TheWineRambler "A German wine label is one of the things life's too short for" - Kingsley Amis



Patrick Leigh Fermor in German Wine Country - Tribute to a Literary Rambler

Posted by Julian 18 Oct 2011

After Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June of this year, he was remembered with gratitude for something he did when he was 18 years old: In December of 1933, he set off from London to walk the length of Europe from the Hook of Holland to what he - a british schoolboy fond of ancient literature - called Constantinople. When Leigh Fermor organised his youthful notebooks into a more coherent narrative many years later, he decided to call it "A Time of Gifts" because of the generosity with which he was received as a traveller along the way: By bargemen on the Rhine, by Austrian noblemen in wayside castles or by monasteries all over these lands.

His departure on the wintry Thames as the sole passenger of a Dutch channel boat, the enchanted hike across the frozen canals of the wintry Netherlands, or even an evening in a notorious Munich beer hall are marvels of evocative travel writing: He turns the memory of youthful adventure into geographically and historically enriched, yet curiously dreamlike and daring prose.

I am a great armchair traveller, so that alone would impress me endlessly. Now, what has any of this to do with wine? We'll come to that. As a historian, meanwhile, I find him a fascinating read because the early months of 1934 must have been a strange time to be travelling through Germany. Adolf Hitler had just risen to power, and while the horrors and crimes of his rule lie in the future, there is an uncanny sense both of elation and foreboding in the air. While the young traveller understands little of this, he registers it, and the older writer, looking back, makes sense of it - a superb reading experience for anyone interested in the 20th century. With an uncanny mix of nonchalance and and English schoolboy's utter ignorance, Leigh Fermors also happens to walk right into what he later realises is Austria's civil war in Vienna.

It's worthwhile to reflect on how Germany has changed since then. A lot of this change has been abrupt and violent, of course: In Leigh Fermor's Germany, to take just one example, people are forever spontaneously breaking into folk songs. He enjoys this very much indeed, and contrasts it unfavourably with his rather unmusical native England. Now, the reverse is true: After this particular strain of popular tradition has been utterly destroyed by the Nazis, who linked it closely to their deluded racial ideology, Germany's folk music is dead (worse than dead: a zombie-like travesty of itself), while Britain's traditional music is alive and thriving. Other changes may have come more gradually, and patterns of life and every day culture common then are still with us or have resurfaced and been and (re)-invented. Such a case is wine, by which point we have reached more familiar Wine Rambler territory, a ground that one of our earliest - and most serious - guest rambles has covered admirably.

This snippet from an evening in a Koblenz wine cellar is vintage Leigh Fermor:

[...]The plain bowls of these wine-glasses were poised on slender glass stalks, or on diminishing pagodas of little globes, and both kinds of stem were coloured: a deep green for Mosel and, for Rhenish, a brown smoky gold that was almost amber. When horny hands lifted them, each flashed forth its coloured message in the lamplight."

By then, he has taken the measure of German wine country:

Deceptively and treacherously, those innocent-looking goblets hold nearly half a bottle and simply by sipping one could explore the two great rivers below and the Danube and all Swabia, and Franconia too by proxy, and the vales of Imhof and the faraway slopes of Würzburg.

This is indeed the scope of Leigh Fermor's Rambling (as well as our chosen playing field on this blog). But I'll end on an episode of rakish abandon:

[...]the bottles we had recklessly drained were the last of a fabulously rare and wonderful vintage that Annie's father had been particularly looking forward to. Heaven only knew what treasured Spätlese from the banks of the Upper Mosel: nectar beyond compare.

Quite so. Quite so.