Curious & Thirsty: Germany’s Rheinsteig - Hiking and Wine Tasting

by Michael Schuermann

Michael Schuermann, also known as the Easy Hiker

Old-world romance: The Rheinsteig

The Rheinsteig may easily be Germany’s most popular hiking trail. It owes its popularity to the mix of castles, of which there are many, and vineyards, of which there are even more.

The Loreley: According to legend, a beautiful mermaid, or Loreley, lures sailors into dangerous waters.

Plus there is the Loreley, a Teutonic siren who sits on the eponymous rock to comb her beautiful blonde hair, luring the boatsmen into dangerous undercurrents and their certain deaths.

Worms, the old capital of the Nibelungen

Further south, there is Worms, the old capital of the Nibelungen, made famous by Richard Wagner’s Ring tetralogy. When the sun sparkles in the Rhine, people say: that is the glimmer from the treasure of the Nibelungen which lies hidden in the Rhine — put there by the treacherous Hagen and never recovered, by the way, and there are still people around who have a theory of where to search for it. (A word of advice for those who think they may find it on their trip: it probably never existed. And the story of the Loreley is only a myth, too.)

The only Rhinegold you are likely to find in Germany is of the liquid variety. This is not necessarily bad news. After all, it is one of the great joys of any hiking trip in this part of Germany to sample what the local vineyards have to offer. You looked at them all day, you walked past them, and after a hard day’s work on the steep slopes of the Rhine valley, you deserve to taste their produce.

Most people, when they hear somebody mention German wine, probably think of something yellow and sugary they drank when they were students. This is a somewhat unfair reputation because the best and most common wine in the area is the rather dry and clear Riesling. (And would you have thought that 35% of the vines in Germany are grown for red wine?)

Fairytale-looking Schloss Aunfels

Riesling matures later than most other grapes, which means: it escapes the area’s — occasionally harsh — spring frosts, while in the cold nights of the fall, it benefits from the capability of the steep slopes to preserve the daytime heat. Riesling is actually best in cool years, and if global warming were to continue to gather pace at the current rate, many valleys of the Rhine and Mosel would already be too hot for the grape in a few decades.

In the past, however, the more pressing concern was to develop harsh varieties, varieties that can grow under almost any conditions and on almost any soil, and no variety fits that description better than the (“mild but fruity”) Müller-Thurgau, named after its inventor Hermann Müller from the Swiss Kanton of Thurgau, although in Switzerland, it is known as “Rivaner” or “Riesling-Silvaner” because Hermann Müller withheld the permission to use his name — he must have been very proud of his creation. Silvaner was the most common grape in Germany at the time (the late 19th century), but has since lost nearly 85 % of its former plantation area. The flavour of the Silvaner is usually described as “robust”, so you have been warned.

The Rheinsteig in winter

So how do you go about choosing your bottle of wine in Germany? The advice is to look for a “Prädikatswein” — the only wine where chaptalization, the practice of adding sugar to the unfermented grape, is not allowed. (Chaptalization is, of course, what has given German wines a bad name — and painful hangovers to teenagers all over the world.) “Kabinettswein” is the lowest such “Prädikat” or “quality rating”, followed (in the order of sugar level) by “Spätlese” und Auslese” — anything beyond that has been made from half-rotten grapes.

You can also try to distinguish the different varieties just by looking at them in the vineyards during your hike, with the grape not yet in your glass but still on the vine. But I have to warn you: this can be a bit tricky. Unless you are a real expert, the grapes and vines will all look strikingly similar.

There are, however, certain subtle differences in the shape of the leaves: Riesling leaves are a little smaller and rounder than the leaves of the Müller-Thurgau, for example, and the latter have deeper indents between the more clearly pronounced lobes. Look here if you want to know more about the different sizes and shapes of all common varieties of whites.

And now for the hard work: no website can walk up those hills for you — or give you a hint what it’s like, lifting that first glass of ice-cold Riesling to your lips after an eight-hour hike in the scorching summer heat. Here’s to a great experience in the Rhine valley — and Prost!

Michael Schuermann aka Easy Hiker is a German-born journalist (formerly with the BBC and Eurosport-France) currently based in Paris and blogging about easy hiking in Europe. He is also the author of the guide book Paris Movie Walks. Get his latest articles by following him on facebook or twitter.

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