Travel

This Legendary Hike in Germany Is Littered With Outdoor Booze Stands

This year's Oktoberfest substitute is all about that sweet berry wine.

Four miles into hiking a portion of Germany’s Rheinsteig trail, and I’m drunk.

The unexpected inebriation hit after some mid-morning frühschoppen (morning drinks) courtesy of the wine-tasting stands scattered along this monumental hiking and cycling route. At Schloss Vollrads—an 800-year-old wine estate located among the vineyards overlooking the town of Oestrich-Winkel—a sign advertises glasses for 2 Euros. About a mile further along the outskirts of the ever-baronial town of Johannisberg, a few picnic tables are precariously perched along a vineyard ledge. The ramshackle operation—like something out of a low-grade documentary about bootleg wine—is selling bottles of white for a few bucks. 

In the US, roadside fruit and vegetable stands are the norm. Hell, it’s not even wholly uncommon to happen upon guys sipping Bud Heavies and serving BBQ from the back of a beat-up Ford F-150. But every autumn, while attention drifts toward the beer-guzzling, lederhosen-rocking, Oktoberfest-frenzied crowds gather in Munich, iGermany’s bucolic Rheingau, Mosel, and Pfalz regions usher in the start of another season: the annual wine harvest. And with that comes the roadside lure of Federweisser. 

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Tom Burson

What the pumpkin spice latte is to Starbucks, federweisser is to locals living along Germany’s Rhine and Mosel rivers. Produced from the season’s first grapes, Federweissen is fizzy, yeasty, and barely fermented wine. Metaphorically speaking, the beverage is a Rhine Valley religion, one that falls below Catholicism and Lutheranism somewhere close to Beer-ism. 

Because they’re designed to ferment after bottling, early-season Federweissers are essentially sweet grape juice… a “taste you can feel in your cheeks” that Little Rascals’ Spanky McFarland would probably corroborate today in an over-21 remake of his iconic ‘90s Welch’s grape juice commercial. It’s so sweet, in fact, that when consumed gluttonously—the way Bacchus damn-well intended—it’s sneakily inebriating. Each bottle includes tiny air holes that allow the fermentation gases to escape. It’s the angsty teenager of wines: As the juice ferments in the bottle, it becomes more sour and more incendiary.

From late September and into October you can find the stuff mass-consumed along the Rhine’s mighty shores and in every gutsschänke (wine tavern) with a side of zwiebelkuchen (onion cake). Most often though, you see it in two-liter jugs purchased along highways, hiking trails, and at wine stands (known as Weinprobierstände) by parched cyclists, hikers, and road-trippers like some magical German moonshine. 

In the western Rheingau region, the UNESCO-certified Rhine Gorge and Rheinsteig trail will guide you through this intoxicating (literally) dreamscape. Consisting of more than 200 miles of wine-laden footpaths, the romantic valley winds past thousand-year-old castles and verdant vistas overlooking fairytale towns with so much viticulture your boots will be buzzing.

While it’s easy enough to drive to standout towns like Rüdesheim, Geisenheim, Hattenheim (basically anywhere ending a with “heim”) to sample the goods, the more memorable experience involves lacing up some trekking shoes or hopping on the ol’ Schwinn before venturing through the vineyards. 

Wine walkabouts are a tradition dating back at least to the year 800, when Charlemagne first planted grapes here. The practice became even more famous when Goethe spent years stumbling from weingut (winery) to weingut in towns like Eltville.

At a wine stand just outside the “wine village” of Kiedrich, two elderly women from one of the town’s many vineyards are slinging samples to passersby. Rows of picnic tables line the makeshift Weingarten, which overlooks the 15th-century Gothic spires of the town’s St. Valentin Cathedral. It’s an idyllic stop for some mid-day imbibing on Riesling, Weissburgunder, or, of course, Federweisser. 

The stand, like many Weinprobierstände, is a city-operated effort. Every week, from Easter through October, a new, local vintner takes their tipples to the hut and sells their stock to those journeying by. For small, independent wineries like Speicher-Schuth, it’s a massive, cost-effective opportunity to showcase the fruits of their labor to national—and even international—audiences. In total, more than 20 “certified” tasting stands dot the Rheingau region, with even more backwoods operations throughout the more remote expanses of the vineyards. 

Those requisite stop-offs—in addition to Kiedrich, Schloss Vollrads, and Johannisberg—include the towns of Kaub, Lorch, or the nearby Burt-less town of Bacharach. Each brim with medieval, timber-frame houses that look straight out of a Snow White. If you can, sample the vines from the steep slopes around the Bacharacher Hahn vineyards or make your way west to the town of Oester-Winkel to enjoy the 230-year-old, family-run biodynamic winery Peter Jakob Kühn

While a spectacle year-round, almost every weekend of every autumn in nearly every town, village, and hamlet is aglow with some sort of Federweisserfest. In the postcard town of Rüdesheim, kegs of Federweisser, a line-up of tractors, and stalls selling bratwurst and lebkuchen takeover the cobblestone streets of the Gothic old town for the annual “Days of the Federweissers.” Rosy-cheeked chaps dancing along to an oompah cover-band down federweisser with the year’s newly anointed wine queen. It’s a bacchanal that celebrates all that is glorious about the year’s harvest, and, more importantly, consuming far too much of said harvest. 

Luckily, if you do it right, you’ll have plenty of time to walk it off afterward.

Tom Burson is a Detroiter displaced in Germany. His writing appears in VogueVice, DeparturesCenturion, and his HP G-6 laptop.
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