Only when living abroad did Mainz-born Jérôme Hainz develop a passion for one of Germany's highlights: wine.
In a Chinese language course in Beijing, he was assigned a presentation on one aspect of German culture.
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“Everyone was expecting beer, pretzels and pork knuckles,” said Hainz, who dug deeper and was surprised – and simultaneously fascinated – with the world of German wine.
The Bundesrepublik may be known for its beer, but it’s also the eighth largest wine producer in the world with 13 different growing regions. Each is known for its own distinct wine, whether the Silvaner of Franken or Pinot Noir of Baden.
Map showing Germany's wine regions. Graph courtesy of Wines of Germany.
Eager to show more foreigners just how special and diverse Germany’s wine culture is, Hainz founded wine tasting and touring company BottleStops in 2017.
He guides both private and group tours in English to wineries and tasting rooms, whether well-known Weinstuben (taverns) in Mainz, or scenic gems tucked away in hard-to-reach villages.
“Wines from Germany express a very strong sense of origin, for me that's the basis of my Heimatliebe (love for one’s country)” he said, as our small group drove past hilly vineyards perched alongside the Rhine River in September.
Stretched across 26,800 hectares, the so-called Rheinhessen is Germany’s largest wine-producing region, and is particularly renowned for its Riesling. It’s here that Hainz guides the bulk of his tours, as well as in the nearby Rheingau and Mosel regions.
“The valley of the Rhine River creates special conditions,” said Hainz. “You have the river at the bottom, shade of the forest at the top of the mountain, river that reflects light, a slope that collects warm sunlight.”
Hainz taking a lunch break with a touring group earlier in October.
Germany’s wine capital
Since 2008, the Rheinhessen has belonged to the international network of “Great Wine Capitals”, which also counts the Napa Valley in California and Porto, Portugal among its members.
But its regal reputation stretches back centuries: In the past, German wine was as well known – and expensive – as Bordeaux or Champagnes, said Hainz. “It’s fascinating to look at old, turn-of the 19th to the 20th century wine menus from the US, for example at the Waldorf Astoria. A lot of them came from Germany.”
It was commonly Jewish traders, many who lived in Mainz before World War II, who helped import it across the Atlantic, said Hainz.
Wine growing throughout the area dates back hundreds of years, however, as we stopped by the Rheingau’s Kloster Eberbach, a former Cistercian monastery which cultivated vineyards for production as early as the twelfth century.
“Wine was considered to be a commodity, and people drank it all the time,” said Hainz as we strolled through a dimly lit historic cellar, still stacked with wooden barrels.
Wine: ‘Like raising children’
We also made some stops which gave insight into modern Mainz, such as FLIK, a Sekt (sparkling wine) manufacturer.
Flik filling grape must. The juice coming just off the press, just starting its first fermentation.
Germans consume 400 million bottles of sparkling wine per year – about a quarter of the world’s production.
For Sekt made in the traditional method, the acidity of the base wine is higher than in normal wines, said owner and Winzer (wine maker) Rüdiger Flik, gesturing to a large metallic barrels with which he poured out samples.
Once the wine undergoes two fermentation processes, the sparkling wine needs to be stored for at least nine months.
The lees (or remainder of the yeast) are then removed in a process called disgorgement, in which a very small dose of sweetness may or may not be added – depending on the style that the Sekt manufacturer is intending.
“Many vintners talk about winemaking like raising children. You can only nudge vines in a certain way,” said Hainz as we later scooped up local Spundekäs cheese spread in pretzels at a Weinstuben in the centre of Mainz.
We also made our way to St. Anthony’s, a biodynamic winery in Nierstein, Rhineland-Palatinate known for its vineyards being situated on a special 280 million year old red rock formation called the Roter Hang. Each grape, grown on a special red slate soil, is picked by hand, said tasting room manager Bärbel Scheibl.
Touring inside the cellars of St. Anthony's. Photo: Jérôme Hainz
This was followed by a stop at Weingüter Wegeler, which produces wine from vineyards almost directly at its doorstep in Oestrich, a small village along the Rhine. It also has several vintage wines in stock, such as the 1993 Winkel Jesuitengarten.
As they age, whites typically get darker and reds become lighter, pointed out Hainz as we noted the colour change of the oldest wines.
All of the wines belong to a so-called Großes Gewächs (or gG as it’s commonly written on bottles), Germany's highest quality wine certification. As we sipped one, so-called Kirchenfenster (literally church windows, or legs) formed on the side.
“Is this an indicator of the quality?”, I asked Hainz, reciting the one piece of knowledge I thought I had picked up from former trips through the vineyard-filled California countryside.
He paused, again surprising me with a fact I did not know. “The ‘Kirchenfenster' just indicate the viscosity of the liquid…but it offers little indication whether this is good or bad,” he said, picking up a glass of Riesling, and slowly swirling it around before taking a sip.
“The quality is defined by what you can smell and taste.”