Germany’s wine region offers great sights, history
At more than 1,300 kilometres in length and wider than four football fields in some places, the Rhine River is one of the most important waterways in the world and is integral to the lives of those who live nears its banks.
About 2,000 years ago the Romans used this vast artery to ship the first grapevines from Italy to the plots of fertile land in the southwest corner of Germany, where the majority of the country’s wine production occurs today.
The town of Mainz, located on the West Bank of the Rhine, is the epicenter of Germany’s thriving wine industry, which produces more than nine million hectolitres annually. That figure — to give it some perspective — represents about 20 times Canada’s total annual wine production. Mainz is the capital of the Rhineland-Palatinate, one of Germany’s 16 federal states and home to six of the nation’s 13 wine regions.
While it still has a long way to go before supplanting beer as Germany’s favourite alcoholic drink, in this corner of the country wine is clearly the beverage of choice; and unlike other destinations — where tourists may have a craving for pretzels and lager — many visitors in this region come explicitly for the wine.
It is for this reason that the German Wine Academy organizes guided tours through wine country. The program offers the opportunity to see the historic city of Mainz, taste regional wine and cuisine and takes visitors on excursions to the vineyards and estates lining the scenic Rhine and Mosel rivers.
Before visiting the countryside, make sure to spend some time exploring the old city of Mainz. This former Roman fort, which at one time formed part of the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, is by far the area’s most attractive feature. It is characterized by a series of brick roads, broad squares dotted with cafes and restaurants and restored homes and buildings in the half-timbered and Baroque styles.
From spring through fall tourists mingle with city dwellers on the Augustinerstrasse–mile, which is home to jewelry and clothing outlets, book and gift shops and even special carts that sell wine by the glass. Architectural highlights include the imposing Romanesque Mainz Cathedral and the gothic Collegiate Church of St. Stephan, both of which are more than 1,000 years old. For history buffs, the Antique Maritime Museum (Museum für Antike Schifffahrt), houses the remains of five Roman boats from the late 4th century while the Gutenberg Museum has in its collection an original Gutenberg Bible among many other printed books dating back to the 15th century.
Visitors traveling south out of Mainz and into wine country are likely to be struck by one of the most unique characteristics of German wine growing. At first, the vineyards form perfect rows of grapevines that march off in every direction. However, eventually they encounter rolling hills that are quite steep in places. The vines have developed the ability to climb with great tenacity, clinging to the edge of hills and large rocks, their roots sticking out exposing red, iron-rich soil.
For wine junkies it’s this area, known as the Rheinhessen (in addition to the Palatinate, or Pfalz, to the south), that is the best place to get a feel for the culture and people of wine country. The gentle rolling hills of this area lie within the large elbow formed by the Rhine as it flows south from the city of Worms toward Mainz.
“It is called the land of a thousand hills,” Sabine Stock, a guide with the German Wine Academy explains. Geographic attributes such as this help to define the character of Germany’s wines and give each grape its unique taste.
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