Climbing out of Ahrweiler, a charming medieval village just south of Bonn, the path ascends at such an ominous gradient that my legs are jelly by half way and my lungs begging for oxygen. Hardly the thrill-seeking type, you could assume I would be a little out of place were it not for the particular flora that clings precariously to the sides of these ancient volcanic hills.
Indeed, I'm in wine country, amidst the staggering mountainous vines of the Ahr Valley in western-central Germany. I've certainly come looking for thrills, but of the more gastronomic persuasion: namely, the enigmatic grape variety known as the Frühburgunder.
While found sporadically in other parts of Germany and France but only ever perfected here in the Ahr Valley, the Frühburgunder is a first cousin of the iconic and beloved Spätburgunder, otherwise known as Pinot Noir.
The pinot noir of the Ahr Valley is legendary. Labels such as Meyer-Näkel, Deutzerhof and Jean Stodden are now commanding the type of hysterical response (and eye-watering prices) in the wine world that are usually reserved exclusively for the grand crus of Burgundy, situated around five hours southwest of here.
But with some 530 hectares of vines producing around 4.5 million bottles of wine per year (including other varieties such as Riesling), it's not so easy to get your hands on a bottle - which only adds to the intrigue.
Perhaps no variety of wine is shrouded in as much mystique as the Frühburgunder, an early-ripening mutation of the pinot noir, which has a personality and flavor of its own.
I first came across Pinot Madeleine - or Pinot Noir Précoce, as it's also known - around a decade ago while touring the fabled cellars of Burgundy. After an off-the-cuff remark from a winemaker in Chambolle-Musigny about various mutations of Pinot Noir amongst his vines, I enquired further only to be brusquely informed: "It is Pinot Noir - there are perhaps hundreds of varieties of the Pinot Noir, but they are all still Pinot Noir."
The winemakers in the Ahr Valley would most certainly disagree.
Heard it through the grape vine
It was a wine merchant in Berlin who first informed me that this peculiar variety was alive and well and living in the Ahr Valley, under the pseudonym Frühburgunder. There may still be debate as to whether the Frühburgunder is a natural mutation or simply the result of centuries of selective human cultivation of Pinot Noir, but in the Ahr Valley the Frühburgunder most certainly stands alone from its notorious cousin - from the vine to the bottle.
"If Pinot Noir is a distinguished gentleman, then the Frühburgunder is an elegant lady," the Berlin wine merchant said as he spruiked a bottle of Winzergenossenschaft Mayschoss-Altenahr's 2009 Goldkapsel. The wine was exquisite, espousing familiar Pinot Noir traits such as an intense berry bouquet, but still immediately distinctive from the standard German Pinot by its milder acidity, its deep and concentrated color and more subtle tannins.
"It's not just an elegant lady," Brigitta Stodden tells me at her family's cellar in the tiny Ahr Valley village of Rech, "It's a diva. The Spätburgunder has more red fruits and the Frühburgunder has more dark fruits, but sweet dark fruits. But the Frühburgunder is much more difficult to manage. It's both vulnerable and stubborn."
Jean Stodden is one of the most awarded labels in the Ahr Valley, and was pivotal in the wine revolution that so dramatically took place here in the 1980s, witnessing a concerted shift away from the mass-produced, residual-sugared, sub-quality wines of old.
Today the Ahr Valley has a reputation for impeccable quality, where contemporary practices, such as bunch thinning and cooler fermentation aided by ice and refrigeration, stand alongside centuries-old traditions like arduously handpicking the grapes from the precarious slopes.
The results are complex wines that are both dry and sophisticated, and underwritten by a characteristic minerality that comes directly from the nearby slate mountains - the Ahr's own distinctive terroir.
Following the death of his respected and influential father Gerhard in January, Alexander Stodden has since taken over the family winery, which has been in operation since 1900. Although he is currently producing just one single-vineyard Frühburgunder, he agrees that it's a fickle but rewarding variety.
"It is a very difficult grape, but it's a good match to the Pinot Noir," he says, removing a bottle of the 2010 vintage from the cellar. "It's a nice grape to have, but you have to do a lot more work, and Pinot is already a grape variety that needs a lot of attention."
Reaping the harvest
A thick-skinned variety with a peculiarly small and dark berry, the Frühburgunder is notoriously low-yielding, meaning less bang-for-your-buck and more labor-intensive vineyard management. It's also early ripening, which means greater susceptibility to botrytis - an anathema to modern winemakers in the region. Plus, being the first vine to fruit, it's also the first to be mobbed by hungry predators and honey bees. It is little surprise, then, that entire crops can be wiped out in a bad year.
It was for these very reasons that the variety was almost declared extinct by the 1970s, as winemakers ripped up the fickle vine to make way for higher-yielding, more robust grapes like Portugieser, Dornfelder and Riesling. However, by the 1980s, Frühburgunder's stocks were on the rise again. Rescued from oblivion, vines were slowly replanted as winemakers realized its potential amidst an emerging global Pinot Noir renaissance.
The Kreuzberg family winery, situated opposite the meandering Ahr River in Dernau, is largely responsible for the variety's rehabilitation, and in 2011 winemaker Ludwig Kreuzberg was awarded Collection of the Year at the German Wine Awards.
Kreuzberg regards the Frühburgunder with equal, or perhaps even greater, admiration as the Pinot Noir, partly because it was his father's favorite variety, but also because he has proved how noble the wine can be when brought to its full potential.
"The wine is smoother, and maybe a little more elegant than Pinot Noir," he says, pouring a glass of his highly prized 2011 B Goldkapsel. "The Pinot Noir is also very elegant, but perhaps not as elegant as the Frühburgunder."
With just 0.9 hectares of Frühburgunder producing on average 4,000 bottles per year, Kreuzberg's Frühburgunder is extremely in demand, with most immediately selling out on release and ending up in the cellars of savvy private collectors.
"I am not sure if they thought I was mad," Kreuzberg says of his fellow Ahr winemakers when he first began replanting Frühburgunder in 1981. "They were a little bit astonished. But then years later we started to have success, so they quickly changed their mind."
All of the major producers in the Ahr Valley - the most northern predominantly red wine region in the world, with nearly 83 percent of all grapes red varieties - now produce Frühburgunder, with around 37 hectares spread across the volcanic soils of this dramatic region. So popular is the variety that the region now hosts a biennial Frühburgunder Forum to better educate both the public and winemakers about this unique variety.
As a sudden storm sets in, I retreat down the slated slopes to a small wine tavern in the picturesque village of Altenahr, and order a glass of the fabled drop. The waiter returns with a carafe, its contents' deep and sensual color unmistakable. He places it on the table and whispers, "So you've discovered our little secret?" I most certainly have.