Many years ago, a Navy friend brought us a bottle of German wine as a hostess gift.  Brian was elated because he’d found this wine in the U.S.  I was surprised to discover that the gift was German red wine from a region I’d never heard of, the Ahr.  No surprise, Brian told us – the Ahr is a very small wine region that produces mostly red wines, so it’s very hard to find Ahr wines outside of Germany.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

We really enjoyed that wine, and my interest in the Ahr lingered long after we recycled the empty bottle.  Such a small wine region, one that produces quality wines that don’t fit the stereotyped image of German wine at all – how did this happen?  It turns out that the Ahr’s steep, sheltered slopes have the perfect climate for spätburgunder (pinot noir) grapes.

Climate and Soil
The Ahr is one of the smallest wine regions in Germany.  It centers on a 15-mile stretch of the Ahr River, which flows into the Rhine River north of Koblenz.  Even though the Ahr Valley is so far north, its warm, almost Mediterranean summer climate allows spätburgunder grapes to thrive because the Eifel Mountains shelter the vineyards.  Most Ahr wine grapes are grown on steep slopes above the river.

The Ahr’s soils vary from loess in the eastern valley to slate and volcanic soil in the west.  Because so many vineyards are steep and terraced, wine production is costly here; much of the work in the vineyards must be done by hand or with special machinery.  This naturally means that the best red wines from the Ahr command high prices.

Ahr Grape Varieties
Nearly 88 percent of the wine grapes grown in the Ahr are red wine grapes; in fact, 62 percent of Ahr vineyards are planted in spätburgunder grapes.  Portugieser trails behind at 11 percent; almost as many Portugieser grapes are planted here as all the white wine grapes grown in the Ahr (12 percent).   Riesling (7 percent) is the most popular white wine grape.

Ahr Valley Wineries
About 75 percent of Ahr wines come from the region’s co-operative wineries.  Of these, Winzergennossenschaft Mayschoß/Altenahr (German only), which claims to be the world’s oldest wine co-operative, is considered by many critics to be the region’s best co-operative.  You can visit the winery’s museum and taste wines either in the tasting room or as part of a horse-drawn cart vineyard group tour (24 Euros, book ahead).

Dagernova is the area’s largest wine co-operative.  You can try Dagernova wines either in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler or at the co-operative winery in Dernau.  I’d suggest heading to the winery, if possible, because you can also see the old wine cellar there.  Book your tasting online (unfortunately, in German only) or call ahead to reserve your place.

One of the Ahr’s traditional co-operatives was sold in 2004 to a group of investors, all of whom already make wine in the Ahr region.  Kloster Marienthal (German only) has therefore changed from a large, state-owned operation into a smaller winery.  Kloster Marienthal is worth a visit even if you don’t drink wine.  The impressive 12th-century abbey ruins from which the winery takes its name still stand, and the winery hosts special events throughout the year.

Weingut Meyer-Näkel in Dernau produces some of Germany’s best red wines.  Werner Näkel, Gault-Millau’s “Producer of the Year” in 2004, is known throughout the German wine community for his commitment to excellence.  If you’d like to taste Meyer-Näkel wines, your best bet is the family-owned “Im Hofgarten” wine bar and restaurant at Bachstraße 26 in Dernau.  You can try not only the Ahr wines but also Meyer-Näkel’s South African and Portuguese wines.

Weingut Jean Stodden (German only) is another top-notch Ahr winery.  Gerhard Stodden, the winery’s current owner and winemaker, consistently receives praise from wine critics around the world.  Gault-Millau named him “Rising Star of the Year” in 2002.  Stodden’s wine shop and tasting room in Rech are open Monday through Friday (closed 12:00 – 1:00 P.M.) and on Saturday afternoons.

Visiting the Ahr
You can spend a day driving along the Ahr River or walk its entire length on the Rotweinwanderweg (“Red Wine Walking Path”).  The Ahr wine region is an easy daytrip from Koblenz or Bonn.  You can also combine a trip to the Ahr wine region with a visit to some of the Eifel’s many lakes and springs.  Bring a corkscrew and grab a bottle or two of spätburgunder to enjoy during your trip.