A cat put this German town on the wine trail, writes Jocelyn Watkin.
There's a legendary black cat in the German town of Zell an der Mosel. The locals often talk about their Zeller Schwarze Katz and she's at every sip of wine that she helps the town to sell. She's on the label of most of the wines that the region produces, and has her own statue and fountain in the town square.
Zell is a tiny, historic wine-making settlement alongside the Mosel River in Germany. It is famous for its high-quality Riesling, which is made from grapes that grow on dizzyingly steep slopes, and its legendary sassy black cat.
Like most Mosel villages, Zell has its own Weinkönigin (Wine Queen, often the daughter of a wine maker), who helps to promote the town and its wine.
Queen Laura Waltner tells the legend of the Zeller Schwarze Katz: "In 1863 there were three wine merchants from Aachen and they came into a wine cellar in Zell an der Mosel to purchase the best wine they could find. In one winery, the negotiations went on for a long time when suddenly the cellar owner's black cat sprung up onto one cask.
"She arched her back threateningly and she hissed when these merchants came near her. The merchants interpreted this as a good omen [a cat defending wine from price discounting] and they bought the cask. Back in Aachen, they bottled the wine and put a picture of a black cat on the label. The wine sold well and the merchants came back for more."
Today the cat is so revered that a stylised version of her perches on top of the Wine Queen's tiara. Zell's local council arches its back and hisses at any unauthorised use of the Zeller Schwarze Katz.
Stadtbürgermeister (mayor) Hans Schwarz explains: "The logo belongs to the town and is managed by the council. It is protected by a patent, which is renewed every 10 years. A vineyard in Austria used the black cat logo last year and was fined."
The favoured black cat has her own festival at the end of June as well as a starring role in Zell's Federweissenfest (new wine festival) in early October.
During Federweissenfest, the area around the Zeller Schwarze Katz Brunnen (fountain) becomes party central, with music and dancing for visitors and for those who need to hang loose after spending days slogging up the hillsides picking grapes.
Two unique taste sensations accompany the festivities, Federweisser (new wine) and Zwiebelkuchen (spicy onion cake).
Federweisser is cloudy, slightly fizzy, and has a full-bodied grape taste that keeps most people coming back for more. It's created in the first stage of fermentation just after the freshly picked grapes are pressed.
As soon as alcohol levels reach four per cent, the juice can be drunk. The name translates as "white feathers". This is because the fizzy bubbles in the glass look like white feathers dancing in the wine.
Delightful as it sounds, this drop is only available for a few days during the harvest. Once alcohol levels in the storage tanks reach 10 per cent, the next stage of the wine-making process converts the fizzing juice into clear wine.
As well as their own award-winning wines, several wineries sell Federweisser and the traditional Zwiebelkuchen. The spicy onion cake is made of onions, bacon, egg and sour cream, plus a secret ingredient or two. This mix is poured into a pastry base like a pizza crust and cooked.
I can see why Zwiebelkuchen is popular at harvest time. One bite of this tasty, nutritious, savoury pancake and I felt like I too could stride up Zell's 60-degree slopes and pick grapes all day.
Romans introduced viticulture to the region around 2000 years ago. It was a lot further north than the usual, sunnier habitat grapes required, but the vineyards flourished because the Mosel's steep hillsides changed the land's angle to the sun, making it more like it is in the tropics.
Award-winning wine maker Peter Weis told me, "If you want to become brown in summer come and stand on our steep slopes."
The disadvantage of sharply slanted vineyards is that mechanisation is difficult and a lot of manual labour is needed to tend and harvest the grapes. This raises the cost of the wine when compared with that grown in more level regions.
To help minimise costs, most of the wine makers in the area have trained their vines onto individual wooden stakes (called Einzelpfahlerziehung) instead of the more traditional wires. This allows workers to walk horizontally across the sometimes-perilous slopes, making the work safer, quicker and less arduous.
The lack of wired rows also enables the use of little monorail trolleys to ferry materials up the slopes and to cart the harvested grapes down.
As well as being fit as mountain goats, the Mosel's winemakers are talented. They win more awards for Riesling than any other region in the Rhineland Palatinate area.
I was curious to know their secret. It had to be more than a black cat and hours of sunshine.
Tenth-generation wine maker, Stephan Fischer, has won the overall prize for the best Riesling Sekt (sparkling wine) three times in the past 10 years.
As well as steep land and his family's collective knowledge, he attributes his success to something older than the Romans: the 240 million-year-old small chunks of slate, which are scattered across the area's hillsides. He said these provide two big advantages: "They absorb heat from the sun during the day, which is then released overnight to warm the vines and reduce the impact of frost. The slate also contains minerals such as magnesium and potassium. These leach out when it rains, which enriches the ground and then the grapes."
Albert Kallfelz, the highest-decorated Riesling producer for the whole of Germany told me that hard work is essential but it's not enough.
He said, "My philosophy on good wine making is the same as what I think about liebe [love], freundschaft [friendship] and Fussball spielen [playing soccer]. You can't just study it; you have to do it for a long time and get a feel for it. You've got to know when to go with the 'feeling in the belly'."
If you're planning a trip to Germany then aim for October and head for Zell an der Mosel.
As well as wonderful wine and food there are walkways, cycle ways, cruises on the Mosel and at least 2000 years of history to enthral you.
Mayor Schwarz advises to book accommodation in advance as the Mosel records its highest visitor numbers for the year at this time.
Zell has around 4300 inhabitants and approximately four million vines. I lost count of the number of images I saw of the Zeller Schwarze Katz.
Further information: See zellerland.de.
Jocelyn Watkin's apartment accommodation was provided by My Europe Base.
TOP TRAVEL TIPS FOR GERMANY
Sarah Kent of Queensgate Flight Centre in Lower Hutt has experienced Germany and shares her top tips on places to go and things to do:
1. Take a walking tour of Berlin. See the Topography of Terror where you will tour the SS and Gestapo secret headquarters, Hitler's bunker, the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie.
2. Head to the Rhine Valley and take a cruise along the river. Marvel at the castles lining the banks. Afterwards, attend a tasting of local wines. Make sure you try their Eiswein.
3. There is fantastic shopping in Germany. Pick up a traditional beer stein, a Steiff teddy bear for the kids, and a cuckoo clock for the wall at home.
5. For a more sombre experience, visit Dachau in Munich, the first Nazi concentration camp opened in Germany.
* For more information on Germany contact Sarah and the team at Queensgate Flight Centre on 0800 427 555.