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the wines of the Ahr Valley

By Tom Cannavan, 04/09

I recently had a long weekend in Germany, mainly to visit friends and go to dinner at the legendary 3* Michelin Hotel Sonnora in Wittlich on the Rhine (which was absolutely superb). But whilst there I also took the opportunity to explore one of the quieter, less famous, but most intriguing wine regions on a tributary of the Rhine, the Ahr Valley.

The Ahr is a different world from Germany's great wine rivers, the Mosel and the Rhine, which tend to be broad and straight, clustered with picture-perfect villages and crowded with plenty of tourists. The Ahr on the other hand takes a slowly meandering course, with many more twists and turns, and passes through workaday little villages that are positively sleepy compared with the coach and boat-loads of tourists crowding its larger neighbours.

There's a different feel here too because the vineyards tend to be planted on terraces cut into the hillsides, more akin to the Douro than the rows of vines planted straight up and down the steep hillsides of the Mosel and Rhine.
  

All of these clues tend to suggest the Ahr is a little bit different, and indeed that is the case. Because this is red wine country, with almost 90% of vineyards devoted to red wine grapes, and to one in particular: Pinot Noir. Spätburgunder (to give it its Germanic title) seems to thrive here despite a latitude of 50° north. The Ahr Valley is reputedly the world's most northerly region producing principally red wines. This is due to a relatively warm micro-climate, sometimes described as Mediterranean, and partly caused by being in the shadow of the Eiffel mountains.

The soil of this small region, whose vineyards cover only around 500 hectares in total, is slate, very much like the Mosel where it is associated with Riesling, but not Pinot Noir. It has long been a region that made red wine, but most of it was semi-sweet, simple stuff of no particular merit. It seems that the modern quality industry started around 1989/1990, when a few growers decided to buy some expensive French oak barrels and to try to make something a little more special from their Spätburgunder.


   Deutzerhof, in the village of Mayschoss, was one of those pioneers. Wolfgang Hehle (left) met me to let me taste his wines. He made his first barrique Pinot noir in 1989, but it was denied Auslese classification because it was judged to be 'not typical' of the red Ahr wines. Their vineyards include some on the extraordinarily steep slopes of Altenahrer Eck, one the of the prime, south-facing terroirs. Back in 1989 Deutzerhof began selling their wines under series names - including the three wise men, Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar - partly because they did not want to sell them as relatively lowly 'QbA' which is all the regulations allowed.

My other visit was to Weingut JJ Adeneuer in the bustling town of Ahrweiler. This family has 500 years of history in the Ahr, and their tasting room was so busy when I arrived on a chilly spring afternoon that my visit was largely self-guided! Over 80% of their vineyards are Spätburgunder, though the range is huge.

There were some really terrific wines on show here; certainly some of the best Pinots Noir I have tasted from Germany. Neither of these estates has UK distribution (very little Ahr Spätburgunder makes it outside of the country and why would it, when the very top cuvéees sell-out quickly at up to 90 Euros per bottle), but there are some German merchants who export and links to these are given for each producer.

Deutzerhof

See stockists of Deutzerhof on wine-searcher.com

Deutzerhof Estate Riesling 2007
All grapes come from the Mayschoss area. Nice lemon and lime nose, with a touch of peachy ripeness and a palate leading on to nicely pitched fruit. Dry, but has good fullness and richness. Lovely finesse - nice Riesling. 88/100. Screwcap

Catharina C Riesling Feinherb 2007
Lovely point of minerality, with quite sherbetty notes, and a touch of floral and herbal quality. Lovely palate-filling sweetness, but soon swept up in good acidity and fine lemon and orange acidity adding lots of crisp definition. Around 11g/l of sugar, but lovely acidity. 91/100.

Saumon de l'Ahr Spätburgunder Rose 2007
Named after the salmon that have been reintroduced to the Ahr after it was cleaned up. A saignée of the red wine, after one day of cool maceration. Lovely touch of candy floss and toffee apple, with some strawberry and peach. Very dry, with fine minerality running though and plenty of lemony acidity. A touch of tannin in the style of a very light red wine. 88/100

Deutzerhof Dornfelder 2007
Tank sample. Vines are cropped down to 40hl/ha (can be 250 in the cheapest Dornfelders) and aged in new French oak barrique. A little note of lipstick and paintbox, with full, rich, mouthfilling palate and the smoothness of the tannins come through. A very nice Dorndfelder that will age 8 - 10 years, 88/100

Cossmannn-Hehle Spätburgunder Feinherb 2007
The nose is slightly dank, but the palate comes through with a sweet, easy drinking smoothness of strawberry fruit. 84/100

Alpha & Omega Frühburgunder 2007
Harvested 4 - 6 weeks before Pinot Noir and aged in third use barriques. Nice creamy, slightly herbal, quite meaty, The palate has lovely richness and sweetness, with a mouth-filling texture and a chocolaty finish. 89/100

Balthasar C, Spätburgunder 2007
Quite a herbal nose, with low barrique influence (fourth use) and has a certain meatiness again. The palate has a nice stripe of tannin running through meaty red fruit, but good acidity too. Finishes with lots of grip and dry extract. 87/100

Caspar C Spätburgunder 2006
Grapes from two specific vineyards, with very good southern exposure and some clay on top of schist. Has a very nice creamy, charry edge to very ripe cherry and softer, strawberry fruit. The palate has good sweetness too, and the acidity and tannins add a lovely balance and length. Has good life and length about it. 89/100

Grand Duc Spätburgunder 2007
"Grand Duc" refers to a type of owl that patrols the vineyard. Nine months in new barrique. Has very good, meaty, seductive aromas with a touch of game and hinting at very nice sweetness of fruit. The palate has huge presence, with very tight, shiny, tough tannins wrapping good fruit. Needs times, as this has structure, fruit and concentration, but is a little bit tight and sinewy. 89/100 - potentially more.

Altenahrer Eck Spätburgunder 2006
Cropped at just 20 hl/ha from old vines, all over 30 years. Nine months in oak. Beautiful brown sugar nose, lovely creamy, rich, chocolaty richness. Velvety quality. The palate too has lovely richness. This has beautiful roasted fruit notes, deep berry fruits and a lovely espresso quality of oak. But the tannins are ripe and silky, melding with fine acidity. Fabulous stuff. 92/100

Heimersheimer Landskrone Spätburgunder 2006
15 months in oak. Slightly more resinous oak quality here. The palate has wonderful edge and a lean, sinewy tannin - but this carries it better than the Grand Duc, with full, fleshy, finish, good length. 92/100

Melchior C Spätburgunder 2006
This auction wine is a blend of best barrels from two wines above. Total production 300 litres, 19 months in oak. Deep rich, touch of sweaty saddle. The fruit is very concentrated and meaty too. Little hints of flowers and spice in a deep, complex mix. The palate has delightful depth and concentration. The fleshiness is there of the Landskrone, and the ripe silkiness of the Alten Ahrer. Coffee, liquorice and still that freshening acidity. 93/100

Altenahrer Eck Riesling Auslese 2003
Harvested as an Eiswein, but Wolfgang decided it was not rich enough, so 'declassified' as an Auslese. Sells for 33 Euros per half bottle. Fantastic apricot and barley sugar nose, with touches of honey and walnut and a little floral nuances. Lovely richness to the wine, with great fruit and a fine orangy richness. Delightful and retains good acidity. Delicious. 92/100

Deutzerhof Pinot Noir Eiswein 1987
120g/l sugar and 13g/l total acidity. Big oxidised nose, with big, old, leafy, liquorice and tobacco notes. Fantastic palate, with good acidity and very nice honey notes. Terrific caramel and dried nuts and peach kernel. Delightful stuff that is maybe just past its best. 90/100

JJ Adeneuer

See stockists of Adeneuer on wine-searcher.com

Blanc de Noir Spätburgunder 2008
Fermentation characters of pear drops and slightly bubblegum confectionery. Nice mouthfilling texture, good acidity and a rich pear fruit. Easy to drink but quite weighty though fresh. 85/100

JJ Adeneuer Spätburgunder 2007
The 'basic' Pinot Noir at 10.60 Euros shows a little bit of sulphur at first, then nice schisty, earthy tones, a touch of floral character and very fresh. Fairly lean and sinewy character on the palate. 85/100

JJ Adeneuer No 2 Spätburgunder Barrique 2007
Nice vanillin softness to the nose, with more a little briar and fudge to sweet blackberry and softer strawberry fruit. The oak is quite marked on the palate too, with a touch of astringency to the tannins, but the fruit does come through and this finishes with fresh spiciness. Good quality here and more structure. 87/100

Walporzheimer Gärkammer Spätburgunder 2007
Nicely earthy and a touch of truffle and undergrowth. Lovely sweet fruit on the palate, with soft strawberry notes, then the structure fills in, with good acidity and a little richness from barrique. Quite long. 88/100

Ahrweiler Gärkammer Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs 2006
Touch of meat-stock and fruity sauce notes, nice and rich, with good vegetal and undergrowth notes coming through. Very good quality on the palate, with full, sweet fruit melding with the rich oak, soft, suede tannins, very supple and deliciously easy to drink, but has structure too. 91/100

Neuenahrer Sonnerberg Spätburgunder 2006
Quite spicy and mineral, even a touch of fresh mint. Sweet berry fruits beneath. A tiny raisined note too. On the palate dry, sweet, quite intense black fruit. A little more concentration that the Gärkammer Grosses Gewächs, but maybe a little less delicacy too. 90/100

Walporzheimer Gärkammer Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs 2006
Beautifully expressive nose, with sweet strawberry fruit and fine undergrowth and woodland notes, with more coffee-ish, espresso richness. The palate has beautifully sweet, vanilla-infused fruit, with fine tannins and very fine structure. Gorgeous palate. Very long, spicy, notes of coffee, toast and truffle but sweet fruit intensity. 55 Euros for this. 92/100