How wine from Germany’s flood-hit western regions gives hope for the future

In the Ahr valley, mud-smeared vintage bottles of wine rescued from flooded cellars represent hope for a new beginning after the deadly catastrophe that hit Germany three weeks ago.

How wine from Germany's flood-hit western regions gives hope for the future
Volunteers cleaning bottles of wine after the floods in Ahrweiler. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

“I told myself we couldn’t just throw it all away,” recalls Linda Kleber, the founder of the “Flutwein” (“Flood wine”) initiative.

Kleber came up with the idea as she was retrieving bottle after bottle from the store of her flood-ravaged restaurant.

The vintages that could be saved are now being offered for delivery in the condition they were found: covered in silt, a singular reminder of the devastation the floods wreaked.

The money raised, more than two million euros to date, is “a source of hope for all the winegrowers and also for the hospitality sector,” says Peter Kriechel, 38, himself a wine producer and president of the local professional growers’ association.

In his cellar, about 200,000 bottles of wine were submerged on the night of June 14th.

READ ALSO: ‘We’re full’: German waste centres tackle mountain of post-flood debris

“I think we’re at the start of a long marathon,” he says. “An initiative like ‘Flutwein’ could give us a kickstart.”

 ‘A tsunami’

In the Ahr valley, known for the pinot noir that grows on its steep slopes, the economy relies significantly on viniculture and the tourism it generates.

“Without wine, the Ahr valley wouldn’t exist — to say nothing of its gastronomy,” says Joerg Kleber, husband of Linda.

All in all, last month’s disaster claimed the lives of 225 people across Europe, including 187 in Germany, and destroyed five to 10 percent of the wines in Ahr.

But the damage to machines and cellars has been much greater, with many holdings severely impacted or almost entirely destroyed.

READ ALSO: From water to wine in the Rhineland’s beautiful Boppard

Producer of wine and president of the local professional growers association Peter Kriechel (back) with winemakers Linda and Joerg Kleber. Photo: BERND LAUTER / AFP

Paul Schumacher, 63, is one of those whose losses were great.

“It wasn’t just a flood but a tsunami,” says the grower.

Just before the waters arrived at his door, Schumacher went down to make sure his barrels of wine were well sealed.

He and his wife then took shelter upstairs, but “the water very quickly rose a metre above the first floor,” he says, still visibly affected by what happened. In the end, the couple ended up spending part of the night on the roof.

A tenth of his five hectares of land was devastated. The ground floor of his house, where he also had a restaurant, is still completely coated in mud.

The veteran grower still hopes to harvest his grapes and produce this year’s vintage, however. The production of wine in the Ahrweiler region remains very uncertain, but neighbouring producers have offered to step in to help bring in this year’s crop.

READ ALSO: German prosecutors consider manslaughter probe into deadly floods

‘Many will leave’

Facing one of the biggest natural disasters Germany has seen in the last few decades, Angela Merkel’s government has already signed off on emergency aid numbering in the hundreds of millions of euros to go to those most in need.

The aid will be supplemented by a reconstruction project, costing further billions.

Bottles of wine covered in mud after the floods. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

Locals nonetheless think the valley will never be the same again. “Many will leave and won’t rebuild their homes,” says  wine producer Schumacher.

It is an option the Kleber family have not thought about for an instant, even if their restaurant in the centre of Ahrweiler will not open again on the same spot.

The kitchen, the bar, the dining room and garden of ‘Kleber’s’ have more or less disappeared after a two-week clean up operation. What remains of it are the walls, painted in mud up to the high-water mark.

“Things were starting to get going again” after months of enforced stoppage due to the pandemic, laments Joerg Kleber, a chef by profession.

But the coronavirus was “nothing” compared to the forces which battered down on Ahrweiler in the space of a few hours on the night of the floods, he says.

There will be a new ‘Kleber’s’ nearby, the cook promises.

“Our friends and our life is here,” he says. “After this catastrophe, our roots here might even be stronger than they were before.”


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Merkel tours German flood zone to drum up party support

German Chancellor Angela Merkel returned Friday to the scene of deadly flooding in the west of the country in a bid to shore up support for her embattled party before this month's national election.

Merkel tours German flood zone to drum up party support
German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to residents of flood hit Altenahr-Altenburg on Friday. Photo: dpa/Pool AP | Markus Schreiber

Since the July disaster put crisis management and climate change back at the top of the agenda, Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their unpopular candidate, Armin Laschet, have been haemorrhaging support.

With the September 26 vote fast approaching, the outgoing Merkel checked in on the flood-stricken village of Altenahr in Rhineland-Palatinate state, and will view two inundated towns in Laschet’s own neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia on Sunday.

READ ALSO: Conservative contender to succeed Merkel goes on attack in TV debate

After touring the rubble-strewn roads of Altenahr where the vast majority of homes are still uninhabitable, Merkel acknowledged residents’ trauma.

“When you are here you get a small sense of the mortal fear many people had in the night of the flooding, who had to wait it out on top of or under their roofs,” she said.

“We will not forget you, and the next government will pick up where we left off” to ensure public aid reaches the victims, she pledged.

Merkel, who will retire from politics when a new government is in place, made a well-received visit in the immediate aftermath of the deluge, offering empathy and billions in federal aid to rebuild ravaged infrastructure.

The appearance stood in marked contrast with a politically calamitous stop by Laschet in what is now widely seen as a fateful moment in the erstwhile frontrunner’s campaign.

As President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a sombre speech mourning the floods’ 181 victims, the CDU leader was caught on camera behind him joking and laughing with local officials.

‘Put his foot in it’

The two appearances gave voters a chance to directly compare the luckless Laschet with Merkel, political scientist Ursula Muench told AFP.

“Merkel went there and listened and had the right expression and the right gestures and Laschet managed to put his foot in it,” said Muench, director of the Academy for Political Education near Munich.

She noted that after Merkel’s 16 years in office, her shadow looms large over the race — particularly as Laschet’s chief rival, Social Democratic Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, also tries to present himself as her rightful heir.

READ ALSO: Merkel says ‘huge difference’ between her and vice-Chancellor Scholz

His party is now polling at around 25 percent, four points up on Laschet’s conservatives.

The Christian Democrats are now encouraging as many joint appearances as possible between Merkel and Laschet, who will accompany her on Sunday.

However the visit carries some political risk as emotions are still running high in the stricken region.

In the village of Dernau, where entire streets are still uninhabitable, clean-up volunteer Christine Jahn complained this week about red tape holding up tranches of a pledged 30 billion euros ($36 billion) in federal and state aid.

In flood-ravaged western Germany, volunteers have stepped in where the government has been slow to act. Photo: Yann Schreiber / AFP

“I want less babbling and more getting on with it, so that the money arrives without bureaucracy,” the 66-year-old told AFP.

READ ALSO: Conservative contender to succeed Merkel goes on attack in TV debate

Public anger has also focused on a failure to sufficiently warn vulnerable residents or rush them to safety before the waters surged through their community.

Prosecutors in August launched a criminal investigation against the district chief of hard-hit Ahrweiler for negligence as warnings were made belatedly, resulting in the deaths of dozens of residents.

Flippant response?

The catastrophe also renewed the focus on climate change, which 80 percent of Germans say they want more political action to mitigate, according to a poll for broadcaster RTL published on Wednesday.

A major international study last month found that manmade global warming made the deadly floods in Germany as well as Belgium up to nine times more likely.

In the Ahr and Erft regions of Germany, 93 millimetres (3.6 inches) of rain fell in a single day at the height of the crisis.

In the immediate aftermath, Laschet drew criticism for seemingly contradictory statements in a TV interview on the urgency of addressing the climate crisis.

Laschet’s party has taken a hammering in the polls since footage taken on July 17th showed him laughing in the flood zones. Photo: Marius Becker / POOL / AFP)

READ ALSO: Conservative’s missteps leave race for Merkel job open in Germany

Asked whether he thought the government had made mistakes on the issue, Laschet said it would be wrong to “change policies just because of one day” in what sounded to many critics like a flippant response to the disaster.

All eyes will now be on Laschet, whose CDU has shed around 13 points in support since he became party leader in January and is still on a downward slide, to see whether he can find his footing again before election day.

By Deborah Cole