By Emma Krasov. Photography by Yuri Krasov
Culinary tourism, especially wine-centered, is dangerous – it tends to become addictive. You barely start to understand the basics of local food and viticulture in one area when the pull of another is forcing you to travel further, and explore more.
In Germany alone there are 13 large winemaking regions, the majority of them in the southwestern part of the country. Closer to the northeast, within the former East Germany borders, two exquisite winegrowing areas await in Sachsen (Saxony) and Saale-Unstrut in the states of Sachsen-Anhalt (Saxony-Anhalt) and Thüringen (Thuringia). Familiarizing yourself with the wine and culinary culture of this region, not to mention the wonders of its historical art and architecture, offers an endless adventure of sensory delights.
Here, on the 51st parallel, one of the northernmost wine regions of the world is located along the shores of the rivers Saale and Unstrut. The grapes that need cooler air to fully express their character, thrive here, and yield the best-tasting white wines, mostly consumed while young and fresh, and usually sold out way before the season is over.
Here, in the hillsides and forests of eastern Germany, you’ll find countless treasures like the medieval castles and cathedrals, cozy villages surrounded by emerald vineyards, red-roofed little towns with cobblestone streets, award-winning restaurants, and big and small wineries offering wine tastings, vineyard tours, and if you’re lucky – an opportunity to take home a precious bottle of the small-production wine you instantly fell in love with.
Even a short trip to this exquisitely picturesque part of Germany is an unforgettable experience!
The capital city of Saxony, Dresden, on the Elbe River, is a natural starting point for a wine tour, and so I spent a couple of days here before venturing into the verdant valleys of the three neighboring states.
Some of the most important sites in the center of Dresden are located within a walking distance from each other. The majority of historic buildings were destroyed as a result of WWII, and meticulously rebuilt in the last couple of decades. It’s the Versailles-inspired Zwinger complex built in the 18th century by Augustus II the Strong, with Green Vault museum known for its collection of jewels and precious art; the Frauenkirche baroque church with a gilded altar; the Old Masters Picture Gallery with Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” and the famous opera house Semperoper.
On a long outer wall of the Stables Courtyard of Dresden Castle there’s a large mural made of about 23 thousand Meissen porcelain tiles, the so-called Fürstenzug (“Procession of Princes”) depicting Wettin Dynasty margraves, electors, dukes and kings in the consecutive order of their rule of Saxony. The largest porcelain artwork in the world bears 35 ancestral portraits of the horse-riding nobles, from Conrad, Margrave of Meissen (1127–1156) to George of Saxony (1902–1904) each dressed in a period outfit, and surrounded by their soldiers and subordinates.
A good example of the city’s enormous restoration effort is an imposing palace Taschenbergpalais, now the Grand Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski Dresden. Originally built in 1708 by Augustus II the Strong for one of his most famous mistresses, Anna Constanze von Hoym, and destroyed in 1945, the building was reconstructed from scratch in 1995, and became home to the first five-star hotel in Saxony.
With elegant rooms and luxurious suites, a formal ballroom that fits 500, beautifully designed Intermezzo Restaurant, Palais Bistro, and the Western-themed Karl May Bar, the hotel also features a historic courtyard that turns into an ice rink in winter, a swimming pool, a spa lounge and a fitness center. I didn’t have a chance to stay at this hotel, but even having a cup of coffee in Café Vestibül felt very regal, indeed.
Tired after a day of exploring Dresden I found a tasty respite at Dresden 1900 restaurant-museum dedicated to the city development around the turn of the century influenced by the industrial expansion and the art nouveau fashion trends. Period photographs, a vintage film loop, and Dresden’s oldest preserved and restored railcar from 1898 are on display here, along with excellent local beer and a hearty schnitzel garnished with traditional potato and cucumber salads.
One more day in the city I dedicated to Stadtrundfahrt Dresden (Sightseeing Tour Dresden) on a Hop-On Hop-Off bus that made 22 stops on both sides of the river Elbe. By sunset, with the city bridges and the cupola-studded skyline silhouetted against the bright sky, it glided past the gold statue of Augustus II the Strong on horseback – the mighty ruler who turned what was once a provincial town into a majestic capital.
Later at night, I joined our group of wine enthusiasts in Meissen in a centrally located Hotel Goldener Löwe in a 1657 building, to stay overnight, and embark on our planned journey early in the morning. In daylight, Meissen – a former capital of Saxony (in the 15th century) looked positively serene and charming with Albrechtsburg castle and Gothic Meissen Cathedral reflected in the Elbe, a rack of porcelain bells chiming from the Meissen Frauenkirche church, and a filling lunch of local specialties on an open terrace of Romantik Hotel Burgkeller restaurant.
Before we started tasting Saxon wine, our group visited the factory producing the famous Saxon porcelain – Meissen Porzellan Manufaktur. Founded by Augustus II the Strong in 1710, the first porcelain manufacture in Europe still uses white kaolin derived from the smallest mine on the continent, an exclusive technology, and wood-fired kiln, producing the “white gold” of great strength and marvelous translucency. The in-house lab operates with more than 700 000 different molds, and ten thousand shades, brought to life every day in the hands of experienced factory artists.
Among the many wondrous pieces of art at the factory museum, the largest and most significant is “Saxonia” – Saxony’s “Statue of Liberty” – a free-standing female figure of human size, created on occasion of the 25th anniversary of German Reunification, whose dress is adorned with eight thousand hand-molded flowers.
The very first winery we visited on our tour, Weingut Schloss Proschwitz Prinz zur Lippe, was located among the vineyards, with a view of the Meissen castle and cathedral. Of all the wonderful wines we tried I was especially partial to Weingut Schloss Proschwitz 2017 Scheurebe Trocken Sachsen – an incredibly light and fragrant elixir of floral notes and citrusy aftertaste. A tour of the palace and its manicured grounds added to the attraction of the wonderful wines.
The most wide-spread varieties grown in this region (out of 56 different grapes!) are Müller-Thurgau, Riesling and Weissburgunder, followed by Silvaner, Kerner, Bacchus, Chasselas, and other names, unusual for a Californian ear, but obviously perfect for light dry wines ready to please after a very short aging process.
The wine-growing areas of the three eastern states in Germany are deeply rooted in history, so any wine tasting is usually accompanied by sightseeing tours of the surrounding towns known since at least the Middle Ages.
In Naumburg in Saxony-Anhalt, we had a private tour of the medieval Naumburg Cathedral, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2018. One of the most significant monuments of late Romanesque and early Gothic styles, the cathedral is home to the “most beautiful woman of the Middle Ages” margravine Uta, whose statue curved by the anonymous Naumburg Master is gazing at the crowd of tourists below from the west choir.
At Gasthof Zufriedenheit we had a memorable gourmet lunch of smoked pumpkin and mushroom terrine with bulgur, passion fruit and thistle oil, paired with cabernet blanc from Proppe winery, and tender veal cutlet with a glass of spätburgunder (German pinot noir) from Böhme & Töchter.
After a quick stop at our Hotel Zur Alten Schmiede Naumburg, we travelled to Grossheringen (already in Thuringia) to experience a comprehensive wine presentation by a collective of wine producers who are using environmentally-friendly natural cultivation technology aided by the “innate enthusiasm for the vine juice” named Breitengrad 51 (after the 51-degree latitude). The wine tasting was followed by dinner at Thüringer Weinstube – Restaurant im Weingut Zahn where I mostly delighted in home-cooked pumpkin soup with a Hokkaido scallop, topped with pumpkin kernels and pumpkin seed oil.
In the neighboring Rossbach our group visited a spacious estate of Weingut Herzer on the bank of Saale, where we tasted many fruit-forward wines, and walked through the sun-drenched vineyards lead by a vivacious winery owner Stephan Herzer. One of the vineyards happened to be positioned around the grave of a great German symbolist artist, Max Klinger, who died in Naumburg in 1920. The wine from this lot is called Gross Jenaer Max Klinger’s Weinberg.
More wine and culinary delights were coming up in all the fascinating places scattered in the fertile valleys of Saale-Unstrut.
In Freyburg on Unstrut, a lavish lunch was served for our group on an open-air terrace of the Weinberghotel Edelacker Schloss, presenting the 2016 dry wines of the region, like pinot gris, silvaner, kerner, and Riesling paired with delectable dishes of goat cheese with bell peppers, lobster cream soup, and beef roulade with wild mushrooms.
A visit to the enormous facility of Rotkäppchen Sektkellerei (est. 1856) included a private tour with detailed historical account of sparkling wine (sekt) tradition in Germany, an up-close encounter with an enormous carved cuvee barrel holding enough wine to fill 160 000 bottles, and a tasting of bubbly ranging in colors from golden, straw, and peachy-pink to sunset yellow, and copper-orange. Rotkäppchen bottles, as the name implies, have easily recognizable red caps, however, the best reserve wines, sold exclusively at the winery are wrapped in golden foil.
In our pursuit of good wine, food, and beautiful views we even took a self-rowing boat trip on a short stretch of the river Unstrut from Kirchscheidungen village to the town of Laucha in Saxony-Anhalt. Here, greeted by the winery owner, Johannes Beyer, we enjoyed a picnic of cheeses, salads, deviled eggs and fried chicken upon the river bank, where ducks and horses were roaming freely under the willows, and tasted wonderfully refreshing sparkling wine at the former sugar factory Weinmanufaktur alte Zuckerfabrik as well as some elegant whites delivered from Weingut Beyer located in Dorndorf (Thuringia).
Our last stop was in the town of Radebeul back in the Elbe valley in Saxony. One of the largest wineries in the country, Schloss Wackerbarth is located here on the grounds of a historic summer palace of Augustus II the Strong, with baroque gardens, terraced vineyards, orchards, fountains, and a wine factory producing mostly sparkling wines. A 30-minute tour with a private guide was focusing on the fascinating history of wine-growing and wine-making in Saxony, dating back more than 850 years. In a huge cellar we learned step-by-step production of sekt, up to hand-turning the upside-down bottles resting in racks so the yeast residue won’t concentrate in one place.
A lunch at Gasthaus Schloss Wackerbarth, a farewell dinner of Saxon specialties and Meissen beer at the festive, bustling Sonnenhof Radebeul Altkötzschenbroda, and our delightful culinary tour came to an end.
Find more information about this fascinating wine-growing part of Germany at: www.germany.travel.