Why you should care
Because if you think good bubbly only comes from Champagne, you need to think again.
“Bring me a cup of sack, boy,” Shakespearean actor Ludwig Devrient called to his waiter in a Berlin bar in 1825, channeling his Henry IV role as Falstaff. The Bard’s words referred to a Portuguese wine popular in the late 1500s, but Devrient’s waiter figured the actor wanted his usual glass of champagne. So that’s what he brought … and the German word for sparkling wine, sekt, was born.
Descending into the cellars of the 13th-century Speyrer Pfleghof, in medieval Esslingen, where Kessler Sekt has been made for nearly 200 years, is a treat you can enjoy in group bookings for 25 euros per person. On Saturdays, townspeople shop early at the fruit and vegetable market and then meet at Kessler for “Sekt and the city,” says Kessler’s press officer Beatrice Popescu — not a tribute to Sarah Jessica Parker, but rather a courtyard gathering for a glass of bubbly.
The stone ceiling hosts an abundance of mold, lovingly referred to as the “Black Cat.”
Flickering candles line the walls and steep, uneven stairs leading to the cellars, home to thousands of bottles of what was once Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s favorite drink. Here, the wines are hand-turned on wooden riddling racks, and the stone ceiling hosts an abundance of mold, lovingly referred to as the “Black Cat,” which regulates the temperature naturally, providing the perfect climate for the second fermentation and aging process. Kessler sells just 1.5 million bottles a year — a tiny amount compared with mass manufacturers like Rotkäppchen-Mumm — and staffers pride themselves on keeping things small and using traditional methods like in-bottle fermentation.
Entrepreneur Georg Kessler launched Germany’s first, and oldest, sparkling wine in 1826 in this town, so beautifully tucked in the shadows of hillside vineyards southeast of Stuttgart. Kessler had worked for years at Veuve Clicquot in Champagne, France, learning the trade and — according to local tour guides — sharing more than just a love of wine with Clicquot’s widow. But he set his sights on returning home and creating a sparkling wine with distinctly Teutonic grapes and taste. Within a couple of decades, Kessler Sekt’s award-winning bubbly was so successful that it was the wine of Queen Olga of Württemberg’s court and was shipped as far afield as the United States’ East Coast.
The wine is so popular with locals that roughly 60 percent of sales occur in this southern German region. For those visiting the area, it’s worth taking the time to enjoy a few sips. Compared with mass-produced bubblies, which Germans can pick up at their local Rewe for a few euros, Kessler is pricier — a testament to the old-fashioned methods employed — ranging from $10 to $21. The most popular is the Hochgewächs Chardonnay brut, named after the highest points of vineyards.
Some 25,000 visitors come each year. While the ancient cellars are a highlight, the dosage room — where wines are topped up with sugar and base wine after the yeast is extracted — offers a memorable glimpse of Esslingen’s wine pipeline. Instead of running heavy lorries over the town’s cobblestones to transport its wines locally, Kessler keeps its base wines at another pfleghof up the hill, a quarter mile away. From there, a pipe runs into town and under the marketplace, delivering the wine to Kessler’s main facility. Set up in the 1970s, the pipeline has long had locals wishing they knew its exact route — a closely guarded secret.
But no tour is complete without the popping of corks, when Kessler’s tiny bubbles — a sign of a fine bubbly — race to the top of the glass, promising to deliver a traditional sparkling wine that’s bursting with flavor.