Franken (in English, Franconia) is out of the mainstream of German wine both geographically and by dint of its quite separate traditions. Politically it lies in the otherwise beer-centric former kingdom of Bavaria, which gives its State cellars a grandeur found nowhere else in Germany. Franken is unusual in that it makes greater wines from Silvaner than Riesling, and has long specialized in dry wines. The name Steinwein (“stone wine”) was once loosely used for all Franken wine. Stein is, in fact, the: name of one of the two famous vineyards of the city of Wurzburg. Franken’s wine capital on the Main. The other is Innere Leiste. Both distinguished themselves in the past by making wines that were incredibly long-lived. A Stein wine of the great vintage of 1540 was still (just) drinkable in the 1960s. Such wines were Beerenauslesen at least, thus immensely sweet. Franken makes few such rarities today; indeed less than 10% of production is anything other than trocken or halbtrocken.
Franken’s climate is decidedly continental, but climate change has largely solved the region’s problem of too short a growing season. Indeed, 1996 was the last vintage that saw any underripe Riesling arid Silvaner is frequently as concentrated and alcoholic these days as some of the more substantial wines from the Austrian Wachau.
But even in Franken, unfortunately, Muller-Thurgau seems to offer a better return, at least on less-than-ideal sites. lt is the most-planted variety, on about a third of all vineyard land, but Silvaner (grown on more than a fifth) is king, magically producing wines of crackling intensity here, even if it demands the most propitious vineyard sites. Franken wines may also be made from the super-aromatic grape varieties Kerner, and especially, Bacchus. Scheurebe and Rieslaner, an even later-ripening Silvaner x Riesling crossing, can make very good dessert wines and substantial dry wines here, provided they reach full ripeness.
The heart of Franken
The heart of wine-growing Franken is in Maindreieck, following the fuddled three-cornered meandering of the Main from Escherndorf and Nordheim upstream of Wurzburg, south to Frickenhausen, then north again through the capital to include all the next leg of the river and the outlying district around Hammelburg. Escherndorf stands out from these many villages for its celebrated Lump vineyard, and such talented producers as Horst Sauer and neighbour Rainer Sauer. What distinguishes all these scattered south-facing hillsides is the peculiar limestone known as Muschelkalk (whose origins are not so different from the Kimmeridgian clay of Chablis, or indeed of some of Sancorre’s soils). This gives the wines an elegant raciness, particularly so in the case of the famous Wurzburger Stein and noticeably so even in the more honeyed wines of Eseherndorfer Lump.
Wurzburg is the essential visit: one of the great cities of the vine, with three magnificent estate cellars in its heart belonging respectively to the Bavarian State (Staatliche Hofkeller), a church charity (the recently revived Juliusspital), and a civic charity (the Burgerspital). The city is also home to the Knolls’ exceptional 66-acre (27ha) Weingut am Stein estate. The Staatliche Hofkeller lies under the gorgeous Residenz of the former prince-bishops, whose ceiling paintings by Tiepolo are reason enough to visit the city. There is also the noble Marienburg Castle on its hill of vines, the great baroque river bridge, and the bustling Weinstuben (wine bars) belonging to these ancient foundations, where all their wines can be enjoyed with suitably savoury food.
Mainviereck, further downstream to the west, has lighter loam based on sandstone. It has much less land under vine, but ancient steep vineyards such as Homburger Kallmuth (off the map to the south) can produce extraordinary, age-worthy wines. This is also Franken’s red wine area, where exceptionally arid terraces of red sandstone can produce Spatburgunders and Fruhburgunders (an early-ripening strain of Pinot Noir) of real interest. Stars such as red wine magician Rudolf Furst and Lowenstein are based here.
In the Steigerwald in the east, the vine looks almost a stranger in the setting of arable fields with forests of magnificent oaks crowning its sudden hills. The seriously steep slopes are of gypsum and marl, which makes its mark in particularly strongly flavoured wines. Some of the finest wines come from the parishes of Iphofen (home of Hans Wirsching and Johann Ruck) and Rodelsee, as well as the doll’s-house princedom and wine estate of Castell.
ТНE WINE CENTRES OF FRANKEN
Vine-growing is concentrated on the banks of the meandering Main, with the best sites being steep, well-protected, south-facing, and benefiting from sunlight reflected off the river’s surface. Some years, spring frosts can destroy a substantial proportion of the grape crop.