Bridging the borders between France and Germany

For much of my trip I was in border country and of course was constantly reminded of European history and the countless changes to international borders that have been a feature for over 1000 years.

We all have an idea of today's political borders but that doesn't really help when looking at the past. What do we mean by French wine or German wine? Under Napoleon I, most German growers would have travelled under a French passport. Alsace continually swapped flags until 1945. The Jura, part of the Province of France-Comté, only became French in 1678 and since 1516 had been Spanish! Can we suppose that two subjects of the Emperor Charles V, one from Arbois, the other from Jerez, had met one day and discussed flor yeast? Could this explain the sherry-like yellow wines of the Jura? What an outrageous thought!

On Lorraine and the Duke of Marlborough

The view from breakfast table at Maximin Grünhaus. This is Abtsberg, one of the great vineyards of the Mosel The view from breakfast table at Maximin Grünhaus. This is Abtsberg, one of the great vineyards of the Mosel

Many years ago Carl von Schubert, owner of the outstanding Maximiner Grunhäus estate near Trier in Germany (and not too far from the French border), spoke of his desire to reunite all the wines from the Mosel (German) and AOC Moselle (French) wine regions, and as a keen student of history, I immediately warmed to that idea. But finding a good producer in France's Moselle region was easier said than done. This once large vineyard area has been reduced to just a few acres thanks to the combined devastations of the phylloxera pest and war.

Two previous visits had yielded nothing more than a few pictures of vineyards. But then came a break, a few years later, when a grower in Banyuls of all places mentioned the name of a Moselle grower outside the French city of Metz, in the Lorraine region, and even opened a bottle of his delicious white wine for me to try. A hundred or so miles east of Reims, Château de Vaux has often been on one of my itineraries to Champagne or Alsace or as in this case, Germany.

Norbert and Marie-Genevieve now own several hectares of vineyard on the left bank of the Moselle. With few neighbours and plenty of woods, they have been able to run their vines as naturally as possible, adopting biodynamics and organic farming. Such choices have not been easy to live with. The climate is distinctly marginal and more than once they have lost their crop to frost or rot. Norbert has had to battle with the authorities in Paris over what varieties he could plant but has managed to survive and prosper.

Château de Vaux Château de Vaux

I was delighted when they came to see us and take part in our Regional France tastings. Nothing could be more regional than Lorraine! We buy a white from a blend that includes auxerrois and gewurztraminer and a couple of gorgeous reds made from pinot noir. But he also makes good pinot gris and even riesling and from time to time distills a little Mirabelle, a spirit made using the region's famous Mirabelle plums. For the military historian, there is quite a lot to see as the village of Vaux is close to Gravelotte, the scene of a battle during the Franco-Prussian War.

It's a short drive to the city of Trier over the border in Germany, and the most scenic way to get there is along the river. There are more vineyards that straddle the border between France and Luxembourg and there's a castle with a fascinating history. From here the Duke of Marlborough planned an invasion of France. French pronunciation turned Marlborough into Malbrouk and the castle was renamed thus. It's being restored and apparently is well worth a visit.

Where Germany and France become muddled

In 1871, Alsace became German and the slopes to the north of the town of Wissembourg were owned by German growers who live in Schweigen, a village of the Palatinate, a stone's throw away. But how to redraw the border after 1945, when Alsace returns to French ownership? Especially since, over the intervening years, the town of Wissembourg had grown. Not wanting to split the town in two, a decision was made to pass the frontier to the north of the town. As a result, the vines become French but as part of the deal, remain in German ownership and the crop is declared German and brought into the village of Schweigen.

I visited two producers here in this German village, one especially famous for pinot noir, but this time I was more captivated by the slightly more modest wines being made by the Jülg family: fine pinot blanc and gris and gorgeous, Alsace-style gewurz.

Of course it's Alsace style – the vines grow in Alsace! So much for European borders. But times were once harder. Growers in Schweigen used to need a passport to cross the border and the harvest had to be checked by customs. Vestiges of hard borders are never far away with well-preserved bits of the Maginot Line (a vast fortification along the France/Germany border) blending in with much older fortifications.

Harvest time at Weingut Jülg Harvest time at Weingut Jülg

My next stop was back across the Rhine with a busy day in Baden. Here the border with France is not so much hard as wet, as the frontier traces the river Rhine all the way down to Basel. Here, the Rhine is set in a wide valley flanked by the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Black Forest to the east. At one time the two mountainous spines were one until the river, swelled by glacial waters cut a swathe right through it.

Beautiful vineyards in the Jura Beautiful vineyards in the Jura

Alsace is of course famous for its complex geology and Baden is its mirror image with the same kaleidoscope of rock type and endless possibilities with grape varieties. Prettiest is the Kaiserstühl, an ancient volcano which I think is best expressed within the pinot grape family.

The best vineyard, though, may be further north, close to the spa city of Baden-Baden. At Weingut Schloss Neuweier, the rock is slate like, not dissimilar to what one finds around the village of Andlau in lower Alsace. Robert Schätzler makes stunningly good riesling here. One very keen eye has recently spotted this: Michel Chapoutier, wine adventurer and Rhône producer, has gone into partnership with Robert. Borders are indeed softening.

After one last visit near Freiburg, it was back across the border and on to the Jura. I shall leave my Jurassic voyage for another day but what a contrast! German wine is about almost clinical precision and an almost obsessive respect for fruit flavours.

It was fascinating listening to the Food Programme on Radio 4 the other day. They were talking about qvevri wine, an ancient but still practiced vinifying method whereby wine is aged in large, egg-shaped earthenware vessels. Earthenware is not the tradition in the Jura – oak has been used for centuries here, but the effect is similar: wines that are aged for long periods with minimal or no intervention at all. But like I said, that's another story for another time.

Where to go next?

> Germany's 2016 vintage and saying goodbye to a friend

> Trips to other countries

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Members' Comments (2)

"Interesting article of the lands of my favourite wines, but there is one inaccuracy: the Rhine Valley between the Vosges and the Black Forest is one of the world's classic rift valleys, formed by the land falling between two major fault lines, not a product of glacial meltwater."

Mr Alan James (14-Oct-2017)

"And, to nitpick further, Elsaß was part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German People - the first bible to be printed in German, not latin, was printed in Straßburg - until Louis xiv advanced France East to her "natural frontier" on the Rhein. This doesn't affect the wines, of course!"

Lt Col Richard E Spencer (19-Oct-2017)

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