“The Rheingau is like a fun-loving person”, muses Wolfgang Blum, as he takes a sip from his glass of Hattenheim Vintage Riesling. He’s sitting in a deckchair with a view of the River Rhine, shading his eyes from the setting sun. Blum believes wine-growing eptomises our lust for life: “Wherever wine grows, you find people who value well-being and who attach great importance to pleasure”. And he should know. The ambassador for wine and culture has lived here for 60 years. “I’ve travelled a lot, but believe me − you can really enjoy life here in the Rheingau”.
Wine, pleasure and culture have always been closely linked in the Rheingau. This is also true in St Hildegard Abbey, which lies above Rüdesheim am Rhein. The Benedictine nuns run a winery there spanning 7.5 hectares. Their wine is much more than a hobby. Just like in any other business, the sisters are dependent on the yield from their work. “We work according to the basic principles of St. Benedict, meaning we have to live from our own work”, explains Sister Thekla Baumgart, who manages the winery. Their efforts are crowned with success. The winery sells around 50,000 bottles per year and regularly wins prizes, most recently the “Best of Riesling”. Sister Thekla learned her craft at Geisenheim University and is supported by a master vintner. She loves working on the vineyard: “It always brings me back down to earth; the work is like meditation”.
“Walking can be meditative too, especially on long trails”, Wolfgang Blum tells me later. He’s often out and about in the Rheingau. He’s especially fond of the Rheinsteig, a 320-kilometre hiking trail that runs directly past St. Hildegard Abbeyfrom Wiesbaden to Bonn. Blum is one of the 21 sponsors of the trail – he knows it inside out. “The Rheinsteig is the most popular long-distance hiking trail in Germany outside the Alps”, he notes. “It has magnificent views of the Rhine and a great deal of diversity, especially thanks to its monasteries”. The 30-kilometre stretch between Rüdesheim-Aulhausen and Eberbach Abbey is home to six monasteries that have been preserved from a total of twelve original buildings. And the Franciscan monastery of Marienthal am Rheinsteig awaits us less than four kilometres away from St. Hildegard. This pilgrimage church dates back to the 14th century and is a place of peace and seclusion − and not just for pilgrims.
The Drosselgasse in Rüdesheim am Rhein offers a different experience altogether: Here you can enjoy live music in the many traditional pubs, and you can even sleep in an original wine barrel. But if you’re looking for a bit of peace and quiet, you’ll also find something here. Guided nature walks, wildlife spotting, wine trails and cellar tours are all available in the UNESCO World Heritage region of the “Rhine Gorge”.
Schloss Johannisberg is another place where you can enjoy a sociable atmosphere. The former monastery is now home to a restaurant with magnificent views. According to legend, a winery was set up here because Charles the Great noticed, when looking across the Rhine from his residence in Ingelheim, that the snow melted first on these slopes. And then there’s the story about the castle: Apparently, a messenger took so long to deliver the prince-abbot of Fulda’s authorisation to harvest the grapes in the autumn of 1775 that the fruit had already gone rotten. The grapes were pressed anyway, and the wine tasted so good the following spring that 1775 became the official birth year of the “Spätlese” or late vintage. Regardless of whether this actually happened, the image of the “Spätlesereiter” has been preserved for time immemorial with a statue on Schloss Johannisberg.
The penultimate stop on our one-day tour through the Rheingau is Eberbach Abbey. It’s considered one of the best-preserved medieval monasteries in Germany. It’s now the venue of the Rheingau Music Festival and a registry office. It’s also the headquarters of the Hessen State Wineries, whose most famous vineyard “Steinberg”, with its ultra-modern cellar, is just a few minutes’ walk away. In the late afternoon, we find ourselves relaxing by a wine-tasting barrel in Hattenheim am Rhein. It’s a normal Wednesday − the benches are absolutely packed. Wine ambassador Wolfgang Blum has his own philosophies about the Rheingau’s joie de vivre. As I look around, I find myself agreeing with him. People are enjoying their evening with a glass of wine and watching the boats as they pass by on the river. You can see the relaxation in their faces. I’m soon overcome by a sense of well-being. Blum is right: “The Rheingau truly epitomises our joie de vivre”.