The Pfalz region (Palatinate) is the southernmost area in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate). It’s one of the warmest parts of Germany, which means that spring and summer arrive there a little earlier than much of the rest of the country, and that the region produces an awful lot of very good wine.
It doesn’t offer the romance and striking beauty of the Mittelrhein (middle Rhine) region, but the Pfalz is filled with picturesque medieval towns and villages that pepper the gently undulating landscape; and what it lacks in dramatic, sweeping valleys and hilltop castles, it more than makes up for with its food and drink.
The Pfalz is much less travelled by non-German tourists than the Mittelrhein, but if you’ve spent any time there, you’ll probably wonder why. Its towns are rich in history and traditions and the people friendly and relaxed, plus its as easy to travel around on a budget as it is to splash out in style. There’s plenty do, from exploring forests and half-timbered villages to attending festivals, visiting cathedrals and following wine trails on foot or by bike; and with its strong culinary traditions and a focus on eating local, seasonal food, it’s a particularly good destination for gourmets.
As Germany’s second largest wine region in terms of production (one in three bottles of wine drunk in Germany originates there), many of the Pfalz’s towns and villages have become extremely rich from the world-class wines they produce. The road that connects them, running from Bockenheim in the north to the town of Schweigen-Rechtenbach on the French border in the south, is known as the Deutsche Weinstraße, or German Wine Route. 85km long, it offers countless stop-offs at not only some of Germany’s very best wine and Sekt (sparkling wine) producers, but some of its very best restaurants as well – there are no less than seven Michelin-starred restaurants en route. It’s hard to argue that a drive along this route wouldn’t make for a highly memorable road trip.
When to visit
The mild climate, sprouting daffodils and ubiquitous pale pink almond blossom make springtime a very pleasant time to visit the Pfalz; and autumn and winter are relatively mild compared to other parts of Germany. Summer is hot, however, and can be very humid, so bear that in mind if you don’t fare well in the heat.
The wine season begins in Spring, so once the almond blossom festivals are over, the wine festivals begin. Lasting from March till October, these take place all over the region and biggest – the biggest in the world – is the Dürkheimer Wurstmarkt*, a huge festival featuring fairground rides, music and parades as well as plenty of local wine and food, held every September in front of the world’s biggest wine barrel*. Festivals celebrating seasonal fruit and vegetables are popular throughout the year too, celebrating everything from white asparagus and plums to cherries and horseradish. Come winter, of course, there are Christmas markets in towns and villages across the region.
What to drink in the Pfalz
The Pfalz is Germany’s largest red wine producing region, with Dornfelder, Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Portugieser grapes being the most widely grown. However, the area is also well known for it’s rosé wines (Weißherbst), St. Laurent in particular, in addition to international varieties such as Sauvingnon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvingnon and Merlot. In terms of whites, Pfalz is famous for its powerfully-flavoured Rieslings, which are largely produced in the Mittelhaardt area in the north, the largest Riesling-producing area in the world, as well as wines made from Müller-Thurgau and Gewürztraminer grapes.
Popular in the Autumn is Federweißer, young wine that is still undergoing the fermentation process when you buy it. It’s stored in loosely-capped bottles to allow the gas to escape and prevent explosions, and the fermentation process continues once you’ve drunk it. This means that although it tastes like a sweet, harmless grape juice, Federweißer is incredibly potent. It’s well worth trying, but imbibe with care!
German sparkling wine (Sekt) is little known beyond German borders, but some of the best bubbles I’ve ever drunk have come from the Pfalz. Some of the very best Sekt producers in Germany are found there, most commonly using Riesling, Pinot blanc and Pinot noir grapes. Rather than picking up a bottle from one of the large-scale Sekt producers, who tend to use grapes from a variety of different producers, head to a small winery for some Winzersekt (winegrowers’ Sekt), which is made on site from grapes from the same vineyard. This way you can try more unusual varieties, too, such as sparkling wines made with Gewürztraminer or Muskateller grapes.
For those who don’t drink alcohol, all is not lost. Many wineries make fantastic red and white grape juice (Traubensaft) and seccos (sparkling juices) that are worlds apart from the cartons you might pick up in the supermarket.
Wines bought directly from the producer is excellent value, particularly by the box, and visiting a winery for a tasting is a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. You can either ring ahead to arrange for someone to talk you through the wines you try, or else you can simply turn up and ask to sample from various bottles. In either case, the done thing is to try out a small selection of the different grape varieties, and since tastings are either free or very inexpensive (you may be charged a very small amount per glass), the unspoken rule is that you’ll buy at least a box of 6 bottles in return. You can pick which bottles you want in that box though, so don’t feel you need to choose just one wine.
There are countless wineries along the German Wine Route, many of whom have restaurants and/or offer accommodation, too. Have a look at the (currently intermittently working) German Wine Route website for details of all the wineries along the route; you can search there for events such as tastings, festivals and guided wine walks, too.
What to eat in the Pfalz
The people of Pfalz love their food and are proud of their culinary traditions, so this is a region in which you’ll have no trouble finding something good to eat – nor finding somewhere to eat it. From rustic forest inns to traditional wine taverns and Michelin-starred restaurants, the Pfalz is bursting with restaurants for every budget. The only trouble you might have is deciding what to eat.
As well as very traditional local German dishes, much of the food here is also influenced by local French flavours, so menus close to the border often have a bit of Mediterranean flair. Seasonal offerings flood the Pfalz throughout the year: in spring and early summer there’s plates of white asparagus every which way you turn; come high summer, there are cakes, desserts and preserves made with all manner of stone fruits and berries; and in autumn, there are figs (Feigen) aplenty, followed by Maronen (sweet chestnuts), which are used in soups and sweet dishes as well as to accompany game, too.
The most famous of all Pfälzer savoury specialties is Saumagen, a selection of vegetables, herbs, pork and sometimes beef cooked in a sow’s stomach, sliced thickly and fried before being served with Bratkartoffeln (fried potatoes) and gravy. Maultaschen are another local favourite, ravioli-like pasta pockets filled with ground beef and onion and sometimes served in a light broth.
Other regional specialties include Fleeschknepp (or Fleischkloße) mit Meerrettichsoße (meatballs with horseradish sauce), Pfälzer Blutwurst (blood sausage), Leberwurst (liver sausage) and Leberknödel (liver dumpling). As a hefty meat sampler, order a Schiefer Sack, a platter of Bratwurst and Leberknödel; or a Pfälzer Leibgericht (literally, “favourite dish from the Pfalz”), also known as the Pfälzer Dreifaltigkeit (“Pfalz trinity”), which comprises a slice of Saumagen alongside a coarse Bratwurst and a Leberknödel.
Traditional side dishes include Sauerkraut and Kartoffelbrei (mashed potatoes) or slices of dark rye and caraway bread. Bratkartoffeln (fried potatoes) in the Pfalz region often involve small chunks of liver sausage, a dish known in local dialect as Gebreedelde.
None of these make for a very light lunch, however, so if you’d prefer something that won’t send you to sleep afterwards, order a Vesperbrett, a snack platter comprising various cold cuts such as blood or liver sausage, cured ham and brawn, plus cheeses, bread and perhaps a potato salad on the side – a great way to sample local delicacies that are often homemade. For an even more adventurous snack, close to the French border, Weinbergschecken (vineyard snails) are also a local specialty.
Vegetarian options aren’t generally plentiful in this region, but include Gequellde mit weißem Kees, a jacket potato topped with quark, onions and chives; and Flammkuchen, a sort of French-German pizza with a very thin crust and crème fraîche topping (just make sure you don’t order one with ham on!). In autumn, you’d do well to get your hands on a slice of Zwiebelkuchen, or onion tart, which goes down particularly well with a glass of Federweißer.
The Pfalz also has a strong history in fish farming, and though today it’s less ubiquitous, fish is still a regional specialty, and you’ll often find locally farmed fish on the menu, from trout (Forelle) to zander (Zander) and carp (Karpfen). As well as being served fresh, either baked, poached (blau) or pan-fried and served with salad and potatoes, you can also find dried or pickled fish to snack on. Be warned: order your fish blau and it’ll most likely turn up whole, eyeballs and all.
For dessert, the Pfälzer classic is a sweet steamed dumpling (Dampfnudel) filled with plums or pears and served with vanilla sauce. Note, however, that in southern Pfalz, savoury Dampfnudeln are also a frequent addition to soup or goulash. Throughout the summer months, you’ll have plentiful choice of fruits, from berries to apricots and peaches: wander the farmers’ markets to pick up a punnet of strawberries to take on a day trip or stop off at a bakery for a slice of freshly baked plum cake with crumble (Pflaumen Streuselkuchen).
Where to stay
There’s all sorts of accommodation in the Pfalz for budgets big and small. Choose from five star design hotels with spas and Michelin-starred restaurants to cosy bed and breakfasts, rooms above wine taverns or simple holiday apartments (Ferienwohnungen). Though there are plenty of places to stay, it’s worth planning ahead and booking somewhere to stay in you’re visiting at weekends between May and November, during the festival and wedding seasons, as the region gets very busy.
More information about the German Wine Route, including searchable lists of restaurants, wineries, sights and accommodation can be found at the websites of the German tourist board and the Pfalz tourist board (all in English). There are also videos about local food and drink-related activities and travel tips (also in English) at Pfalz-Bewegt.
* Websites in German
Have you travelled the German Wine Route? Can you share any tips for touring the Pfalz?