Oktoberfest gets all the attention when it comes to Germany's autumnal beverage celebrations, but there's another festival that happens every fall – the election of Germany’s new wine royals.
This 71-year-old tradition honors a Wine Queen and two Wine Princesses, who are not only experts on wine and the 13 German wine growing regions, but for one year are bestowed the honor of communicating their knowledge (partly in English) at around 200 events around the world.
Amidst the Wurstmarkt – that's the world's biggest wine festival, which takes place in Rhineland Palatinat – and numerous other regional wine festivals and markets from Mosel to Stuttgart to Mainz, young women from throughout Germany are competing to prove who knows the most about the country's diverse vintages.
The Wine Queen candidates often progress from their royal hierarchy as a Wine Queen or Wine Princess from a particular wine region before holding the throne representing all German wine. A 70-member master jury examines each girl’s answers after being drilled on complex issues about wine, all while being filmed on live TV.
What it's like being a German Wine Princess
Over the course of multiple rounds of competition, the young grape experts can be tested in their wine rhetoric with blind wine tastings or evaluated by their ability to create an extemporaneous speech with randomly selected wine terms. One year, finalists were required to guess the wine preferences and habits of random people off the street in a game-show style quiz.
Traveling through the idyllic wine regions of Baden, Württemberg, and Pfalz, one can quickly observe the importance of this wine heritage in each flower-filled storybook village. Posters and modest billboards with a tasteful photo showing that region’s Wine Queen holding a glass of wine with a proud grin are sprinkled throughout these communities, a tradition that goes back almost a century.
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This cultural practice sprouted in the 1930s, when the young daughters of vineyard owners would represent their towns or regions during annual wine festivals. In 1949, the German Wine Institute began the election process for regional and national wine representatives we know today – a progressive move considering that even now most German winemakers are male.
A few weeks before she gave up her throne on September 27, 2019, we met 25-year-old Wine Princess Inga Storck. During her reign, Princess Inga was busy traveling the world nonstop to share her enthusiasm for German wine, a demanding schedule she prepared for while first serving as the regional Wine Queen of the Palatinate.
The granddaughter of a winemaker, Storck attributes her early interest in wein to participating in outdoor tastings starting at age sixteen. After interning and working at wineries in England, Austria, Hamburg, and other German wine regions, she studied viticulture and oenology – the science of wine.
Storck credits a tough American man for helping her overcome a fear of speaking English and developing the communication skills that are a big part of any Wine Princess’ role. ‘He worked for the military at a restaurant near where I lived,’ explained Princess Inga. ‘He helped me improve my English by speaking to me 2-3 times per week, drilling me with questions where I had 45 seconds to answer.’
Two must-visit German vineyards, according to a German Wine Princess
As for what makes German wine special, Storck says it's that the country's wines are so diverse. ‘There are refreshing Rieslings,’ she said of Germany’s best-known varietal, but also, ‘charming Burgundy, velvety red wines, and dessert wines.’
At first Storck was diplomatic when asked about her favorite varietals, demuring that it depends on the day, her mood, and the food. With a little coaxing, though, Princess Inga divulged one of her favorite wineries, a vineyard close to home – Schwarzer Herrgott, in the town of Zellertal in the Pfalz region. Here, an ancient, blackened cross stands in the vineyard valley, where grapes grow along a steep, narrow cliff which shields the area from rain and the full impact of direct sunlight.
The cross was erected by the Irish monk St. Phillip of Zell, who planted a vineyard for sacramental wine close to the cloisters, to eliminate the need for his fellow monks to return to the cloister at prayer hours. Though the original cross eventually succumbed to the centuries since notable figures as Emperor Charlemagne came to Zellertal on the pilgrimage trail, locals have kept up with the tradition and make sure a new Schwarzer Herrgott (which translates to 'The Black Lord') always stands watch over the vines. The grapes here may be pulled from the shadows, but the Riesling has characteristics of wine grown in strong light.
According to Storck, when the weather is clear you can see the castle of Heidelberg from Schwarzer Herrgott, along with the sinking sun washing the land in a red glow behind the Donnersberg (Thunder Mountain). She says that, "the best thing is to sit in the vineyard and watch the sunset.’
Another of Princess Inga's favorite winemakers is Schwedhelm in Zellertal-Zell. Run by two brothers, Stephan and Georg, Schwedhelm's vineyards are located in one of the oldest parts of the Pfalz wine-growing region. The Schwedhelms' Wotanfels vineyard lacks the blackened medieval cross of Schwarzer Herrgott, but it is home to an even older monument. Wotanfels takes its name from the enormous eight meter (twenty six foot) stone that was once a site of ritual sacrifices to the pagan god Wotan – better known to English-speakers as Odin.
But Princess Inga’s favorite wine memory is one that’s a little more recent, and up-close and personal. She delights in telling about the time she crawled inside a wine barrel, squeezing through an opening about the same size as her head. Storck gleefully shares that, once inside the barrel, it looks like the night sky with a thousand crystals and smells like cold red wine but ‘you can breathe.’ She whipped open an iPhone photo of this breathtaking galaxy.
We’ll drink to that.
Let’s raise a glass to the German Wine Princess. Prost!