Wine making in Germany's "Tuscany of the North"

Wine making in Germany's "Tuscany of the North"Berlin  - "Tuscany of the North" is how German Symbolist painter, sculptor and printmaker Max Klinger described the area around the village of Grossjena, now part of the Saale river town of Naumburg in eastern Germany. In 1903, Klinger acquired a small house in a vineyard in Grossjena that overlooks Naumburg and its landmark cathedral. In the vineyard he lies buried.

Today the house is a museum, and visitors can see the charms of the Saale-Unstrut wine-growing region -- the northernmost in Germany -- for themselves. The vineyards on the steep slopes and terraces wind their way gracefully above the flood plains of the Saale and the Unstrut, a left-bank tributary of the Saale.

Edelacker ("Noble Field"), Goettersitz ("Abode of the Gods"), Paradies ("Paradise") -- the vineyards' names are full of promise and some are quite old. The Saale-Unstrut region, situated in the eastern German states of Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia and Brandenburg, has a wine-growing tradition going back more than a millennium.

Its heyday was early in the 16th century, when as many as 10,000 hectares were under cultivation along the middle Saale and lower Unstrut rivers. But wars, bad harvests, unhelpful customs regulations and, in 1887, the grapevine pest, phylloxera, took a heavy toll.

The East German government began subsidising the region's winemaking industry in the early 1960s, but a real revival only came with the privatization of vineyards following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. About 680 hectares are now under cultivation. "The goal is
780," said Siegfried Boy, president of the Saale-Unstrut wine producers' association.

Along the approximately 60-kilometre Saale-Unstrut wine route, wine tastings are offered by more than 50 private winemakers; the Freyburg-Unstrut winegrowers association; the state domain Kloster Pforta, on the site of a former Cistercian abbey; and the sparkling wine producer Rotkaeppchen-Mumm.

The centre of the Saale-Unstrut wine-growing region lies in the tri-town area of Naumburg, Bad Koesen and Freyburg, the last of these in the shadow of the Neuenburg castle. For hikers, there is an extensive network of trails.

Culturally-minded travellers should be sure to see Naumburg, the first written record of which dates from 1012. The town's chief architectural landmark is the late Romanesque and early Gothic St Peter and Paul's Cathedral.

The cathedral draws about 150,000 visitors each year. Many come to admire the work of the "master of Naumburg," an anonymous 13th-century stone sculptor who fashioned the magnificent west rood-screen, containing a lifelike relief of the Passion, and statues of the cathedral's twelve founders.

Fourteen kilometres separate Naumburg from Freyburg. Between them lies the idyllic Bluetengrund district in Grossjena, at the confluence of the Saale and Unstrut rivers. It is home to the "Picture Book of Stone," a 18th-century relief featuring 12 larger-than-life Biblical scenes of wine-growing and hunting that are carved into the natural sandstone wall at the bottom of the Steinauer vineyard.

In Freyburg, picturesquely nestled among vineyards, lies the Ducal Vineyard. Laid out as a Baroque vineyard in 1774 with a house in the middle as was typical in the region, it serves demonstration purposes today. Visitors can learn how vintners work on steep slopes.

A hike from Freyburg upstream along the Unstrut, past the Schweigenberge hills, leads to the town's Zscheiplitz district and the Pawis Winery. An eastern German success story, Bernard and Kerstin Pawis have created a unique ambience for wine tastings by renovating the estate of a former Benedictine convent.

The winery was admitted to the Association of German Praedikat Wine Estates (VDP) in 2001. Membership in the VDP, based in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, requires adherence to quality criteria that well exceed the minimums prescribed by German law. (dpa)