Today I will be digging into one of the northern-most vineyards in the world, Germany’s Ahr region. At this time of the year in this chilly region, the snows should well and truly be falling in the lead-up to Christmas- hopefully as you read this you can visualise yourself there as we swelter away in the Australian summer!
Ahr is one of Germany’s smallest wine regions as well as one of its least-known, located between 50-51 degrees of latitude, 50km due south of major city Cologne in the north west of the country and on the southern outskirts of the beautiful town of Bonn, where famous composer and musician Ludvig von Beethoven was born. Like the majority of German wine regions, Ahr is named for the river it runs along the banks of. The Ahr River originates in the hills of Eifel which make up the natural border between Germany and Belgium and runs east to join the mighty Rhine as well as the neighbouring Mittelrhein wine region. Ahr is a tiny region, with only 545 hectares of vines planted at last count in 2014. To put this in perspective, one of the smallest regions in the whole of Bordeaux, the tiny region of Pomerol is 800 hectares! Compared to other German regions, Ahr is only 6% of the size of neighbour to the south Mosel, and would fit 50 times into Germany’s biggest region Rheinhessen! Added to this tiny size is the fact that production is on average 25% lower per vine than Germany’s average yield and it’s no wonder the wines of Ahr are so hard to find!
Now for a region so far to the north (Ahr is on the same latitude as Brussels in Belgium and Calgary in Canada!) you would think this region could only grow late-ripening, cold-weather specialist varieties such as Riesling, Sylvaner and Müller-Thurgau, however quite surprisingly the exact opposite is the case- Ahr specialises in red wines! Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) is king here, responsible for 85% of production, and though there are tiny pockets of Riesling vines planted here (mostly where the region abuts Mittelrhein, which grows about 75-80% Riesling), the next most popular varieties are other red varieties called Portugieser and the ultra rare Frühburgunder (more on them a little later). 30 years ago, Ahr was only known for soft, late harvested, medium-sweet reds that resembled Rosé more than red wine. Over the past few decades though, Spätburgunder/Pinot Noir’s popularity soared in Germany (as it has through most of the rest of the world), and more focus was put on improving the complexity, flavour and power of the wines of Ahr. In true German fashion a few years of research, hard work and efficient problem-solving has transformed Ahr into Germany’s premium Pinot Noir region, and while the wines lack the intensity of colour, warming alcohol and plump fruit flavours of a wine from Central Otago or the Yarra, careful management of vine yields, cold soaking and long maceration times of juice on skins and oak ageing now produce deeper red, dry Pinot Noir with firm, drying tannins and pleasant aromas of red cherries, sweet spices and forest floor, all held together with the trademark cold-climate bracing acidity.
But how can this be? How can a region so far north produce almost entirely red wine? It is all down to the orientation of the region; the Ahr River runs west to east to empty into the Rhine, and almost every vineyard is planted on the northern slopes on steep, south-facing hillsides. These slopes receive the full days worth of sun, and the river very helpfully acts as a mirror, almost doubling the daily exposure the vines receive. The river also acts as a conduit for warmer air from the water to the west which sends warm air through the vineyards and protects from fog and frost. In addition to this, the hillside slopes protect the vines from icy winds from northern Europe. The soils play their part also- the hard black slate holds the day’s heat and warms the vines as the sun sinks into the horizon.
As mentioned above, Ahr has success with some little known red varieties that can grow in this cold climate. Frühburgunder is an incredibly rare mutation of Pinot Noir that ripens on average 2 weeks earlier than its cousin (Früh is German for early) and has smaller, more intense berries. This added ripening time (yes, belivev it or not 2 weeks can make a huge difference!) turns the fruit spectrum from red to black fruits and gives a complex, earthy bramble aroma to the wines. With its renewed focus on high-quality and more flavoursome and intense red wines, the Ahr region saved this rare variety from extinction and plantings are growing year on year. Portugieser is another variety grown here and makes a simple yet tasty low acid light dry red for early consumption. Portugieser grows like a weed in Ahr, and is the equivalent to Piedmont’s Dolcetto- it is the wine you drink while you wait for the other wines to mature.
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles