Grapes of wrath
German winemakers rebuild after floods
‘I [tasted the wine in the flooded cellar] and didn’t get a tummy bug so that’s a good sign’ Tanja Lingen
Tanja Lingen barely dares to think about the night her two sons went into the family vineyard cellar to salvage what they could of the supplies and equipment stored there as water from the nearby River Ahr rose to dangerous levels.
“They removed the fermentation airlocks on the oak barrels and replaced them with tight plastic stoppers just in the nick of time,” she said. They even had the presence of mind to film the dramatic scene, by chance capturing the chalk markings on the barrels which later meant – when they were found floating in the waters, the markings washed away – it was still possible to identify what was in them.
“I could only bring myself to watch the film for the first time a few days ago,” she admitted. “It made me feel quite queasy.”
Minutes after her boys had plugged the barrels, she recalled, there was a huge bang as an electrical outlet blew. Less than 20 minutes later, water from the river crashed into the cellar and house, 250 metres from its banks, reaching as high as the first floor. Two months after the deluge – worse than anything of its kind ever recorded in Germany – Lingen and other locals are still picking up the pieces.
She has been overwhelmed by the support the family received from the fire brigade volunteers and other helpers in Bad Neuenahr who lent a hand with pumping out the cellar and removing the tonnes of sticky sludge from the vineyard – which dates back to 1590 – as well as a guesthouse.
She is grateful too for the €23,000 in direct government aid she has received – €15,000 of which has gone to buying a new heating system. The cellar and tasting room are sauna-like and still smell fusty. She has tasted the wine in the barrels “and I didn’t go down with a tummy bug so that’s a good sign,” she says, her joviality defying the scale of the disaster.
But she is now having to focus her efforts on the imminent grape harvest which is seen as a hugely significant moment for the region’s 50 vintners, all of whom have been affected by the floods and are struggling to get back on their feet.
An estimated €50m worth of wine has been lost, along with 10-15% of 560 hectares of vines in the Ahr valley – Germany’s largest continuous expanse of red wine production. Many of the destroyed vines were decades or centuries old and will take years to replenish.
About 3,000 bottles of the Lingens’ wine, covered in sludge and unfit for sale, are packed in metal crates labelled “Please don’t wash”. They are about to be sent to donors across Europe who have paid above the odds in order to fund a “flood wine” scheme to support stricken vintners. It has so far raised almost €4.5m.
Over the past weeks, the challenge for the vintners has been to ensure their vines are free of fungal infections, of particular concern due to the high humidity. Help, in the shape of manual labour and donations of machinery, has come from vintners in other wine regions across Europe.
Peter Kriechel, head of the Ahrwein trade association whose family has been making wine since at least 1555, gazed over the devastated valley and stressed the determination of the vintners to keep going: “Wine is our livelihood as well as being a cultural asset.”