Bremen’s wine cellar is true repository of history. Housed within its 600-year-old walls is the oldest cask wine in Germany. The Ratskeller’s chief cellarman, Karl-Josef Krötz, takes me on a tour of what is affectionately known as ‘Germany’s 14th winegrowing region’ – right here under the town hall in the centre of Bremen.
I’m about to meet Karl-Josef Krötz, chief cellarman of the Ratskeller. He called me earlier to explain how to get here: I should go up the five steps to the left of the Bremen Town Musicians statue and knock on the old wooden door. And indeed, you’ll be wasting your time looking for a doorbell. So I take hold of the cast-iron ring and knock, a little clumsily – at least it feels that way. After all, I don’t come across this type of old-fashioned doorbell all too often. Nonetheless, my seemingly feeble efforts are met with success, and the heavy wooden door opens.
Mr Krötz welcomes me in his rather old-fashioned office. I can hear the sounds of the city and the voices of people walking by through the old windows at the back of the town hall. It’s easy to imagine meeting shipping magnates, town councillors or dockers in Bremen, but a chief cellarman doesn’t seem that obvious. However, as Mr Krötz explains, this position in the Ratskeller is highly sought-after, as one of the largest collections of German wines is stored here. When he applied for the position 27 years ago, he had only intended to test his own marketability. But when he was offered the job, the qualified winegrower decided to give up his work and move from the Moselle to Bremen. “I’ve never regretted that decision,” Mr Krötz says. And overall he’s full of praise for the city on the Weser river. He’s a big fan of the north Germans’ manner of speaking and of their typical modesty.
And, so he says, he’s pretty modest himself. I notice that too, especially when it comes to the question of whether Bremen’s Ratskeller is Germany’s oldest wine cellar or not. We agree on ‘one of the oldest’, and considering that the Ratskeller was established in 1405, I’m sure that’s a pretty safe claim. Despite his reserve in this matter, Mr Krötz promises some superlatives on our tour through the cellar – and he doesn’t disappoint.
Secret talks that don’t necessarily remain secret
The smell of centuries past accompanies us on our little private tour. We start off in the restaurant of the Ratskeller and the neighbouring Bacchus cellar, where the little wine god sits astride a large wooden cask. On the other side of the restaurant, we take a quick look in the Hauff hall, also known as the ‘whispering hall’ or ‘echoing hall’. The pillars and vaulted ceilings transmit even quietly spoken words from side of the room to the other. Legend has it that many a secret conversation had not remained so secret after all. Once again, I feel the breath of history on my neck.
Mr Krötz leads me on to the Senate Hall and the Imperial Hall – sumptuous and imposing meeting venues featuring frescoes, chandeliers and dark wood panelling. Matters discussed here were, and still are, likely to remain a secret.
Down into the cellar
Then we continue down to the cellar. Through the hustle and bustle of the Ratskeller’s kitchen we reach a small ramp that takes us further downwards. After a few metres we reach the dispatch and labelling area, where wines are packed, deliveries received, bottles labelled, and tasting wines decanted every day. Mr Krötz explains that a label from Bremen’s Ratskeller is a form of quality assurance. He has tasted all the wines in stock himself and is always on the lookout for the best vintages. More than 1,200 German wines are stored here and are available to buy.
The dispatch office is not quite as historical. The shelves, filing cabinet and office furniture look more like something from the 1930s. The iron racks in the bottle store next door also appear to be from that period. It’s all a bit reminiscent of old administrative buildings – just that they deal with wine here. We’re about four metres below ground, beneath the back end of the town hall.
Wine as a repository of history, deep beneath the city
After completing our tour of this level, we descend even further. We enter the cask cellar through a large wooden door, which was once the entrance door to the Ratskeller and which weighs almost a tonne. This part of the cellar lies beneath Domshof square. There’s even a hatch that brings you straight out on to Domshof square – if only there wasn’t a bench seat blocking it.
More than two hundred casks are stored here, each with a capacity of around 1,000 litres. Or should I say, that’s what they used to hold. Now they sit here six metres underground, storing nothing but history. At the far end of the large cellar I discover the schatzkammer. There’s plenty of history in here: it’s one of the largest archives of German wine and holds wines from a wide range of vintages. Including from 1959, as Mr Krötz tells me. Considered one of the best vintages ever, it’s the stuff of legend. “A bottle of this vintage costs more than €8,000,” he says, and I have to ask him if I heard that right. I had no idea…
Sub rosa – secrets of an almost 400-year-old wine
When we get back to the upper level, Mr Krötz stops in front of an unassuming double door. He pulls a bunch of keys from his pocket and opens it. As I step inside, I’m immediately reminded of a crypt. I have a vague idea of where we are. Then I encounter an earthy, heavy and velvety smell. Wine! Very, very old wine. We are in the rosekeller, or rose cellar. Actually, we’re in the apostles’ cellar that lies in front of it, and which contains twelve casks with wines from the Rhine region dating back to the 18th century. Mr Krötz lights the candles that are placed on each cask. It feels a bit like being in church, at least that’s my first impression. Further along in the back room is the famous rosefass, or rose cask. It contains a wine from Rüdesheim from 1653 – Germany’s oldest cask wine. And there we have the superlatives I mentioned at the beginning. I simply can’t believe my eyes.
There are two reasons for the ‘rose’ in rose cellar and rose wine. Firstly, wines of very high quality used to be called ‘rose’, and secondly, there has been an image of a rose on the ceiling above the room since 1602. This was once the venue for secret meetings of the town councillors, which is also where the term ‘sub rosa’ for a secret conversation originates.
Mr Krötz also tells me a few stories ‘sub rosa’ – but I can’t speak about them, of course. What he told me will forever remain in the rose cellar, just like countless other stories before.
Bremen’s Ratskeller offers tours of the cellar, which can be booked here.