminer Auslese Albersweiler Latt, as well as limited quantities of tresterbrand – the German equivalent of grappa.
The high driving position and clear view over the landscape made the R-Class a pleasure to drive on the open, empty wine route. I stopped in the village of Maikammer, where imposing 19th-century buildings lined the main street. One of these was Weingut August Ziegler, run by the eighth generation of the Ziegler family and producing wonderful, individual dry Rieslings that reflect the local terroir. The family also grows Gewürztraminer, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), including the prize-winning 2006 Alsterweiler Kapellenberg Grauburgunder Spätlese Trocken. In common with many local winemakers, Ziegler also produces red wines from Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir).
I spent the night in five-star luxury at the Hotel Deidesheimer Hof in picturesque Deidesheim. It’s the most famous hotel on the Weinstrasse thanks to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was fond of bringing visiting heads of state here to sample its classic regional cooking. The signature dish is saumagen – literally, pig’s stomach – though, as with haggis, what you actually eat is the stomach’s delicious, highly calorific stuffing. Saumagen was no more to Mrs Thatcher’s taste than her host’s Europhile political sympathies.
Next day I toasted the grey, drizzly morning with the tiniest sip of sekt (sparkling wine) in the cellars of the Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl across the street from the hotel. I was following an illustrious tradition: the opening of the Suez Canal was toasted with sparkling wines from Reichsrat von Buhl and they have long been popular with the British royal family. Sekt aside, the winery produces dry Rieslings showing the balanced acidity and fruit characteristic of the Pfalz, as well as some sweeter wines, such as the 2007 Armand Riesling Kabinett and a fresh, zesty wine made with the Scheurebe grape.
The weather worsened as I headed north from Deidesheim to the Weingut Pfeffingen, another small family producer dedicated to producing Rieslings of great elegance, whether dry (trocken), semi-dry (halbtrocken) or sweet (lieblich). The estate’s lavender, cypresses and pines summoned thoughts of Provence, though Provence seemed as far off as the Pfalz’s fabled warm climate as I drove through cold drizzle to lunch at the nearby Hotel Annaberg. But the food dispelled any unseasonal gloom: the style was modern European and the execution faultless, from the excellent bread with tomato butter to an inspired dessert of light and dark nougat with a passionfruit and chilli sorbet.
I spent the afternoon dodging the rain with visits to Weingut Knipser in Laumersheim, where jauntily Francophile Dirk Rosinski is an advocate of the Pfalz’s suitability for growing red wines, from Pinot Noir to a surprising Médoc-style Cuvée, and Weingut Gutzler in Gundheim. Almost all of Gutzler’s wines are dry; 70% are Riesling.
A long journey north through driving rain brought me to Hotel Jordan’s Untermühle, on the outskirts of the village of Köngernheim in the Rheinhessen region. In the morning I journeyed south to Weingut Wittmann, which has been run on organic lines for several years. It is one of the most respected winemakers in Germany, eschewing modern technology to produce characterful white wines that reflect the terroir. Here, the soil is limestone and Riesling is again the main grape variety, though they also grow Silvaner and Pinot Noir.
The day brightened as I stretched the Mercedes-Benz’s legs on the autobahn towards Mainz. Dominated by its beautiful red sandstone cathedral, the city is the birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of printing, and there’s an engrossing museum to commemorate the link. It’s also the headquarters of the German Wine Institute, which makes Mainz, in effect, the capital of German wine. In the square in front of the cathedral the striking Mercedes-Benz drew a small crowd of admirers.
I followed the Rhine south from Mainz to Nackenheim, where Weingut Gunderloch makes highly mineral dry Rieslings and elegant, traditional wines with residual sweetness and low alcohol. Later that afternoon I sped south, crossing the Rhine into Baden to reach the Ringhotel Winzerhof in the village of Rauenberg. Here, the restaurant hedged its bets with a selection of the best of what Pfalz, Baden and Swabia had to offer. I opted for Swabia, tucking into maultaschen, the German equivalent of ravioli – a fondness for pasta being, rather surprisingly, entirely indigenous to southwest Germany.
Next morning I meandered along pretty country roads to the Weingut Heitlinger, with its modern, Californian-style winery. Often accused of being ‘too international’ by German wine writers, Heitlinger is an innovative winemaker, taking full advantage of its dry, sunny climate and south-facing vineyards to produce a high proportion of red wines, including some surprisingly full-bodied cuvées. As well as Rieslings, the whites include Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and a fruity Auxerrois. I pondered whether the ‘international’ tag was entirely fair. After my week’s travels, Heitlinger’s diligent attention to quality, attachment to the terroir and willingness to absorb outside influences where appropriate seemed to me not only admirable in themselves, but – in the best possible way – typically German.
Deidesheim, 00 49 6326 96870, www.deidesheimerhof.de
A sprawling renaissance inn at the heart of one of the Weinstrasse’s best-known villages. Its homely regional restaurant is a favourite of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, while its gourmet restaurant, Schwarzer Hahn,
Bad Dürkheim, 00 49 6322 94000, www.hotel-annaberg.de
This four-star hotel/restaurant nestles between vines and woodland on the edge of Bad Dürkheim. The Schöne Anna restaurant serves great modern German food in relaxed but elegant surroundings.
Köngernheim, 00 49 6737 71000, www.jordans-untermuehle.de
An award-winning rural hotel/restaurant set in a huddle of half-timbered buildings in the countryside south of Mainz. Rooms are bright and simple with lots of pine, while the refined cooking is a delightful contrast to the rustic cosiness of the dining room.
Rauenberg, 00 49 6222 9520, www.winzerhof.net
This family-run hotel in a large wine-growing village south of Heidelberg has a restaurant serving regional specialities,
as well as lighter Italian fare.
Freinsheim, 00 49 6353 93480, www.luther-freinsheim.de
The walled town of Freinsheim is the setting for one of the Pfalz’s most established gourmet restaurants, Michelin-starred and named for its chef-proprietor Dieter Luther.
Östringen-Tiefenbach, 00 49 7259 91120, www.weingut-heitlinger.de
This spacious, informal modern restaurant is linked to an innovative winery deep in the Baden countryside. The open kitchen matches locally sourced produce with the estate’s own wines.
Weinstrasse 54, 76833, Siebeldingen, 00 49 6345 3439, www.oekonomierat-rebholz.de
Recommended: 2006 Gewürztraminer Auslese Albersweiler Latt; Kastanienbusch Grosses Gewächs.
Bahnhofstrasse 5, 67487, Maikammer, 00 49 6321 95780, www.august-ziegler.de
Recommended: 2007 Grauburgunder Spätlese Alsterweiler Kapellenberg; 2006 Riesling Spätlese Alsterweiler Kapellenberg.
Weinstrasse 16-24, 67146 Deidesheim, 00 49 6326 96500, www.reichsrat-von-buhl.de
Recommended: 2007 Ruppertsberger Reiterpfad Scheurebe Auslese. 2004 Forster Pechstein Riesling Sekt b.A Brut.
67098 Bad Dürkheim, 00 49 6322 8607, www.pfeffingen.de
Recommended: 2007 Scheurebe Spätlese; 2006 Pfeffo Riesling.
Johannishof, 67229 Laumersheim, 00 49 6238 742, www.weingut-knipser.de
Recommended: 2004 Cuvée.
Rossgasse 19, 67599, Gundheim, 00 49 6244 905221, www.gutzler.de
Recommended: 2006 Riesling.
Mainzer Strasse 19, 67593 Westhofen, 00 49 6244 905036, www.wittmannweingut.com
Recommended: 2007 Morstein Riesling Trocken Grosses Gewächs.
Neville Walker’s verdict: The R-Class was an ideal touring car, with ample luggage space for suitcases and cases of wine, plus limousine-like comfort and legroom front and back. The high driving position and good visibility made it a relaxing car to drive along the Weinstrasse despite its size, while in tight Weingut courtyards the Parktronic reversing camera was a godsend.
Square Meal motoring correspondent Bill Thomas’s verdict: You need to own the Mercedes-Benz R-Class to appreciate it – a quick test drive might not do it justice. It’s the world’s only high-riding four-wheel-drive people-mover estate limousine off-roader. It sounds complex because it is: this is a car that does nearly everything. Owners swear by them. Five or seven seats, two- or four-wheel drive capability, a high driving position and quiet and comfortable for long-distance touring, too.
R 320 CDI four-wheel drive with seven seats, available from £40,525. With optional extras as follows: sport pack £1,500, privacy glass £300, Keyless Go £880, reversing camera £360, COMAND £1,760. OTR price £45,325.
R 280 CDI two-wheel drive with five seats, range starts from £36,825 OTR.
Engine 2987cc diesel
0-62mph 9.7 seconds
Top speed 130mph
On-the-road price £36,825
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2008