"If this happens again, nothing will be rebuilt here," says VDP vintner and Pinot Noir specialist Alexander Stodden thoughtfully. He doesn’t really want to talk about the flood anymore. Two years ago, on the night of July 14, 2021, torrential rains caused water to sweep away caravans, cars, and even some homes. In the Ahr Valley alone,134 people died. Where the Ahr River, which rose more than 7 meters above its regular level in some places, didn’t carry things away, it buried them under mud, leaving a wine-growing region without infrastructure.
In 2016, there was also flooding, but it wasn't as severe as the one two years ago. Whether the government will prioritize improved flood protection in the reconstruction efforts post-2021 remains uncertain. The densely populated small valley and the limited space allocated for the river significantly contributed to the devastating impact of the flood. Yet, many homes near the riverbank are still being allowed to rebuild in the same locations. With climate scientists predicting more frequent heavy rainfall events in the future, continuing on this path presents an incalculable risk.
Harvest saved, infrastructure in ruins
Of the 35 major wineries, only five escaped the flood's devastation. Numerous cellars, homes, and businesses were laid to waste. The financial blow dealt to the wine sector alone ranges from €150m to €200m. Nevertheless, 31,000 hectolitres were harvested in 2021, marking a 19% decline from the usual output.
This fluctuation can also be partly attributed to the generally challenging 2021 vintage. The limited loss of harvest due to the flood was significantly aided by the overwhelming support and unity shown by countless volunteers. Particularly from winemakers in other regions who assisted with vineyard tasks and brought machinery and equipment in the critical period leading up to the harvest, while the Ahr vintners were restoring their silt-filled cellars and storage areas.
Many, including Riesling expert Lukas Sermann, managed to become operational just in time for the harvest. For instance, the screed in Sermann's rebuilt production hall had dried just two days before the harvest.
The flood didn't pose a viticultural challenge for the Ahr wine region; instead, it devastated the critical infrastructure, which is particularly significant for a tourist area and direct sales. The flood disaster in Germany caused €33bn in damages, with €15bn earmarked for reconstruction in the Ahr valley alone. Bureaucratic obstacles persist in many areas, and according to the citizens of Ahrweiler, these hinder the reconstruction of schools and swimming pools, among other facilities.
Insurance payout delays are also problematic, especially when considering the impacts of inflation and rising interest rates, making them seem inadequate. Before the pandemic, the Ahr region recorded 1.3m overnight stays annually. However, by the end of April 2023, they declined to 150,000. For most Ahr vintners, direct sales play a pivotal role, but this significantly plummeted after the flood. Wine tastings could only take place on the hiking trails overlooking the valley.
Numerous fundraisers in the wine industry
The campaign titled "Ahr – A Wine Region Needs Help for Rebuilding" spearheaded by vintner and chairman of the Ahrwein Association, Peter Kriechel, along with VDP vintner Marc Adeneuer, garthered an impressive €4.5m in donations on its own. The VDP initiative "The Eagle Supports" ("Der Adler unterstützt") managed to collect €3.8m, and "SolidAhritätswein", a play on the German words “Solidarität” (solidarity) and “Wein” (wine), secured €1.5m in contributions.