After the Berlin Wall’s Fall, a Wine Scene Comes Together
The physical embodiment of the figurative Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall stood as the border between East and West in post-World War II Europe, prohibiting free movement in the German Capital. However, authorities of East Germany, then known as the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.), had a different notion, referring to the concrete barrier as the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart that protected citizens from fascist influences of the West and prevention of free will. In reality, it did quite the opposite.
More than just steel and concrete—it was the division between two worlds, evident in the stark contrasts on either side up until 1989. On the west side, colorful urban art and graffiti adorned the wall. Whereas on the monotone gray east side, void of creativity and feeling, armed soldiers stood like statues prohibiting movement to the other side. There could be few better visual metaphors for life in each half of the divided city. The effects ranged far beyond the ends of the wall. The wine scene on either side suffered the same fate.
Good Bye, Lenin?
In open West Germany during that time, the wine industry evolved, for better or for worse, still allowing private ownership, creativity and diversity. Even though renowned German wine regions, such as Mosel, Pfalz and Rheingau, were affected by the war and needed a few decades to recover, once they did, they produced some of the legendary wines of the world. The 1971 vintage in the Mosel is one such testament.
“[Today] you don’t really find old cellars here as you do in West Germany,” says Konrad Buddrus of Weingut Buddrus in Saxony-Anhalt on the East German side. This was a direct effect of the lack of historical privately owned wineries: Older bottles practically disappeared from East Germany during the 20th century.
In the two regions of the East German Side—Sachsen (or Saxony) and Saale-Unstrut—there were only three wineries, all government-owned cooperatives. They were: Winzervereinigung Freyburg-Unstrut, which still exists today and is an association of 400 growers; Rotkäppchen Sektkellerei, which translates to Little Red Riding Hood Sparkling Wine Cellar, and is a winery that produces millions of sparkling wines sold for only a few euros a bottle in supermarkets, often importing grapes from the countries of the former Eastern Bloc; and finally, the winery owned by the state of Saxony-Anhalt called Landesweingut Kloster Pforta, which may have offered the most range of wine out of the three.
“People weren’t allowed to produce wine privately,” says Sandro Sperk, winemaker of Weingut Böhme & Töchter, in the East German region of Saale-Unstrut. “It was very hard, as the winemaking equipment and vessels were impossible to get. So, if someone made wine privately, it was in glass balloons, in secret.”
The 2003 German award-winning tragicomedy, Good Bye, Lenin!, paints the general picture of the difference between East and West. The film is set in 1989, around the events just before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The story follows a family whose mother, a loyal Communist Party member, falls into a coma after seeing her son participating in an anti-communist rally. The doctor orders that she shouldn’t be exposed to any shock, so the son and his sister pretend that the Wall is still up, and communism remains.
Among other things, we see children hiding commercials and ads that marked the contrast between late 1980s and beginning of 1990s from their mother—those advertising American brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. While big corporations of the West might not be the best representations of quality, these scenes depict the oppression of people in the Eastern Bloc and the limitations they lived under while emphasizing the irony that standardized Happy Meals and fizzy sugar water manufactured at massive volume represented freedom.
In the wine industry, the scene was quite the opposite, ironically. Under the Soviet system wine had become a commodity. The Eastern Bloc had only allowed for wines comparable to Coca-Cola and McDonald’s in their homogeny. These cooperatives were all over Eastern Europe during this time. They had only one objective: quantity. Their mass-produced wines did not deliver quality or diversity.
Before the fall of the wall, “the parcels were divided into many small pieces and given to amateur winegrowers, who were selling the grapes to the co-ops,” explains Alexandre Dupont de Ligonnès of his eponymous winery in Saxony.
People cultivated and planted whatever varieties they could get. “If you got 100 plants of Müller-Thurgau, you had to plant it,” says Sandro Sperk. Most often, the co-ops made only one type of wine, blending many different grapes.
Meanwhile, any quality wines produced went to politicians and “friends of the government.” Actual growers could not buy wine. However, they received compensation in wine bottles. Some made wine secretly, selling it illegally or using it to pay for other goods and services. Consequently, wine became a second currency, and old methods were kept alive.
“I know some stories from older guys that they produced their own wine, and they sold it on the black market or bartered for other things,” says Konni Buddrus.
Nearly Wiped Out
However, the big co-ops were not purely products of the G.D.R. but had come earlier. The Rotkäppchen was formed in 1856, while Winzervereinigung Freyburg-Unstrut was founded by the Nazis in 1934. The troubles for Sachsen and Saale-Unstrut regions started way before. First, there are geographical limitations.
“The 51st parallel is considered to be the northern border of winemaking,” says Dr. Daniel Deckers, a wine historian and writer, as well the editor in the politics section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a leading German daily newspaper. “There is history, and there are maps, and you can see which plots were planted in the mid-19th century, but this was a beer country. Fine wines were imported from other regions.”
Apart from vines having difficulty surviving the harsh winters, East German regions had a very challenging first half of the 20th century. Phylloxera came at the beginning, followed by World War I. Then the Nazis took over, followed by World War II, and then finally, when the G.D.R. formed in 1949, it nearly wiped out what was left, essentially erasing the wine culture and winemaking history of these two regions. “With its large-scale expropriations and the arbitrary arrests by the Soviet occupiers, it destroyed structures that had been painstakingly built,” says Dr. Deckers.
For the proprietor of Weingut Schloss Proschwitz, Dr. Georg Prinz zur Lippe, the G.D.R. hammered the final nail in the coffin of his family’s involvement in winemaking at that time. The first nail had come when the Nazi government confiscated the family’s Proschwitz castle in 1943.
“This was actually worse than expropriations because we didn’t have the proof that we owned it,” explains Lippe. “Then in 1949, the German communists imprisoned my father, took everything without any compensation, and later expelled my family to West Germany.”
The Lippe family is one of the oldest aristocratic families in Germany, and due to their wealth and a percentage of Jewish blood, they were enemies of both the fascist and communist governments. “My father had five degrees, and the communists burned them all in front of him and told him that it would take a long time before he could prove he even exists as a human being.” The legacy of the Lippe family was erased, but not forgotten. Their castle remained, but their vineyards ceased to exist.
Most noble vineyards went fallow during this time. Since the best vineyards are often on slopes, and in the case of eastern Germany, on terraces, it is difficult to use the machines necessary for mass production. As there was no competition and people just sold their grapes to the co-ops, it made more sense for them to work less and get more. Additionally, most grape growers had other jobs and tended their vineyards on the weekends. Therefore, viticulture, for the most part, moved to flat land.
Future in the Air
But then things started to change. Increasing economic problems within the Eastern Bloc and the failure of the U.S.S.R. to intervene in relation to its puppet states led to the loosening of the Iron Curtain regimes toward the end of the 1980s. This prompted then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, standing near the guarded concrete barrier in Berlin, to yell out infamously: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
This line of Reagan’s 1987 speech injected hope in many citizens of the Eastern Bloc, but especially in the G.D.R. It was maybe the final push for many young people who desperately wanted to see the wall torn down. As the “Wind of Change,” the 1990 song by the West German band, the Scorpions, put it: “The future [was] in the air.”
It was the year before, that Sandro Sperk’s fatherin-law and founder of Böhme & Töchter, Frank, planted his own first vineyards with his father, Werner. “They did so without any government support or subventions,” explains Sperk. It was a private effort, which led to finally founding the winery 11 years later.
Viticulture in East Germany saw its rebirth in the 1980s. “It was thanks to the young people at the time, who were motivated and not afraid to go to the old [renowned] vineyard sites and replant them,” explains de Ligonnès.
The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, opening the doors between East and West. Moreover, it reunited Germany. For the wine industry of the eastern regions of Sachsen and Saale-Unstrut, privately-owned wineries could return. However, it wasn’t going to happen overnight.
“In 1990, my father, who was over 80 years old, felt nostalgic, and he asked me to help him get back to Saxony,” says Georg Prinz zur Lippe. “I was CEO of a Japanese company in West Germany but decided to take two weeks off to help my father get his home back.”
He signed the first rebuying contracts in 1990 and started rebuilding the estate piece by piece. The family has over 500 rebuying contracts, although they bought back most of the land from the German government. They purchased back their castle, Schloss Proschwitz, which represents the oldest and the largest privately owned estate in Saxony. Today, their entire estate spans over 100 hectares (250 acres) of vineyards.
The Lippe family has a unique story, but most of the growers in Saxony and Saale-Unstrut today are new, some of whom also come from other parts of the world. Alexandre Dupont de Ligonnès was born in France, for example, and only started making wine in 2016. He was fortunate to find some old vineyards preserved by the efforts of a few people during the G.D.R. era. Most of the vineyards in the region today are 40 years old at the most.
Another noteworthy estate is Weingut Klaus Zimmerling, named after its proprietor, who was a mechanical engineer and started making wine as a hobby in 1987. In May of 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he went to Austria to work at the renowned Nikolaihof winery in Wachau. He started there as a cook but gained the experience necessary to start his own winery in 1992.
Another example is the aforementioned Weingut Buddrus, founded in 2016. “My brother-in-law texted me an eBay link to an ad for a vineyard for sale and asked if I would be interested,” says Konni Buddrus. “We started with 3,000 square meters (0.74 acres) planted with Silvaner.” Today, they have 4 hectares (almost 10 acres).
The area under vines is very limited in both Saale-Unstrut and Sachsen. There are about 800 hectares (a little less than 2,000 acres) of vineyards in Saale-Unstrut. Most vines here are grown in shell limestone soils, as well as marl and sandstone. Because of the severity of the winters and shortness of the growing season, late-ripening varieties are not successfully grown, for the most part. Consequently, Müller-Thurgau, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Silvaner and Portugieser are the most popular.
In Sachsen, the vineyard acreage is even smaller. There are only around 500 hectares (1,250 acres) of vineyards grown primarily on granite. However, the weather is slightly nicer, and springs tends to arrive earlier, which allows for some late-ripening varieties, like Riesling, to successfully grow here. Still, the Müller-Thurgau is popular, along with Weissburgunder, Kerner, Gewürztraminer, and Scheurebe.
Both regions have a long tradition of winemaking going back at least to the 11th century. The golden age was during the 16th and 17th centuries, but because of the events of the 19th and 20th centuries, winemaking almost ceased to exist. The Berlin Wall, which was the barrier, ironically also became the bridge linking the past, the present and the future.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!