Better Spät than Never in the Ahr

Blue triangle marking organic spraying among Pinot (aka spätburgunder) vines in Germany's Ahr valley
Photo credit: Paula Redes Sidore

I am a sucker for Pinot Noir. But not just any Pinot Noir. Resolutely cool climate, low alcohol, aromatic Pinot Noir, tingling with acidity. Feeding that habit in Burgundy hasn’t just become ruinously expensive, it’s also increasingly climate-challenged. On the face of it, one possible solution could be Spätburgunders (a.k.a Pinot Noir) from the Ahr Valley, Germany’s northerly red wine region. And even though the wines aren’t bargain-priced, they are a steal compared to almost anything from La Bourgogne.

Trouble is, I have a preconception of the region as a sleepy backwater, focused on solid if rather old-school, oaky reds. Local grower Michael Fiebrich echoed my sentiments, saying: “Everything has always worked well here, but that means that nothing changes.” Given a predilection not just for light-framed Pinots, but also for minimal intervention and organic or biodynamic viticulture, the Ahr didn’t sound like it belonged on my bucket list. That is, until a colleague pointed out that the valley is a mere three-hour drive from my home in Amsterdam. “It’s stunning,” he told me, “and perhaps even more dramatic than the Mosel.”

Figuring it was time to shake off my prejudices, I planned a visit in spring 2020. The Covid pandemic quickly put paid to that. Then, in July 2021, brutal and unimaginable change came for the Ahr. A horrific Jahrtausendflut — one of those typically precise German compounds that translates as a “once in a millennium flood” — wiped out the majority of the growers’ cellars and livelihoods along the length of the valley. The hopes and dreams of just about everyone on my hypothetical itinerary were dust.

Despite missing a great deal of its infrastructure — notably bridges and hotels — but thanks to an extraordinary strength of will and some 30 billion euro of government funding, two years later the valley began welcoming visitors once again. In June 2023, I was among them.

Meyer-Näkel Changes Viticultural Course

Meike Näkel is the elder of two sisters who run Weingut Meyer-Näkel in the village of Dernau. Working the Ahr’s steeply terraced sites, which make up the majority of the prominent grower’s holdings, is back-breaking, meaning any extra effort can be a tough sell to those putting in the hard work. Yet, the family estate had already begun edging its then-23 hectares of vineyards towards organic viticulture in the time before the floods. “It was always a theme,” explains Näkel, “but I was concerned about whether we could get all of our employees [vineyard workers] on-side.” Then on July 14, catastrophe hit; the sisters lost three hectares of vineyards on the flatland by the river, their winery and storage facility, almost two entire vintages of their stock, and very nearly their own lives. 

Meike Näkel tends her Pinot vines in the Ahr valley.
Meike Näkel. Photo Credit: Simon J. Woolf

“A week before the 2021 vintage, we found ourselves without any equipment, not even a pair of pruning shears” says Näkel. They muddled through with tanks and barrels borrowed from winemakers outside the region. The next year, Näkel reintroduced the topic of organic conversion to her team. “After the floods, it seemed like nothing,” she says. Everyone agreed it was just a small extra step. Surveying a particularly steep south-facing parcel in the Silberberg, Näkel takes clear pride in the vibrant green and healthy landscape. Some of the neighboring plots were, by contrast, brutally bare.

Ground cover, a technique that works hand-in-hand with the organic approach of not using synthetic herbicides, is particularly important in a valley like the Ahr. The potential for erosion and rainwater run-off is significant in steep vineyards with open soil between the rows. Grass and other plants anchor the soil, reducing compaction and aiding water retention. Ground temperatures can also be dramatically moderated in the summer. Even the northerly Ahr has started to feel the heat in recent years.

Rising Awareness in Receding Waters

Organic viticulture hasn’t gained a lot of ground in the Ahr until recently. That may be due to the dominance of four cooperative cellars, which together produce around 80% of the region’s entire wine output. The high price the cooperatives pay for grapes — around 3 Euros per kilo, according to Näkel — has shielded the Ahr’s Steilagen (steep vineyards) from the fate of similar sites in the Mosel. But as grower Michael Fiebrich’s words imply, it has hardly inspired progressive vineyard practice. The entire region has around 560 hectares under vine, but this is split between more than 1,200 growers. Most have minute holdings of half a hectare or less, tending them as a weekend pursuit. When there is a guaranteed buyer for the grapes, the impetus for change is almost non-existent.

One of the region’s organic pioneers is Maibach Farm, a winery that started life as a chicken farm, then pivoted in 1996 under new ownership. With 8.5 hectares spread across some of the valley’s best sites, Maibach has a significant profile. Marius Schäfer, one half of the current winemaking team together with Alex Weber, showed me the region-wide system of blue triangular markers in the vineyards which denote organic viticulture. This is vital, as synthetic treatments are sprayed on the hillside sites by helicopter. Pilots must avoid rows that are bookended by the blue signs. Nowadays, even the organic growers benefit from the helicopter option. A first pass is done with organic treatments (sulphur and copper), before the pilot flies a second time to spray synthetics. Needless to say, this is far from a perfect system for an organic grower who has a couple of rows sandwiched between conventionally worked vines. The risk of contamination is high.

My personal taste embraces Spätburgunder’s scintillating perfume and delicately spicy fruit at modest ripeness levels with little or no detectable barrel influence: a Pinot as naked as possible.

While it was heartening to observe the exemplary vineyard practices at Meyer-Näkel and Maibach, I struggled to connect the end results ( i.e. wine) with the idea of a cool climate region. Tasting through recent vintages, most wines at village level and above felt chunky and heavy on oak. Honorable mentions must be made for Meyer-Näkel’s Sonnenberg 2019 (a rare flood-rescued bottle) and Maibach’s Herrenberg 2019. 

While the Ahr was once known for feather-light, pale, off-dry reds, in the late 1980s Meike’s father Werner Näkel spearheaded a stylistic change in line with the times: firmly anchored in intense ripeness, structure, and oak. Still, my personal taste embraces Spätburgunder’s scintillating perfume and delicately spicy fruit at modest ripeness levels with little or no detectable barrel influence: a Pinot as naked as possible.

Authentically Ahr Today

Visiting Michael Fiebrich delivered a taste of something more ethereal. Fiebrich is based in Rech — the point where the Ahr river makes a sharp turn to the west. Access to the village is now made via a prefabricated steel cross-section as the original stone bridge was destroyed by the flood. Fiebrich doesn’t come from a winemaking family, but caught the wine bug as market gardener in 2008. Meike Näkel remembers him delivering organic vegetables to her door. Fiebrich cultivates a scant two hectares of vines which he’s farmed organically since he began. His favorite plot lies just above the village of Altenahr, further to the west at a point where the valley becomes perilously steep and craggy. “This is definitely the most romantic parcel I own,” he told me one evening as we stood surveying the slope. Neither of us wanted to leave.

Fiebrich’s Spätburgunders are light and delicate, with the kind of aromas that make Burgundy fans weep with joy. His vineyard blend E&C 2021 weighs in at just 11% ABV, but certainly doesn’t feel unripe or insubstantial. This was exactly what I had hoped to taste from Europe’s most northerly classic red wine region. With such small quantities and the 2020 vintage lost to the floods, Fiebrich had no other bottled Spätburgunder for us to try, but his Rosenthal and Eichert 2021s from barrel were sensational. Fiebrich is very particular about the coopers he works with, preferring formats from 500 liters and up, and light toast levels. His fastidiousness really seems to pay off, as the wines gain in harmony and expressiveness but remain unblemished in aroma or flavor terms by the wood.

Wine bottles from biodnamic grower Bertram-Baltes in the Ahr valley
Photo Credit: Paula Redes Sidore

Back in the heart of the valley in Dernau, Julia Bertram, winemaker at Weingut Bertram-Baltes, has built her reputation around a similarly delicate style. Bertram is the fifth generation of her family to make wine. She took over her family’s estate in 2018, joined a year later by her husband, the highly regarded Pinot specialist Benedict Baltes. Wine had previously been a side business for the family, but is now very much a career for Bertram and Baltes. The pair have increased their vineyard holdings to 7.5 hectares, split across an unimaginable 50 parcels. Organic conversion was completed in 2019 and Bertram and Baltes now work with some biodynamic techniques, including the application of herbal teas to treat mildew and use of sheep to moderate the ground cover. Spätburgunder bottlings provide a perfect masterclass in the valley’s differing mesoclimates and soils: those from the more easterly Ahrweiler vineyards with sandier soils show the prettiest perfumes and the most upfront fruit, while the slate parcels around Dernau produce spicier, more mineral results. Every bottle maintains a laser-like focus.

We discuss the idea of natural wine. Bertram feels little kinship with the term, because for her it means uncompromising or overtly “funky” wines, not the pure, terroir-driven style that she aims to make. While I understand, I’m silently frustrated. The original ethos and guiding principles of natural wine ought to be the perfect way of describing Bertram’s work, but instead the concept has been hijacked by a hipster mindset.

Call it what you will, Fiebrich and Bertram-Baltes’s wines represent a promising stylistic paradigm for the Ahr. And they’re not alone. Pollig-Schmidt is the label and project of Torsten Pöllig and Jan Schmidt, who work a miniscule half a hectare of old slopeside vines. The project was established in 2015. Pollig describes himself and his partner as “autodidacts,” although his grandfather worked as a cellarmaster. While the project is small in scope, their vines are situated in some of the region’s most prestigious Lagen such as Alte Lay, Rosenthal, and Silberberg. Their 2021s were all the proof I needed that Ahr Spätburgunder shows its sweet spot when harvested and vinified additive-free to less than 12% ABV. With such tiny quantities, they are forced to use half-barriques for some parcels — with the inevitable risk of oak dominating. But this is a very promising project.

Change of He(ahr)t?

At the time of writing, so much in the Ahr is focused around rebuilding infrastructure that it is hard to say whether the disaster will permanently affect growers’ mindsets or not. The cooperatives still dominate production and it is hard to get old-timers to sell their plots. Fiebrich managed to buy the parcels he works, but many owners are at this point only willing to rent. Wisely, no one seems to be talking about replanting the 20 or so hectares of vines that were lost on the flatlands next to the river.

Steep Pinot vineyards rise behind a flood damaged building in Germany's Ahr valley
Photo Credit: Paula Redes Sidore

I asked Näkel about tourism, as there was a noticeable absence of foreigners. “We used to get a lot of Dutch and Belgian tourists,” she said, “it used to be so beautiful here.” I could only imagine how picture-postcard perfect the villages once were. But far above the piles of rubble and other grim reminders of the floods, those vertiginous vineyards are as jaw-dropping now as then. I left the valley content that I’d dispatched my prejudices, but more importantly with a new source to satisfy those ethereal Pinot cravings.

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