In spite of its small size, Sachsen has many pleasant surprises in store for those who enjoy German wine. Sachsen is, indeed, the smallest and most eastern wine region in Germany. It’s also – by a hair – Germany’s northernmost wine region. Most visitors to the area come to see the city of Dresden, restored to splendor and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or to shop for porcelain in nearby Meißen. Since most Sachsen wines are consumed locally, a visit to the Dresden – Meißen area may be the only way you can experience the region’s wines for yourself.

Sachsen Wine History

As in many parts of Germany, wine production in Sachsen dates back to the Middle Ages – to 1161 A.D., to be precise. The bishop of Meißen had the first grape vines planted here; the vines were brought from France to the Elbe River valley. Of course, Sachsen’s history includes over forty years of Communist domination. During that time, wine estates were run as state-owned collectives, and quality declined accordingly. After the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and German reunification (1990), some wine estates found their way back into private hands. Since that time, Sachsen’s wineries have evolved from industrial production centers to high-quality wine estates, but this transformation is still a work in progress.

Geography and Climate

Most of Sachsen’s vineyards are in the Elbe valley, where the grapes are sheltered. A few vineyards lie south and west of the river valley, and there is also a small wine-growing area northeast of Meißen, near the town of Weinböhla. The river helps to make grape cultivation possible here. The area’s climate is continental, with cold winters and late spring frosts that challenge growers to prepare for weather extremes. Summers are typically hot. The river helps to moderate the climate somewhat, so that the grapes have an opportunity to fully ripen. Sachsen’s soils are mostly gneiss- and granite-based, but some areas have loess or sandy soils. Many vineyards are terraced to take advantage of every hour of sunlight.

Sachsen Grape Varieties

As you might expect, Sachsen’s cold weather influences grape variety selection in the region. White wine grapes account for 82 percent of the region’s production. Almost 20 percent of Sachsen’s vineyards are planted in Müller-Thurgau, with riesling just behind at 15 percent. Weissburgunder is also popular. Red wine plantings include spätburgunder (7.6 percent) and traminer (6.9 percent), which is gaining in popularity. Two unusual white grape varieties are grown in Sachsen. Goldriesling, a cross of Alsatian riesling and courtillier, ripens early and thus does well in this northerly region. Elbling, a white wine grape, is central Europe’s oldest grape variety. Currently, about two percent of Sachsen’s vineyards are planted in elbling. The wine’s popularity is increasing, and more Sachsen growers are planting elbling grapes.

Visiting Wineries in Sachsen

Although the wine region is small, there are many wonderful things to see. Of course, you can spend time in the beautiful city of Dresden, lovingly and meticulously restored to its pre-war splendor. Meißen, home to Europe’s first porcelain manufacturer and Germany’s first residential castle, Albrechtsburg, is another popular tourist destination.

Beyond city limits, there are several interesting wineries you can visit. If you’re visiting Meißen, don’t miss the Weingut Schloss Proschwitz, Sachen’s oldest winery. To get the most out of your visit, stop at the winery in Zadel über Meißen, where you can taste and buy Schloss Proschwitz wines, and then drive to the Schloss (castle) itself. Dr. Georg Prinz sur Lippe bought back his family’s wine estate and castle after German reunification, and the castle is definitely worth a visit. Occasionally, concerts and other special events are presented in the castle courtyard; book online early if you’d like to attend. You can also stay at the winery’s reasonably priced pension (doubles 80 – 100 Euros). (Web site in Germany only.)

Sächsisches Staatsweingut – Schloss Wackerbarth (“Saxon State Winery – Wackerbarth Castle”) in Radebeul is another worthwhile stop on your wine itinerary. The imposing baroque castle was built in 1729; restoration was completed in 2002. The results are stunning. You can tour the castle and gardens, take a wine tour or learn about sekt, Germany’s sparkling wine. Schloss Wackerbarth is Sachsen’s oldest sekt cellar. (Web site in German only.) If you’d like to stop by a local wine museum, visit Weingut Hoflössnitz in Radebeul. The museum is on the ground floor of the estate’s summer house, built in 1650 for Elector Johann Georg I. This winery produces both organic and conventional wines. There’s a wine bar on the estate for your refreshment. Closed Mondays. (Web site in German only.)

Driving the Sächsische Weinstraße (“Saxon Wine Road”) or hiking the Sächsischer Weinwanderweg (“Saxon Wine Trail”) are both excellent ways to acquaint yourself with the Sachsen wine region. If you’re lucky enough to be in Sachsen in late summer or early fall, you’ll be able to participate in one of the weekend wine festivals. Wineries hold “open days” during the last weekend of August (10:00 A.M. – 6:00 P.M. both days), and there’s a wine festival somewhere in the region nearly every weekend in September. Whether you visit just one winery or all 26 in the Sachsen wine region, you’ll become part of a winemaking tradition that stretches back over more than 840 years.