Event report: Of Walnuts, Viscosity and Vine Fretters – Hill Walk and Wine Tasting at Pillnitz Royal Vineyard

Group fun picture at 'Sachsens Hiefel' viewpoint in Rockau (Photo: M. Lindner)
Group fun picture at ‘Sachsens Hiefel’ viewpoint in Rockau
(Photo: M. Lindner)

Event report: Of Walnuts, Viscosity and Vine Fretters – Hill Walk and Wine Tasting at Pillnitz Royal Vineyard

A round lot of 20 of us met up at Schillerplatz in Striesen this past Saturday for a day out hiking, chatting and, of course, wine tasting. We took the number 63 bus towards Pillnitz, but rather than having it take us straight to our wine tasting, we made everyone get off at ‘Staffelsteinstraße’ stop in Niederpoyritz and walk up a steep and winding slope uphill. Those who had heeded our initial advice to wear layers, layers, layers soon got a chance to take some off. Well, if you want wine, you first have to work for it ;-)

Caught up in our conversations, we passed an old brewery and former castle at the start of our walk almost unnoticed. Our first stop and breather was the viewpoint ‘Sachsens Hiefel’ (archaic for ‘Saxony’s Rick’) in Rockau village. On a clear day, it offers a spectacular view over Dresden, the Saxon Switzerland and even as far beyond as Schneeberg. Unfortunately the clouds were low and in addition a field of tall-grown sugar cane obstructed half of the view. But we would not let that stop us from taking some breakfast and a first group picture.

Just back on track, a small lonely table on the roadside caught our attention: Someone sold walnuts from their garden for 2 EUR a kilo – a bargain! All you had to do was place the money in the honesty box on the table and take your bag of walnuts. This unattended form of charging small amounts of money for homemade or homegrown produce is very common in rural areas in Germany. It is an easy way for people who have gardens or trees to offer some of their surplus harvest, flowers, eggs or homemade products to neighbors and passersby, in return for some monetary compensation. We later ran into another improvised shelf selling homemade elderflower blossom and apple/rowan berry jam. Many of our group found the tables and honesty boxes along our way remarkable for how they inspired, as well as created, an atmosphere of trust and community.

With walnuts in some of our backpacks, we continued on, leaving Rockau through a slightly hidden very narrow passageway between two garden fences, with the intense smell of ripe apple trees in the air, and later passing a large corn field which had already been harvested. We descended down into the forest to Keppmühle, a once beautiful former water mill next to the Keppbach (Kepp creek). Since the 18th century until it was closed in 1984, it was an inn in the woods, which was very popular with students as a destination for hikes and “refreshments” ;-) as well as their halftime and graduation parties. It is due to be restored and hopefully reopened one day.

Leaving the mill behind and following the creek in a half circle on a path high above the valley we soon left the forest again and walked along fields to ‘Zuckerhut’ (German for ‘sugar loaf’), another viewpoint, where finally the sun came out and the view was much clearer. Conversation and walnuts quickly opened up and we were sorry to interrupt our second break soon after to move onwards along the fields. We finally descended down to Pillnitz via a long, long stair aptly named ‘Hoher Steig’. With some time left before our scheduled wine tasting, we decided to make another loop along the bottom of the Royal Vineyard. Passing its old press and picturesque farm houses, taking a brief detour and a glance at Zimmerling’s vineyard and wine bar (to inspire future outings), we then ascended back up to the famous ‘Leitenweg’ promenade, where we found picnic tables and benches along the top walls of the Royal Vineyard with a great view over the valley and had our well-deserved lunch and ‘preparatory’ break.

A few minutes and steps later, Nicole and Mr. Rogge of the vineyard met us at a small gate leading into the vineyard. Due to an overlap with a wedding in the vineyard church, we skipped the tour of the church for the moment and went straight to the part of our tour that everyone had been waiting for: the wine tasting. Mr. Rogge led us down the grapevine labyrinth of narrow trails between the vines to a small pergola that sat on the hillside and was just the right size for the now-21 of us, with a wonderful view over the vineyard and the Elbe valley. Everybody had been looking forward to this part of the excursion as we got the chance to taste different wines from the Pillnitz Royal Vineyard.

Our guide, Dr. Hohlfeld, a fellow wine-grower of Mr. Rogge’s, an expert on wine and lecturer of agricultural technology at the local School of Horticulture and Agricultural Technology in Pillnitz (as well as the owner of some vines himself), explained to us about the growing, caring for, harvesting and pressing of the grapes and took us through the history of the vineyard. We learned that the wine growing tradition at this particular place began over 600 years ago. It is called “Royal” Vineyard, because it used to belong to the electors and kings of Saxony in the past. After a devastating vine fretters epidemic (also known by the name of phylloxera, small insects imported along with vines native to North America, that feed on the roots of, and thereby destroy, vines), the vineyard was abandoned like most others in Europe at the end of the 19th century. After the end of the monarchy, the former “royal” vineyard had become the property of the state of Saxony. Since the 1980s, nearly 70 wine-growers have been leasing parts of the vineyard from the state to finally recultivate grapes here – mostly as a “hobby”, but it truly takes a lot of dedication, knowledge and time invested and many hands’ work. That is also why the growers often work together and recruit volunteers for the harvest, in return for a bottle of wine or two. Some of our group were eager to experience this for themselves and help with the harvest one day – only time will tell if that was just the wine talking or if we will indeed see them turn up in the vineyard next year… :-) As expected, our scientists also could not resist asking Dr. Hohlfeld some interesting questions about the quality of the wine, the composition, the ratio of sugar and alcohol, the fruit content, its density and viscosity… Our heads were spinning with all the information gathered… (or was it…?)

Located in the very center of the vineyard is the almost 300-year-old ‘Vineyard Church’. For as long as Pillnitz was a summer residence of the royal family, it was one of two churches in the area used for services and ceremonies by members and servants of the adjoining royal court. Having fallen out of use and into decay after the Second World War, the interior was reconstructed in the 1990s. It is made of wood which in turn is painted to resemble marble. As the community of Pillnitz already uses the other church in the parish for its services and religious ceremonies, the church in the vineyard is now mainly used for small events and can also be rented for weddings, for instance. Having tasted three types of wine from the vines of the Royal Vineyard – a Riesling, a Traminer and a Pinot Noir – accompanied by some delicious wine-grower’s bread, we were happy and not too unsteady to follow Dr. Hohlfeld down the tiny steps for a brief tour of the church. Besides the painted interiors, one of the most interesting and rarely seen features is a large metallic oven on one side of the church, which looks like a giant’s lantern.

After a round of ‘knocking applause’ for our guide, on the way out Caterin raised the ever-interesting question: Why do Germans, especially in academia, knock – rather than clap – at the end of university lectures, speeches etc. to show appreciation? Our research after the hike suggests that, other than being a very old custom in academic circles (and in some parliaments), historians have not really come up with a rock-solid explanation for the phenomenon. Some believe the knocking originates in the medieval practice of knights hitting their hand on the table or shield to show agreement or approval. Others relate it to student fraternities in the 18th century who used to greet freshmen by drumming (with wooden sticks) on the table. Contrarily, at the same time, the same custom was also used by students to show disapproval of a lecturer’s presentation. A third explanation is that clapping was simply not feasible at the end of a lesson, because students were still busy writing, which only left them with one hand to show appreciation – thus done by knocking.

When we got on our bus home and the hills were just slipping by, many of us were surprised to discover how far we had actually walked and how fast public transport was compared to walking – but delighted how much more you see of the beautiful autumnal landscape on a hike.

authors: Nicole & Jasmin

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