We didn’t plan this vacation as being wine oriented although we have been almost continuously in wine country, both in Germany and France. We had had some excellent German wines lately from Trader Joe, one from a region we were not familiar with – in Hesse on the Bergstrasse, south of Frankfurt.

Our Trader Joe find

Our Trader Joe find

We were excited to go to the Hessian Weinstrasse and find out more. This is the smallest of the 13 German wine regions and is located east of the Rhine. Most Hesse wines are sold locally since there are only 1000 acres of vineyard. This may seem small by Sonoma County standards where 65000 acres are vineyard but we found a huge number of small family owned and cooperative wineries there. We were not able to find the TJ winery selection but that became rather unimportant. In one day we stopped at five wineries and did some tasting at each. They were eager to pour, and we were eager to taste but they were not commercial in the normal sense. They all closed their doors from 12:00 to 2:00 daily and most were closed half of Saturday and all day Sunday.

We visited one winery so small that after we tasted and wanted to purchase a bottle, the owner had to go in back to fetch a bottle and then, while we waited, glue on the label.

Owner and glue master

Owner and glue master

I was there, too

I was there, too

We stuck to tasting only Riesling wines, although quite a variety of grapes are used to make wine here. We also limited ourselves to wines in the $10 range, although that was often in their highest price category. We always had a choice of dry or slightly sweet. The trend here is toward dry but we usually preferred the off-dry although dry may better fit with most food. Bottom line was that we liked them all, really well. They were clean, honest wines with no perceptible tinkering. No oak, no hyped alcohol and body. We could drink these wines any time. One day we even had a glass for breakfast.

Here’s another tiny, family owned winery. This one sign is all the advertising they could do on the premises.

The single permitted sign.

The single permitted sign.

Inside, this lady poured as many samples as we desired. Never a charge.

Inside, this lady poured as many samples as we desired. Never a charge.

A couple of weeks later we stayed three nights at a family owned winery down near the Rhine close to the French border in the shadow of an old volcano, the Kaiserstuhl. This winery has only 60 acres of vines but makes enough wine to sustain itself, along with renting out some rooms and having a cafe for afternoon coffee and sweets.

The view from our private terrace

The view from our private terrace

The climate has become warmer here over the past decades and can support the growing of Pinot Noir (Spät Burgunder). For centuries only white wines were produced in Germany, but now with climate warming red grapes can be successfully grown, and there is lots of interest in Germany for red wines. We sampled and bought a couple of their most expensive Pinot Noirs, about $10 for the best one. We swigged down the cheaper one and took the better one with us to France.

Then we moved on to Dijon, capital of Burgundy but quite a few miles from vineyards. After three days there we moved a few miles south into serious wine country, near Beaune, the center of the universe for serious Burgundy lovers. Here it helps to be wealthy because bottles of the most famous vineyards reach up to $1000 per bottle, although the wines with impressive labels in the shops run from about $30-$100 per bottle. Wines in grocery stores center around $3 to $8 a bottle. We find these please us very much.

Acreage here is very expensive, of course, and tends to stay in the family almost forever. In the classy town of Meursault the last vineyard sale was in 1999. A total of 4086 square feet traded hands. That’s less than one tenth of an acre.

Once we got out of Beaune we took the upper route that connects the wine villages, winding among the spiderweb of ancient byways and squeezing the car between closely spaced buildings. We’ve never this day seen such a huge number of wineries in all our days, many open for tasting, but many closed in this season. We didn’t do any tasting, but did walk around some of the ancient towns and to the edge of some of the most famous vineyards in the world. To us, they all looked the same but connoisseurs know all about prestige and how to read the wine labels, which supposedly reveal and distinguish the gold from the dross.

In my ignorance, but having some feel for the improvements in wine making technology over the past few decades, I am a bit skeptical about honoring the ranking of wines from centuries past. As best I can, I’ll trust my taste buds to identify what works for me.

The first wine village we came to south of Dijon was Fixin, a place I had actually heard of. We walked the village and took some photos.

Downtown Fixin, an important wine village

Downtown Fixin, an important wine village

Here's a winery open for tasting

Here’s a winery open for tasting

A rather palatial winery, sold out so no tasting

A rather palatial winery, sold out so no tasting

A typical courtyard

A typical courtyard

Big time sprayer. W e saw lots of these.

Big time sprayer. W e saw lots of these.

Gate of a vineyardist's home

Gate of a vineyardist’s home

Time to leave Fixin

Time to leave Fixin

Late in the day we arrived at our gîte, a small rustic apartment in a tiny village of 450 people with no stores or business, rather away from vineyards but only seven miles south of Beaune.

Next day our host recommended a winery for us to visit and we did just that. It was a small family operation with only 65 acres of vines. We sampled a few, a couple of whites and a couple of Pinot Noirs. We liked the reds and bought two bottles, one at the same price as the German Pinot Noir at $10, and their most expensive one, at $14. Note the reasonable prices for all these wines. From time to time we bought excellent wines for far less, about like Two Buck Chuck but more to our liking because of higher acidity and mineral flavors (terroir).

A couple of evenings later we had a taste-off in our gîte. Surprise. We definitely preferred the higher priced Burgundy over the lesser one. As for the German one, we could hardly tell the difference, nor see a difference in color or body. Both were excellent and I would love to buy these clean, sprightly wines in Santa Rosa at these prices.

So that’s our wine tasting experience to date. Later we will spend five days in the Alsatian wine district. We hope to discover excellent Gewürtztraminers there, the specialty of that region of France.

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