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The rustic charm of cow chapels in Rheinhessen's wine region

The rustic charm of cow chapels in Rheinhessen's wine region

Dotted throughout Rheinhessen's wine region are an unusual historic feature—cow chapels, once home to livestock, and now a distinctive trait of local winemaking

Walking into a room with gleaming hardwood floors, dark grey-painted columns and a cross-vaulted ceiling with archways accentuated by elegant lighting, it’s hard to imagine that this space was once filled with cattle.

I’m here to drink wine, which is a scenario that—given the stately display of wine bottles as carefully illuminated as the arches overhead—seems far more plausible.

Rheinhessen is Germany’s largest wine region, and its landscape is the quintessential image of wine country.

There are hillsides covered in neat rows of vines, a river that flows between half-timbered villages and, as the sun begins to set, a lingering daylight that drapes itself across the scenery with comforting nonchalance.

It’s not often I find myself sipping Scheurebe in a former stable with such a lovely backdrop, but it’s uncommon for livestock quarters to have been this grand in the first place.

The cow chapels of Germany's wine region

Interior of cow chapel in RheinhessenCredit: Summer Rylander. The vaulted ceilings are a distinctive feature of Rheinhessen's cow chapels

Here in Rheinhessen, spaces like this are called cow chapels—Kuhkapelles in German—and there are only 45 of them on record today. Most are not open to the public.

“When we take guests to places with cow chapels, they have a hard time believing these rooms were built for animals,” says Jérôme Hainz, my guide and the founder of BottleStops, a wine touring company based in Mainz.

“Even locals sometimes are not aware that these beautiful rooms were initially meant to house cows—it’s a fun side story when enjoying the wines of Rheinhessen.”

The cow chapel I’m admiring is part of Weingut Wasem, a family-operated winery, hotel and restaurant in the town of Ingelheim.

"Even locals sometimes are not aware that these beautiful rooms were initially meant to house cows"

Their property is an architectural cocktail of the centuries, with some elements dating as far back as 1290, while others—like the wine shop and meeting rooms—are fresh from a bottom-up renovation less than a decade ago. The Wasem cow chapel dates to 1858 and presented its own set of challenges during restoration.

“It was a money pit,” laughs Philipp Wasem, who runs the winery alongside his brother, Julius, and their father, Holger. “The problem with this as an event space is that it gets very loud when crowded,” he says, gesturing towards the ceiling.

I briefly wonder how the cows must have felt in here over a century ago, standing together amid reverberating moos.

An agricultural history of monasteries

It may have been loud, but the cattle would have been safer and healthier inside these masonry walls compared to traditional timber-constructed shelters.

Cow chapels began as a result of the French occupying the western banks of the Rhein under Napoleon’s rule in the early 1800s. Sacral land and monastery buildings were swiftly repurposed—often into farms.

Spacious dining refectories became stables during this transition, and it didn’t take long for farmers to realise the benefits of masonry over timber. It was sturdier, fire-resistant and unlike wood, stone didn’t absorb moisture from the waste of livestock.

"Sacral land and monastery buildings were swiftly repurposed—often into farms"

In 1830, the region’s first purpose-built cow chapel was constructed in the village of Osthofen.

The trend continued across Rheinhessen as agricultural publications began touting the benefits of these vaulted spaces for cattle—such as increased milk production as a result of more hygienic conditions—but the excitement didn’t last long.

Construction techniques advanced rapidly during the 20th century and cross-vaulted ceilings, though airy and prestigious, were phased out in favour of less complex structures.

Cow chapels continued their decline as the keeping of livestock became less financially viable, and many of these spaces were cleaned out and used for storage, or allowed to fall into disrepair and subsequent tear-down.

Preserving the future of Rheinhessen's cow chapels

Vineyard in Rheinhessen valley Preserved cow chapels are becoming a unique historic feature of Rheinhessen's wine region

Wasem’s restored cow chapel (complete with sound-deadening material to create a more intimate atmosphere for guests) is indeed rare, but twenty minutes down the road at Weingut Kruger-Rumpf in Münster-Sarmsheim, I get a peek at another.

Immediately recognisable with its arches and columns, this cow chapel housed its namesake inhabitant for 25 years until a railway line took it over as a storage facility in 1855.

Now it’s a comfortable venue for visitors to taste an array of the wines produced by owners Stefan and Georg Rumpf—which are full of character from grapes grown on the sleep slopes above the confluence of the Nahe and Rhine rivers.

"There’s no posh grandness here, just homey, welcoming simplicity"

“A focus on winemaking in Rheinhessen as we know it today is a development of the late 20th-century,” says Hainz. “The cow chapels have no direct link to our winemaking history, but today’s use as a space for people to come together over food and a good glass of wine is perfect.”

The future of Rheinhessen’s remaining cow chapels may be uncertain, but at Wasem and Kruger-Rumpf, these thoughtfully converted spaces are now well-preserved for future generations of winemakers—and their visitors.

“They’ve made cow chapels a very distinct feature of Rheinhessen’s wine culture,” says Hainz. “There’s no posh grandness here, just homey, welcoming simplicity.”

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