Wine from Northern Germany? You heard right!
A tall woman comes to greet me with her free hand. On her other arm, she’s carrying an 8 months old baby. For the next couple of hours that she shows me around she keeps on carrying him. She is Melanie Engel, who runs Weingut Ingenhof. If you run a farm you can’t really have a maternity leave. Not that she would mind. “I love it that in this job you can be near your kids and take them with you anywhere,” she says. I’m filled with amazement. When I was at home with my baby, I wasn’t able to do anything that demanded brains. Melanie, instead, decided to be the first person who makes wine in nothern Germany.
Melanie’s grandparents founded the farm Ingenhof which is best known for their strawberries. The farm is situated in Malkwitz in Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state of Germany. Both the Baltic Sea and the North Sea are only a stone’s throw away as is the border of Denmark. North Germany is flat but the region around Malkwitz is known as “Holsteinische Schweiz” since the locals apparently saw a vague resemblance between their low rolling hills and the Swiss Alps. Melanie was born and raised here and she was prepared to take over her parent’s farm. But besides cultivating berries, running a cafe and a guest house she was eager to try something new.
Can you grow wine between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea?
A unique opportunity arose in 2008. Germany has strict wine laws and it hasn’t been possible to grow wine outside the 13 traditional quality wine regions. However, new EU regulations allowed wine growing also in the northern parts of Germany. The state of Schleswig-Holstein got rights for altogether 10 hectares and announced that everyone interested in starting a winery could apply for a permit. Melanie who always had an interest in wine jumped to the opportunity. Her family had an unplanted plot on a south-facing slope. Melanie had absolutely no experience of wine-making but she already had an agricultural business and means to start a new side project. Ingenhof was granted rights to grow wine in a 3-hectare area.
Before they could plant anything, they had to spend a hefty amount of money for paperwork. The soil had to be tested and they needed to order a climate report, which cost thousands of euros. Luckily the results were positive. Ingenhof’s soon-to-be vineyard was considered excellent for growing wines. Although the weather is cool and rainy due to the close proximity to the sea, Ingenhof’s vineyard has a particularly warm microclimate. Also, the stony soil helps to retain warmth. Growing season in the north may be shorter than in the south (ca. 3 weeks) but it is compensated by longer daylight hours in the summer.
Starting viticulture from the scratch
After Ingenhof’s application was accepted, everything happened swiftly. The first vines were planted in 2009 and already the next year they were able to harvest and produce their first wine. Lately, they make approximately 4000 litres of wine per hectare. Vintage variation is notable in these latitudes. You may have heard that 2015 was an outstanding vintage in Germany. It was a record-breaking hot summer – except in the north. While the rest of Germany was sweating, we were cursing rain and cold currents.
It requires a lot from a vine to survive in conditions significantly cooler and wetter than in southern parts of the country. The vintners in northern Europe rely on new grape varieties created on labs. They have proven to be resistant to frost and powdery mildew. Ingenhof’s main white grape is Solaris and red grape Regent. They also grow smaller amounts of Cabernet Cortis and Muscaris.
Being a wine pioneer in your area isn’ particularly easy. There’s nobody around to consult and the infrastructure could be better when you’re the only one making wine in a radius of hundreds of kilometres. Once they realised just before the harvest that they desperately need another tank. The clock was ticking, rain was coming in a few days and the harvest had to be finished by then. Luckily, through their contacts, they managed to get a tank from another part of the country, although it required quite a drive. Another time, Melanie and her staff were trying to fight the spring frost by lighting fires around the vineyard. It happened that the fire got out of control. Well, the frost didn’t cause damage that night but ever since they have been using sprinklers instead of fire.
No one is a prophet in his own land. Locals deemed Melanie’s new project utterly crazy. The first years, people were not interested in a winery in their neighbourhood. But tourists kept coming elsewhere from Germany and Denmark. Some wine shops in Northern Germany (Kiel, Bremen, Lübeck) took Ingenhof’s wine into their selection. Eventually, also the locals came to realise that Melanie’s wine business wasn’t a failure after all.
“People are often surprised when they taste our wines,” says Melanie. I have to agree. The dry Solaris 2015 was pretty much as I anticipated: light (11,5 ABV), crisp, rather neutral wine with a hint of citrus and stone fruits and racy acidity – even aggressive. Most visitors prefer Ingenhof’s off-dry Solaris (halbtrocken) over the dry one. The higher level of residual sugar balances the sharp acidity, and the result does not taste sweet. This is a pleasant white wine for sipping on a summer terrace. Ingenhof’s semi-sparkling wine Secco made out of Muscaris has the same level of residual sugar, but its taste profile is completely different: it oozes fragrant flowers and sweet spices. The real winner among Ingenhof’s Engel No1 wine series is their red wine Regent 2014. It is light (again 11,5 ABV), smooth and velvety, with notes of red fruits and berries and subtle oak. Served lightly chilled it is absolutely delightful light red wine.
Melanie has proven that it is possible to make simple but enjoyable wines in the northernmost province of Germany. There is no doubt that eventually others will follow her example and the concept Schleswig-Holsteinischer Wein will not be an oddity anymore.