Trail of the Unexpected - Wine on the Rhine

Drink in the view, then gulp down the grape
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The Independent Travel

Wine and the Rhine go together very well. It all starts on Weinhexennacht ("the night of the Wine Witch"), which falls this Thursday, on May Day's eve. During the revels, a new Wine Queen climbs out of a wine barrel in the tiny town of Oberwesel, which lies to the south of Koblenz in Germany, on the west bank of the Rhine.

Oberwesel is almost opposite the Lorelei, the bulge of rock that towers over the river, which is at the heart of one of Germany's greatest legends: it is said that here sailors were lured to their deaths with the beguiling song of a beautiful maiden. Oberwesel is also at the hub of a series of hedonistic celebrations of the oenologist's art. Through the summer there are wine markets, river cruises, wine hikes and firework displays. It all culminates in the Night of the Thousand Fires – basically a very big firework display – on 12 September. And, each September, there are not one but two wine festivals, with a certain amount of ordered Bacchanalia, and the Wine Queen on hand to welcome visitors.

We, however, were after a calmer experience of the Rhine's wines: a simple weekend of tasting. My husband and I arrived in Oberwesel by way of the ferry (a five-minute journey every 15 minutes) which runs from St Goarshausen to St Goar, four miles from Oberwesel. By the appointed hour of 5pm, we were ready to quaff, swill and spit at the Mainzer Strasse cellars of Lanius-Knab, one of the region's leading producers of Riesling.

Jörg Lanius, an urbane 40-year-old, took over the family firm in 1992 after "a lifetime" in the vineyards. He met me at the door, and then took us, puzzlingly, into his garage. He wanted to show us his tractor. There then followed, in a mixture of German and English, much erudite discourse on alluvial soils and the steepness of the local slopes. Rather more promising were his cellars – two layers of them – where we were instructed on the processes of making his highly regarded Riesling. In the deepest and furthest cellar were two rows of 17 barrels (100 years old and made of home-grown oak), the largest holding 2,000 litres.

Adjourning upstairs for the real business of the tasting, we were ushered into a room with high-backed leather chairs and potted plants. Herr Lanius started lining up bottles on the table. We sampled seven wines, one after the other, beguiled more and more by each as the wine flowed. My particular favourite was a 2005 Engehöller Bernstein Riesling Kabinett which had, just as Herr Lanius described, a "vivacious" pineapple fragrance. After all the drink and chatter we bought masses of wine, and the rest of the evening passed in a pleasing blur.

Back at the hotel, the half-timbered 16th-century Weinhaus Weiler, the wine sampling went on but we had just about enough sensitivity remaining to appreciate our meal. The highlight was a raspberry and cream dessert infused with – yes – Riesling and laced with threads of chilli.

The next item on our itinerary was an eight-mile trek along part of the Rheinsteig (the "Rhine Trail", literally "Rhine upstream"), a 185-mile hiking route along the river and its vineyards, which runs from Wiesbaden to Bonn. To that end we were at the Kaub ferry by 9am and slogging up a gradient of one in five in the rain half an hour later. I must admit that as we passed yet another weinverkauf (wine shop) – they seem to be dotted all over the area – I rather wished we had not done quite so much tasting the night before. But after a restorative pause to gaze down at the river, already far below, we pressed on, past a castle ruin, then the first of many vineyards, in striated tracts: squares and handkerchiefs of land.

Here pine trees festooned with liana creepers were interspersed with dry-stone walls and spills of slate. (Apparently the slate imparts the unique flavour to the local wine.) The trail led up and down through woods and the occasional meadow studded with cornflowers and daisies. As we took a cobbled mossy lane down to Lorch, where we would catch a boat back, the sun came out, clouds chasing shadows up the hillsides. The Rhine turned into an extraordinary shade of thick greyish-green, almost jade. We sat at the back of the boat, and discovered a paddling pool and slide designed to entertain children bored by boat travel. No chance of that with us – we were just glad not to be walking.

We revived enough by evening to enjoy our meal at the Schloss Schönburg, perched high on the mountain overlooking the town. The restaurant, delightfully elegant with starched linen and decanters, was also hosting a large party that could have stepped out of a Teutonic family portrait 100 years ago: the matriarch was dressed in black with pearls; a small girl was wearing a sailor dress.

The next morning, with little time left but wanting to see more of the vineyards, we arranged to walk with a guide. We started out along the high city walls – an excellent vantage point to view the town's 16 medieval towers. Harald Bichell, much older than us, was also much faster than us, striding ahead on long legs up the Oelsbergsteig, a steep hiking trail north of the town. Here, the rows of vines were set out horizontally, which makes them easier to cultivate, and there was a miniature railway to transport workers to the top of the vineyard.

Panting along in Herr Bichell's wake, we were in need of some locomotive assistance ourselves. Then, suddenly, we went through a turnstile. It was a warning. Within moments, the path had turned into a narrow shelf that sloped steeply to a drop down to the Rhine hundreds of feet below. Fixed to the cliff was a metal handrail which we hung on to for dear life until we got to the rungs set in the rock. We scrambled up to get to the plateau. (Herr Bichel, of course, bounded up.) Once there, in a surreal scene, we were caught by a stampede of sheep, a couple of hundred all in a rush racing across the grassland at the behest of a sheepdog; a flight of swallows darted and swooped overhead.

No time to waste: we had to see the monument overlooking the Lorelei, with its sculpted faces of the men responsible for the song commemorating the legend: Heinrich Heine, who wrote the words, and Friedrich Silcher, who composed the music. Herr Bichel sang the first verse to us – and then, drifting up from the river below, we heard an echoing answer from a passing boat.

On our brisk walk back down, our route led past the Weinlehrpfad (the "wine-learning footpath"), which looked much less perilous than our own route. It might have helped with the wine tasting, too.

Festivals: Weinhexennacht is on 30 April. Weinmarkt, the wine festival in Oberwesel, is held from 11-14 September and 18-19 September. The Night of the Thousand Fires is on 12 September

Eating and drinking:Weinhaus Weiler, Marktplatz 4, Oberwesel: 00 49 6744 93050; weinhaus-weiler.de, Auf Schönburg: 00 49 6744 93930; hotel-schoenburg.com, Weingut Lanius-Knab, 00 49 6744 8104; lanius-knab.de

More information: romantic-germany.info, romantischer-rhein.de/en, oberwesel.de, rheinsteig.de

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