Bavaria is famous for beer and Oktoberfest. But in Franconia, in the north of this German state, wine is king.
Wurzburg, its biggest city, known for beautiful Baroque architecture and Italian art, is surrounded by vineyards on gentle rolling hills on the banks of the Main River and its tributaries. It's
also the starting point for the Romantic Road, Germany's most famous tourism route,
which winds through storybook-like half-timbered medieval towns, like Rothenburg and Dinkelsbuhl, before ending near Neuschwanstein, a castle in the Alps that looks hauntingly familiar. No wonder: its design inspired the "castle" at Disney World.
The classic view of Wurzburg: the Marienberg fortress crowning a hilltop, seen from
the 12th-century bridge over the Main, lined with statues of saints and bishops. "It's our Facebook, late April to October - the place to flirt and sip," my guide explained, pointing out a restaurant on each end of the bridge, plus a wine shop a feet away, where patrons buy wine and mingle on the Alte Mainbrucke.
Franconia (Franken, in German) is white wine country: 80% of the wine grown here is white. The major white wine grapes are Silvaner, delicate and fruity, often smelling like flowers, melons, plums and apples, and Muller-Thurgau, mildly acid, and more subtle fruit. It's the German wine region producing the highest proportion of Sylvaner, which is often paired with asparagus or fish.
Muller-Thurgau is the second-most-planted grape in Germany, after Riesling - also grown in Franconia, but not as much as in other regions of Germany. An excellent red wine produced here is Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir).
Three top places to taste wine in Wurzburg? Surprise: a palace and two hospitals. The Residenz
, a magnificent 18th-century Baroque palace, was the home of arts-loving Prince-Bishops, rulers of the city for centuries. A gigantic ceiling fresco by a Venetian artist above the grand staircase portrays the four known continents paying homage to the ruler. Look for the Americas: a savage place depicted by a woman sitting on a crocodile. In the fabulously ornate Imperial Hall,
concerts and Italian opera arias are held during the Mozart Festival and Italian Night, amid the reddish marble and crystal chandeliers.
What's beneath the palace is equally extraordinary: the candle-lit, vaulted brick wine cellars of the old court vineyards, dating back to 1128, the Staatlicher Hofkeller Wurzburg
. Take a tasting tour of the almost 15,000 square feet of cellars, then buy your favorites at its ultra-modern wine shop across the street.
It sure doesn't look like a hospital. But looks can be deceiving: The Juliusspital
, a handsome yellow Baroque building, with an exuberant white Baroque fountain of sea creatures in the midst of grassy lawns, was built in 1576 to help the sick, poor and elderly. Its vineyards financed its mission for centuries, and are now the second-biggest wine estate in Germany, producing over 1 million bottles of wine a year. On a cellar tasting tour, amid the richly-carved wine casks, be sure to spot the one where people are hobbling on crutches and canes in varying stages of decrepitude, who then - after sipping wine - joyfully toss them aside, and dance with abandon.
On the outdoor terrace of its weinstube, try local specialties like smoked trout in horseradish sauce, bratwurst cooked in wine stock (blaue zipfel) or asparagus - the fat and white German kind - with hollandaise or butter. (In spring, asparagus is the dish to order in Germany - so popular, many restaurants often offer menus touting a half-dozen different preparations, from tarts to soups.)
The smaller Burgerspital zum Heiligen Geist
, established as a charitable foundation to care for the sick in the 14th century, also has a good moderately-priced weinstube. Drink up for a good cause: every bottle of wine sold by its vineyards helps the elderly in its nursing homes and physical therapy clinincs.
Another great restaurant where excellent local specialties, like the "Franconian wedding dinner" - veal in horseradish cream with cranberries and noodles - are served in a glass-roofed patio and cozy, traditional-looking rooms is Backofele
To find Germany's oldest wine tavern, Weinhaus Zum Stache
, which dates back to 1413, look for the outdoor sign of a bunch of gilded grapes, marking the
quaint building with a pretty courtyard, right off Marktplatz.
A fun time to visit Franconia is during one of many wine festivals celebrating music and the grape.
During the Wurzburger Weindorf, held in 40 tents sponsored by restaurants in the Marktplatz, or main square of Wurzburg, erdbeerbowle - a tasty punch of fresh strawberries, white wine, sparkling wine, lemon and sugar - local wines and food are served at long wooden tables. The garden of the Residenz, Juliusspital and Burgerspital also host wine festivals.