1. A surprising climate: how is that one of Germany’s most important red wine regions is almost its most northerly zone? The Ahr is blessed with a warm microclimate, despite being north of the Mosel and at the same 50º latitude as the Mittelrhein, at the extreme for viable cool climate viticulture. Overall it is decidedly cool with an annual average temperature of just 9.5º C. However, it is a steep, narrow valley, almost a gorge at times, which traps heat. It has a healthy 1500 hours of sunshine a year and vineyards are on steep mostly south-facing slopes, meaning that this far north the vines make the most of the sun’s rays. A low rainfall figure of 615mm, due to protection from the Hohes Venn and the Ardennes hills, means that disease pressure is also surprisingly low. (Data source) The picture on the right shows both a vineyard and the fruit growing which is also very successful here.
2. A mixed wine making history: Pinot Noir or Spätburgunder has been grown here for centuries but its history is not that grand. The Ahr is just 30 miles south of Bonn and within easy reach of Cologne and the industrial north and thus until about 1990 it was chiefly a source of boisterous, good hearted drinking for day trippers. The wine then was pale, red and sweet, but it was enjoyed nonetheless. The Mayschoss cooperative which is responsible for 140 of the total 540 hectares of vines in this tiny zone can accommodate 600 people in its atmospheric cellars and has 70,000 visitors a year. €20 will buy you a day trip on a bus including wine and snacks. It is gradually upgrading its facilities so that you can now hire the smart suite for weddings … or enjoy rustic hospitality in the other rooms which reflect the 1960s.
3. Fine Pinot Noir. However, the Ahr did not achieve fame outside Germany because of its accessible hospitality but through the quality of its dry, modern-style Pinot pioneered by Meyer-Näkel and others. What they showed was that – if you are prepared to work the steep, slate slopes – you can produce world class wine. If you can ripen Pinot in a cool place, you are really on to something very special. We visited Jean Stodden whose single vineyard wines are outstanding: Sonnenberg, Rosental and Herrenberg, all grand crus. These are very fine, savoury, light and fragrant but with some real muscle too. They are not cheap due to the tiny production (6.5ha) and huge German demand but then €60+ will not buy you very much in top Burgundy these days.
4. Strong cooperatives and local wines While the very finest wines come from private wineries, there is good drinking to be had from the larger cooperatives, Mayschoss, already mentioned, is the biggest, followed by Dagernova. Here you can taste and buy the wines that ordinary people drink, among them the local specialities. We enjoyed the newly fashionable Blanc de Noir – Pinot Noir again but in white, filling a gap for an Ahr white wine in a overwhelmingly red area – and Pinot Madeleine or Früburgunder, an early ripening, red Pinot which makes deeper coloured, darker cherry fruited wines for early consumption.
5. Experimentation: rather like in more southerly Rheinhessen and Pfalz, young growers are trying new things alongside more traditional wines. Josten & Klein is a genuine start-up, currently housed in a huge but well insulated industrial unit in Walporzheim. They make fine Pinot Noir (including two barrels worth from the top Mönchberg vineyard), but they are also buying quality vineyards in the Mittelrhein where land is available and prices are one tenth of those in the Ahr. Here they grow excellent Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, some of which is barrel fermented. (Out goes the ‘rule’ that Riesling never sees wood!) These are very good indeed and properly rewarded with winning prizes in the German press and beyond.
The Ahr valley is a little gem for the tourist and the wine lover alike. Beautiful scenery, fine wines and warm hospitality make for one of the world’s bijou wine regions. You can see more of my pictures here.