Wandering the streets of Bernkastel-Keus, its hard not to feel like you are on a treasure hunt. For one, there’s the countless storefront window displays, many of them showing off wine bottles of nearby producers, their labels bedecked with Gothic script and a stodginess that paradoxically counters the happy and saccharine flavors of the Riesling inside. There’s also the half-timbered buildings, many of them leaning as though they’re about to fold over like a house of cards. And then, there are those glimpses — usually over a roofline or between two buildings — of the Bernkasteler Doctor, one of the most prized vineyards in all of Europe, stretching up the hill side like a dwarf emerald forest.
The Bernkasteler Doctor owes its fame in equal measure to the grapes it produces and to its chamber-of-commerce legend. Or so they’ll have you believe. It’s probably a 90/10 split in favor of the legend.
That story has to do with Boemund II, the Archbishop of Trier, who visited the Landshut Castle in 1360, and became deathly ill. Every subsequent remedy prescribed by a doctor failed. But when he was given the local wine — voila! — he was fit as a fiddle. So pleased was he with the curative powers of the wine that he gave the vineyard land to the grower. They’re still milking the story to this day, which is fine. All over Bernkastel-Keus, you’ll find tributes to the “Doctorberg” — a bronze fountain, a stain-glass sign, German men walking around in quasi-pilgram outfits (Germany’s version of Civil War re-enactors?). It lends a quaint and fanciful story to a town that already rocks a pretty authentic fairy tale look.
Soon after a horrible lunch (avoid the Italian restaurant on the plaza off Mosel Strasse … about as unwelcoming as they come), my mom offered to take our daughter to a toy shop while Hailey and I walked around and explored. We soon found our way through an arched passageway and onto a walled road that ascended into the Bernkasteler Doctor. Here, rather than drape from post to post horizontally, the vines grow up in stalks like mini-trees, their careful pruning and vertical aspirations a sign that at this northern latitude, every ounce of sunlight is needed for ripened grapes.
We took several pictures from up there (such as the first four images in this post), focusing on the undulating hillside, the serene half-timbered worker’s hut at the top, and the nearly-there Riesling grapes, their partial ripeness indicated by small droplets of gold nectar oozing from their stems.
Part of the thrill with wine —particularly single-vineyard wines such as the Bernkastler Doctor wines from Pauly-Bergweiler, Dr. Thanisch and others — is forming a connection with a particular piece of land. From now on, whenever I see a Riesling from this vineyard (and there are quite a few you can get in States), I’ll think of that view, the way the grapes were that day, and how stunning the vineyard looked from below and out on the river, with the regal buildings of Bernkastel anchoring the green mountain to the Mosel’s shoreline.
Back down in town, we reunited with my mom and our daughter, and explored the city’s streets for a good four hours. We found a particularly good — and busy — bakery on the main square for a mid-afternoon treat. Toys! Sweet rolls! Windows with little things to look at! Varenna was quickly falling in love with Germany.
With only two weeks to go before Halloween — and a good two and a half months until Christmas — one street in particular captivated her. On one side was an antique furniture store that was guarded by an animatronic witch who cackled maniacally anytime someone triggered her motion sensor. Varenna was amused and scared all at once (so much so that she hardly noticed the bizarre stuffed doggie sticking out of a suit or armor).
Across the street was a Christmas store. Clearly, in a country that celebrates the holy holiday as well as anyone, selling Christmas themed trinkets, baubles and ornaments is a year-round affair (and yet, we still came up empty-handed for a Christmas tree topper).
But the real highlight of Bernkastel-Keus would remain the Marktplatz on the Bernkastel side of the city. Surrounded on four sides by maroon-and-white half-timbered buildings, it is the quintessential image of Germanic beauty. Even in October, the windowsill geraniums were in full bloom. As the sun flirted with the clouds and occasionally illuminated one half of the Marktplatz — delicately bringing St. Michael’s gilded wings to life — I snapped away with abandon.
As our afternoon drew to a close, my travel companions — especially my pregnant wife — were gracious enough to allow me another wine tasting, this time at Pauly-Bergweiler. Our host was Monika, whose warmth and knowledge of the area’s vineyards made the tasting interesting for both of us.
While I sampled a handful of Bernkastel-grown rieslings — include one from the Bernkasteler Doctor and a spätburgunder that was “an acquired taste” — the wine that really captivated me was from the Ürziger Würzgarten vineyard in Ürzig, a town we had stopped by earlier in the day. Bright flavors with a mineral snappiness to it, it was completely different than the other Rieslings I had been trying. The reason was fairly clear: no other vineyard on the Mosel has a terroir quite like the “spice garden,” with its red volcanic soil and steep, south-facing pitch. They may rave all they want about the “healing powers” of the Doctor vineyard, but this was easily the wine worth bringing home.