Several weeks ago we went to Oktoberfest. Betty Lou likened it to a big County Fair, with rides, food booths, cotton candy and roasted nuts. However they do have a dozen beer tents, each holding about 6,000 people. It turned out to be even more difficult to get "Maerzen Weisín" beer, the original Oktoberfest beer, than it was to find a seat. When we did find it, in the Hofbräuhaus tent, early enough that it hadnít run out, we preferred it to the new, lighter, beer. It tasted like it is made with less hops – I find the usual Pils beer we get in Frankfurt has more than I like, although many expatriates love it.
We also saw sights that we had missed when we were here in í68 – in particular, the Residenz, where the rulers of Bavaria lived from the 1300s until 1918! Restored after being almost totally destroyed in the Second World War, it has acres of rooms, or maybe I should say miles, because of all the walking required to tour them all. In one huge room, a table was set for about 50 – with goldware! Three adjacent rooms had floor-to-ceiling china closets filled with more plebeian silver services. The Treasury had an amazing collection of jewel-encrusted medals, crowns – even swords. But they were all overshadowed by a statue of "St. George Slaying the Dragon," about two feet high and made of gold, which you can hardly see for all the diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and other jewels. But the detail of George, his horse, and the dragon is exquisite.
The week after Oktoberfest, we turned to – more alcohol. We took a course at the German Wine Academy, which actually involved lectures and study, and even a test at the end. Fortunately, there were no failing grades – it would really be tough to have to retake the course! It also included tasting nearly 200 wines, so that as part of the final exam, we could (mostly) determine the grape and region of five wines tasted blind. We also traveled to eight of the eleven German wine-growing regions; all but the three new regions incorporated from the previous East Germany. From what we've read, it will be a while before their quality approaches that of the West.
After breakfast we'd depart by bus from our hotel in Oestrich-Winkel, about 10 miles west of Wiesbaden in the heart of the Rheingau, to a vineyard, winery, or the German Wine Institute to learn about grape hybrids or diseases or wine laws, perhaps start tasting at 9:00 or 9:30, followed by another "lesson," have lunch, visit another vineyard, taste some more, and have dinner (with several wines of course). Many nights we wouldn't get back to our hotel until after 11 PM. A grueling regimen, but education requires sacrifice!
We visited their research facility, the Institute of Vine Breeding and Grafting, and learned about how they develop new varieties to try to beat the diseases and produce more sugar under the harsh growing conditions they have here. It isnít a very quick process – it takes 30 years for a new strain to get to the field. Itís interesting to hear the scientists here complain about how, even when they have developed superior varieties, the growers are returning more to the old classics.
One day we went to a wine testing station – every wine must be taste-tested before it gets an approval number and they keep two bottles in case there are later objections. (After three years, the extras are given to retirement homes, to the disappointment of not a few of our group, who would have been glad to reduce their inventory a little. Just another perk of the German social system; see also Public Activities, Spas, German Prosperity; even RIFs.) There we were "treated" to a variety of wines that were faulty for various reasons. Several of the problems resulted from the use of too little sulphur dioxide, a sterilizing agent, although one, of course, had too much.
And one had a cellulose taste from using paper filters that hadnít first had enough water run through them to remove the flavor – they told us that they had stopped using asbestos filters! A reassuring statement – I wonder how many years weíve been drinking German, and probably other, wines that had such treatment.
One afternoon we cruised down the Rhein, tasting wines from various vineyards of the Mittelrhein as we passed them. Another day, in the Nahe, we rode a mechanical grape picker in action. The "graduation" banquet was held in the Kloster Eberbach, whose interior was featured in "The Name of the Rose."
We still havenít figured out where we can wear the beribboned medals we earned – maybe to Jean Louisí. We also got more discreet pins – Iím curious to see if theyíre recognized at any wine shops. Last weekend we went to Rothenburg and, nearly by coincidence, stayed in a hotel whose restaurant had a noted wine cellar. The owner did seem to be impressed that we had taken the course – he spent quite a while discussing his wines and this yearís harvest with us. It probably helped that we had recognized his picture in a newspaper clipping when last yearís harvest had a record high sugar level, from which they could make an incredible Trokenbeerenauslese, mercifully abbreviated as TBA. Not that we had any; it probably will also be incredibly expensive, and wonít really be ready to drink for 15 years. The í76 Beerenauslese we did have was plenty good. Although we did taste several Beerenausleses, and Eisweines, during the course, the only time we had Trokenbeerenauslese was at the banquet – fortunately, because of the price, its flavor is such that I wouldnít crave it frequently – itís sort of like fermented raisins.
[Before our return, we stocked up on German wines, including five TBAs, to ship back with our household items – about 500 bottles altogether. The '88 and '89 wines that were currently available were very good vintages, and twenty years later we're still finding those that we'd resisted so far to be delicious. The packers wanted to label the boxes as being kitchen or household goods, but we told them to label them as wine, because we were insuring them in case of any breakage, of which there was plenty on the move over. You may wonder about the customs charges, but they're based on "proof gallon" percentages, and the total was only about $50.]