‘If you left the monastery you were ex-communicated, your family would not take you back and you lived with the knowledge that you would go to hell, be burned, have your eyes torn out, be grilled.’
Our guide gave us the grizzly details of why the Cistercian monks at the Eberbach Abbey were more inclined to stay than to leave. Another reason just might have been the massive amounts of wine and beer produced at the abbey, about 30 miles due west of Frankfurt. It’s in the heart of the Rheingau wine-growing region, a small but select area which produces some of the best wines – especially Rieslings – in Germany.
At the Abbey’s height they managed 300 hectares of vineyards, the largest in medieval Europe, and even today at 200 hectares theirs is the largest single wine-producing area in Germany. They produce 2.5 million bottles of wine a year, and 75% of it is Riesling.
This is fortunate for us as we’re taking one of the abbey’s wine-tasting tours with generous helpings of six different wines in six different places. It gives us a chance not only to see some of the abbey’s historic buildings with a guide, but also to sample a range of Rieslings, a wine that is often sadly under-rated.
The abbey itself is far from under-rated, as it’s one of the most important buildings in the Hesse region of central Germany, close to where the Rivers Main and Rhine meet, and with its hotel, restaurant and convention centre, it attracts visitors from all over the world (it’s only 30 minutes from Frankfurt Airport.)
The Name of the Rose
The abbey has another claim to fame apart from its wine. In the winter of 1985/86 it was used as the main location for the movie, The Name of the Rose. The film of Umberto Eco’s best-selling medieval literary thriller starred Sean Connery as the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville. It features a fictional Benedictine abbey which is said to have one of the biggest libraries in the Christian world.
Eberbach was the perfect setting. Apart from its beauty and historical significance (it was founded in 1136), it too had an outstanding library.
‘One of the main pastimes of the monks,’ explains our guide, ‘was copying books. They saw it as keeping up the knowledge in the days when there were no printing presses, no way to duplicate books other than by copying them by hand. Monks could read and write in both English and Latin. They were allowed out of the monastery to copy a particular book that was held elsewhere, but they had to return to Eberbach. They had a huge library here which sadly disappeared in the Thirty Years War.’
In 1631 the Swedish Army not only damaged the monastery buildings and stole valuable religious artefacts, they looted the library and put the books into wine barrels and onto boats to take them back to Sweden. Unfortunately the boats sank and with that the knowledge that was in the books was lost.
Luckily for us, the monks never lost their wine-making know-how, and the 2013 Riesling we try in the Chapters Room is a tribute to their skills. It’s a lovely deep golden colour, and has an intensely floral taste to it.
‘Here they read the Chapters from the Bible, after the early morning service,’ says our guide. It was in here they also discussed everything and gave out the work for the day, one of the few places where talking was allowed. Elsewhere they had a sign language. The monks’ day started at 2am for the early morning service, and kept going until it got dark at the end of the day. The Chapters Room was built in the 14th century and was used in The Name of the Rose, in the scene where the monks had a dispute over the meaning of books.’
There was no disputing the quality of the first wine, nor of the Riesling Edition 2012 which we tasted in the abbey’s vast dormitory, which also partly dates from the 14th century. It was perhaps 100 yards long with vaulted ceilings, and is one of the most photographed rooms in Germany. Here the monks would sleep on a straw mat, wearing their habits and shoes. The only other possession they were allowed was a piece of slate to write things on.
The 2012 wine was lighter on the nose and smoother on the palate. It reminded me, surprisingly for a Riesling, of the type of buttery chardonnays that I love. In the courtyard outside the abbey’s church we sampled a 2013 Steinberger, a much sweeter Riesling that managed to mix minerality with fruit on the palate and left a fruity taste in the mouth.
Opposite the church and a few yards across the courtyard is the room where the ancient wine presses are, showing that, for the monks of Eberbach, Bibles and barrels made easy neighbours. The presses look not unlike tubby little monks themselves, 14 of them under the low stone vaulted ceiling and bearing dates like 1494 and 1668.
After more glasses of Riesling we arrive in the abbey’s wine cellar, where the old barrels and dimly flickering candles make it look as much like a place of worship as any church. I resist falling to my knees, though given a few more glasses of Riesling it would have been a distinct possibility.
For more details of this and other wine-tasting tours visit the website of Eberbach Abbey.
For more information on Frankfurt and the surrounding area visit the official website for the Frankfurt Rhein-Main region.
For information on the Rheingau wine region where the abbey is located, visit the Rhiengau Tourist Information website.