Skip to main content
Photography by Marcel Wurm

“Drinking wine is a more laid-back affair these days”

created by Johannes J. Arens, Bernd Wilberg | |   People

A chat with Iris Giessauf, sommelière and heart and soul of Essers Gasthaus in Neuehrenfeld, on Cologne’s newfound love of wine

Iris, how did you make a career out of wine? Watching Cologne wine expert Christina Fischer on the cooking show “Kochduell” in the nineties was a pivotal moment for me. She was able to explain exactly why she was recommending a particular wine with a particular dish. And I wanted to be able to do that too! So I signed up for a sommelier apprenticeship in Koblenz. And then after moving our restaurant from Klettenberg to Neuehrenfeld, far away from our regular clientele, my partner and I came up with the idea of specialising. We started off here with German-Austrian cuisine and a small wine list with sixty different varieties...

... Sixty?! You call that a small wine list? I just couldn’t get enough (laughs). And it’s the wine list that draws the guests in to begin with, and then they are the ones who help me strike the right balance. Now we have around 120 different wines, and a few bottles more in the cellar.

How do you choose your wines in the first place? They all come from Germany and Austria — and are only wines that I like to drink myself. I have a pretty good idea of what my guests like. But it’s also important to me to offer them wines that they won’t find in just any restaurant.

Do you also think about what your fellow gastro colleagues will say about them? Yes, I do. When a chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant comes here and says: “Iris, what an amazing wine list!”, then of course I’m over the moon! The trick is to design a wine list that also includes a 25-euro bottle that can hold its own. You need to make it easy for young couples on a first date who are afraid that they might not like it. I often hear people saying things like: “Shall we get a bottle?” — “But what if we don’t like it?”

And how do you put your guests at ease? I say, if you don’t like it, I’ll take the bottle away and drink it myself! I’m lucky that I choose all the wines on my list myself. I like them all!

Do many guests actually tell you upfront if they don’t like the wine? I always tell people to be honest with me! I sometimes also say: “I’ve got something special for you this evening, something a little less mainstream. But you have to tell me honestly whether you like it or not”. And then they might say something like: “It’s too sweet” or “too dry” or “too acidic”. In which case I’ll take the bottle away and bring them something different.

So you have to work as a translator? (laughs) You mean from Austrian German into regular German? Because of my ­Austrian accent?

I meant more in terms of the language of wine. A sommelière like you talks about wine with a whole different vocabulary than someone who simply says “too sweet” or “too acidic”. It must be hard for a professional like you to explain things to guests in layman’s terms… You can always understand what people want if you meet them halfway. I always like to start by asking them what their budget is because it gives me something to work with.

Do a lot of your guests like to discuss details such as taste and aroma nuances with you? No, but there are guests who come here to pick up a few tips about wine. Even though I’m sure wine seminars would be more suitable for that. And a lot of guests can smell pear as soon as I tell them it smells like pear! (laughs)

How do you learn to taste wine in a ­restaurant? The best way to understand wine is, for example, to vary a certain grape within a set menu: first the Riesling from the large collective vineyard, the Grosslage, and then another Riesling from the heart of the vineyard, the Herz­stück. Or the same Riesling from the same vintner but from different vintages. Or once as a QbA and once as a Prädikatswein (superior quality wine), for example a dry Spätlese — which is made from grapes harvested late in the season — a lot of people find that incredibly interesting!

You also offer food pairings. Yes, but I meanwhile think they’re overrated. That works for set menus, but here my guests are all eating different dishes at one table: trout, Wiener schnitzel, entrecôte, goulash — what kind of a bottle would I bring them?

So what do you do in that case? You have to accommodate guests in different ways. In many cases, a wine should suit the occasion and the people more than the food on the table. Natural wines, for example, are good for accompanying different kinds of food. A bottle of natural wine is a good option if a group is eating four completely different dishes. Natural wines are like chameleons — they adapt. That works well because of the tannin structure. Markus Altenburger Weiss, for example, is naturally cultivated and goes well with goose, goulash and schnitzel. The wine adapts to the dish. It’s a cuvée of Neuburger, Green Veltliner, Welschriesling and Pinot Blanc.

Does wine even have a place in Cologne, where the local beer Kölsch rules the roost? We also serve Kölsch here of course. But the wine is going down really well, there aren’t many places where you’ll find such a good selection of Austrian wines. That means I’m often asked to give recommendations, which I love doing. Not just Green Veltliner!

Why is wine proving so popular right now? After all, this city is mainly associated with beer. I believe, however, that it’s not so much the guests who are changing but the attitude of the city’s restaurants towards wine. Plus the fact that drinking wine is no longer seen as being so stiff. These days it’s become a much cooler, more laid-back affair. That suits Cologne down to the ground.

We’ve even seen “wines to go”. A good idea? Ha, I’ve never seen that before! But if people can walk round Cologne with a beer bottle in their hand, why not a wine glass too? Mind you, I’d burst out laughing if I saw that!

What are the current trends among sommeliers? There’s a huge interest in skin-fermented wines right now so I’ll be adding a few more of those to our list. We can already see a lot of trends emerging: Slovenia, for example, is leading the way in biodynamic wines, but South Tyrol, Croatia and the Czech Republic are also interesting.

Do you find that your guests these days know more about wine? Yes, but quite a few of them only have half a clue what they’re talking about...

Can you give us an example? One gentleman told me that he never drinks Austrian wines (laughs)… because they always give him a headache!

(by Johannes J. Arens, Bernd Wilberg)


Iris Giessauf comes from Leibniz in Southern Styria and runs the German-­Austrian restaurant Essers Gasthaus in Neuehrenfeld with her partner Andreas Esser. She has been nominated by Falstaff magazine as Sommelière of the Year 2019.