I was first introduced to the Pfalz wine region a couple of years ago by a foodie friend of mine. She took us to one of her favorite vineyards so that we could stock up her wine cellar. Since then, I've made it a point to order wines from the region when they're offered at restaurants or to look for the region on labels in the grocery store. And so when that same friend invited me back last weekend for a wine tasting, I was thrilled to accept.
I left early Saturday morning and took the train to Mannheim. From there, I took a regional train to Neustadt. All-in-all the journey was just a little over an hour, making it very easy to get to from Stuttgart. I was there early, so I decided to have a cup of coffee at Blank Roast Kaffeemanufaktur just north of the town center. The little shop doesn't look like much sandwiched between an auto rental place and a gas station, but they do a mean cup of coffee from beans that they roast there. The shop also sells a number of fine French goods, muffins, croissants, and cakes.
After my friend arrived and we had a brief catch-up, we dropped our bags off at our hotel and took the local train to the next town over, called Deidesheim. Deidesheim is ridiculously picturesque with cobblestone streets and creeping ivy surrounded by hundreds of acres of vines. The town may look small, but it's the location of many great wineries, including our destination: Weingut Von Winning.
We had come for the Weinlagenwanderung, though the website had been rather unspecific about what exactly to expect. We didn't see much in the way of signs, so we decided to grab a couple of glasses and start tasting in their lovely tasting room surrounded by heavy oak furniture and leatherback chairs. As we moved our way from white to red, we had a fabulous time comparing tasting notes. One Sauvignon Blanc smelled like diesel, though the taste was light and green. The red Dornfelder smelled rich, like Concord grapes, but disappointingly tasted like wood. The Pinot Noir Violette was too divine for words, but at 49€ a bottle was a bit more than my budget could handle. What I did end up trying, loving, and buying was the Weißer Burgunder II, which, I kid you not, smelled like dill pickles and tasted smooth, slightly oaky, and with a complex hint of nuts on the end.
After tasting and ordering our favorites, we asked about the Weinlagenwanderung. The woman at the counter directed us to the sales table that had recently been erected at the entrance to the winery, and so we made our way outside to purchase our tickets. There, we noticed, were three tables set up with all of the Von Winning wines. Led by one of the vintners, we proceeded to taste their Grosses Gewächs wines. Unfortunately, my German isn't so good that I understood everything that was said, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless and picked up an odd word here or there about the scent and tastes of each wine, like the "almond nose" on the Spiess and the "pear and sea salt" of the Jesuitengarten.
With our second tasting under our belts, we tottered to our feet for a tour of the vineyards. (As a side note, I have to admire the hiking shoes that Germans can somehow make look fashionable even at a wine tasting. I felt sadly underprepared in my little flats.) The vineyards are located less than 500 meters behind the winery and stretch for what looks like miles in every direction around the down. As we trundled through the vines, we picked grapes from the ends and tried everything from Gewürztraminer to Chardonnay. It was truly amazing to taste the flesh of each grape, which though they might have looked the same, each had their own unique flavor. We could clearly pick out the wines that each one produced, and marveled at the differences between the skins, some of which were quite bitter and others that were mild with a hint of sweet.
By this time, we were more than ready for dinner and headed back to the winery for our date at Leopold Restaurant. The interior of the restaurant was decorated in chic golds and browns creating a warm rather than haughty atmosphere. We were quickly seated and served, starting with a bottle of the delicious Weißer Burgunder II from earlier (note that the wines are much cheaper from the winery than in the restaurant). We began our meal with smoked salmon served with a fresh mango and avocado salad, along with an amuse bouche of lentil salad and some homemade bread and a delicious roasted tomato spread. For my main corse, I order the lamb with a pepper and wine sauce with a side of homemade gnocchi sautéed in sage. The lamb was perfectly cooked: tender and juicy on the inside with a thin outside layer of fat that had been deliciously caramelized. It was one of those meals where you savor every last bite because you're surrounded by a beautiful atmosphere with good company and exquisite food. But before long, we had to pay our (surprisingly low) bill and make our way back to the hotel.
We gave ourselves a treat and slept in the next day. Then, we started off with another coffee from Blank Roast Kaffeemanufaktur and took a pleasant drive through the area. We stopped once again at Von Winning to pick up our order from the day before. We also learned that there was a wine festival going on in the area (which explained all of the drunken people wearing Dirndls and Lederhosen that we saw on the train the night before), and decided to try to visit it after lunch if we could make it.
For lunch, we stopped at Weingut Josef Biffar to eat at their restaurant Fumi. I was surprised to hear from my friend that the vineyard had been taken over recently by some Japanese investors. They reworked the wine so that it would pair well with Japanese food, and then brought in chefs from Japan to make some of the best Japanese food in the region. They had an impressive menu with everything from sushi and tempura to yakitori that mirrored many of the foods and flavors that I enjoyed on our own trip to Japan two years ago.
In the end, I chose to try the Aubergine Dengaku appetizer on recommendation from my friend. The dish contained three thick slices of eggplant that had been perfectly fried with a light tempura coating on the cut sides and topped with a slightly sweet miso paste and peppers. The pairing with their slightly sweet Deidesheimer Grainhübel Riesling Spätese was perfect. For my entrée, I decided to try the Unagi no Kaba-Yaki, grilled eel with a teriyaki sauce served with grilled vegetables, rice, Japanese pickles, and miso soup. Our Japanese waitress carefully explained how I should eat the eel first, followed by the rice and a sip of miso soup. Paired with the dry Spätburgunder, I felt as if the meal had been carefully choreographed for maximum enjoyment. On the other side of the table, my friend got the impressive 5-course menu with wine, which I also got to try. It ended with a dessert plate that included green tea ice cream and an Auslese Gelee that was particularly noteworthy.
Rather than tottering, this time we rolled back to the car. Unfortunately it was starting to rain, so we didn't make it to the festival, called the Dürkheimer Wurstmarkt (which is now on my list for next year!). However, I felt the weekend was perfect with our fabulous wine tasting and two great meals. The Pfalz has certainly made a greater impression on my mind as not only a wine capital, but also a fine dining capital for the region. At such a close distance and with so many great vineyards and restaurants on offer, I'm sure we'll be back again soon.
For more information about the Pfalz and the area's local foods, check out this excellent post from Christie of A Sausage Has Two.