Summer along the Rhine is fun time. For almost five months in the year there is sunshine, and people make the best of the weather. Winter’s drab colours are stowed away. Women and girls come out in bright dresses. Men hang up their overcoats and discard their galoshes. Walking, cycling, boating, rowing – there is tremendous movement of young and old, in their pursuit of the pleasures of summer.
The communities that live along the Rhine have a Mediterranean temperament. They are relaxed, easy and raring for fun, but by no means lazy. The river Rhine the largest European waterway, originates in Switzerland, flows through Germany and crosses into the Netherlands, where its tributaries flow into the North Sea. The part of the river that courses between Koblenz and Cologne is called the Middle Rhine, and stretches for about 126 kilometers. German, French and English writers have captured the beauty of this stretch in songs, poems and stories. On the banks of the Rhine are picture book villages, vineyards clinging to the mountain slopes in neat green lines, brooding broken down castles, ancient Gothic cathedrals, and History itself. Standing on a cliff on the east bank, one looks down on the incomparable panorama of the Siebengebirge (Seven Hills) where many legends were born.
The festival season begins with a Carnival before Lent. This is followed by a Women’s Festival in May, and the crowing of the Fountain Queen. In September, illuminations and fireworks light up the river in a glorious spectacle of the “Rhine in Flames.” The “Bonner Summer” includes dancing in different costumes and dance tournaments. There are Flee Markets and Fairs. The emphasis is on fun and merry making.
In September, the Wine Festival is celebrated with great gusto. It is the last festival before autumn sets in. The vineyards along the Rhine are supposed to be the most northerly in the world. They grow on the steep slopes of the hills, embossed into the flanks in green horizontal lines.
It was the Romans who first brought wine into Germany. There were times in history when people flocked to watch Germans drink themselves under the table. A medieval legend says that a Roman aqueduct was built from Trier to Cologne to transport wine and not drinking water.
Bacharach on the Rhine owes its name to Bacchus the Roman God of wine. An old ditty says, “It’s in Bacharach on the Rhine that you’ll find the best wine…..”
Outside the cathedral at Speyer, stands a stone basin dating to 1490. Every time a new bishop was consecrated, the basin was filled with wine so that the people of Speyer could celebrate.
Having experienced the heady power of wine, Karl Simrock the 19th century poet, admonished his son, “Mark my words son, do not go and live by the Rhine. Life there will be too sweet for you, and boldness will blossom steadily.”
But his son like the Rhenish people was convinced that “he who loves not women, wine and song, remains a fool his whole life long.”
There are four different areas where wine is made – Rheinpfalz, Rheinhessen, Rheingau, and Middle Rhine which is the smallest of the wine producing areas. The grapes are harvested in October for the wine to be ready by summer. Most German wines are white. Red wines form only about 15% of the total production. There are three basic classes of wine – Table wines which are light and wholesome and consumed with meals; Quality wines which have characteristics of a particular area, and have an official number and seal of authenticity; and Quality wines with special distinction, which have made German wines famous. The Rhine and Mossel wines are white and light and usually come in green bottles. Red wines usually from the Ahr Valley are packaged in brown bottles. German wines have always been so famous that even Queen Victoria was fond of it and imported stocks from Hocheim on the Rhine. That’s how wine came to be known as ‘hock’ in England. The winemakers of Hochheim were so pleased with her patronage that they even named their best vineyard as “Queen Victoria Hill” in 1850.
After days of preparation, the season of wine festivals began. I first witnessed it in Linz, a small village on the Rhine, in mid September. Two other neighboring vineyards joined in the celebrations. The entire pedestrian area from the Market Square to the Rhine was crowded with little booths decorated with clusters of grapes and vines. The booths had seating arrangements for people who wanted to spend a few hours tippling.
During the three-day festival, only wine was available for consumption. All other drinks were prohibited, (at least publicly) and the pubs in the area had to pull down shutters. There were food stalls selling fried wurst (sausages) and pommes (French fries) for hungry revelers.
The Mayor marched proudly to the podium with the Wine Queen on his arm. She had been chosen by the Mayor’s inner circle, and would carry the title for two years. During this time, she would have to attend several social events not only in Linz, but also in the two participating vineyards.
The Wine Queen looked beautiful in a gorgeous ankle-length red dress. She had a silver tiara, with a design of clusters of grapes etched into its band. The Mayor gave a short history of the origin and significance of the wine festivals. The queen then pledged to carry on her duties conscientiously during her tenure. The feast was declared open by the Mayor, and a flurry of trumpets announced the opening of the wine booths to revelers. The Mayor held a huge goblet of wine to the queen’s lips. Then it was passed around to the dignitaries on the podium. The band struck up a waltz, and the Mayor claimed the queen for the first dance, after which she danced with the vineyard owners who showered her with gifts.
For the revelers, the fun had begun. The first drink at the wine fest had to be Fiederwasser, (partially fermented wine) which was expensive and very sweet. This wine is available only during the wine festival, and must be consumed as soon as the bottle is opened, because it quickly acquires a taste like vinegar if exposed for too long.
The other specialty of the feast is Zweibelkuchen, an onion tart which is prepared only during this time. When the formality of drinking Feiderwasser was over, the revelers indulged themselves in their favourite wines. Countless glasses were consumed by drinkers who went booth hopping and making an unearthly ruckus. Barrels were emptied like water. Everywhere the sweet sickening smell of wine permeated the air. The festivities continued till midnight. For three whole days, the orgy continued. On the last night, it ended in a picturesque display of fireworks.
Here and there along the Rhine are wine cellars, with wine stored in traditional wooden casks in their vaults. Here people can taste different types of wines before making purchases. While some are genuine buyers, some go there for free sampling. They keep tasting so many varieties and munching squares of bread in between tasting, until they’ve had their evening quota of wine and a stomach full of bread.
In neighboring Leutsdorf, where five vineyards participated, the celebrations were grander. For almost half a mile, people lined the streets. Many of them wore a knitted pouch around their necks, with a glass stuck in the pouch.
Police vehicles cleared the road of traffic, and a mammoth procession made its way slowly down the road. Each participating vineyard had their own gaily decorated floats, carrying barrels filled with wine. Staff from the vineyards dressed in their own special costumes, doled out wine to whoever held out their glasses. One resourceful fellow had brought a can along, in which he emptied all the free samples he collected. Each vineyard had its own band made up of village musicians and school children, who wore distinctive costumes of the village. Here was Rhenish merriment and joie-de-vivre at its very best. The Capuchin vineyards were represented by the Capuchin priests in their brown robes, and sozzled in wine like the others.
The Wine Queen from this area stood in an open vehicle, waving and blowing kisses to the crowds. Bringing up the rear was Bacchus himself, a large wine goblet in his hand, acknowledging the greetings of the people. The procession ended at the waterfront, where cosy wayside wine booths beckoned to the laughing inebriate revelers.
Rudersheim another small town on the Rhine with its Drosselgasse is the jolliest street in the world during the wine fest. The street is lined by taverns and the drunken men keep singing songs praising the goodness of wine.
There is another small town called Unkel, where red wine is sold. The drink is called the fiery “Unkeler Funkeler,” but doesn’t have many takers.
The wine festival was over, and one drunk staggering down the road began to sing, “God made the vine; Was it a sin that Man made the wine to drown his trouble in?”