Sailing the River Rhine Part 7: Apocryphal Doctors and Real Fine Wine in Bernkastel, Germany

Bernkastel is known for its wine, and for the origin story of its most famous vineyard. It's our next stop on our tour of the Rhine River.

The Uniworld Rhine/Moselle Basin map.

The Rhine valley has its castles and their extraordinary history. Richard the Lionheart, the King of England, for example, was imprisoned in Trifels Castle by his enemy Duke Leopold V of Austria when he was captured near Vienna while returning from the Third Crusade. And of course you can sail past the Lorelei and hear the maiden sing if you really, really listen. But there’s something serene about the Rhine’s tributary, the little Moselle, that brings serenity and soothes the soul. This is a river only 340 miles long but for 15 million years it has carved its way through what is now France, Luxembourg, and Germany — creating a sheltered valley in this cool region that stores heat. It has the perfect terroir for its extraordinary Riesling wines.

The Romans, of course, brought winemaking to Western Europe. But many historians believe the Celts were here first. No, not making Scotch, but planting vineyards some hundred years before the Romans!

A river, a canal, and lots of greenery on the Moselle

The mountains — full of slate – were 400 million years old, rich in minerals,and eroding easily to enrich the soil. The valley floor was in places steep facing more or less South and receiving heat from the sun both direct and reflected from the surface of the Moselle.

The legend of the Bernkasteler Doctor to some may suggest the power of the mind over matter, the placebo effect, but the story is HUGE in Bernkastel and a wise tourist would refrain from comments.

The land was waiting for the professional winemakers. They came in the Middle Ages. Bernkastel was granted town rights in 1291. And in the Mittelmosel (the Middle Moselle) the legends came, too. Says a tourist book: “One of the most notable vineyards in this area is known as Doctorberg, and its wines as Bernkasteler Doctor. An apocryphal Bernkasteler Doctor story of how the vineyard got its name originated in the late Middle Ages when a local archbishop was miraculously cured of a terminal illness by drinking wine made from the grapes of this vineyard.” We mention this event in the last part of our Mainz story here.

The legend says that in the 14th century the Kurfürst Boemund II of Trier became ill with fever during his stay at a nearby castle. None of his personal doctors was able to cure this celebrity. A knight brought a small barrel of the finest local wine, explaining that this was the best medicine. After drinking it, the Kurfürst recovered completely. He summoned the grower to thank him and giving him the vineyard as his personal gift allowed the wine merchant to re-name the estate as the "Bernkasteler Doctor,” the only real doctor among them all!

The legendary Bernkasteler Doctor vineyard, — which may well cure self-limiting disease – is located behind the village of Bernkastel and, although small, is one of the most famous vineyards in Germany. Its slogan is, “Our Riesling wines are among the most famous and noble white wines in the world!” You cannot ignore the Doctor Wine story; it is all around you in town. As with the equally apocryphal accounts of the existence of William Tell in Swiss histories, hotels and restaurants in Bernkastel take the Doctor name and paintings on walls tell the tale. Hanging signs support the legend and a beautiful Doctor Fountain shows the scene.

The “Doctor” legend. Wine, not laughter, is the best medicine

We had a better understanding of the “Doctor” legend when our guide met us. She explained it all and said our search for a Dr. Keller to interview would not be successful. The German name simply meant Dr. Wine Cellar! The cellar is more than 350 years old and, carved into the rock underneath the vineyard, keeps a consistent humidity and year-round temperature of about 48 degrees F, ideal conditions for the maturation and storage of special wines. However, there is a Dr. Keller vineyard in this area and this website tries to make sense of all the competing wineries.

The doctor cellar and the Doctor Fountain.

The history of the legendary doctor cellar includes the discovery there, at the end of the 1950's, of misplaced, actually hidden, bottles which created a press frenzy in several auctions where “these rediscovered treasures achieved spectacular prices.”

The Dr. Pauly Bergweiler vineyards have a doctor appellation too: Dr. Peter Pauly was born in 1939 and has a PhD in agricultural science. He and his wife Helga have made their son Stefan responsible for running the 37 acres of this 16th century wine estate. Helga’s ancestors had “owned vineyards since the time of Napoleon” and had created wines for celebrities including the German emperor in Berlin, the grand Duke of Luxembourg and the House of Lords in London. And now Stefan is supervising a wine tasting for other celebrities: the passengers of Uniworld’s River Queen!

A special wine tasting

A walk around local restaurants brings us to the former train station in town with its delightful hanging sign

The walk around town continues to show more medieval signs and the contentment of swans with their very own Moselle. The insert is from the Dr. Pauly Bergweiler winetasting that shows baby Jesus holding a bunch of golden grapes. Lower image is of the town’s Bear Fountain erected apparently where the former bear trap had been dug

A walk around the market square gives a glimpse of the 1416 Spitzhäuschen, the “Pointed House” where its dimensions avoided the typical and heavy taxation of medieval towns. The adjacent town hall still has the chains hanging from the wall where delinquents were punished. The elegant Art Nouveau Café Hansen in this part of the square — which was purchased by the first of three generations of Hansens in 1911 – demonstrates to visitors that the beautiful architecture in town is not confined to half-timbered medieval homes.

The market square

It doesn’t take much walking around this town that straddles the Moselle for a visitor to realize Uniworld has brought us to as pretty a German town as we have ever found (and one actually we had not heard of till we came here).It challenges our notion that there was nothing prettier in Germany than Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

Bernkastel, a Zen-like town with everything in harmony

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.