Rhine region offers days of wine, roses and fests

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ELTVILLE, Germany -- The Rhine River flows north, right? Well, yes -- when it is not flowing in some other direction, such as west.

Beginning at Mainz, a wiry little bend in that great river pushes the water west for about 20 miles and, naturally, creates an east-to-west valley, which is required component No. 1 for the wine region that flourishes so far north of the Alps here.

In the Rheingau, the patch of Germany just north of the river, low mountains -- well, really, one long hillside -- provide shelter and sunny, south-facing slopes for the grapes.

Throw in a third key component -- good grape-growing soil -- and you get a lot of Riesling ... and a little red wine, too.

There are 2,000 wineries in the Rheingau, many of them "weekend vintners" attached to cooperatives; about 400 make their own wines. It's quality fruit of the vine, and a big draw for the region.

To stress the point, local tourism officials marked out a 40-plus-mile Rheingau Riesling Route to help visitors wend their way through area vineyards and "wine villages."

That route, on the eastern end, generally includes a few villages -- such as Florsheim, the easternmost -- that face the Main River a few miles before it empties into the Rhine.

Meanwhile, the route's westernmost dot on the map is Lorchhausen, a few miles downriver from the spot where the Rhine turns north again.

Visitors can follow the route by car, motorcycle or bike, and stops on the route are marked on green signs featuring wine glass logos.

Key villages along the way also can be reached by train, while KD German Rhine Line boats serve riverside towns between Mainz and Koblenz.

Monastic monuments
My first Rheingau stop, however, was a Cistercian cloister, Eberbach, said to be the world's oldest "wine monastery," having made the brew from the 12th century until 1953.

Open daily, the well preserved medieval monument -- now a state-owned foundation -- provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of monks who in the early days took on a lifestyle (no heat, no beds, no blankets for sleeping, no meat, only two meals a day) that gave them average lifespans of 28 to 30 years.

Still, they managed to operate businesses -- 205 at the peak -- with winemaking the most rewarding financially. Tourists at Eberbach see a dozen antique wine presses plus wine barrels and other relics of this past.

The most appealing space is the simple Romanesque-style church (with later Gothic chapels and windows), but the place the average visitor might recognize is the monks' dormitory, a cavernous rectangular hall that was used in the 1986 movie "The Name of the Rose."

Individuals and small groups can attend scheduled wine tastings from April to December, while private tastings can be arranged for larger groups.

The nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegard, in the hills above Rudesheim, carry on a tradition of winemaking, as well.

Although only 100 years old this year, it is the successor house to two abbeys founded by Hildegard von Bingen, from a village just across the Rhine, in the 12th century. A new building by church standards, the abbey is Romanesque in style. Tourists can visit the church and, at the abbey shop, taste and buy wine produced by the nuns.

View of the tower and some defensive walls, which are all that remain of the 14th century Elector's Castle in Eltville, Germany.Villages of wine
I visited Eltville (population, 9,000) and Rudesheim (10,000), charming examples of the two dozen or so wine villages found along the Rheingau Riesling Route.

Both have winemaking establishments open to tourists, countless wine-tasting options and seasonal wine festivals.

While Rieslings make up about three-quarters of Rheingau wines, area vintners also produce other whites and some reds as well as sparkling wines, or champagne, sekt in German. One summer fest, to be held July 1 to 5 this year in Eltville, celebrates this local champagne.

Four nearby villages -- Erbach, Hattenheim, Martinsthal and Rauenthal -- also are part of the Eltville district, and each has its own wine event, the biggest being Erbach's late-June strawberry festival, highlighting its strawberry wine.

Meanwhile, Rudesheim will host its annual winefest Aug. 20 to 23, and -- after the harvest -- there are its Days of the Young Wine festivals, from Oct. 29 to 31 and again Nov. 5 to 7.

Nearby Assmannshausen, the center for Rheingau reds, hosts a red wine festival July 2 to 4.

Other Rheingau towns, including Wiesbaden, also host wine celebrations, and the entire region participates in the Rheingauer Schlemmerwochen, or "Rheingau Weeks of Feasting," set for April 25 to May 5, during which restaurants roll out special foods, and many wineries hold open houses on weekends.

Wine, roses and more
Teetotalers will love the Rheingau, too. Against a naturally beautiful backdrop, it is a land of villages with medieval pedigrees and of hilltop castles, some of which are now hotels.

Eltville, which received its town charter in 1332, is the oldest municipality in the Rheingau, and it boasts so many well-maintained, old half-timbered houses that it is featured on a 1,200-mile themed tourist route featuring Germany's medieval "timber-framed" houses.

Truly a town of "wine and roses," Eltville also boasts an estimated 22,000 rose bushes of 350 varieties on public property and hosts biennial summer rose festivals. The flowers are next on show June 4 to 6.

Its most distinguishing landmark, however, is a 14th century tower, the only piece of what's known as the Elector's Castle to survive the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648.

The tower houses a Gutenberg exhibition honoring the inventor of printing and provides demonstrations of 15th century printing techniques. Gutenberg's family lived in Eltville for part of his childhood, and he returned on retirement; the family house still stands.

Rudesheim also boasts half-timbered houses -- some are partial rebuilds due to damage in World War II -- and ancient castles; its wine museum is housed in the 1,000-year-old Bromser Castle.

As for the local scenery, Unesco has something to say.

Rudesheim is at the southern end of a 40-mile stretch of the Middle Rhine Valley that is a World Cultural Heritage Site, in part, Unesco said, because of a beautiful landscape "fashioned by the river" and by man, with particular reference to centuries of terracing for the vines.

Finally, there are numerous festivals that have nothing to do with wine at all.

Consider Rudesheim's Drosselgasse, a 452-foot alleyway noted for live music and dancing. The street is the scene of a music festival called Clubline Drosselgasse, which this year promises 24 bands in 12 clubs, on March 19 and 20.

For information on wine tastings in the Rheingau, contact:

• Eberbach Cloister: (011) 49-6723 917811; e-mail:[email protected].

• Eltville Tourist Information: (011) 49-6123 90980; e-mail: [email protected].

• Rudesheim Tourist Center: (011) 49-6722 19433; e-mail: [email protected]; Web: www.ruedesheim.de.

• German National Tourist Office: (212) 661-7200, www.visits-to-germany.com/index_trade.html.

You can reach the journalist who wrote this article at [email protected].

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