During my recent trip to Germany, I spent a lot of time exploring wine regions in the western part of the country.  On one memorable day, I drove most of the Deutsche Weinstrasse (German Wine Route) in the Pfalz wine region with my family.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

The Pfalz, or Palatinate in English, is Germany’s second-largest wine region.  Its warm climate makes the hillsides ideal for growing grapes, while the diversity of soil types provides the opportunity to produce quality wines.  In fact, Gault Millau recently announced that the Pfalz produces Germany’s best weissburgunder (pinot blanc) and spätburgunder (pinot noir) wines. 

The Deutsche Weinstrasse opened in 1935 as part of Germany’s effort to revitalize its wine industry.  Today the Weinstrasse is not only Germany’s oldest wine road but also its most famous.  It begins at the Deutsches Weintor, or German Wine Gate, in Schweigen-Rechtenbach and ends in Bockenheim, about 50 miles north.

We began our trip in Bad Dürkheim, a town that boasts not only the world’s biggest wine barrel (1.7 million liters) but also the world’s largest wine festival, ironically named the Wurstmarkt, or Sausage Market.  As you drive into town from the main road (B 37), you can easily find the giant barrel near a large, central parking lot.  The barrel, built in 1934, has been a wine bar since 1958.  The tourist information office is just a couple of blocks away; helpful staff members gave us a map of the Deutsche Weinstrasse and some colorful brochures about the area.

Bad Dürkheim lies between the Rhine, which is in a flat valley to the east, and the Haardt Mountains to the west.  Gently sloping hills surround the town.  The Deutsche Weinstrasse runs through Bad Dürkheim from north to south.  Our plan was to drive north for a short while, then turn around and head south toward the French border.

We drove up into the hills above Bad Dürkheim, hoping to find some Roman ruins we’d read about in our guidebook.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the road they were supposed to be on.  We did discover the small town of Kallstadt, which has half-timbered buildings and tiny, intriguing-looking side streets.  The entire countryside is planted with rows and rows and rows of wine grapes.  In autumn, the grape leaves blaze yellow, orange, red and purple, making the hillsides glow with color.

As we about-faced and headed south on the Weinstrasse, we discovered that it can be quite difficult to stay on the road, even with the map.  The street is helpfully named “Weinstrasse,” but it winds and jogs through towns, so it’s easy to stray from the road by mistake.  A few more signs would help navigationally-impaired people like me feel less lost.  We always found our way back to the Weinstrasse, though – it isn’t too hard if you remember that the mountains lie to the west and the Rhine is east of you.

We passed through several interesting-looking towns and what seemed like hundreds of “Weinprobe” (“wine tasting”) and “Weinverkauf” (“wine sales”) signs.  This area is a wine-lover’s paradise.  You could spend a day in one town and visit several wine shops, or you could drive or bike along the Deutsche Weinstrasse and investigate two or three different villages.  The cycling route is well-marked.  It was easy to imagine dozens of cyclists jamming the narrow roads.  Between the towns, you’re surrounded by acres and acres of vineyards, punctuated by the occasional winegrower’s shed or home.

By the time we (translation: kids) got hungry, we were south of Neustadt.  We cruised through a couple of small towns and finally parked in Edenkoben to investigate some promising restaurants.  We checked the Hotel Pfälzer Hof’s menu, which featured local dishes such as flammkuchen (thin, crispy, pizza-like creation topped with crème fraîche, mild cheese, sautéed onions and tiny bacon chunks) and saumagen.  Hotel Pfälzer Hof proudly displays several awards commending its saumagen.  I recalled reading about “saumagen,” a regional specialty, in our guidebook, but, fortunately, or unfortunately, I didn’t recall what, exactly, saumagen was until I’d ordered a regional sample plate and downed a big chunk.  It was tasty, for the record.  And it’s haggis, Pfälzer-style.  “Sau” means, well, “sow” or “pig,” while “maugen” means “stomach.” 

Accordingly, saumagen is meat, vegetables, and potatoes, cooked together inside a pig’s stomach.  It really did taste good, rather like a very flavorful meatloaf, and our waitress seemed very happy that we enjoyed the local culinary specialty. 

After our delicious meal, the next order of business was to find out where to buy the grauer burgunder wine (pinot gris) we’d ordered to accompany our lunch. It came from Weingut Gries, in the nearby town of Rhodt.  Off we went, driving slowly along the Weinstrasse until we found their sign.  I’ve done the jump-out-of-car-and-buy-wine thing many times, and I was pleasantly surprised by the friendly greeting I received here.  I explained, using my preschool German, that we’d just visited a local restaurant and wanted to buy more of the wine we’d enjoyed there.  A few minutes later, I had several bottles of wine in tow, at a very reasonable price.

October is new wine (“Neue Wein”) month in Germany.  All along the Deutsche Weinstrasse, you can stop at roadside stands and buy a liter or two of freshly-pressed new wine.  We followed signs for Neue Wein and discovered a large trailer with a display of fruit, vegetables, honey and tiny plastic wine cups.  I ended up purchasing a plastic container (“Flasche”) and a liter of new wine.  The wine was nearly clear, somewhat fizzy, and very, very sweet.  New wine only lasts a couple of days, at most, so it’s important to enjoy it right away.  We brought our flasche to our German friends and were happy to discover that they considered our impromptu gift a treat.  Many wineries celebrate the harvest with a festival of new wine; you can sample local treats, try last year’s wine and raise a glass to this year’s harvest.

Our journey ended at the Deutsches Weintor in Schweigen-Rechtenbach.  This stone gate marks the border between Germany and France’s Alsace region.  It’s a great place to stop for photos.  The Weintor also serves as a focal point for local festivals and events.

Whether you hike, bicycle or drive, you’ll enjoy a trip down the Deutsche Weinstrasse.  The combination of scenic countryside, tasty local cuisine and high-quality wine makes any visit to the Weinstrasse truly memorable.

Driving Notes:
From Neustadt, take the L 512 toward Hambach and Diedesfeld.   Just south of Hainfeld, the L 507 becomes the Deutsche Weinstrasse; it’s a turn toward the west.  The L 508 gets the honors in Frankweiler; the L 502 veers west while the L 508 heads south.  Past Eschbach, to the south, the B 48 becomes the Weinstrasse.  Finally, where the B 48 crosses the B 427, the B 48 turns into the B 38 and proceeds south toward the French border and the Deutsches Weintor  (German Wine Gate). 

The area around Neustadt-an-der-Weinstrasse was especially confusing, as the road isn’t called “Weinstrasse” in the northern part of Neustadt.  Look for the road marked “L 512” if you get lost, because that’s the road that eventually picks up the “Weinstrasse” name.  (Data from ViaMichelin)

If You Go:
Hotel-Restaurant Pfälzer Hof
Weinstrasse 85
67480 Edenkoben
Telephone 06323 2941
http://www.simma-pfaelzer-hof.de/seiten/index.htm

Weinkellerei Gries
Weinstrasse 29
76835 Rhodt
Tel:  06323 989313
http://www.weingut-gries.de