BREMEN, West Germany — In medieval times city councils often owned a monopoly on wine, so that the only place a fellow could get a drink was in the rathskeller, or city hall cellar.
Although rathskellers are sprinkled throughout Germany in both old and new city halls, perhaps none has been more famous throughout the centuries than the rathskeller of Bremen. Serving only German wine, it offers more than 600 kinds from all the 11 important wine regions of Germany, a wider selection of German wines than any other locale in Germany.
Open daily from 10 a.m. to midnight, the Bremen Ratskeller has an atmosphere both dignified and subdued. With its stone floor, oak tables and its 20 pillars supporting an arched ceiling, the main hall of this venerable old establishment is dark and cool.
Men and women in tailored suits discuss business over glasses of sparkling wine while balding, pipe-smoking men drink as they pore over their newspapers. Everyone speaks in whispers, and waiters with white towels over their arms weave unobtrusively among the tables.
The Atmosphere Changes
As the evening wears on, conversation becomes more animated and rowdier. Customers sit at long wooden tables laughing, joking and helping in the consumption of the 600 to 800 bottles of wine that the rathskeller sells daily. The scene is timeless, and one that has been played out every evening in the Bremen Ratskeller for more than 500 years.
Flanking the north wall of the rathskeller's main hall are massive, woodcarved wine barrels bearing rich decorations of the 18th Century. On the other side of the hall, small, private wooden cubicles hold up to six people. Although the cubicles have doors, an unwritten rule from former times dictates that if a man and woman are seated in one, the doors must remain open.
The most colorful room of the rathskeller is the Bacchus Keller, a fresco-covered hall that has been turned into a restaurant with white tablecloths, fresh flowers and candles throwing a soft gleam on wine glasses and silverware.
The menu offers such specialties as Bremen stew with fresh vegetables and meat, Schnitzel, chicken ragout or fresh fish from nearby Bremerhaven. Most main dishes are in the $7-$10 range.
As for wine, the rathskeller has more than a million bottles in stock, and its wine list divides its vintages according to region and year. Every year new wines are added to the list, and wineries consider it a privilege when their wines are chosen by the Bremen Ratskeller.
The oldest wine in stock is a Rudesheimer dating from 1653. It isn't for sale, but if it were it would cost about $35,000 a drop.
Another rare wine in the rathskeller vaults is a 1727 Rudesheimer. In that year Johann Sebastian Bach was in Leipzig, creating his "St. Matthew" Passion. Voltaire was writing in England and Sir Isaac Newton had just died. And in Bremen, the rathskeller was a favorite watering hole for townspeople, for travelers and for captains and whalers setting sail from this northern German city for distant, foreign ports.
"Our oldest wines aren't for sale. They're only for special occasions," explained a waiter. "Of course, technically speaking the wine isn't really wine from 1727. Every year a half-liter of wine evaporates. To maintain the volume and to keep the same taste, we add a half liter of new wine from the same region to the barrel. Otherwise the wine would taste terrible, like vinegar."
If you feel like splurging, the most expensive wine you can buy from the rathskeller's kiosk is a bottle of 1911 Niersteiner Flaschenhahl Trockenbeerenauslese, a Rheinhessen wine, for about $1,750.
But a changing selection of wine is always offered for about $2 to $3.50 a glass from each of Germany's 11 wine regions. Wine tastings of five to seven wines are also available for $8 and $12 per person.
The Bremen Ratskeller shares its fame with the building above it, the rathaus, or town hall. Both were built in 1405, and the building's Gothic facade was added in the 17th Century.
Free tours of the rathaus are given Monday through Friday mornings at 10, 11 and at noon and on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 and noon. Tours last two hours and although they're conducted only in German, a pamphlet is available in English that describes the history of the town hall and the main points of interest.
It was the church that introduced the growing of grapes and the making of wine in Germany. Monks became quite adept at producing various wines, and wherever there were grape vines, you could be pretty sure that a monastery was close by.
When the church lost its power over Bremen in the 1400s, the city council took over the wine monopoly.
Bremen's wall fortifications, for example, were built with funds from the rathskeller treasury. Walls were needed as defense against attacking pirates. So Bremen's citizens considered it a good deed to go to the rathskeller and have their fair share of wine.
City officials and teachers received part of their salaries in wine. Even the city's executioner got a little wine before carrying out his duties.
Bremen also used its wine as a means for getting what it wanted. While other countries and cities were fighting it out, Bremen was sending wine to such important people as the German kaiser and the royal family of England. Foreign diplomats were led down into Bremen's town hall basement and wooed with wine before smoothing out diplomatic difficulties.
Thus it was that the Bremen council was able to stay afloat and independent through centuries of power struggles, inheritances and expansionist policies of its mighty and larger neighbors.
City councils no longer have monopolies on wine but the tradition of the rathskeller lives on. In addition to Bremen, you might also want to visit the rathskeller in Leubeck, Germany's oldest rathskeller, founded in 1260.