Southeast of Stuttgart, Germany there begins a region called the Albtrauf, an area recognized for its low lying mountains and exceptional tree fruit. In fact, due to its fertile soil and favorable micro-climate, Albtrauf has come to be known as an orchard paradise, where old, heritage varieties of apples and pears thrive and birds sing happily in this EU protected sanctuary.
I traveled to the village of Schlat in the northern Albtrauf to visit Jörg Geiger, the director of his namesake company Manufaktur Jörg Geiger, a producer of wine, cider, schnapps, and — specific to my interests – artisanal non-alcoholic beverages. About 11 years ago Jörg, a trained chef, decided to put his culinary expertise to work in the pursuit of creating sophisticated, refined, alcohol free beverages, using the exceptional fruit from his family’s orchards and wild flowers and herbs from the surrounding forests. Jörg’s ambitions have been a great success as his non-alcoholic Priseccos now represent the largest share of his company’s sales.
And with good reason.
I was not prepared for the extraordinary sensory experience I had when I raised the first glass of Prisecco to my lips. The exquisite color of the liquid and the gorgeous bouquet of fresh and complex aromas startled me. Then a sip. Luscious fruit and floral notes thrilled my palate. It was crisp, not too sweet, with very fine pearl carbonation. Unlike any beverage I had had before.
This initial encounter with Jörg’s Priseccos took place over dinner at the quaint Geiger family hotel in Schlat. Each course of my meal was paired with a different Prisecco, greatly complementing the food. Afterward, Jörg and I adjourned to his tasting room where I sampled his full range of non-alcoholic beverages, all spectacular. So effusive was my praise that I felt self- consciously American in the presence of my more reserved German host. But as I have witnessed many times before, food artists everywhere tend to feed off the enthusiasm expressed by those who sample their wares, and Jörg’s lingering smile during our tasting let me know that he was pleased with my exhilaration – and probably amused, as well.
After a good night’s sleep at the Geiger hotel, Jörg took me on a tour. Our first stop – the orchards. Immediately I noticed that the fruit trees were very large, with tall, thick trunks — not at all similar to the low, shrub-like trees that populate many orchards in America. Jörg explained that some of the apple and pears trees are 150 – 200 years old, and allowed to grow deep roots in order to take up the minerals and nutrients in the soil, thereby favorably influencing the character of the fruit.
The heritage varieties grown by Jörg and his neighbors in the Albtrauf are becoming scarce as more and more farmers cultivate commercial varieties that have mass appeal and deliver higher yields. Jörg considers himself a conservationist as much as a producer of beverages, and continues to plant heritage fruit trees for the benefit of future generations.
Next, we spent time in the evergreen forest tasting fir tree tips, wild flowers, and herbs used in the Priseccos. Each of these elements adds depth of flavor and a longer finish on the palate which is key to food pairing, and enhances the unique sense of place of the Priseccos.
Concluding the tour, we stopped by Manufaktur Jörg Geiger’s new production facility, which is used exclusively for non-alcoholic beverages. It is state of the art, and will allow for further expansion of the Geiger Prisecco line. But the building is also important in maintaining the cultural integrity of the greater community. On Fridays during harvest season, Jörg invites farmers from the surrounding area to use his facility, free of charge, to make their own juice. The gesture is both neighborly and farsighted — creating goodwill, and incentives to keep the Albtrauf an orchard paradise.