About a year ago, I made my first trip to Franken (Franconia). I fell in love with the gently rolling green hills, the colorful, historic cities and the welcoming people. Throughout our visit, which lasted nearly a week, I felt completely happy, surrounded by history, nature and vibrant culture.
I also fell in love with Franken wine.
Where I live, Franken wine isn’t readily available, but some wine shops do carry one or two types. I’ve found it in some surprising places – college town wine shops, eclectic grocery stores – and I usually grab a bottle when I stumble upon a display of Franken wines.
Many wine writers have commented on the distinctive, dumpily-rounded Franken “Bocksbeutel,” or wine bottle, so I’ll be brief. The bottle’s unusual shape dates back to at least the 16th century. The name has several possible origins, but the most commonly accepted translation related to certain dangling, rounded parts of a male goat’s anatomy. The Bocksbeutel may only be used for Franken wines and a couple of other European wine varieties. Some Franken wineries have switched, at least in part, to traditionally-shaped bottles.
If you visit Franken, you’ll find that nearly all wines produced there are whites. Some wineries also make rosés and reds, but over 90 percent of Franken wine grapes are white. While silvaner is commonly associated with Franken, wine growers actually plant a wide array of white grape varieties. Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, weisser burgunder and many other varieties grow well in Franken. Most of the Franken wines that cross the Atlantic are silvaners.
Franken is now part of Bavaria, but this area of Germany isn’t known for lederhosen and Alpine scenery. Franken has its own distinct history and culture. Nürnberg, for example, is known as the birthplace of Albrecht Dürer and as the capital of Lebkuchen, a traditional spiced gingerbread. Würzburg, in the heart of the Franken wine region, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is Bamberg. Shoppers from around the world flock to the Christmas markets of Franken, especially to Nürnberg’s enormous Christkindlmarkt.
Franken’s history has a darker side, too, because Hitler chose Nürnberg as the site of his infamous rallies. The post-war Nazi war crimes trials were deliberately held in Nürnberg – then known as Nuremberg in German – and the city changed its name to symbolize its break with Nazism. Today, you can visit the crumbling Nazi stadium and tour its new information center.
If you head out of the cities, you’ll see why this part of Germany is called “Franconian Switzerland.” Home to deep forests, sloping hills and sparkling rivers, Franken boasts some of Germany’s prettiest countryside. Fortunately, nine nature parks preserve this outdoor heritage.
Franken’s natural history includes its prehistoric past, which has shaped the landscape and the local terroir. Parts of Franken were under water, while other, higher areas accepted river deposits which hardened into sandstone. Much of Franken has a layer of shell-filled limestone, indicating that the region was mostly under water for a certain length of time. Later, the Keuper layers formed as the seas receded and plants and animals began to thrive. The Keuper divisions can include marl, limestone, dolomite, sandstone and gypsum.
Franken’s climate is continental, which means that summers are short and winters tend to be harsh. Some of Franken’s best vineyards, such as Weingut Horst Sauer’s Escherndorfer Lump and the Würzburg Stein, have distinct micro-climates.
There are, of course, many Franken wineries to visit. If you happen to be in Würzburg, head to Weingut Juliusspital in the heart of the city. Gault-Millau says this winery “is among the most imposing representatives of wine culture in the country,” in The Guide to German Wines. You can tour the winery, choosing a one- or three-glass tasting session, as an individual visitor, but your tour will be in German. The winery presents English-language tours to groups. Hours vary by season. The winery also has a restaurant and wine shop.
You can’t go wrong tasting Weingut Horst Sauer’s wines. Horst Sauer has a well-deserved reputation in the German wine world, and he produces high-quality silvaner wines every year. The winery is open to visits by appointment. As with any visit to a German winery, it’s always best to call ahead.
If you’d like to eat at a Franken winery, consider a visit to Weingut Am Stein outside of Würzburg. The winery’s restaurant, Weinstein, features market-fresh, seasonal dishes. You can try the winery’s finest offerings at the restaurant’s wine bar. The winery has a gorgeous view of Würzburg and the countryside; don’t forget your camera.