The worldwide boom in red wine consumption is both a blessing and a curse for the Ahr Valleys makers of Spätburgunder, Portugieser, and Dornfelder reds.
By Nikki Goth Itoi
The traveler interested in Germany's wine regions might easily overlook the Ahr Valley. At 506 hectares (1250 acres) and 15 miles in length, it is one of the country's smallest and most northerly grape growing areas, and well off the beaten paths for white wine tasting along the Rhine and Mosel rivers.
What's also different about the Ahr is that it produces red, not white, wines. Knowledgeable enthusiasts are discovering that German viticulture is no longer just about Riesling and Müller-Thurgau varietals. Increasingly, reds like elegant and velvety Spätburgunders; lively, fruity Portugiesers; and deeply colored Dornfelders are gaining popularity much faster, in fact, than the region's vintners can produce them. These wines are seldom if ever available in the U.S. Most wineries sell out of their bottled wines domestically in less than a year and the few bottles that do make it out of Germany typically go to Japan or France. Some are so sought after they sell at auction for several hundred dollars per bottle.
Gemütlichkeit decided to pay a visit to several of the top wineries in the region to see how a new generation of vintners is transforming an industry that has flourished in the Ahr since Roman times.
It was a worthwhile three days. Just 30 minutes by car from Bonn, the Ahr is an easy side trip from most destinations along the Rhine. It's serene, rural setting; miles of paths for cycling, hiking, and walking excursions; numerous historical sites; and alkaline thermal baths in Bad Neuenahr, make it attractive for longer stays as well.
We descended into this picturesque valley at Altenahr the winding, narrow, west end of the valley when vines growing high up on steeply-terraced cliffs were soaking up the last of the afternoons sun rays. Our wine tour led us to the towns of Mayschoss, Dernau, Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, and Heppingen. Others could have been included had we more time.
Mayschoss is directly below the ruins of the oldest fortress on the Ahr, the 11th century Saffenburg, and is renowned for the founding of the first German wine growers cooperation (Winzergenossenschaft) in 1868. The co-op was organized to help the vintners collectively cope with hard times brought on by several poor harvests. Today, most of the Ahrs vintners belong to one of five such co-ops, which produce approximately 70 percent of the regions wine.
In neighboring Dernau, we stopped first to visit Werner Näkel, owner of the Meyer-Näkel vineyard, and producer of the region's most highly-regarded red wines.
A former math teacher, Mr. Näkel left his profession to run the business that has been in his family for five generations.
Though production capacity is small 6.5 hectares yield just seven thousand cases per season on average he quickly developed a reputation for producing elegant and complex Spätburgunders with superior finish, according to the German wine magazine, Wein Sonderheft.
Quiet and well-informed, Mr. Näkel is happy to discuss his wine-making at length. However, due to high demand and low supply, he can only offer tastings for about one week in April, when the new years wines are ready to be sold.
Interestingly, he has presented his wines at tastings as far away as the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. He also owns another 1300 hectares of vineyards in South Africa, which started producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc wines about two years ago.
Owner: Werner Näkel
- 1997 Meyer-Näkel Frühburgunder QbA trocken
- 1997 Illusion Nr. 1 Spätburgunder Rosee Tafelwein trocken
Address: Hardtbergstrasse 20, 53507 Dernau, telephone +49/02643/1628, fax 3363
Our next tour, also in Dernau, was at Kreuzberg, founded in 1953 and run by Ludwig Kreuzberg, the youngest of three brothers, each of whom is deeply involved in the operations of the business.
Another brother, the gregarious Thomas, was our host for the afternoon, and from him we learned a great deal about the bureaucracy of wine growing in the Ahr Valley. Some years ago, the brothers' father wanted to experiment with Cabernet Sauvignon vines, but was denied government permission for no apparent reason other than that this type of grape had not been planted to date and therefore should not be introduced to the Ahr.
In spite of the state's denial, the senior Kreuzberg planted the new varietal and left his sons to deal later with the bureaucracy. Today, Ludwig has at last secured approval for the new wine and next year Kreuzberg will market the first Ahr Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
The winery's current speciality is the Frühburgunder (early pinot). And to prove to us that the wines age well, we were treated to a taste of the 1988 vintage. "They say these wines are best in six to eight years, but you can see it is still good ten years in the bottle," Thomas noted.
Owners: Ludwig Kreuzberg (with brothers Hermann Josef and Thomas)
- 1996 Kreuzberg Dornfelder QbA trocken
- 1997 Devon Spatburgunder QbA trocken Barrique
Address: Benedikt-Schmittmannstrasse 20, D-53507 Dernau, tel. +49/02643/16914, fax 3206
Open May-Oct. except Wednesday; Sun. from 10am, Sat from noon, Mon.-Fri. from 3pm. Has some guest rooms
Back in Mayschoss, we called next on Wolfgang Hehle, a former accountant, who now runs the Weingut Deutzerhof. The grand, new Deutzerhof estate lies on the outskirts of town, tucked away at the base of the hills.
In his new office and house, Mr. Hehle has built an elegant second story room for hosting small, private, catered gatherings which feature Deutzerhof wines. He grows mostly Spätburgunder (62%) and Riesling (15%) grapes, with smaller amounts of Portugieser, Dornfelder, Frühburgunder and Chardonnay.
He was named "vintner of the year" in the German publication Alles ber Wein, which judged 1996 wines and ranked Deutzerhof in four of the top 10 places. Mr. Hehles wines tend to be fuller than Meyer-Nkels, but not as elegant according to Wein Sonderheft.
Tasting is available by appointment, while supply lasts. Prices vary widely depending on quality, for example from about $10 for the 1997 Cossmann-Hehle Spätburgunder to about $33 for the 1997 Grand Duc Select Spätburgunder -Auslese-trocken.
Owners: Wolfgang and Hella Hehle
- 1997 Catharina C. Riesling QbA trocken
- 1996 Dornfelder QbA trocken
Address: Deutzerhof, D-53508 Mayschoss, tel. +49/02643/7264, fax 3232
En route to the lower end of the valley is the town of Walporzheim, which boasts the State Wine Domain (Staatliche Weinbaudomne), the largest vineyard in the Ahr at 19 hectares/47 acres. The estate is located in the former Augustinian monastery of Kloster Marienthal, which was founded in 1137.
J. J. Adeneuer
The twin towns of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler are the largest and most central areas of the valley. Here, we found the J. J. Adeneuer winery in a most unlikely location the industrial center of Bad Neuenahr. The land surrounding the Adeneuer house has been designated by the state as an industrial development area and now, after 500 years of rural country location, the winery has become an island of tranquility in the midst of car repair shops, gas stations, hardware stores, and the like.
As we chatted over glasses of a 1997 Spätburgunder Weissherbst Qualitätswein-halbtrocken, a white wine made from red grapes, (about $9 per bottle), Mr. Adeneuer recounted an anecdote that illustrates the relative size of most Ahr Valley wineries. He recently traveled to France to buy new oak barrels from the same firm where the Napa Valley's Robert Mondavi Winery purchases its barrels. But while Mr. Adeneuer needed just eight of the barrels, Mondavi purchased 25,000.
In the quaintly decorated tasting room, we sampled a slightly spicy 1997 J.J. Adeneuer No. 1 Spätburgunder-Auslese ($23), which is bottled directly from steel tanks rather than barrels; and the house speciality, a 1997 Walporzheimer Grkammer Spätburgunder-Spätlese-trocken ($24), which also is not barreled.
The winery has won awards in the Rheinland-Pfalz district in 1980, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1996, and 1997. Mr. Adeneuer is happy to hold tastings by appointment.
Owners: Frank and Marc Adeneuer (brothers)
- 1997 J. J. Adeneuer No. 1 Spätburgunder Auslese-trocken
- 1997 Walporzheimer Grkammer Spätburgunder Spätlese-trocken
Address: OT Ahrweiler, Max-Planck-Strasse 8, D-5374 Bad Neuenahr, tel. +49/02641/344 73, fax 373 79
Open Mon.-Fri. 8-6pm, Sat. 8-3pm.
Lastly, in Heppingen, where the valley widens into gentler, rolling hills, we toured Weingut Burggarten, courtesy of vintner, Paul Schäfer. His family has owned the business since 1880.
Alles ber Wein named Burggarten its "discovery of the year" based on the property's 1996 wines. From 15 hectares of vines, Mr. Schfer produces 70 percent Spätburgunder plus some Portugieser, Dornfelder, Dominar, and Frühburgunder reds.
For the past two years in July, Burggarten has hosted a tasting event with two other wineries along six kilometers of the Rotwein Wanderweg (red wine path). The day includes music, food, and a tasting from each of the three wineries.
Mr. Schäfer is happy to arrange tastings and cellar tours from spring to early fall. In addition, a wine pub is open from 3pm every day except Monday during the months of September and October.
Owner: Paul Schäfer
- Heppinger Burggarten Spätburgunder Weissherbst Qualittswein-trocken, Neuenahrer Sonnenberg Frühburgunder Rotwein Qualittswein-Trocken.
Address: Landskrone Strasse 110, Heppingen, tel. +49/02641/7011, fax 7013
A few sights we missed at this lower end of the valley include the Landskrone, which provides a spectacular view of the valley, plus a 1,000-year-old chapel and the ruins of Burg Landskrone, built in 1205 by Philip von Schwabeen as a romantic home for his bride.
In the Heimersheim Market Square, the late Romanesque St. Auritius Church houses the oldest (13th century) stained glass windows in Germany.
An afternoon side trip that would be of interest to porcelain doll enthusiasts is to Bad Breisig (15 minutes by car from Heppingen). Here, in the old Rathaus, is a museum which displays 400 dolls from the second half of the 19th century to the end of the 1930s. Open daily except Monday: 10-12 and 3-5pm. Cost, about $3. Tel. +49/02633/9425.
The Ahr Valleys present-day vintners, we concluded, are a new and energetic generation of wine-makers who seem to have delicately balanced both the hobby and commercial aspects of their businesses.
Each is unique in personality and experience, and together they comprise a lively, industrious, and memorable community. Their main concern is simple; in the current market conditions, demand far outweighs supply. And the combination of European Union and German regulations make it impossible to plant more grapes.
"I cannot hold wine tastings here because I have no more wine left," laments Mr. Näkel, even though the prices of his prize-winning Spätburgunders continue to rise.
Ahr Valley Hotels
Nestled against the bank of the Ahr among the vineyards just west of Mayschoss, lies the grandiose Hotel Lochmühle. With 104 rooms the hotel actually seems a bit too large for its setting. The original building was finished in 1974 and its rooms have been decorated since then in a light modern style.
Despite a bit of a language barrier, we found the staff, managed by director Hubert Esch, to be enormously helpful and pleasant.
Our second floor room, Number 121, featured a spacious balcony that presented a panoramic view of the Ahr with bright green vine covered hills rising in the background. Every 45 minutes, the local train would come whistling into view, making its way to the lower end of the valley and back again. A plate of fresh fruit was delivered to our room when we arrived. At night, the room was very well lit. And the bath was exceptionally clean and bright.
All rooms have phones, shower/WC, minibars, and TV. The older rooms on the south side have larger balconies than the newer ones, but from any room on this side, the view makes the room. Parking is adequate and free. Amenities include an indoor swimming pool, basic exercise room, sauna, solarium, bike rentals, and cozy basement bar. Restaurants include the Ahrblick Terrace Café and the Lochmühle Restaurant. The hotel caters to businesses that hold seminars and conferences on-site.
Daily Rates: Singles $66-78, doubles $105-126. Credit cards accepted.
Contact: Hotel Lochmuehle Ahrrotweinstrasse/Bundesstrasse 62, (Route B267) 53508 Mayschoss, Tel +49 2643-8080 Fax +49 2643-808445
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 8/20
For simple, adequate accommodations near the western end of the valley, the Kreuzberg's tiny pension in Dernau is a good alternative. The family rents just five rustically furnished double rooms in a house adjacent to its wine cellar and pub. Each has a shower and toilet.
Room Number Five is the largest and the only one with a tub instead of a shower. We found some rooms smelled a bit of cigarette smoke, but were otherwise comfortable. Breakfast includes a wide assortment of fresh foods. There is plenty of public, outdoor parking across the street.
Daily Rates: Singles $35, doubles $40-50. Discounts available for stays longer than 3 days.
Contact: Pension Kreuzberg Benedikt-Schmittmannstrasse 30, 53507 Dernau, Tel +49 2643-1691, Fax +49 2643-3206
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 12/20
Ahr Valley Restaurants
It was easy to eat well during the prime growing season of this valley. Fresh produce was abundant at every stop. The oldest Ahr Valley restaurant, Brogsitters Restaurant/Sanct Peter, is located in Walporzheim (Walporheimer Strasse 134, Tel +49-2641-97750, Fax +49-2641-977525). It was established in 1246 and operates today as a combination gourmet restaurant, wine pub, and gift shop. We, however, opted for a newer establishment, certainly equal in character, if not in age.
Hidden on a hill in a residential area of Bad Neuenahr is Restaurant Idille, a charming country escape and among the best in the region. Your host is Werner Bouhs, who opened the restaurant in 1994.
In a dining room illuminated by windows on three sides, we looked out over the garden that envelopes Idille and enjoyed the sweeping view of the valley below.
The atmosphere is a tasteful mix of classic and modern design: there are worn pine floors, a high ceiling, crisp white walls, and chic wall vases full of blooming gardenias and tall, arching greens. About a dozen tables, funky chairs, white linens, an open kitchen, a seldom-used baby grand piano, and Frank Sinatra singing softly in the background, completed the ambiance.
At Mr. Bouh's suggestion, we began our midday meal with a sweet and flowery Sekt made from elder blossoms. Though delicious for tasting, an entire glass was too perfumy.
Fixed menu prices average $35, a la carte entrées cost from $18-$22 and the cuisine has somewhat of a French touch. We tried the roasted chicken breast, served with an artistic arrangement of potato croquettes and fresh white asparagus, carrots, and snow peas; and a roasted pork filet served with similar vegetables and a light, flavorful sauce. Both dishes were sprinkled with tiny, delicious, fresh mushrooms. For dessert, a decadent chocolate mousse put us over the edge of utter indulgence.
Reservations are encouraged, as the restaurant is small. Credit cards are not accepted, and lunch for two cost about $40. Dinner for two is about $75. There was a lengthy wine list, but after a morning of tasting we passed.
Contact: Restaurant Idille, Am Johannisberg 101, D-53474 Bad Neuenahr, Tel +49-2641-28429, Fax +49-2641-25009
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 12/20
More than anything else, we picked Lochmühle for convenience and so were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food and incredibly attentive service. Catering to a business clientèle, meal prices like the rooms are on the high side.
In the large dining room, with low exposed beams and pine-paneled walls, we sat at a booth next to a tall picture window. A small vase of asters and tiny lilies decorated the table. We browsed a list of several Ahr Valley wines served by the carafe, and many more offered by the bottle from elsewhere in Germany, France, and Italy. We selected a carafe of a 1995 Mayschosser Spätburgunder-trocken and a 1995 Klosterberg Portugieser-mild.
We began with tomato cream and French onion soups. Then, craving light summer fare, we ordered the vegetarian special, which turned out to be flavorful little mushrooms sautéed and served with cheese, fresh vegetables broccoli, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower and small potato pancakes.
A roasted chicken breast (heavy on the salt) was served over a bed of lettuce with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and peppers, in a creamy dill dressing. But our plans for a light meal were thwarted when our server tempted us with a strawberry sundae for dessert, complete with fresh berries, vanilla ice cream, and loads of whipped cream.
Credit cards are accepted and dinner for two without drinks cost about $50.
Contact: The Lochmühle, Ahrrotweinstrasse/Bundesstrasse 62, (Route B267) D-53508 Mayschoss, tel +49/02643/8080, fax 808445.
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 8/20