Flood Comes for the Ahr and Its Winemakers
By Valerie Kathawala
From last Wednesday night into Thursday morning, 148 liters/square meter of rain fell on the Ahr. In a normal July, the region gets about 80 liters/square meter — in the entire month.
This immense volume of precipitation in such a short span dilated creeks into torrents. Torrents rose and swiftly emptied into the Ahr itself, which morphed into an implacable, surging mass of water.
As we’ve now all seen on the news, the river ripped through the villages that line its banks — Ahrweiler, Dernau, Mayschoss will be names familiar to German wine lovers — shocking everyone from the authorities charged with monitoring such situations to those asleep in their beds in the normally tranquil valley.
The next day, the extent of the physical damage was staggering and surreal: Entire homes had been ripped off their foundations. Bridges were impassable or destroyed. Electricity, gas, drinking water, phone service, Internet — all cut off. People and property were swept kilometers from their homes.
As of this writing, scores are still missing. For a time, that number included some of the Ahr’s most celebrated winemakers. Meanwhile, the confirmed death toll there exceeds 100.
Wine from the land of "running water"
What does all this mean for one of Germany’s tiniest, most promising wine regions and the families of winemakers at its heart?
The Ahr is an insider tip. A 562-hectare outpost of red wine production, treasured by Pinot purists who are drawn to elegant, cool, slate-driven wines that could come from nowhere else.
The region and the river take their name from the Celtic, and later Old High German, word Aha, for water or running water. Perched at the northernmost limit of wine-growing in Germany, it is a modest Rhine tributary, normally known as a harmless Flüsschen, or little river. The valley it snakes through is notched into the jagged Eifel mountains as if by a giant’s crude knife, carving crags and chasms. Its rough visage is softened by villages, spas, and walking paths that have long drawn urbanites from nearby Bonn and Köln.
Historically, proximity to the ecclesiastical powerhouse of Köln made the Ahr an attractive site for viticulture. Despite the forbidding latitude and slopes, monks began cultivating vines here in the Middle Ages. Vineyards have been a constant and defining feature ever since.
The region’s fortunes have risen and fallen with some of the same extremity as its topography. In 1910, the Ahr was home to a thousand hectares of vines, thriving in its surprisingly Mediterranean microclimate. War, pestilence, emigration, and the knock-on effects of fractionating inheritance laws had cut this number in half by 1995.
But over the past decade or so, things have been on the upswing for the Ahr. Keener understanding of Pinot clones and viticultural practices, a shift toward organic and biodynamic farming, and a laser focus on the characteristics of single sites, combined with a new generation of dynamic producers at small family estates like Meyer-Näkel, Bertram-Baltes, and J.J. Adenauer made for a powerful and promising combination, making this catastrophe all the more tragic.
None were spared
Julia Bertram is a fourth-generation grower in Dernau, one of the most acclaimed, but also hardest-hit, wine villages of the Ahr. She and her husband Benedikt Baltes, who grew up in a wine family in nearby Mayschoss, work the famed steep slate and greywacke slopes strung along the river. They quickly built a reputation for making some of Germany’s most coveted Pinot Noirs, prized for their structure, finesse, and superb site expression.
On Wednesday night, their entire cellar - equipment, old bottles, and the 2020 vintage - was washed away. As of this writing, only a few things were clear: they, their small son and extended family are safe. Their home is uninhabitable. They are, also, in Bertram’s words, “overwhelmed by all the caring messages and offers of help.”
The same is unfathomably true at Meyer-Näkel. Sisters Dörte and Meike Näkel took over the family estate in Dernau from their pioneering father, Werner, whom many credit with putting dry, quality Ahr Pinots on the map.
In Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, where brothers Marc and Frank Adeneuer at Weingut J.J. Adenauer have raised appreciation for Ahr Pinot’s slender, sculpted qualities from their remarkable old-vine holdings in and around Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, salvage efforts are under way.
The Ahr’s co-op Winzergenossenschaft Mayschoss (the first in Germany, dating to 1868) reports the total destruction of their their building. “We don’t know where we should put our effort and help first,” they write poignantly.
Of course, there are myriad, lesser-known small producers who have suffered every bit as much.
Out of respect for the ongoing, unfolding trauma these families are enduring, we refrain from publishing details of their unimaginably harrowing stories.
How could this happen?
Just about every expert in Germany agrees this story has one villain: climate change. The Ahr suffered a Jahrhundertflut — a once-in-a-century flood — in 1910. The next came just about on schedule in 2016, bringing water levels of 3.5 meters. Now just five years later, what is already being called a Jahrtausendflut — a once-in-a-millennium flood — has brought water levels twice that.
Guido Halbig, head of the regional branch of the German Weather Service, warns that “climate change is showing the first significant tipping point of the climate system: the weakening jet stream.” The Ahr is generally shielded from precipitation by the Eifel mountains, and is a relatively dry region. But it is still subject to influences from the Atlantic Gulf Stream. “This is the decisive controlling system for the high- and low-pressure systems at our latitude and therefore our weather,” Halbig was quoted as saying. When the system weakens or stalls out in one place, as in the drought of 2018-2020 or with the dramatic precipitation of recent days, the results are dire.
It appears that experts and modeling failed to anticipate that this tipping point would be reached quite so soon. Moreover, warning systems proved inadequate, with a breakdown between European, federal, and regional alert and evacuation protocols. And of course, with electricity and phone networks quickly knocked out, it fell to neighbors knocking on doors, sirens and loudspeakers blaring instructions, dazed, disbelieving citizens scrambling to attics and rooftops, with the frail and trapped left to their fates.
The shock and trauma of this catastrophe will likely take a lifetime for Ahr residents to process. It will be days or weeks before the vintners among them can assess the viability of their homes and cellars to see if anything - heirlooms, back vintages, stock, the current vintage - can be salvaged. Authorities have said it will be a long process to assess which structures are sound enough to be rebuilt and which will have to be leveled entirely.
When growers will be able to reach their vineyards may come down to accessibility. With bridges damaged and destroyed, many parts of the region may remain inaccessible indefinitely. With the growing season in full throttle, the vines may need to fend for themselves for some time. Starting Friday, rain is forecast again. If this comes to pass, everything will remain sodden and the water will have nowhere to go.
Harvest is, of course, rapidly approaching. It is almost impossible to imagine the strength and resilience it will take for growers to get harvest crews, and themselves, into the vines or what the logistics of bringing in vintage 2021 will look like. With cellars and equipment sluiced away, there is the question of where the wines can be made. Bertram and Baltes reportedly already have offers of cellar space and equipment from friends in the Mosel. Not everyone will be so lucky.
The shock of this flood is far too fresh to contemplate the questions it raises about rebuilding. But before reconstruction begins, there are sure to be discussions about whether it is safe, insurable to rebuild so close to the river. Was this the flood of the millennium? Or the first of a thousand?
Echos from the past
In a book about how waterways shaped modern Germany, historian David Blackbourn recounts a 17th-century legend about the Rhein village of Old Pfotz. He tells of fishermen who set out on a Sunday morning for their catch of eel and fish:
“Then they heard the sound of distant bells, more solemn than any bells they had ever heard and growing louder as they approached the middle of the river. The men looked at each other: the sound was coming from below the surface. The boldest, Hansadam, bent over the side of the boat, and after gazing into the water called his friends over to look. The bells were tolling from the towers of a church that was visible beneath them, surrounded by a few simple huts.”
The flooding and abandonment of that village was the result of a different kind of climate change. But its bells ring loudly today, echoing in hearts around the world.
How you can help
The Ahr was been inundated with offers of on-the-ground and financial help. German winemakers from across the country have seemingly overnight created drop points for donations, and caravans of labor to pitch in and dig out. We will do our best to update this section regularly with credible initiatives and ways for you to show your support.
Currently, the leading effort is the VDP’s “Der Adler Hilft” program.
Added July 20:
Jancis Robinson reports the establishment of another way of sending charitable contributions to Ahr growers. Her contributing writer, Michael Schmidt, who lives in the Ahr, reports that those with a Wise.com account can quickly, easily, and very low fees, transfer money to this effort:
Account holder: Marc Adeneuer AHR Spendenkonto
Bank: KSK Ahrweiler
Bank branch number: MALADE51AHR
IBAN: DE94 5775 1310 0000 3395 07
Dirk Würtz has launched an initiative for growers to donate bottles, with 100% of sales going to the affected Ahr growers.
Added 21 July :
As waters recede in the Ahr, the extent of last week’s catastrophic flood is coming fully to light.
Vintners whose wineries are stil standing are being allowed back in to assess the damage.
In most cases, the chaos and destruction are overwhelming. With thousands homeless and dependent on crowded public shelters and kindness of strangers (please read Michael Schmidt’s harrowing, heartbreaking eye-witness account on @jancisrobinson), who now face the stark reality of having most or lost all of their personal property, grieving is the first order of the day. Police have confirmed 117 dead in Ahrweiler, the worst-affect village in the Ahr, while the number of missing is now undetermined.
Help is coming. Today, the German federal government passed a 200 million euro emergeny aid package, with more in the pipeline. Private insurance coverage will kick in for many wineries, but there are reports that not growers had the kind of coverage that protects them from “acts of nature” like extreme flooding.
Most moving, as scores of photos posted to social media attest, the spirit of pitching in prevails. Hundreds of volunteers are rushing in from all parts of the country to help, so much so that with flood-blocked roads and downed bridges, there were reports of traffic jams to get in and out of villages.
Fundraising efforts report an upswell of donations from across Germany and around the world.
Wines of Germany USA and the Deutsches Weininstitut have created a donation site for contributors in the U.S.
For those who have vineyard experience and/or wine knowledge and can get to the Ahr, please consider answering the call to volunteer your time and knowledge through https://www.ahrtal.de/ahrwinzer-hilfe.
And for those who want to keep the Ahr’s vintners close to their hearts, no matter where, keep seeking and drinking Ahr wines. When we searched today, we found bottles available at retailers from L.A. to London, Copenhagen to Zurich, Auckland to Hiroshima — and plenty of places in between.