Trains can be an ideal and cheap way to sample Germany's wines at harvest time, writes Paul Stump
German stereotypes? Rubbish. They're not always efficient. They do have a sense of humour. And you can mention the war. But one stereotype that's spot-on is that their railways are absolutely brilliant. Example? The Schönes-Wochenende Ticket. From midnight on Friday to 3.00 on Monday morning you can go anywhere in Germany on local trains for just 30 euros. The possibilities are pretty staggering, but the autumn offers a particularly rewarding way to milk this giveaway.
It's wine harvest time and Germany's principal wine regions - the Rhine, the Mosel and the Nähe - are all served well by rail. The city of Koblenz, where the Rhine and Mosel meet, should be your base, and after that all you'll need is a decent corkscrew.
THE MOSEL. A river of notable sinuosity, almost every inch of its steep sides are blanketed with vines from Koblenz upriver to the ancient Roman citadel of Trier. And while the Rhine's castles may enjoy the greater fame, one wouldn't want to be charged with capturing the Teutonic bulk of the fortresses at Cochem and Eltz.
Riesling's the thing here - on some of Europe's steepest vineyards (55% gradient in some places), more than half of the Mosel's production is given over to this grape. The steepness maximises the vines' exposure to the sun and this, along with the slatey soil, lends Mosel wine its character. The result is some of the world's classiest dry whites. Traben-Trarbach, at the end of a delightful little branch line from Bullay, is an excellent place to sample them. Martin Müllen (2 Altemarktstrasse) is a smart and serious wine-grower drawing plaudits from all over Europe for his toothsome Rieslings. But not as much as the famous Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein at Willingen, near Koblenz. Their beautifully balanced sweeties strain the pocket a tad, but even at 20 euros a bottle it's worth the outlay (10 Bahnhofstrasse).
THE RHINE. The Mittelrhein, south of Koblenz, is the landscape of Wagner's music-dramas. You half expect the locals to be kitted out with spears and winged helmets. Castles by the score - desolate ruins or neo-Romantic follies crowning promontories and pinnacles, including the diminitibe Burg Pfalz, stranded on its midriver sandbank like a toy yacht - forbidding watchtowers, towns of arthritically bent houses and crooked alleys. Anything in Bacharach, for example, would be swiftly half-timbered if it stayed still long enough. It's only now - after the cliffs and crags north of the Loreley Rock - that the slopes become suitable for vines in any great number.
Toni Jost's products stand out in Bacharach; the family are devotees of getting Riesling and Spätburgunder just right at the right price (circa 8 euros). Their wines are flinty and flirty, with only the slightest nod to the ubiquituous Chardonnay tang of the Chablis greats (14 Oberstrasse). The 2002 vintages are particularly winning. The Josts' eldest daughter Katharina is the reigning Wine Queen of the Mittelrhein; these popular contests, I am assured, are not beauty pageants. The winners are elected for their knowledge of local culture and winemaking. Nonetheless, all the winners seem to be, well, exceptionally easy on the eye.
A maverick in these parts was the late Georg Breuer of understatedly beautiful Rüdesheim on the east bank of the Rhine (take the ferry from Bingen, or simply take a train from Koblenz). Until his death in 2004, Breuer opted out of the meticulous but formidably bureaucratic classification system of German wine (Tafelwein, Qualitätswein mit Prädikat etc)to concentrate on perfecting his own idiosyncratic Rieslings and Grauburgunders of great craftsmanship and delicacy- certainly even after his demise, plaudits for the Bruer vineyard haven't dried up (8 Kirchgasse).
Bingen is a pleasant enough town notable for its stately but sinister Mausetürm where, according to a gruesome medieval legend, the villainous Archbishop Hatto of Mainz was nibbled to death by a horde of hunger-crazed after he had burned the local peasantry alive during a famine. Bingen is also where one should change for the Nähe wine region, specifically Laubenheim, near Bad Kreuznach, where Sclossgut Diel (16 Burg Layen) is picking up good ratings. There are a,lso trains south down the Rhine to Speyer, through more vine-lined terraces.
TIPS. The Schönes Wochenende Ticket cannot be used on trains classed as D, IC, EC or ICE. Consult the yellow departure tables before boarding. Station staff are almost always helpful, and printable itineraries can be found and printed off from German Railways' astounding website, www.bahn.de. Always phone ahead when contacting winemakers, especially during the autumn harvest. Most welcome visitors, but not all. Wine festivals are plentiful at this time, however, details of which can be found by surfing to www.weinfest.com.
Wine-tastings are uncountable; the local tourist office will unfailingly direct you to those that best suit your palate and pocket. These affairs are normally the nearest most folk come to tasting the manna of Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese vintages, Germany's rare dessert vintages and their answer to Sauternes. Don't bother cutting cost corners in supermarkets; most weingüte (which sell their own and/or others' local wines) are fairly priuced, the staff clued-up and the settings sometimes idyllic. I enjoyed a full ;unchtime bottle or rather acceptable 2002 medium dry Riesling from a decent local producer in a Bacharach courtyard with an autumnal sun decanting through vines - for just 8 euros. Takeaway prices are even lower.
WHERE TO EAT. Hotel Hohenstaufen (41 Emil Schullerstrasse) in Koblenz is a good touring base, but budget accommodation is not hard to find, thanks to the wonderful German phenomenon of fremdenzimmer, B&B rooms in private houses. In wine towns, these may well be located within the property of a winemaker or dealer.
One snag; owners may not always speak English but will, at the very least, provide a breakfast large enough to intimidate even Mr Creosote. Railway buffs alert - views from the basic bu very comfortable Haus Trude/Hotel Rheinterrasse in the tiny but lovely village of Rhens, south of Koblenz, give directly onto the Koblenz-Mainz main line, one of the great rail arteries of Europe (16 Koblenzerstrasse) - and all for 40 euros. Unlikeminded partners will at least be compensated by majestic views onto the Rhine in full spate just beyond.
An edited version of this article appeared in The Bulletin, 6.10.2005