“Um den heissen brei herumreden!” I finally manage to say in one breath. Wolfgang, my trusted guide in all things German, looks at me like I just won gold at the Olympics. “Well done!” he beams.

“It means to talk around the hot porridge — to not be direct,” he explains of his favourite German saying.

“That doesn’t seem very German,” I tease before trying again. “Um den hei — I can’t,” I wheeze as my vocabulary lesson is cut short by the very steep hill we’re currently climbing. It’s not just any hill, but a symbol of where we are: Saxony, Germany’s easternmost (and one of the world’s northernmost) wine regions.

Here, in this little sliver of green land, vineyards are not resigned to flat, stable ground, but planted upon towering vertical mounds that’ll expose whether or not you’ve been keeping up on your cardio.

Once we reach the top, even the normally chatty Wolfgang is speechless. We take in the view before us: Slopes of verdant vines and blooming lavender give way to wide-open fields that stretch into the valley below.

Saxony, Germany | A couple overlooks vineyards in Radebeul

It’s silent except for the gentle trickle of running water from fountains standing tall over the gardens. I take a big gulp of fresh, cool air (it’s a mild 13 C in August). “Well, shall we drink?” asks Wolfgang, and we begin our descent.

Małgorzata Chodakowska’s clay-covered hands greet us at the base of the hill. She’s been sculpting all morning and is eager to show us around the four-hectare organic vineyard and home she shares with her husband, winemaker Klaus Zimmerling.

In her studio, a statue of a woman twice her size towers over us. The piece isn’t finished yet, but Chodakowska tells me it will soon become a bronze fountain, like the striking ones I’ve seen all over the grounds.

Bronze statues decorate Weingut Klaus Zimmerling’s vineyard
A bronze statue at Weingut Klaus Zimmerling
Best wine bars in Toronto | Pouring wine at Paris Paris

The best wine bars Toronto has to offer for rare vino and small plates

Wine, whether natural or not, is in the limelight right now and these are the best wine bars in Toronto to find it at, along with tasty snack plates.

Read more

“Klaus makes the wine; I make the art,” she says, setting a table with glasses and fresh bread for our impromptu tasting.

“I never get bored of riesling,” Chodakowska says as she pours from the first bottle. It’s semi-dry, and as elegant and intricate as her sculptures. Just as we’re about to take our last sip of the expressive wine, Zimmerling walks in from the vineyard.

I don’t know much German, but I instantly recognize the saying “für den wein” (for the wine) on his dirt-covered t-shirt. As we sample their vintages — from a bright kerner with racy minerality to a sparkling pinot noir, or “spätburgunder,” that oozes delicate notes of honey and brioche — I begin to understand the meaning behind his shirt.

Everything they do at Weingut Klaus Zimmerling is for the wine. The pesticide and herbicide-free vines aren’t on a steep pyramid because Zimmerling likes to get his steps in; it’s to maximize the amount of sunshine each stem gets in this finicky continental climate. Here, temperatures can go from hot to below freezing before you know it.

Saxony, Germany | A bronze statue at Weingut Klaus Zimmerling

Saxony’s weather fluctuations are a challenge to winemakers like Zimmerling, but also an opportunity. The variation in temperatures allows for a wider range of grape varieties, and Zimmerling has learned to focus on quality production over quantity. He appreciates what nature gives them even when it’s hard.

“That’s life,” he says with a peaceful grin. “We take the natural gifts and we make the best out of it.”

That wasn’t always possible in this tiny region. In the late 19th century, Saxon wines were almost lost forever after phylloxera, a vine-killing pest from America, destroyed its vineyards. “The Americans are to blame, as usual,” jokes Wolfgang, but there’s truth to what he says. The phylloxera epidemic was a viticultural nightmare.

“The infestation was so heavy, all the vines were destroyed and removed,” sighs Frank Andert, a hobby wine grower and the custodian (he said, “director is too big of a title,” even though that is essentially his job) of the Saxon Wine Museum at Hoflößnitz Winery in the storybook town of Radebeul.

Saxony, Germany | Hoflößnitz Winery’s vertical vineyards

Andert is a grape geek overflowing with facts and admiration for the craft. He takes me on a historical journey of Saxon wine as we trundle through the lush vertical vineyards at Hoflößnitz. At 25 C with full sun, it’s much hotter than it was yesterday, and I see firsthand the beauty and turmoil that comes with a fickle continental climate.

By the late 1920s, after more than a quarter of a century in wine purgatory, Saxony was able to experiment with new vines thanks to European advancements in grafting. “They took the root stalks from American vines resilient to phylloxera and grafted them with traditional European varieties,” explains Andert. It’s a technique that’s still used today to create unique fungal-resistant crossings like cabernet blanc, Andert’s favourite.

Saxony, Germany | Frank Andert, of the Saxon Wine Museum
Saxony, Germany | Grapes at Hoflößnitz Winery

“[Hoflößnitz was] the first winery to bring cabernet blanc to Saxony,” he says of this fascinating white grape, invented in the 90s by a Swiss grape breeder who crossed two red grapes: a cabernet sauvignon and a regent.

“Two reds made a white,” he laughs at the absurdity, but then again, nothing about growing wine in Saxony makes a lot of sense. “The climate is not very suited for wine growing in the past years,” Andert admits. He’s witnessed heavy rains, frost and, just last year, “the driest May since the beginning of documentation” wipe out entire vintages.

Saxony, Germany | A lineup of wines at Hoflößnitz Winery

I don’t want to talk around the hot porridge, so I ask, “Why on earth do people make wine here?” Andert sips his sprightly cabernet blanc, brimming with notes of crisp green pepper, and answers, “Because it tastes so good.”

He’s right. Despite the harrowing stories that winemakers have recalled about each Saxon vintage, I have yet to taste one that I didn’t enjoy. To sip Saxon wine is a tiny miracle. “It’s part of our culture, our history. We celebrate wine,” shares Andert.

Writer Meredith Hardie sips at Hoflößnitz Winery
Cabernet blanc at Hoflößnitz Winery

Beyond the endless exploration for wine enthusiasts, Saxony is a destination overflowing with character, history and delicious pastries. From the spectacular rock formations of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains and the lavish Baroque castles to the rich arts and culture scene in the capital city of Dresden, this beautiful region is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.

Saxony, Germany | Dresden's skyline
Icewine grapes frozen on the vine

What is Canadian icewine? Inniskillin gives us a primer on the complex wine

We chat with Nicholas Gizuk, winemaker at Inniskillin Niagara, to find out how Canadian icewine is made, how to pair it and more.

Read more

On my last day in the small but mighty Saxony, I visit Schloss Wackerbarth, one of the oldest producers of sparkling wine in Germany. With its manicured lawns and sculpted hedges, it’s one of the most picturesque wineries, but beyond the idyllic landscape are more pressing matters. Today, the biggest threat to the area is climate change.

During the summer, Saxony’s steep slopes have been getting too hot. “We don’t have any problem with ripeness; the problem is over-ripeness,” says Till Neumeister, vineyard manager at Schloss Wackerbarth.

To mitigate the effects of climate change, wineries have to harvest earlier, which is difficult to do when the season is so short and frost can linger as late as May.

“Against this late frost, we have candles,” says Neumeister. “With late frosts, there’s often no wind. The heat from the candles creates an airstream, so the cold moves out of the vineyard,” he explains.

Saxony, Germany | Schloss Wackerbarth's Midsummer Nights Ball

At 90 hectares, Schloss Wackerbarth is one of the largest wine estates in Germany, and the solution to one of its biggest challenges is to light candles. I don’t believe it until I’m shown pictures of flames dancing dangerously close to the rows of vines, but Neumeister assures me that “their babies” are safe.

“We protect them every day, but especially during these cold nights. It’s like the fire burning in the heart of the winemaker,” he says of the flames. Saxony may not be the biggest or most forgiving winemaking region, but as long as there are passionate people who keep the fire burning, I have no doubt that the wine will keep on flowing — and that is something worth celebrating.