The romance of wine on the River Main is a stylish delight. Visitors will also find Baroque opulence, creative beers made by an American, and a whisky with a Franconian character. Insider tips for an indulgent city break in Würzburg. A story by Dietmar Denger (text and photos)
Würzburg for connoisseurs
A late afternoon visit to the Old Main Bridge is a must. This is definitely the place to be at this time: at the wine counter of the “Alte Mainmühle” inn, local Franconians mix with tourists from all around the world for the relaxing post-work ritual on the Old Main Bridge.
Two Japanese tourists with thick, horn-rimmed glasses scurry about trying to find the best photo spot to capture some of the bridge’s 12 saints. The statues, whose figures include the Franconian kings Pippin and Charlemagne, ensure that the bridge dating from the 12th century, doesn’t collapse under the weight of so many visitors.
Those who wish to escape the hustle and bustle of the bridge can find more secluded spots by the river on the Main Promenade near the historic ship crane from the 18th century. And on board the small “Main-Kutter Würzburg” there is a charming ship’s bar with the best views of the Main Bridge and the Fortress Marienberg.
Fortress and Residence: total ostentation!
Würzburg’s most striking building, the fortress and residence, was built here as a result of the clerical desire to live in grand splendour. Where the white walls of the Marienberg rise up high above the city, some 3,000 years ago the Celts sought protection from ancient villains in the dark panic rooms of a bleak refuge castle.
The new castle was the Residence of the Prince-Bishops from 1253 to 1719 before being rebuilt as a Renaissance Palace in 1600. Below it the small houses of the Main District - Würzburg’s oldest district was once home to the artisans and fishermen - cling onto the narrow slope between the castle and the river. The Felsengasse is a particularly tight squeeze.
677 square metres: the largest ceiling fresco in the world
The fortress, in comparison, is huge and yet failed to offer protection from claustrophobia. In the 18th century, Würzburg’s church dignitaries moved to a superlative new building on the other side of the river. The opulence of Würzburg’s bishops in the Baroque era is only matched by the residences of France’s Sun King.
This plump monarch was not just a trendsetter in terms of extravagance. The mighty Residence is so reminiscent of Versailles that the Paris scenes of the new version of the film “The Three Musketeers” was recently filmed in Würzburg.
The UNESCO World Heritage site is home to a staircase with the largest ceiling fresco in the world, as well as 300 rooms, some of which are as big as indoor tennis courts. Anyone who got bored of the host and was not inclined to teetotalism would have been delighted by the range on offer in the basement. Even today, the barrels are still lined up in an endless maze of passages in what is now the “Staatlichen Hofkeller”, where you can get a little tipsy without even tasting the wine.
Wine on the Main: prime location and winetails
Along with some small outfits, there are two other big wineries in the city: the Bürgerspital zum Heiligen Geist and the Weingut Juliusspital. They all benefit from a prime location: the Würzburger Stein vineyard is the first thing you see when you arrive here by train from the north, heading for the main railway station. Vines wherever you look, the largest contiguous single vineyard in Germany!
No wonder wine is omnipresent here. Various wine festivals are held here through the spring and summer, with the loveliest taking place in July in the Hofgarten of the Residence.
The oldest still drinkable wine, a “Steinwein” dating back almost 500 years, is stored in the Bürgerspital.
With so much tradition, a bit of fresh blood is good. That is exactly what has happened successfully in the “Bürgerspital Weinstuben”. After years cooking in the best award-winning restaurants in the country, Alexander Wiesenegg has brought many new ideas back to the family business.
It’s not only the menu where Wiesenegg has added his own style: at the entrance to the restaurant with its attractive vaulted ceiling, the “Weinbar” makes a cool lounge. It encourages a creative interaction with the Silvaners, Rieslings and Burgunders from the winery. A colourful atmosphere is created through the lighting and in the glass.
“With our winetails - wine-based cocktails - we are experimenting with natural aromas from fruits and herbs,” says Wiesenegg. Sacrilege? “No, it goes down really well!” And when it comes to gourmet cooking, he again likes to look beyond Franconia’s borders.
As well as Franconian classics such as Blaue Zipfel and Schäufele, he is not shy to introduce international dishes from as far apart as Italy and China. “However, it’s important in such a traditional establishment to be cautious about your changes and stay loyal to your regular clientele.”
Beer after wine: oh, how fine!
For Chris Sullivan it’s important that the people in the wine city of Würzburg remember to enjoy their beers too and remain open to new ideas. That requires a good helping of pioneering spirit and self-confidence. The rangy American has both of these in spades. At Halloween he sometimes jogs through Würzburg dressed in a skeleton costume brought with him from his home state of Oregon.
“SMaSH” is the name he gave his small brand, which stands for “Single Malt and Single Hop”. Instead of following the craft beer trend with exotic aromas, Sullivan has gone in the opposite direction. In some respects he takes the purity law to the extreme and uses only the finest ingredients: “My beer is brewed with Barke, an old barley variety, which gives it a distinctive historic malty character. For hops I use Tettnanger, one of the oldest hop varieties,” explains Sullivan.
When naming his beers he relies on creative local colour. This started a couple of years ago with his hoppy “Herbipolis Retro Lager”. Herbipolis, the “herb city”, is the Latinised name of Würzburg. And this beer does exactly what it implies: there is a fine hint of citrus on the nose but also an exciting tanginess.
And that’s not all. Even “pine resin, sun-dried straw and a little green apple”, is the verdict of the beer experts at the shop “Bierothek”, one of the retail outlets where Sullivan sells his creations. “But all that comes just from the hops,” affirms the beer artist with his lumberjack shirt and hipster beard.
Whisky from Würzburg: Four Barrels for a Halleluja!
“82 Chapters to Newcastle” is the name of the small new brand marketed as “Distilled in Scotland, specially matured in Germany.” At the Frankfurt International Trophy, the trade fair for alcoholic drinks, sommeliers, trade journalists and master distillers singled out the eight-year-old single malt “Vier Fässer für ein Halleluja” (Four Barrels for a Halleluja) out for a gold medal, explains Hadrian Bromma, who runs the project with his father and father-in-law. The name is a play on the maturing process. “Most whiskies spend their whole life maturing in a single barrel. Our whisky changes barrel four times.”
It is distilled in the Scottish “Highland Distillery Ardmore”, and spends its first years there. It is then finished off in the Hofkeller of the Residence, where it can breathe in the special climate along with thousands of wine barrels.
“Above all, the air is extremely dry. It is also really warm compared to other cellars,” says Bromma. The result is that some of the noble liquid evaporates in the air. “Known as ‘the angels’ share’, this evaporation amounts to a steep 20 percent,” explains the expert, “which gives the end product its intensive finish”. You can taste the difference.
And with that, the city tour ends where it started: on the Main Bridge, late in the evening, when the tourists have long since vanished back to their hotels or cruise ships. On one side, the Old Town skyline with the Rathaus and church towers is beautifully illuminated, on the other the moon is rising over the fortress. A real treat. To be enjoyed with wine, beer, whisky - or just neat!