Peter Kriechel still cannot believe what happened to Marienthal. The once picturesque village in western Germany’s Ahr valley is now a mud-splattered, debris-strewn ruin — its trees uprooted, bridges smashed and houses shattered.
The damage was wrought by last month’s devastating floods, among the worst to hit Germany since the second world war. More than 180 people died, dozens are still missing and hundreds more have been left homeless in a disaster that pushed climate change to the top of the political agenda.
The flooding also shattered the industry that made the Ahr valley famous: winemaking.
Kriechel, head of the Ahrwein trade association, pointed to empty spaces in the village where vineyards once stood. “Those vines stood for hundreds of years. Now they’re all gone,” he said.
The July 14 tragedy occurred when heavy rain turned the Ahr and several other rivers in the region into surging torrents that swept away houses, roads and railway lines — leaving dozens of grieving communities in their wake. Locals are now picking up the pieces — a huge task in towns and villages that are still devoid of electricity, running water and internet.
But in the Ahr valley, the clean-up operation has a special urgency. As well as burying their dead and shoring up their battered houses, local wine producers are working round the clock to prepare for the grape harvest in six weeks that will hold the key to their survival.
Already, that future is a lot less certain than before the flood. Some €50m worth of wine was lost — but that is just the tip of the iceberg. “There’s also all the machines, filters and presses,” said Kriechel, who estimated that 15 hectares of vines were destroyed out of the total wine-growing area of 560 hectares.
All this is a huge headache for people such as Matthias Baltes, managing director of Mayschoss-Altenahr, Germany’s oldest wine co-operative, which is based just down the road from Marienthal.
“In the eight weeks before the harvest it’s crucial to protect the vines from fungal infections. But we now lack the equipment to do that,” he said.
The scale of the damage is clear at Meyer-Näkel, a family-run vineyard in nearby Dernau. Its cellars and collection of vintage wines were “buried in a deluge of mud”, Dörte Näkel, one of two sisters running the business, wrote on Facebook. “Nearly all our old oak barrique barrels floated away, most of the tanks too, and our wine press was carried miles off.” The estate, she said, had been “left with nothing”.
Oenophiles have long known about the Ahr, whose excellent Pinot Noir wines — known as Spätburgunder in Germany — enjoy international acclaim. The secret to their quality is the Ahr’s slate-rich soil, which retains the heat of the sun and passes it to the vines at night.
“Wine is everything here. Our whole world revolves around it,” said Baltes of Mayschoss-Altenahr. “Every family is involved — producing or selling it or working in the restaurants that serve it.” The local hospitality sector was already reeling from pandemic-related lockdowns before the floods hit.
Alexander Stodden, a fifth-generation vintner who runs the Jean Stodden estate in nearby Rech, said almost 20 per cent of his nine hectares had been destroyed, causing €1.5m of damage. Those barrels that were not swept away are covered with an oily film from the polluted floodwater, which he fears may have contaminated the wine inside.
His business, with strong international connections, will survive. “I’m more worried about the smaller producers,” he said. “What happens to them now all the local hotels and restaurants are gone?”
Surveying the ruins of Rech, he added: “This is what war looks like.”
A silver lining has been the huge show of support from Germany’s other wine-growing areas.
Volunteers have poured in from the Mosel and Nahe valleys with offers to help defoliate and prune vines ahead of next month’s harvest. They have brought tractors, forklifts and small-tracked vehicles designed for handling steep slope vines.
“The solidarity people showed was sensational,” said Stodden. “Civil society clearly works a lot better than people think.”
Locals have also come up with imaginative forms of self-help. Peter Kriechel is one of the brains behind “Flutwein” — or “flood wine” — a scheme to sell the mud-covered bottles retrieved from inundated cellars, with the proceeds going to flood victims. Set up under two weeks ago, it has already raised more than €2.5m.
There has also been help from abroad. Stodden said his Singapore wine dealer auctioned a dozen bottles of 2014 Pinot Noir and transferred all the proceeds to his account.
Yet the trauma of July 14 will live on in locals’ memories. Kriechel still recalls an “indescribable” night — the roaring flood waters, windows shattering, trees falling and the calls for help from children stranded on the rooves of their houses. “I can’t get it out of my head,” he said.
Vintners who did not have flood insurance now face financial ruin, with many considering throwing in the towel. Despite his losses — a quarter of his bottled wines have gone and some 40,000 litres in barrels — Kriechel said he would not give up.
“My family’s been making wine here for nearly 500 years,” he said. “There’s no way we’ll stop now.”