Hot springs, outdoor sports, delicious local produce and Pinot-based wines make this pretty corner of Germany a real draw, discovers Sue Style. Published in the June 2012 issue.
Total planted area: 15,400 hectares
Main grapes: Spätburgunder, Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Gutedel Grauburgunder, Weissburgunder
Production (2011): 1.1 million hectolitres
Main soil: loess, volcanic, granitic, muschelkalk
A glass of Sekt on the terrace of Schloss Staufenberg high above the village of Durbach whets the appetite and sets the scene perfectly for Baden wine exploration. Lapping at your feet are successive waves of steeply planted vines, while up on the eastern skyline is the Black Forest, clothed in hunting green conifers. In the other direction your gaze leads down to the Rhine Valley, beyond which you can pick out the spire of Strasbourg’s cathedral.
People have long beaten a path to this sunny south-western corner of Germany for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, plus bathing in the hot springs of Baden-Baden, Bad Krozingen, Badenweiler and countless other Bad-prefixed spots. But today it is increasingly the food and wines that are Baden’s trump card. Twenty years’ ago, when my family settled in Alsace, there was a steady stream of German cars coming across the Rhine for the day in search of a good meal. Now, much of the traffic goes the other way: study the number plates outside any of Baden’s many fine eateries and you’ll find almost as many French-registered cars as locals.
Meanwhile, Baden’s wines – the three Pinots (Noir, Gris and Blanc; aka Spät-, Grau- and Weissburgunder respectively), plus Müller-Thurgau and some Riesling – have moved way beyond ‘closely guarded secret’ status. Esteemed on their home turf and well represented in Germany’s top restaurants, they’re now winning plaudits abroad, often beating their peers in global competitions (Fritz Wassmer’s Spätburgunder 2009 won the International Pinot Noir Over £10 Trophy at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards). Terrific terroirs, reduced yields, precise winemaking, reining in of residual sugar levels in whites (which some of their cousins across the Rhine could learn from) and judicious use of new oak in reds are a few of the factors that have helped put them on any serious wine lover’s radar.
The vineyards stretch from Heidelberg in the north down to the Swiss border, but the meat of the matter is found between Baden-Baden and Basel. For a four- to five-day trip giving a good overview of what Baden has to offer, you could combine the steep vineyards of Ortenau (around Offenburg) in the north with a spell in the sunbaked volcanic outcrop of the Kaiserstuhl and neighbouring Breisgau (near Freiburg) in the centre, and still have time left over for the rolling Markgräflerland to the south.
There’s a range of wineries for all tastes and budgets, from world-class names to new boutique ventures, not forgetting the region’s many ambitious co-operatives. Once installed in your hotel (particularly if you’re planning several winery visits and don’t want to drive) ask about a Konus travelcard, which gives free access to the region’s well-served system of buses and trains.
Starting in the north in Ortenau, the beautiful Badische Weinstrasse threads its way through a string of picturesque villages, flanked on every side by steeply planted vineyards, the main streets lined with green-shuttered timbered houses with cascades of clashing scarlet and pink geraniums. Expect seriously structured Pinot Noir here, as well as elegant, rapier-sharp Riesling (known locally as Klingelberger), grown on steep granitic slopes.
Every village has its share of guesthouses and hotels, whose dining rooms (many Michelinstarred) are cosily wood-panelled and staffed by bustling waitresses in typical local costume.
Further south, some of Baden’s most prized wines come from the volcanic soils and sunbaked terraces of the Kaiserstuhl between Freiburg and the Rhine. This is prime terroir for the Pinot family. Many growers admit to Burgundian aspirations, yet the wines have a distinct personality of their own, and you’re assured of a warm welcome and instructive tasting at even the famous estates. The energetic and/or those needing to work off the extra weight that inevitably accompanies Baden travel may want to earmark a day for hiking the Kaiserstuhlpfad, a 21.5km trail that takes you into the heart of the vineyards. (Sustain yourself with the promise of coffee and cake at the end.) And if your stay falls between May and September, keep an eye out for a fellow summer visitor, the gregarious and gloriously coloured bee-eater, who comes up here from the south to nest – and feast on bees – in the cool recesses of the Kaiserstuhl’s loess banks. Further south, between Freiburg and the Swiss border are the green, gently rolling vineyards and orchards of the Markgräflerland. Here the typical winery model combines vineyards with asparagus beds, strawberry fields and cherry orchards. There’s a move away from the traditional local grape, Chasselas (known here as Gutedel), which gives light, crisp, grapey whites, in favour of the Pinot family, plus Syrah and Chardonnay, the best of them grown on calcareous slopes facing the Rhine. Bring your Baden explorations full circle with a glass of Sekt in Hanspeter Ziereisen’s flower-filled courtyard in Efringen-Kirchen, close to the Swiss border.
How to get there
By plane: to Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg or Baden-Baden By train: to Freiburg
Getting around: A Konus travel card gives free access to the region’s excellent public transport system blackforesttourism.com/konus