Lübecker Rotspon: French Red Wine from…Germany?

The Holstentor

The Holstentor

The city of Lübeck, built along the Trave River, is one of Germany’s major ports. Located in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, it borders the Baltic Sea. Beginning in the 1400s, it was a commercial center of the Hanseatic League, home to the confederation of merchant guilds, and a dominant force in Baltic maritime trade. Due to its history and its extensive collection of well-preserved examples of brick Gothic architecture, Lübeck is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A large brick building known as the Holstentor (Holstein Gate) is the symbol of the city. Built in 1464, the Holstentor was one of the four gates to the city, and is one of the relics of the original fortifications of the city that has survived from medieval times. Also of note are the Salzspeicher (salt storehouses)–six brick buildings on the Trave River that were built in the sixteenth century. The salt stored in the Salzpeicher, at the time a relatively rare commodity, was shipped from Lübeck to many ports in the Baltic region.

The city is full of quaint attractions including antique sailing vessels, puppet theaters, Lübeck Cathedral, the Lübecker Rathaus (town hall), and the home of Günter Wilhelm Grass. The town is particularly well-known for its marzipan, for which it holds a PGI (protected geographical indication) from the EU. The PGI for Lübecker Marzipan was awarded in 1996.

The Salzpeicher

The Salzpeicher

The town is also known for French wine. However, the French wine that Lübeck is known for is not just imported French wine that has made its way onto the wine lists of the better restaurants in town or into the cellars of the most well-to-do citizens. Lübeck has a very unique, quite historic, and undoubtedly obscure tradition of importing young red wines from Bordeaux by the barrel, aging them in the cellars of the city, bottling them, and branding them as “Lübecker Rotspon.”

The story of Lübecker Rotspon goes back to the thirteenth century, when the port city was a center of commercial trade under the Hanseatic League. The large wooden ships typical of the time were known as “Koggen,” many of which sailed to the west coast of France in order to purchase the red wines of Bordeaux. This trade took on a particular significance in 1530 when a merchant named Thomas Bugenhage imported a large quantity of Bordeaux red. Bugenhage gave the wines to his cellar master for storage and aging. It is said that he hoped that with age and maturity, the wine would cause people to be happy and sociable, instead of loud and boisterous.

It seems that the cool cellars and the northern climate of Lübeck was good for the wine, and by the 1800s the Bordeaux wine aged in the cellars of Lübeck had a reputation of its own. By this time, large quantities of red wine from Bordeaux were shipped to Lübeck for the sole purpose of being “refined and cultivated.” The fame of the wine was spread by a group of French Army officers in 1806, who (according to legend) claimed that the wines matured in the cellars of Lübeck were better than the wines cellared in Bordeaux.

The reputation of the red wine of Lübeck was helped a great bit by the writings of the poet and humorist Fritz Reuter (1810-1874). Reuter wrote popular stories of provincial German life, and was a great fan of the locally-aged red wine. It is believed that he came up with the name “rotspon,” coined from the local word “rot,” meaning red, and the word “spon,” meaning wooden chip. Put together the term “rotspon” referred to a red wine that had been stored in wood. Reuter’s stories and poems sang the praises of Lübecker Rotspon and soon the wine was known throughout Germany.

Several wine merchants in Lübeck still store, age, and bottle French wines as Lübecker Rotspon. These days, many different kinds of red wine are used to produce Rotspon, including wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and other areas of France.

If you happen to find yourself in Lübeck, don’t miss a tour of the Holstentor, and be sure to stop by the warehouses of the local wine merchants H.F. von Melle, Johannes Kemnitz, or Carl Tesdorpf to try a glass–or buy a case of two.

...

*The term Lübecker Rotspon is considered a local trademark in Lübeck, but the name “rotspon” is sometimes used on other products as well. The name Lübecker Rotspon does not currently have official recognition as a PGI (protected geographic indication) or TSG (traditional speciality guaranteed) from the EU – but some folks are trying to change that.

References/for further information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

2 Responses to Lübecker Rotspon: French Red Wine from…Germany?

  1. Dollie McDougall says:

    What a fun obscurity! Thank you!

  2. Steve Houston says:

    Wow – this is crazy. I have studied wine for decades but never heard of this! I’m planning a trip to northern Germany right now!

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