It could not have been a more perfect day for our day tour on the river Saale. Gorgeous blue skies with a warming sun promised to make the trip unforgettable. Packing the kids into the car I picked up my friend at the Weimar train station and we headed to Camburg, where we met with Mario Brömel who was going to guide us along the river in canoes for an hour-ride to the vineyards of Weingut Zahn. We set off on the Saale through unspoilt nature, enjoying the tranquility of the nature around us. This route is one of the most picturesque river routes in Thuringia where the landscape is dotted with castles, vineyards and hills, and paddlers can make stops at the various points on their journey.
In just over an hour we reached our intended destination – the Weingut Zahn, where we were to meet with Elvira Zahn and Torsten General the couple currently creating big waves with their new and innovative wines. The vineyard is located in the district Grossheringen Kaatschen, in the southernmost corner of the Unstrut vineyards in Thuringia. Between Naumburg, Weimar and Jena, idyllically located on the Saale river. As we take our seats on their sun terrace, Torsten brings a few bottles of wine, Elvira on his heels with thin stemmed wine glasses. The kids get a bottle of their own – a bottle with white grape juice from the Zahn vines.
The Zahns have managed these vineyards since 1964, now in the third generation the winery boasts of modern wine cellars and equipment. With the passion for Wine the Zahns cultivate 60 thousand grape varieties over 9 hectares of wine hills. Torsten tells us the wine bar started back in 1999 as a small wine stall called “Besenwirtschaft” where guests could order cheese or bread with lard with their wines. The restaurant at that time seated only twenty. Today, things look a little different with seating for 200 guests, the wine restaurant directly on the banks of the Saale has grown exponentially.
The Zahn family are very much attached to their region, striving to provide individual wines of the highest quality. They combine their passion and enthusiasm for the grapes with environmentally friendly and natural cultivation with modern cellar techniques, offering distinctive regional-typical wines. This concept was rewarded recently at the “Gebietsweinprämierung Saale-Unstrut 2015” where their wines were valued with 4 medals, including 2 gold medals for the late vintage 2013 “Weißburgunder – Lignium” and the 2013 “Kaatschener Dachsberg –Vivien- Blauer Zweigelt Blanc de Noir” sparkling wine. The vineyard also won the prize of honor for the most successful wine estates 2015.
Prizes here or there, fact is the Zahns are down-to-earth people and are proud to be a part of such a beautiful region. This is mirrored in everything they do including how they run their very successful restaurant.
“We do not experiment much!” states Torsten. It surprises me a bit I must admit but when he explains that they have learnt to trust the old traditional Thuringian cuisine and interpret this innovatively I understand exactly what he means. I have experienced this idea during all my travels through Thuringia and each chef I have met, proud of the roots this region provides, creates this concept so uniquely. Having said that, they do look over the edge of their plates for inspiration for their dishes. The Zahns are very particular of sourcing their products from the region and this alone allows them to pair flavors and regional items in a contemporary manner.
They have come a long way from the “Käse / Fettbrot” days , today with four cooks in the kitchen they offer a range of very interesting dishes that highlight their wines perfectly. Each dish comes with a wine recommendation, like serving a dry 2014 Weißburgunder Bünauer Berg late vintage with rich flavored Duroc pork chops served on a bed of chantrelles and pointed cabbage and rosemary potatoes. One thing guests will be missing for sure on their menu – beer!
The Zahns make up for the missing beer though and offer their guests an exclusive picnic in their picturesque vineyards overlooking the Saale and the Kaatschener Dachsberg valley. Their baskets are packed with a variety of goodies. Depending on the type of basket you request there will be smoked trout, Thuringian sausages, cheese platter, fruit, salads, water and of course you will always find a bottle of their wines. They also pack, a picnic blanket, plates, bowls and glasses. All you need to do is find the perfect spot to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in this beautiful wine country.
We take our picnic baskets and after the excitement of canoeing through the Saale, kick-off our shoes, finding a nice shaded picnic table protecting us from the hot sun and just relax soaking up the lovely landscape.
The Weingut Zahn terrace is open from March through to October and from October they open their wine cellar to the guests. Throughout the year they offer extremely thrilling events, my favorite is definitely the “Tafel am Dachsberg” where under the summer moon, a 30m table is arranged, up in their vineyards, guests get to cook their own meal, enjoying it with other guests and the Zahns will pair the meal with their wines. On 5th and 6th September you can find them in the wine village of Kaatschen at the 16th Thuringian Weinbergfest. You will find their event calendar here.
With a bottle of their “Weißburgunder” secured in my bag I came back home, totally inspired by my memorable experience in the Saale-Unstrut region. I had an idea churning in my head for a great recipe and went to work to create my dish, highlighting the grapes and products of the region. My wine braised herb chicken and roasted grapes is a mighty dish, in my opinion that epitomizes my day on the Saale river and on the wine hills of Thuringia.
Recipe: Wine Braised Herb Chicken with Roasted GrapesMeeta K. Wolff
- 6 pieces (thigh and drumsticks) free-range chicken
- 4-6 shallots, halved or if small left whole
- 1 garlic head, halved
- 4 carrots, thickly sliced
- 1 medium sized sweet potato, cut into wedges
- 200 ml white wine (I used a Weißburgunder from Weingut Zahn, but a Riesling or a Bacchus would pair brilliantly here)
- 200 ml chicken stock
- large handful mixed herbs: tarragon, oregano, marjoram, thyme, very finely chopped
- 2 bunches (handful) white and red grapes, left on their vines
- 2-4 tablespoons olive oil
- 100g melted butter
- Preheat the oven to 180 C.
- Set aside 1 tablespoon olive oil and butter each. Pour the rest of the oil and butter in a small mixing bowl, crush 1 garlic clove and add the herbs to make a thick basting paste.
- Heat 1 tablespoon oil and a small glug of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Throw in 2 halves shallots and 1 garlic clove to infuse the oil-butter mixture in the pan. Allow to brown then remove from pan. Brush the chicken lightly with the herb basting paste, then season to taste. Add the pieces to the pan, in batches if necessary, and fry until golden on both sides. Transfer to a roasting pan. Place the carrots and sweet potatoes around the chicken and lightly brush the vegetables with the herb mixture too. Pour wine and stock – first only 100 ml each, then place the roasting tin into the oven.
- Roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes (depending on how large the chicken pieces are), brushing the chicken with the herb mixture in between and adding more liquid if required. After the 25 minutes are through, add the grapes also brushing them with the herb mixture, pouring more liquid and then roasting for a further 20 minutes until caramelized.
- Remove from the oven and arrange on a platter, serving with a crusty whole-wheat baguette and of course with lots of white wine (the same you used in the dish).
The dish is wonderfully elegant and offers incredible levels of flavor. Just perfect for the cooler Fall weather. Invite your friends, light up a few candles and open a bottle of good wine. Paired with a thick crust rustic bread and a green salad this meal will create lot of memories.
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