As the winter approaches, Berliners hope to visit the “Weihnachtsmärkte,” or Christmas markets, for a cup of steaming “Glühwein,” or mulled wine, with friends. Last year, when the markets were canceled, Berliners used their creativity to create decentralized Christmas markets of scattered stands and vendors. It wasn’t perfect, but it was something.
This past June, after nearly six months of COVID-19 closures, Berlin’s restaurants and bars opened again and Berliners flocked back to celebrate.
“Directly after we were able to come out of lockdown and open up restaurants, everybody was ordering Champagne,” says Nicholas Pratt, head sommelier at CORDO.
And then after satisfying the craving for bubbles, Berliners ventured into unknown territory. “Wines from countries that are not so well known — Hungary, Czech, Bulgaria, Croatia — pique people’s interests. They’re not so widely available and they’re also typically not exported outside of the countries,” says Pratt.
German theologist Martin Luther once famously said, “Beer is man-made, but wine comes from God.” The country may be dominated by goofy beer-fueled Oktoberfest stereotypes, but Berlin’s wine scene is nothing to laugh at.
Small bubble with big options
In Berlin, Germany’s capital, there’s an anything goes ethos that applies not only to nightlife and fashion but also to wine.
“Berlin offers everything. Look at the huge hotels, look at the high-priced Michelin star restaurants. We have everything here,” says Rainer Schwilden, head of sales at retailer Wein & Glas.
Germany is a federation of 16 states, each with its own history and personality. Berlin, a city-state, is a world of its own. “The Berlin wine scene is a very small bubble, and I sometimes forget that,” says Janine Woltaire, head sommelier at two Michelin-star restaurant Horváth. “It’s so easy for me to serve low intervention wines with a bit of cloudiness. Most of our guests appreciate it or are at least willing to try them. But when I’m traveling to Hamburg or Munich or any other part of Germany, it’s not so common.”
Berliners are still seeking out the classics like Bordeaux and Burgundies, particularly at fine dining establishments, with Riesling and Chardonnay holding firm as some of the most requested grapes. There are some bars and restaurants that only serve classic styles of wine, as well as some that only serve natural wines, but the number of places that dabble in both is growing.
It takes time to find the perfect spot in Berlin. A destination listed as a wine bar on Google maps may be a full-fledged restaurant that happens to serve really good wine. When you do find a wine bar, it will have food; Berliners want to eat while they drink, so most wine bars will offer warm sharing plates or even a menu.
There is no happy hour or aperitivo culture in Berlin. Who needs happy hour when you’ve got a “Wegbier,” or beer to go? The German tradition of grabbing a beer from a “Späti,” or a small convenience shop, to enjoy on a stroll, means Berliners create their own happy hour whenever and wherever they want. Public drinking is not only legal but socially accepted, so a typical night out for Berliners is just as likely to consist of drinking €4 ($4.65) beers or DIY “schörle,” wine mixed with sparkling water, at airport-turned park Tempelhofer Feld, as a three-course meal in a nice restaurant in Mitte.
Emily Harman, sommelier and owner of ORA, a wine bar and restaurant, believes Berlin’s lower cost of living is one reason why happy hour hasn’t caught on. “Also, most bars and restaurants in Berlin offer more democratic pricing, which is not always the case in NYC and London.”
The one issue that leaves many new Berliners scratching their heads is the city’s love of cash. You may be able to enjoy food and wine from all around the world and hop from wine bar to wine bar in an Uber, but you may also find yourself scrambling to pay your bill because credit cards are still not widely accepted. A server will have the closest ATM memorized and nonchalantly point you to it, while they linger over to the next table until you return and close out your bill.
This no-nonsense attitude is also evident in Berliners’ wardrobes for a night out. Berliners are stylish, yes, but are they glamorous? Not quite.
“Berlin is a pretty fashionable city. But not high fashion couture. A lot of people wear sneakers. Comfort is something that’s really important to Berliners,” says Patricia Lee, sommelier at Hallmann & Klee.
The country may be dominated by goofy beer-fueled Oktoberfest stereotypes, but Berlin’s wine scene is nothing to laugh at.
Divided but united
It’s impossible to ignore the history of this city. It’s evident in the architecture and in the layout. It’s in the famous street food sprinkled with international influence; currywurst is German sausage, served with ketchup and a sprinkle of curry powder. And although Berlin feels distinctly modern with its startups and glitzy shopping promenades, there are stark remnants of the war everywhere you look.
Since 1990, the East and West of Germany have been united as one country. But before reunification, the city of Berlin was also split down the middle, with a line that is still visible. As the East was an enclosed Socialist state during the Cold War, the West welcomed international military and cultural forces. So, when the wall fell in 1989, the already established West continued a steady growth, while the East exploded as a hotspot for artists and creatives.
The younger, Instagram-friendly wine joints are still in the Eastern part of the city, in neighborhoods synonymous with cool, like Neukölln and Friedrichshain. The West has more of the old-school kneipes that are still small enough to skirt past the city’s rule of no smoking for indoor places that are larger than 807 square feet.
Regardless of where they live, Berliners can always commiserate over their housing situation. Anyone looking for a place to live in the city will face the brutal reality of finding somewhere affordable, which is proving harder each year.
Berliners hit the streets to partake in an average of 14 demonstrations on any given day, protesting everything from environmental reform to, of course, rent increases. That sense of collective consciousness has spilled into the wine scene with a flurry of natural wine-focused restaurants and shops opening in recent years, alongside mainstays like natural wine shop Viniculture in Charlottenburg.
Schwilden has also noticed the trend in his shop. “People are more concerned with where it’s coming from. How is it made? Who’s the winemaker? What is their philosophy and why is this wine special?”
But wherever preferences lie, in Berlin, there’s something for everyone.
5 Places to Visit in Berlin:
As a pharmacy-turned-restaurant and wine bar, this space has had many lives. But it retains some original touches, like its ornate interior woodwork. There are both bar snacks and small seasonal dishes on the restaurant menu, but the star here is the wine list, which includes lesser-known regions and hard-to-find by-the-glass options.
To get a glimpse of Berlin on a Friday night, go to Freundschaft. The highlight is of course the wine menu, which is made up of nearly 500 wines from around the world, but you definitely won’t be disappointed by the Austrian dishes they serve either.
Rutz Restaurant and Wine Bar, the big sibling of the Rutz family, is a Berlin staple known for its three Michelin stars and epic wine list. But Rutz Zollhaus, a Berlin institution, shouldn’t stand in Rutz’s shadows. It has an intriguing selection of Bordeaux as well as a modern take on German food.
This Charlottenburg gem has been a neighborhood establishment since 1935. With taxidermic deer heads on the walls, Kurpfalz Weinstuben feels traditional, but the service, food, and wine provide a nice contrast. Their 50-page wine list includes most wine-producing regions but their German selection really shines.
This cozy bar serves up a carefully curated list of mostly European wines, along with an assortment of whiskies, most of which are from Japan. There are also small bites, but what makes Rhinoceros so special is the bar’s dedication to vinyl jazz records, which are always spinning in the background. What it lacks in menu scope, it more than makes up for in ambiance and selection.