A Night of hell in a paradise valley
Ludwig picked me up from my hotel in the village of Altenahr and we made our way 8km along the twisting valley road to his home village of Dernau, the steeps banks of the Ahr river flanking the way. Towering above us, at each point that a bank faced south, southeast or southwest, vineyards clung to the steep slate-laden slopes, terraced in places. Eyes up, this is a dramatic, picturesque landscape not a world away from the drama of the middle Mosel.
At eye level, destruction. During the night of 14/15 July 2021 this narrow valley saw some of the very worst flooding, but that word conjures the wrong image here – an image of a staining muddy rise and and fall of water, leaving behind ruined things and a mess to mop up. But what had hit the Ahr this night was more like a tsunami. “Down there at the river bed there were so many beautiful trees here, all gone now. The problem was that the water uprooted the trees, carried cars and anything in its path, and then all of that jammed up against the bridge just here, until the sheer force made that natural dam break. That release of power then knocked out the next bridge, and the next one. It was the middle of the night, all the power, internet, cellphone, lights, everything was knocked out, and all around here people could not see, were cut off from the outside world, and could only listen, to sound of crashing and breaking from the force of the flood.”
185 people were killed in Germany, most of them in the Ahr valley.1 Ludwig, his wife, and younger daughter were on a short break in the Austrian alps. “My elder daughter Léa was back at the winery taking care of things. We knew there was some possible flooding from the forecast, and we made preparations, but as it got later into the night I knew it was getting much worse.” The last phone call was around 1am, from Ludwig’s neighbour, to say that there was a large gas tank that had floated away, and that it was jammed up by the winery, and leaking gas, and not to use a lighter. “I managed to warn Léa, and she said she could smell the gas,” and then that was it, the cellphone connection was lost.
The night that followed, and the seven hour drive back to the Ahr must have felt an eternity. The roads were mostly smashed, flooded and blocked, and all the bridges knocked out. They reached Dernau to find Léa safe. She and three colleagues had climbed up onto the roof of the winery in the night, and been rescued the next morning.
At neighbouring Dernau winery Meyer-Näkel, sisters Dörte and Meike, assessing the risk of the same gas tank, made their escape. As wine-searcher reported at the time, This could only be achieved by diving into the flood waters, swimming beneath barrels floating in the cellars, and kicking out a window, through which they were washed by the floodwaters. Carried downstream they eventually found refuge in a tree just outside Dernau.2
Meyer-Näkel’s winery was destroyed, wine barrels carried several kilometers away. “Their winery is next to ours”, said Ludwig, “but their large doors faced the flow of water and was no match. Our doors faced the flow at right angles and didn’t break. That slowed things down – in, and out – and much was saved, though the winery was ruined.”
A temporary winery was made in an air-conditioned warehouse, and “somehow” says Ludwig, the 2021 vintage was made. Tasting it later with Léa, I like its cooler season fruit profile and tension. Many colleagues and friends from the Mosel, and further afield, came to help in the days that followed the flooding, lending their hands, their experience, spare barrels and so on.
In the car heading out to see the vineyards, Ludwig receives a phone call, and looks excited. “We finally got the approval to demolish and rebuild the old place.” Waters move fast, bureaucracy slower. After nearly two years in limbo, Kreuzberg 2.0 can come to life. In this short visit to the Ahr I get a taste of some new optimism. “You don’t often get an opportunity like this, to reconsider everything, to rebuild. That feeling extends beyond what we are replacing. Even the labels now are new, redesigned,” says Ludwig over some Turskish pizza in the nearby town of Bad-Neuenahr-Arhweiler. “Each time I come here something new has reopened.” While tasting wines with Léa later that afternoon she remarks, “there have always been wildflowers in the valley here. During the floods, everyone’s gardens were destroyed, but the seeds were carried in the mud. Today there are so many different flowers blooming.”
The Pinot Noir tradition and the terroir
At each year’s German wine auctions, I’d been impressed by the wine offered by Kreuzberg, and often bought it based on the tasting sample poured. At The Fine Wine Experience we have been offering that wine for some years now. That led to a conversation with Ludwig, and we are now proud to represent the winery in Hong Kong. I had come to learn more, first hand.
Opposite Dernau at the crest of the forested north-facing bank we had climbed to the top of the lookout tower. “147 steps”, Ludwig said as we reached the top, him panting less than me, admittedly. “When I was a kid I used to come here, and always count the steps.” A free-spirited child, Ludwig would often wander off to play, and if his family couldn’t find him, they knew where to come look. From here we had a commanding view, to the vineyards below, and much beyond. The old administrative capital of Bonn, and city of Cologne lie just to the north, along the Rhine. At 50~51° North, we are at something of a traditional viticultural limit. I’ve always thought of the Mosel as far north, but the day before I had driven 90 minutes north from Bernkastel on the autobahn to get here. And yet this region is counterintuitively dominated by red wine production. Red grapes had been popular too in the Mosel until banned long ago, and were only re-permitted in 1990. That had never happened in the Ahr, where Pinot Noir had come here via the monks from Burgundy, and survived phylloxera. Pinot Noir today is the leading variety of the region. There’s loess, and some loamier soils toward the valley, but the key to understanding the terroir is that it is Devonian slate based – the same as in the Mosel.
The Kreuzberg estate
Ludwig, the fifth of six children, had trained as a chimney technician, but took over the family estate in 1994 when his elder brother married into another wine family. Although the Kreuzbergs had been growing grapes in the Ahr for centuries, and his grandfather had begun estate-bottling in the 1950s, the 1990s was a breakout decade for the Ahr valley. Until then pale, sometimes slightly sweet reds had been the mainstay, with a ready market of domestic tourists and the nearby cities to provide ready local demand.
Since then though the leading estates have begun making Pinot Noirs more in the image of Burgundy and the international style. It’s both ridden, and helped to drive a current fashion wave for German “spätburgunder” (as Pinot Noir is known in German) in smart restaurants from London, to New York and Hong Kong, and been a relative beneficiary of global warming (extreme weather events like the ’21 floods excepted!).
At the beginning of the 2000s Ludwig sought and then won the chance to join the qualitative club – the VDP, and this century they have been refining the vineyard work and the style of the wine.
I find the wines elegant, red-fruit dominated, juicy, with a brightness in the acidity, and a distinct minerality coming from the slate soils. The vineyards are precipitously steep – think Mosel more than Burgundy, and nestled-in like amphitheatres to catch the sun, and protected by the Eifel mountains. (Exiting the autobahn, the last few minutes of the journey in is a series of white knuckle hairpin turns as you descend).
I tasted through the range with Léa. For now – until the next shipment – I’ll focus my notes on the wines we are now pleased to share with you, landed and ready for delivery to you in Hong Kong (or pop in to the shop to grab a bottle). There are some other local specialities in the range, including a spicy fruity Frühburgunder, and a ‘Blanc de Noir’ paler-than-rosé tinted white made from Pinot Noir. But for now we have focused 100% on classic, Burgundy-like Pinot Noirs -
2020 Kreuzberg ‘Devonschiefer’ Spätburgunder
This is not an entry level cuvée, more mid-range, and one that represents the slate soil style of Pinot Noir here, all the fruit in this is from grand cru “GG” sites, but not included in the GG-bound parcel selections. Grapes are 100% de-stemmed, aged 16 months in French oak, none new. I tasted the 2021 at the winery, loved its lightness, linearity and freshness. The 2020 vintage was a little riper, so I would expect more fruit volume in this, but a similar easy-to-drink style, ready to drink.
2020 Kreuzberg ‘Silberberg’ GG Spätburgunder
From Ahrweiler, “Silberberg” refers to silver mines that date back to Roman times. This is largely slate soil with loess and loam in parts, and is nestled in a small valley flanked by forest. It’s the cooler of the GG sites, and that is felt in the wine. About 5% whole bunches retained, aged in 300-litre French oak, about 50% new, for 20 months. Bright light ruby; fresh red fruit, a little cool pepperiness, some florals too; elegant fruit, sweet and succulent, good extract, it is quite silky, with good fruit intensity, fine acidity, well-integrated oak, and nice length. Lovely red fruit Pinot Noir. There is a lovely sweet-savoury tension. You feel the smell of forest leaves in the summer – it is cool and fresh. Very good. – Linden, at the winery, 31 May 2023.
2020 Kreuzberg ‘Sonnenberg’ GG Spätburgunder
From Neuenahr, this largely slate site has some loam and loess, and is the warmer of the two site – “Sonnenberg” mean “sun mountain”, and this vineyard is steep and south-facing. About 5% whole bunches retained, aged in 300-litre French oak, about 50% new, for 20 months. Bright clear mid-ruby; ripe and fresh red fruit, fine herb note and a touch of wood, some confit rhubarb; delicious and sappy feel, juicy, with a rich mid-palate, a little less definition than the 2019, and a broader mid-palate, some cool, almost bitter herb notes in the finish offers a savoury counterpoint to the fruit. Succulent, though there is a little tannin to shed. Good. Give this another year in the cellar. – Linden, at the winery, 31 May 2023.
(Why not try the two GGs side by side?)
2020 Kreuzberg Devonschiefer “R” Spätburgunder
This “Reserve” cuvée is the top of the range at Kreuzberg, and represents a selection of the best fruit of the year, aged 20 months in new French oak – only one or two 300-litre barrels are made each year, so total production is just 400-800 bottles. The wine is sold each year at the VDP auction in Bad-Kreuznach. It requires and rewards a little more cellaring. A bright fresh clear mid-ruby; bright, a little closed now, some fine oak notes in the discreet aroma; fine fruit, elegant, bright, there’s a fineness to this, the oak is fine quality too, with a mocha note, it’s texture and aroma is felt in the wine, though it melds well. This is a succulent wine with fine-grained tannins, and a touch of spice. Lovely promising wine, its needs 2-3 years to come together. – Linden, at the winery, 21 May 2023.
We also have the Devonschiefer “R” Spätburgunder from 2018, 2017, 2015. The 2017 is offered in two forms, but is exactly the same wine – the regular ‘Auktion’ version was bought by us at the auction in September 2019 and shipped to Hong Kong that year. The ‘Auktion Flood Wine’ version comes from the estate reserve stock, that went through the 2021 floods. In memory of the floods, the bottles have been cleaned, but some staining can still be seen in the labels. They represent a souvenir of that momentous event, a symbol of survival. Either way you will have an interesting story to tell when you share with your friends!
As I follow the river valley out to the Autobahn that is about to take me back to the Mosel, a twinkle of colour catches my eye. I remember Léa’s story and I stop to take one last photo, of those “wild” flowers in bloom.