The Wine Capital of Germany

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Mainz is the Wine Capital of Germany. Buckingham Palace ordered German wines for the queen's 50th Jubilee, and an archbishop in the 1200s claimed wines from one vineyard had mystical healing properties after his health improved after drinking just one glass.

Photography by the authors

We meet our guide, Judith Konig in Mainz, another Historic Highlights of German city, day after Heidelberg. We ask her if her name means “king.” It’s a common name in Germany, she says, because the kings had many, many servants and they all took the name of their employer as their last name.

We remark how beautiful the countryside is that we have just gone through and we’ve seen the rock identified as the Lorelei from the trains but not in time to photograph it. She tells us the Rhine Valley route from Koblenz to Mainz has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mainz has many claims on history and Judith is about to show us them. First, the city’s Roman background, which runs from solid walls still standing to roads showing the obvious wear of wagons and chariots.

Mainz is the Wine Capital of Germany, our guide tells us. Two out of every three white German wines come from here. Mainz has wine cellars, says Judith, going down 50 meters! Two were dug by the Romans to store river ice in winter for summer use.

The city has a population of 60,000. The surrounding area has 200,000 of which 40,000 are students who find the city proper too expensive for their tastes.

“Some may declare Mainz is too small to be the center of your life but it is the perfect place to live,” says Judith. “The whole center is a pedestrian area — you can get from A to Z in a couple of minutes!”

And as we move around we sense this special Mainz mystique. Judith explains, pointing out that the cathedral stands beside one of the largest farmers’ markets in Germany with an ambiance similar to Siena’s in Italy. The Mainz cathedral is not like Cologne’s, sitting right beside the main railway station and a shopping center.

Mainz has one of the sunniest dry spots in Germany. Every little square is full of outdoor restaurants and the Old Town is surrounded by half-timbered houses, cafes and wine bars and individual shops.

“Mainz people are friendly traditionally large tables are shared by all customers who chat amongst themselves,” Judith says. “Our wine culture gives us an ‘Italian flair’ where conversations can be loud. It’s part of our relaxed fringsen attitude along the river where the locals seem to be saying ‘God knows I feel good when I drink wine and enjoy myself — and He knows I’m fine.’”

Apparently if you ask Germans, “Do you know Mainz?” they will reply, “Yes, of course, the Carnival!”

The Carnival starts at 11 a.m. on the Nov. 11 and lasts through Lent. It draws half a million visitors — they are not coming for a typical Mardi Gras experience, but for political fun. Mainz is the most west-facing of all German cities, the closest to the French, their traditional enemy. When under Prussian dominance, the relaxed local population of 40,000 had 10,000 objectionable Prussian soldiers billeted in their homes. The Carnival celebrates the way the German population secretly made fools of the Prussians.

It’s all more serious at St. Stephen’s, where 200,000 visitors a year come to see the glowing blue stained glass windows that Jewish artist Marc Chagall created exclusively for this church, whose construction began in 1267 and whose monsignor first approached Chagall in 1973. The first window went up in 1978 when Chagall was aged 91. He finished his message for international understanding with nine windows just before he died at age 97 in 1985. The blue colors are startling — there are 18 separate shades of blue, eight of which Chagall invented himself.

In the dark of the cathedral we find an interesting 1250 monument to Bishop Siegfried III of Eppstein, an archbishopric so old (1600 years) and so important it had its own coinage. The monument glamorizes the power of Germany’s prince bishops by showing the man of God simultaneously appointing two other princes kings.

In the square stands a statue of a man better remembered 200 years later in 1450, Johannes Gutenberg. The famous Bible was printed here in Mainz, just round the corner. The statue, and others in Mainz, shows the famous printer with a long beard. It is not certain he favored a beard even though all the engraved art online shows him bearded.

Gutenberg was never the subject of a painting, so we just don’t know what he looked like. Rich noble family members went to the barber every day as part of their affectation; he was not wealthy and is not likely to be as well-groomed as he appears in his statues.

Judith, our guide, is a certified printing demonstrator at the Gutenberg Museum. She pulls on plastic gloves and we settle back to see her work. She carefully prints for us the first page of Gutenberg’s Bible from Gutenberg’s own printing machine. We will treasure it.

Gutenberg did not invent printing. It existed in Korea and China around the year 1100 but the Chinese alphabet has up to 50,000 characters so you could write a book by hand more quickly than print it.

What Gutenberg did was to create templates of separate letters, first in wood then metal, for example, of the letter G that could be used on one page, say, 30 times. You wouldn’t need to break down a word to get a letter for re-use. He produced 1,282 pages his first year and printed 180 books in the time it would have taken a writer to write one book. A Gutenberg Bible would cost a professor’s earnings for three years — or the cost of a house, but with printing the prices dropped. Two million books were in circulation within 50 years.

A similar surge to the number of books printed is seen today with what is happening with German wine. The so-called “Riesling Renaissance” started in the U.S. but is now a world-wide phenomenon.

In the year 2001, U.S. imports in units of $1,000 dollar amounts registered 42,066. Ten years later in 2011 (the most recent figures) the numbers of units were 143,866 — an incredible jump. Per capita consumption within Germany has not moved much: from 22.5 liters per person per year in 1992 to 24.4 20 years later in 2012. However, in 20 years, consumption has shot up from 5.2 liters in Norway to 13.9 liters, and in Ireland (where it was once said “God invented alcohol so the Irish don’t rule the world”) from 3.4 liters to an astonishing 16.8 liters.

We go off to a German vineyard to see what is happening. We drive past roadside posters of former Rhine Queens until we came to a recent one in 2008-09, Lisa Bunn, at the Margarethenhof Weingut Bunn in Nierstein. We learn a lot from this young woman, who stands in front of a painting of her by her physician aunt, Dr. Hildegard Bunn.

“Ninety-five percent of the world’s wine today is made for early drinking,” she says. “In contrast, Goethe always chose wines that were 20 years old because, in the old days, they were more mellow.”

Lisa is enthusiastic, naturally, about her German wines and her good fortune that she makes wine for Germans, because Germans, she says, drink more sparkling water and wine than any other nation — and they celebrate all the time, she adds with a smile.

German white wines have a lot more acidity, freshness and sweetness and Lisa believes that makes them more interesting. It all comes from the cold climate, one similar to Canada’s and New Zealand’s.

“Our season is longer, too, in comparison to Italy; we harvest in October,” she says. “You see the same thing with strawberries — if they are grown slowly they have more taste.”

Lisa tells us that ever since Prince Albert brought Queen Victoria to taste the wines of Hochheim German wines have been standard in the royal households of Europe. For Queen Elizabeth II’s 50th Jubilee, Buckingham Palace ordered wine from Germany’s Red Slope.

As we leave Lisa tells us the story of the Archbishop of Trier, who was so ill in the 1200s that he thought he was dying. He asked for a glass of wine from this vineyard in the Mosel Valley, drank it and suddenly recovered. He later ascribed mystical healing powers to that one vineyard in the village of Bernkastel, forever afterwards called “Doctor.” The vineyard is only eight acres, but every winegrower covets part of it, Lisa says.

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 Practice, 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.