Between the Rhine River and the Odenwald forest, in the area between Heidelberg and Darmstadt, you'll find a tiny German wine region, the Hessische Bergstrasse. Its name means "Hessian Mountain Road" in English. Long ago, the Romans named their trade route through this part of Germany the "strata montana," or "mountain road."
It was Austrian Emperor Joseph II who gave the area its most famous tag line when he said, "This is where Germany transforms into Italy," during a visit to the Hessische Bergstrasse in 1764. By this, he didn't mean that the architecture, which is quintessentially German, reminded him of Italian palaces or churches. The Emperor was referring to the region's climate, which is mild enough to permit fruits, almonds and other plants you normally can't find north of the Alps to grow and thrive. No wonder the ancient Romans created vineyards here – they knew the grapes would ripen perfectly in the warm sunshine.
Geography, Climate and Soil
This wine region is so small that you can drive through it in a very short time. In fact, if you travel north to south, you'll discover that the Hessische Bergstrasse is only about 20 miles long. Just south of Darmstadt and Seeheim, you'll begin to see the vineyards. The region stretches south along the B3 road, with most of the vineyards located between Alsbach and Heppenheim. There is a large concentration of vineyards near the town of Bensheim. A bit farther north and east, the "Odenwald wine island" ("Odenwälder Weininsel") section of the Hessische Bergstrasse is concentrated around the town of Groß-Umstadt.
Many of the region's vineyards are planted on the slopes of the Odenwald foothills. Some of these areas are very steep, which makes cultivation difficult. You'll find a wide variety of soils in the Hessische Bergstrasse, including granite, loess, loam and porphyry-quartz.
The Hessische Bergstrasse's sunny climate is excellent for wine grapes. Rainfall here averages about 28 inches per year. This combination of warm temperatures, adequate precipitation, and shelter from harsh weather provides a perfect environment for growing grapes.
The Hessische Bergstrasse's long growing season means that riesling grapes are easy to cultivate here, and just over half of the region's vineyards are planted with this variety. Müller-Thurgau is the second most popular white wine grape variety. You'll find seven to nine percent of Hessische Bergstrasse vineyards planted in Müller-Thurgau in any given year, depending on wine growers' preferences.
When it comes to red wine grapes, spätburgunder leads the way, but white wines definitely hold pride of place. Some growers plant dornfelder and other red wine grapes along with the traditional white varieties, and it appears that red wines are becoming more popular here.
Visiting the Hessische Bergstrasse
The Hessische Bergstrasse may be small – the vineyards cover only about 1,100 acres, all told – but it's so close to the cities of Mannheim, Darmstadt and Heidelberg that the only way you'll have a chance to try the region's wines is to go there. The Hessische Bergstrasse is such a popular destination that nearly all of the wines produced there are consumed locally, by day-trippers and weekend visitors as well as residents.
It's easy to tour the Hessische Bergstrasse. You can drive through the heart of the region on the B3 road, or, if you prefer, you can hike the Bergsträsser Weinlagenweg. This trail passes through vineyards from Alsbach south to Heppenheim. Once a year, on the May 1 holiday, there is an organized wine hike on the trail, with wine-tasting booths along the way.
The region's wineries are well-accustomed to visitors. You may wish to begin your visit with a stop at the state wine domaine, Hessische Staatsweingüter Domaine Bergstrasse, which is part of Staatsweingüter Kloster Eberbach. This winery is well-known for its quality wines. You can visit the wine-tasting room in Bensheim or stop by the wine pavilion in Heppenheim (food available, or bring a picnic), which is open on weekends and holidays May through October. (Web site in German only.)
The city of Bensheim also has its own winery, Weingut der Stadt Bensheim, which is open for visits on weekdays and Saturdays. If you're looking for a wine-related dining experience, stop by the winery's Kirchberghäuschen, which sits right in the vineyard outside of Bensheim, for a simple meal. To get there, park on the outskirts of Bensheim on the side near the vineyards and walk to the restaurant.
Kirchberghäuschen is open daily except Mondays, except in November and December, when the restaurant is only open on weekend afternoons. (Web sites in German only.) Weingut Simon-Bürkle in Zwingenberg was founded by two friends who met while studying viticulture in Weinsberg. Today the winery is run by Simon's widow, Dagmar, and Wilfried Bürkle, the surviving founder. Their wines continue to win critical acclaim. You can try Simon-Bürkle wines at the winery's tasting room in Zwingenberg or dine at the Bunter Löwe restaurant, run by the Bürkle family, which is located in a 16th-century building in historic Zwingenberg. (Restaurant Web site in German only.)
Don't forget about the Odenwälder Weininsel area when you visit the Hessische Bergstraße. Several wineries, including Weingut Brücke-Ohl and Weingut Krupka, operate restaurants and wine bistros in Groß-Umstadt, while others open straußwirtschaften ("ostrich businesses," or temporary wine stands) during summer and fall months.
Beyond the Vineyards
Of course, there's plenty to see in this part of Germany besides wineries and vineyards. The medieval abbey and Königshalle ("King's Hall") in Lorsch together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ladenburg, home of automobile inventor Karl Benz, has two museums dedicated to the famous inventor – the Automuseum Dr. Carl Benz and the Carl Benz House. If castles are more your style, head to Bensheim-Auerbach and make a reservation for Auerbach Castle's knights banquet or jousting tournament.
If your travels take you to northern Baden-Württemberg or southern Hesse, why not plan a day trip or overnight visit to the Hessische Bergstrasse? It could be your best opportunity to sample wines from "Germany's Tuscany."