The Palatinate (Pfalz) region is the southernmost area in the Rhineland-Palatinate (the federal state of Rheinland-Pfalz). 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 may not offer striking beauty of the Rheingau and Middle Rhine (Mittelrhein) regions, but the Palatinate is filled with picturesque medieval towns and villages that pepper the gently undulating landscape; and what it lacks in dramatic, sweeping valleys and historic hilltop castles, it more than makes up for with its food and drink.
The Palatinate is much less travelled by non-German tourists than the Rheingau, Middle Rhine and Mosel wine regions, 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, welcoming and relaxed, plus it’s 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 Palatinate’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 German Wine Route (Deutsche Weinstraße). 85km long, it offers countless stop-offs at not only some of Germany’s very best wine and sparkling wine (Sekt) 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 travel along this route – it’s particularly enjoyable by bike or foot – wouldn’t make for a highly memorable trip.
When to visit the Palatinate
The mild climate, sprouting daffodils and ubiquitous pale pink almond blossom make springtime a very pleasant time to visit the Palatinate; 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.
The Palatinate is Germany’s largest red wine producing region, with Dornfelder, Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) and Portugieser grapes being the most widely grown. In terms of whites, the Palatinate is famous for its Rieslings, which are largely produced in the Mittelhaardt area in the north of the state, as well as wines made from Müller-Thurgau and Gewürztraminer grapes. However, the Palatinate produces plenty of other red and white varieties including St Laurent, Sauvingnon Blanc and Merlot.
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 can be incredibly potent. It’s well worth trying, particularly with a slice of seasonal onion tart (Zwiebelkuchen), but imbibe with care!
German sparkling wine is little drunk beyond Germany’s borders, but some of the best bubbles I’ve ever drunk have come from the Palatinate. Some of the very best sparkling wine producers in Germany are found here, most commonly using Riesling, Pinot blanc (Weissburgunder) and Pinot noir (Spätburgunder) grapes. Rather than picking up a bottle from one of the large-scale sparkling winemakers, who tend to use grapes from a variety of different producers, head to a small winery for some winegrowers’ sparkling wine (Winzersekt), 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.
Those who don’t drink alcohol are well catered to here, too. 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 ring ahead to arrange for someone to talk you through the wines you try, or simply turn up and ask to sample from their list of available wines. 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 one box of six bottles in return. You can pick which bottles you’d in that box though, so don’t feel you need to choose just one type of 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.
The people of the Palatinate are big on culinary pleasure and very 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 Palatinate is bursting with restaurants for every budget.
As well as very traditional local German specialties, 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 produce floods the Palatinate throughout the year: in spring and early summer there’s white asparagus every which way you look; come high summer, there are cakes, desserts and preserves made with all manner of stone fruits, berries and kiwis; and in autumn, there are figs aplenty, followed by sweet chestnuts, which are used in soups and sweet dishes as well as to accompany game.
The best-known Palatinate specialty is Saumagen, a selection of chopped vegetables, herbs and pork and cooked in a sow’s stomach that is then peeled, sliced thickly and fried before being served with potatoes – either mashed, fried or as a salad – or as a sandwich, in a crusty white bun. Other regional favourites include meatballs with horseradish sauce (Fleeschknepp or Fleischkloße mit Meerrettichsoße), blood sausage (Pfälzer Blutwurst), liver sausage (Leberwurst) and liver dumplings (Leberknödel). For a hefty meat sampler, order a Schiefer Sack, a platter of sausage and liver dumpling; 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 fried pork sausage and a liver dumpling.
Traditional side dishes include Sauerkraut and mashed potatoes or slices of dark rye and caraway bread. 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. Close to the French border, you’ll also often find vineyard snails (Weinbergschecken) on the menu.
There aren’t an overwhelming selection of traditional vegetarian dishes to be found in the Palatinate, but options include jacket potato topped with quark, onions and chives (Gequellde mit weißem Kees); and Flammkuchen, known in French as tarte flambée, a sort of French-German pizza with a very thin crust – just make sure you don’t order one with ham on. Come Autumn, you’d do well to get your hands on a slice of onion tart. (See What to Drink section above.)
The Palatinate also has a strong history of 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 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 (“blue”) and it’ll most likely turn up whole, eyeballs and all.
For dessert, the Palatinate classic is a sweet steamed dumpling (Dampfnudel) filled with plums or pears and served with vanilla sauce. Note, however, that in the southern Palatinate, savoury Dampfnudeln are also a popular addition to soup or goulash. Throughout the summer months, you’ll have plentiful choice of fruits, from all sorts of berries to kiwis, apricots and peaches: wander 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).
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 Palatinate 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.