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Germany's Tuscany | the Pfalz region

With its fig trees and sunshine, delicious food and thrilling wine, the Pfalz offers a taste of Tuscany, 60 miles from Frankfurt.

The dark green fruit on the fig trees in the courtyard are the size of golf balls, and the lemons in a nearby garden will soon be ripe. I take a sip of red wine from the glass in front of me; the flavor is rich and silky, with the sweetness of blackberries mingled with smoke. I can almost imagine I'm in Italy. But the vintner across the table from me is named Hansjörg Rebholz, and the label on the bottle reads SPÄTBURGUNDER, German for Pinot Noir. I am at the Rebholz estate in Siebeldingen, Germany, tasting some of the radical new wines of the Pfalz region in the Rhine Valley, an hour and a half drive south of Frankfurt.

Germany has had a bad reputation as a producer of light, sweet white wines. Indeed, a decade ago, the Pfalz produced mostly generic Liebfraumilch, a semisweet blend. But in the 1990s, dry wines--especially Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Riesling--started becoming the norm, and their quality improved so much that today many Pfalz wines have become collectibles. Because this development follows the pattern of the Tuscan wine revolution of the 1980s and because the Pfalz is also blessed with a warm, dry climate, the region has been christened "Germany's Tuscany." So far few people outside Germany have discovered the area, and wine prices remain reasonable. However, if you want some of that 1997 Rebholz Spätburgunder, you'll have to move fast when it is released this fall. Word is spreading, and it's sure to sell out at the estate's tasting room within weeks.

Rebholz The tall, slim, fortysomething Rebholz is articulate and passionate. His small oval glasses give him the look of a university professor, and he is a patient teacher when it comes to explaining how the Pfalz became a producer of world-class dry whites and a serious challenger in the field of red wines. "The leap forward in wine quality was achieved by working together," he explains to me as we drive out to the vineyards. "By criticizing each others' wines, we pushed each other forward."

Yet the new generation of Pfalz growers does have a guiding spirit: Hans-Günther Schwarz, the winemaker of Müller-Catoir in Haardt. "During the 1980s, Schwarz proved that the region could produce exciting dry white wines from a wide range of grapes, from Riesling and Pinot Gris to less common varieties like Muscat and Rieslaner," Rebholz says.

As the car climbs the hillside, I can see a green swath of vines below us. Rebholz brings the car to a halt, and as I step out he exclaims with unmistakable pride, "Now we're in the Kastanienbusch, the highest-altitude vineyard in the Pfalz, a thousand feet above sea level!" I'm glad to be wearing only a T-shirt, because the temperature is already in the low nineties and it's only 10:30 in the morning. At least there is a cool breeze up here coming from the Haardt Mountains, which rise another thousand feet behind the Kastanienbusch. The densely forested mountains form a barrier that shelters the Pfalz vineyards (most of which lie on the benchlands immediately to their west) from cool, wet air streams from the Atlantic. The result is summers that are warm and dry enough to ripen many different kinds of grapes, along with those figs and lemons I saw.

As we drive back down, Rebholz points out the areas where a variety of vegetables are cultivated and beyond them, the low-lying sandy ground close to the banks of the Rhine, where white asparagus flourishes. There are a handful of regions in Germany that specialize in growing white asparagus, and this is one of the most renowned. All that is visible are mounds of sandy soil, since the shoots are buried, covered from the sun to keep the stalks from turning green.

J. L. Wolf Driving north towards the Mittelhaardt, the central section of the Pfalz, where quality-wine production has a history going back two centuries, I get a good idea of the scale of winemaking here. Wine grapes are grown on almost 58,000 acres, making the region 50 percent larger than Napa Valley--though the freeway running through it makes the distances between towns feel much shorter.

I stop at the J. L. Wolf estate in Wachenheim; it is run by Ernst Loosen, who is better known for the wines he's producing at the Dr. Loosen estate in the Mosel Valley, an hour and a half drive to the north. Since taking over the run-down J. L. Wolf estate in 1996, he has become the most controversial of the Pfalz's new vintners, creating fresh and powerful wines. With his curly, almost shoulder-length hair and intense manner, Loosen looks the part of the rebel.

The neo-Renaissance-style Wolf villa, built in 1842 and recently restored, would be worth a stop even without a tasting of the spectacular wines. The original owner, a wealthy industrialist, paid for a young architect to study in northern Italy for two years before designing the villa, his private residence. The villa is now a registered historic monument surrounded by some of the best vineyard land in the Pfalz.

"Coming from the Mosel, where working in the steep vineyards is backbreaking and the local cooking is a disaster, the Pfalz seems like paradise!" Loosen says. He isn't exaggerating: There are more good restaurants within a 15-minute drive of here than there are in the 100-mile-long Mosel Valley. Just as the past decade has seen a revolution in the region's wines, Pfalz cooking has also taken a jump forward.

Karl-Emil Kuntz, who came to hotel-restaurant Krone in Herxheim-Hayna in 1980 after training in Munich at the Michelin three-star restaurant Aubergine, was one of the first hot young chefs to settle in the Pfalz. His style, a combination of French and Northern Italian cooking with regional tastes, results in dishes like a ragout of warm smoked pigeon breast with foie gras­-stuffed pigeon leg and truffled celeriac puree. Rich food, indeed, but a far cry from the old-fashioned Pfalz cooking, which is known for heavy, fatty food, even within Germany.

Stefan Stiller, who opened Grand Cru in nearby Deidesheim two years ago, is the newest chef that has helped make the Pfalz renowned for its food. Until last year, Stiller worked at Schwarzer Hahn--a few doors away--under Manfred Schwarz, who reinterprets classic Pfalz dishes in a lighter, more modern style. Stiller's menu, however, has moved even farther away from the regional cuisine: His food is almost fanciful, such as his lobster salad with celery and green-apple jelly or duck breast in a port and black pepper sauce. None of these dishes has anything to do with traditional Pfalz cooking, but the new Pfalz wines, with their rich fruit flavors, make a great match.

Loosen sees the stylistic changes in the area's restaurants mirrored in his wines. "Some Pfalz wines are too much like the region's traditional cooking: tasty but heavy. From the beginning I wanted to break that mold." He then suggests we take refuge from the sun under an umbrella in the garden, which separates the Wolf villa from the main street of Forst. Looking over his property, Loosen points out the seven vineyards from which he has produced vineyard-designated dry Rieslings in the 1999 vintage, then pours the wines for me.

Loosen is fanatical about the idea that each vineyard imposes a different character on the grapes that grow there. The wines in front of me taste strikingly different from one another, but the last one I try is the most extraordinary: the Jesuitengarten, with its explosive peach and rose-hip aromas and rich, concentrated flavor.

Koehler-Ruprecht My next stop, the Koehler-Ruprecht estate in Kallstadt, is a 15-minute drive from Deidesheim. A large double gateway and a smaller doorway in the same reddish-brown wood face the narrow, busy main street of the town. When the door opens, I step into a quiet courtyard shaded by palms and oleanders in large wooden containers. Owner and winemaker Bernd Philippi comes out of the modest white plaster­ and ­yellow sandstone villa and welcomes me with a bear hug. Though he would reject the term "flying winemaker" as too boastful, he is a winemaking consultant with clients on four of the five continents where wine is grown and the co-owner of the Quinta da Carvalhosa winery in Portugal's Douro Valley.

On the massive oak table in the rustic tasting room, Philippi has arranged bottles of the powerful, dry Rieslings from the Saumagen site of Kallstadt sold under the Koehler-Ruprecht label. The Saumagen vineyard is named after the Pfalz's most famous regional recipe, a pig's stomach stuffed with pork, potatoes, herbs and spices, because locals thought the site was shaped like that dish. Despite the name, Saumagen wines are crisp and fresh, with intense peach and passion fruit flavors.

Philippi has also laid out several dark-green Bordeaux-shaped bottles, a range of his wines sold under the Philippi name. The barrel-fermented whites, made from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, are supple and scented with vanilla--so different from the Koehler-Ruprecht wines they could be the work of another winemaker, and they even taste like they could be from California.

"How about having some of the other Saumagen?" Philippi asks as he puts the cork back into the last bottle. Of course, I accept: Weincastel, his sister and brother-in-law's restaurant next door, is famous for the dish.

As we sit in a quiet corner of the restaurant, Philippi pours me a glass of red wine. "What do you think?" he asks. The first sniff tells me it's Pinot Noir; after a sip, I'm sure it's a red Burgundy from a top domaine. "Thanks," he replies with a grin. "That's a barrel sample of the 1999 Philippi Pinot Noir." I laugh, pleased to be fooled again.

-Stuart Pigott, a British writer who lives in Berlin, is a wine columnist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Published October 2001
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