The scenic route winding past the historic medieval fortress town of Rothenburg Ob der Tauber leads on to fascinating territory. Driving up the gentle inclines through neatly furrowed vineyards, turfed meadows and protected woodlands, we reach a hillock with a farm hut, its balcony looking out to spectacular panoramas of the valleys.

Franconia is one of Germany's (read Bavaria's) well kept secrets and its small demographic identity as a premium wine region, growing and nurturing truly unique grape varietals is quite unknown to most outside Europe. The environment-sensitive preservation of its many micro climate vineyard hectares reflects in the stead fast co-operative and collaborative structure of the weinguts (winemakers). Settling down on the balcony ledge, the strikingly trademark stocky, curvaceous bottles of Franken wines aided our visual enchantment with floral fragrances. The Tauberhase vineyards nurtured by award-winning gourmet cuisine celebrity Christian Mittermeier cultivate some of Bavaria's leit-motif grape varietals. A liberal platter of Bergkase (fresh Bavarian mountain cheese) and grilled vegetables accompanied our wine tastings. The outstanding 2008 Weingut Stoerlein & Krenig Silvaner ‘Tradition' trocken (dry) white wine had deep floral notes of juniper with light lily, grapefruit flavours and a soft citrus back palate.

The cheery, fruity, floral and generously light superlative Silvaner is to Franconia what Sangiovese is to Tuscany and Shiraz to Hunter Valley. Silvaner is, in our opinion, easily the most generously opulent and flexible, exhilaratingly dry white wine in the world with genteel acidity and its unmistakable purely natural flavours. Steffen, our host from Mittermeier's Tauberhase vineyards poured us another bouquet, a unique 2008 Tauberschwarz Franken Trocken (dry) number. Fresh floral notes of grapefruit, berry and green bamboo were persistently thrilling, with notes of freshly snipped rose petals.

Valley lore

This fascinating wine country boasting an exemplary demography of distinguished grape stocks packs in sunshine flavours for all seasons. Our next wine pronounced promising tastes as the Weingut Rudolf Furst 2008 Silvaner ‘Pur Mineral' dry white exhibited a rose, heather and water lily nose, the natural light, sweetness going onto drier, light lemon and pear flavours.

The leit-motif high minerality in Franken wines, emerging from the lateritic mix soil of limestone and hard slate with ancient traces of raw, un-mined iron and copper was remarkably gentle on our palates. We found a pleasant surprise awaiting us in a vintage, limited edition Tauberhase 2006 South African Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon. The Mittermeier family owns vineyards in South Africa's Cape Wine Region and this jewel was an inspiration from that celebrated region.

Distinction in flavours

Coburg's ‘Wein Ortell', the over a century old retail outlet-cum-tasting haven-cum-underground ‘Weinkeller' (wine cellar) stocks some of the finest white Franken labels. Eight white tastings later it needed a quaff of the celebrated ‘Spaetburgunder' (Pinot Noir) red stock to neutralize our palates! Franconia's other varietals include Riesling, Schwarzriesling (Pinot Meunier-used in Champagne), the mid-acidic Muller-Thurgau, Bacchus, Kerner, Dornfelder, Weiserburgunder(white Pinot), Domina and Spaetburgunder and Blauer Portugueser (Blue Portuguesa).

The tiny Franconian hamlet of Ramsthal hardly sounded like the location for a modern boutique winery. But at Baldauf Winery (Weingut Baldauf), we made a sweet beginning with their honeysuckle, vanilla and peony flavoured signature wine, the Baldauf Gold Medal 2008 Clees Bacchus Spaetlese – sensitively crafted, sweetly balanced, butter smooth. The superb 2009 Schwarzriesling, dry white wine was heightened with mellow tangerine, wild grass and celery palate. The nose was uplifting - lily and lemony whiffs that lingered on.

Their much awarded red 2008 Baldauf ‘Domina trocken'- a unique blend of Portuguesa and Spaetburgunder was a fantastic, very dry red cuvee that offered earthy, burnt wood notes with striking tobacco, clove and oak wood tastes, akin to burnt cigar on the olfactory senses. Our concluding tastings spanned two outstanding labels - the award-winning Baldauf 2008 Clees Riesling Spaetlese with light, peachy flavours aided by lime hints, mild acidity and grassy bouquets and the Baldauf 2008 Pinot Noir Dry (Spaetburgunder trocken) with mild peppery and cassis flavours complemented by dark ruby tones and wild mushroom-leather nose.

A class apart

We had a smooth drive to Castell, a tiny hilltop village in Franconia down seasonal showers soaking the furrowed, inclined vineyards into a brilliance of greens as we pulled up at the world famous Castell Winery. The illustrious, centuries old Castell family is also reputed worldwide as pioneers in banking, agriculture and their well known global brand ‘Faber-Castell'.

Here, we were offered some of the finest labels in the Franconian wine legacy by one of the pioneers in the discipline. The summery light white -2008 Schloss Casteller Bausch Mueller Thurgau - Kabinett Trocken (dry) and the 2009 Casteller Silvaner Kabinett (premium) were outstandingly dry and aromatic. Known globally for their award-winning ‘Good Growth' - GG Schlossberg Silvaner (GG-is the official hallmark of the finest certification in wines from premium grape stock) both labels offered grand floral notes matched with lingering grapefruit, passion fruit and light melon flavours.

Our wine motivator from Castell, Karl-Heinz Rebitzer led his 4WD onto hairpin bend vineyard slopes high above the village into rolling clouds with the grassy, earthy fragrance of vine rows guarded by red and white rose stems soaking up the fleeting rain. We saluted our Castell sojourn with an outstanding Casteller Kugelspiel Silvaner 2007 Eiswein (Ice wine) with vanilla and honey notes and mesmerizing nectarine, chocolate and lemon rind hints lingering back palate. A local blue-vein cheese from Cheesery Sennerei in the Alpine Allgau region was a perfect accompaniment.

Driving back to Munich for lunch we ducked down into the fabled underground medieval ‘Ratskeller' –Town Hall cellars in the heart of the city. Here, ‘Weingut Juliusspital' in Wurzburg- the heart of the Franconian wine region produces boutique whites and reds. The highly recommended ‘Gutswein' estate wines offered smooth Rieslings, Mueller Thurgaus and Scheurebes (Riesling+Silvaner blend) and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris of the Italian portfolio), all classics in their pedigree. Their ‘Groezwein' or premium varietals reputed globally create benchmarks in excellence including distinct reds. The magical Franconian sunshine contained in the unique ‘Bocksbeutel' (goat's scrotum)-shaped wine bottles never ceases to fascinate us.

Franconian wine tips

Franconian wines (also labeled as Franken wines) are readily recognizable by their stocky rounded shape (whites) and slim green bottles (reds) and available in Bavaria and Munich. For first class fliers, the exquisite VIP Wing Lounge at Munich's Franz Josef International Airport offers exclusive wines from Weingut Juliusspital.

Premium fine dining restaurants in Munich like the ‘Atelier' and ‘Palais Keller' at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, Schweiger 2 and Tantris have a fine Franconian wine collection. Other outlets where these wines can be bought are the well known wine boutiques ‘Volkhardt's Wine Bistro' in Munich and ‘Wein Ortell' - Coburg, supermarkets like ‘Relay', ‘Aldi' (Sud) and ‘Lidl'.

(The authors are international wine writers and wine awareness consultants)

(This article was published on June 5, 2012)
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