It is this time of year again. My Facebook feed lights up with wine bars offering and friends indulging in Federweisser (literally “feather white”), a German late summer/early fall wine tradition. I miss being in Germany for it, for it is one of my favorite times. Last year, around this time, I posted an article about it and I decided to re-post it, because I have many new readers. I hope you’ll enjoy!
German summer is usually filled with wine festivals in the villages along Mosel and Rhine. They initially began as a chance for wine makers to empty their cellars of the previous vintage and make room for their new harvest. There might still be some truth in this, but by now the festivals really are a highlight of local wines, good company and food. Along the Rhine in Rheinhessen for example, every weekend, another village will have its wine festival, so you can pretty much spend the whole summer drinking wine straight from the vintners. These festivals are coming to a close around this time of year, as the wine makers prepare for their harvest.
However, that is not universally true. The world’s largest wine festival, for example, takes place in Bad Dürkheim (Palatinate) in early September. It is called “Wurstmarkt” (Sausage Market) and this year’s is – believe it or not – the 597th time they are holding it. You can find more information here. The sheer size makes it different from the village festivals.
Anyway, in many parts, the harvest does not start until October, so it is a time of anticipation, checking the weather in the hope of a golden fall with lots of sunshine (for the grapes to fully ripen) and little rain (so that the grapes do not rot). And when October finally comes around, and the grapes are harvested and transported back to the cellars to be crushed and fermented, all those villages along the wine rivers will have a distinct smell hovering above them, a smell of grapes and yeast, and fermentation…to me, it is bliss.
The highlight of this part of the season, late August until end of September, is “Federweisser”. It has many different regional names, but this is the most common. This specialty is grape juice that is still fermenting. The color is a milky yellow to light brown (hence the name), it is bubbling, and it is delicious. Once the grapes have been crushed, the juice (or must) will rapidly start fermenting when combined with yeast. The sugar in the grapes will be turned into alcohol by the yeast until there is no sugar left. This happens in a matter of days. Winemakers are allowed to sell federweisser once the alcohol content reaches 4% ABV. Not all winemakers will produce it, and the grapes are not from top notch vineyards, because that would be a waste as you can only drink it for a few days and nothing sophisticated is coming from it…
Federweisser is filled in bottles or plastic containers, but you must not close it off with a cork because of the ongoing fermentation. Usually the producer just puts a plastic cap over the bottle head and you need to transport it carefully and not lay the bottle down in the fridge.
The supermarkets will carry stuff originating from Italy and other places. Fermentation in these Federweisser has usually been stopped which makes them boring and tasting slightly off. You want that bubbling still going on from fermentation. That is why it is imperative to buy it from a local winemaker. A bottle will cost you between $3 and $6, depending on winery and region, and that is a pretty good price for the winemaker because it brings in money fast (they do not have to wait for the release of their wine next year) and is less work than cellaring and storing the wines.
What does it taste like? I would describe it as a grape based soda. It is sweet, it is refreshing (you drink it chilled), and very fruity. Despite the low alcohol content, these drinks can get to you fast. I am usually wasted after three or four glasses. Nina lasts quite a bit longer.
We pair it with “Zwiebelkuchen” (onion pie), a bit like a pizza or a quiche with tons of onions, some cream and bacon bits on it (there are a million recipes for onion pie out there, some with meat, some with cumin…every family has their own recipe). It seems like an odd mixture, but the saltiness of the pie with the sweetness of Federweisser is great. It is hard on your digestive system, let me tell you, but it is as much a tradition in German households in wine regions as asparagus season in June all over Germany or Christmas markets in December.
If you ever get the chance to be in Germany around this of year, give Federweisser a try. It is a tradition worth experiencing. And it smoothens us over into harvest season. I hope to make onion pie for friends of ours this year, and I am cursing my fate that does not allow me to have Federweisser with it…