There are a few vineyards dotted around Berlin but real aficionados of Dionysus's favorite nectar stick to whites made in Germany's southern regions or reds from sunnier parts of the world.
Tucked up as it is in northern Europe, notorious for its blustery winters, Berlin is rarely associated with wine. Yet there was a time - before the 19th century - when there were hundreds of winegrowers in this Prussian metropolis. The Weinbergstrasse, or "Vineyard Street," leading from downtown to the Prenzlauer Berg district, used to be covered in vines and remains a relic of the bygone era.
The tradition died out because of climate change, but in the 1960s some enterprising young idealists tried to revive wine-making in various parts of the city. Vines were planted on Teufelsberg, an 80-meter-high artificial hill which was made from rubble and used as a listening post by the Allies at the start of the Cold War. For a few years, a brew of sorts was concocted there.
Later, some 400 vines were planted at a school in Neukölln where students continue to make a wine that they are hardly old enough to drink.
The most famous wine in Berlin is Kreuz Neroburger, which a few enthusiasts have been making for decades in Viktoriapark. The yield is about 200 bottles a year, which you can taste only if you know the right people or if you venture to Leuchtturm in Schöneberg or a few other select establishments.
Why drink a Berlin wine?
"Why would you ever want to?" asked a woman at Vin Aqua Vin, my local wine store in Neukölln, when I asked the owners if they had ever drunk a Berlin wine. Despite die-hard fans insisting Kreuz Neroburger has potential and is improving in the current wave of global warming, most of the capital's serious wine lovers wouldn't touch it with a barge pole.
My sentiments exactly! Born of the union of two people who met picking grapes in southern France, I have yet to be convinced that a German red wine is ever worth drinking, even less one made in a city which gets an average of three days of sun a year.
White wines are another story, however. I grew up thinking that German wine meant Riesling, an acidic liquid my (maternal) grandfather used to serve in green glasses, or Liebfraumilch, a sweet liquid my (paternal) grandmother would pour into cut crystal glasses. I knew nothing of Grauburgunder, Müller-Thurgau or Silvaner. But thanks to Vin Aqua Vin, an oasis in an area where you're lucky to find wine at all let alone a good one, I am drinking my way through Germany's white nectars and impatiently awaiting summer when nothing beats a chilled glass on a balmy evening out on the balcony.
What's the difference?
My mouth watering in anticipation, I recently set off to a wealthier part of the city to partake in a wine tasting where I hoped I would deepen my knowledge and almost instantly learn the difference between a Grauburgunder and a Weissburgunder, and between a Blau and a Grün Silvaner. Unfortunately, the Charlottenburg wine store whiffed of snobbery.
The man behind the counter showed no enthusiasm at all for the task at hand, which I thought meant imbuing the customers with a passion for a particular vintner's products, so that they would immediately order a case to keep them going for a week or two. Like many in Berlin, this wine merchant seemed to have missed the connection between good service and good sales.
Unperturbed, I drank my way through the gamut of bottles arranged on the table from fresh and fruity to sweet and highly alcoholic, putting on the airs of a great connoisseur and speculating wildly about the hint of gooseberry in one wine, or the touch of lime in another. Uplifted by the alcohol, if not the general atmosphere, my companion and I left at dusk - not a penny poorer but not much richer in information either.
What am I worth?
Another chance to find out more about white wine came soon. A Neukölln theater was organizing a "wine salon" - an evening that promised a tasting session, a podium discussion with experts, and a performance by Weinkörper, the only theater ensemble dedicated to wine that I know of, whose name literally means "wine" and "body." The buzz around town was like for Beaujolais Nouveau every November and tickets were selling like hotcakes.
Three performers appeared on the stage soon after we had been introduced to the first Silvaner of the night - a delicious, unctuous fluid with strong mineral flavors - and taken on a brief virtual journey to Weininsel (wine island) Somerach where it was made. It soon became clear that each actor embodied a particular wine at a given stage of fermentation and with a particular status on the market.
Punctuated by more tastings of other equally delicious Silvaners, the performance developed into an amusing, at times confusing, exploration of the cultural traditions of wine and philosophical reflection on identity. By the end of the evening, Silvaner had most definitely become my white wine of choice.
A short-lived phase. One trip to the Perlin in the Mitte district convinced me that Grauburgunder was my favorite. Perlin is the most intimate of three establishments which make up the Weinerei - a Berlin institution whose equivalent I have yet to find elsewhere. The concept is simple - you can taste as many wines as you like for as much as you think the evening is worth. You simply turn up, spend a euro to "rent" a glass, drink to your heart's content and then pay at your discretion.
What better way to discover all the wines that are produced far, far away from Berlin?
Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Kate Bowen