I can’t say I know much about wine but, and I have a feeling I’ve said this somewhere else before, having spent many a weekend over the last 2 and a bit years exploring local wineries under the expert tuition of my father-in-law, I certainly know what I like. Thus, the Rheingau Wine Festival, which takes place annually in Wiesbaden’s cobbled town squares, is no longer, for me, simply an excuse to have an enjoyable night out with friends in which we neck loads of excellent value, locally-produced wine, but an opportunity to discover new locally-produced wines and try and learn a thing or two more about what the Germans can do with their grapes. The trouble is, with over 100 wine stalls serving I don’t know how many wines between them, the latter version of events inevitably evolves into the former.
I made my way down to the festival on Friday – the opening night – with a small band of excitable merrymakers, to soak up the wonderfully cheerful atmosphere and enjoy a glass or two of good wine in the late evening sunshine. Not a bad way to start a weekend, it must be said. If you want to get a seat at the Rheingau Wine Festival, it’s best to head down there early; on this occasion we failed to, and spent the whole evening standing up (or if we’re honest, by the end of proceedings, clinging onto the table for dear life). I’d recommend finding a table somewhere right in the middle of the action before ambling off to inspect a few wine lists and pick yourself a wine. In any case, you should expect to share your table with other random festival-goers but don’t worry, you’ll be best mates with them by the end of the night.
The wines on offer tend to be marked up a little from the price you’d pay if you visited the wineries themselves, but most of the ones we tried on Friday night remained excellent value, both by the glass (from 1,50€ for 0.1l) and the bottle (10€ and up… and up…). Beware when buying your first round of drinks, however, as the deposit for a neatly-etched wineglass (das Pfand, price depends on vendor) adds up rather quickly. And if you hang onto the same glass whilst you sample wines from other stands, be sure to remember where it came from – you’ll have a right time of it trying to get your money back from anyone but the person you loaned it off.
On Friday night, we took it in turns to have a wander around and choose a bottle to share, which meant we sampled several new wines in addition to enjoying a couple of old favourites. The family of Peter Jakob Kühn have been tending their vines in the village of Oestrich-Winkel for 11 generations; in recent years they’ve been racking up the awards for their biodynamic wines. As a result, their prices have swelled hugely since my father-in-law generously shipped a few boxes of their 2008 Classic over to England for our wedding in 2010 but given the quality of their produce, I think they still remain pretty good value. Weingut Künstler is a more recent favourite of my father-in-law – and indeed the whole family; based in Hochheim, I’d happily drink anything that came out of their cellar.
For me, the Wiesbaden winefest really is joyful proof that the Germans know just what they’re doing with their grapes (well, the ones they use for white wine, at any rate). The Germans also, of course, know exactly what they’re doing with potatoes, too, and I for one am extremely pleased that at some point, one of them thought to push an earthy tuber through a homemade slicing contraption involving a Bosch hand drill, deep fry it till it was crisp and golden and then serve it up in a paper bag with a large dollop of garlicky yoghurt dip. Kartoffellocken (or “those amazing potato things”, above, from the food stands by the main entrance to the Rathaus Keller, 3,00€ a pop plus an extra 50cents for the dip)(they must be making a killing) really are exceptionally tasty. But be warned: everybody knows how good a fresh potato crisp is. Be sure you start queueing long before your belly starts rumbling, because a queue for Kartoffellocken is a mighty great big one.
If you fancy something a bit more substantial to soak up the booze, there’s all manner of classic festival foodstuffs available, from Currywurst and Spießbraten (fat slabs of roasted pork and fried onions stuffed into bread rolls: heaven) to Bretzeln as big as your head. This being Wiesbaden, there’s also rather refined-looking Flammkuchen on offer, smeared with creme fraiche and sprinkled with onions and bacon or heaped with rocket; or you could plump for a very civilised and moreish-looking shared, mountainous platter of olives, cured meats, cheese and roasted veg.
By the end of the evening, we’d amassed quite a good collection of bottles on our table from which, despite the gently fluctuating size of our group, we’d basically not moved in over 5 hours. So, my recommendations thus far for the 37th annual Rheingau Wine Festival are as follows: the 2011 Rüdesheimer Klosterlay Riesling Kabinett Feinherb (Weinstand Ecovin Rheingau, stand 87); the 2011 Peter Jakob Kühn Jacobus Riesling Trocken (Weingut Kühn, stand 55); and the 2011 Künstler Riesling Feinherb (Weingut Künstler, stand 101). The other wines we sampled may well have also been excellent, too, but you’ll have to forgive me for by the end of the evening, not quite being able distinguish them from each other. And therein, you see, lies the problem: you go to a Winefest to carry out an exploration of the wines; you end up getting drunk.
Rheingauer Weinwoche: around the Marktkirche, Rathaus und Stadtschloss, central Wiesbaden (map of stalls) till 19 August (programme of events in German and English). Further details available at Wiesbaden.de.