Some of Germany’s finest wines grow on the steep slopes of the Middle Rhine valley, and helicopters help to protect the precious plants.
High above the Rhine river, two men curse as they survey the gray clouds hanging low over the sloping hillsides. It’s six a.m. and a fine drizzle lends a dark gleam to the slate roofs of Oberwesel. One ship after the next plows its way upstream through the gray-brown waters and a constant flow of freight trains thunder along the valley. One of the men pulls out his smartphone to check the rain radar, but mist and fine drizzle block his view. “Damn nuisance, this filthy weather!,” he exclaims in disgust. Wolfgang Folger, 67, sports a gray pigtail and a beard. He is dressed in a black T-shirt, grubby work pants, unlaced old sneakers and a tan baseball cap. Sitting in the pilot’s seat, he’s the man of the moment. His two-seater Hiller UH12E helicopter turns over noisily in neutral; impatiently, Folger switches it off. Soon the smell of exhaust fumes and fuel evaporates. Two men on an enforced break.
In this weather, there’s no point in taking off because the crop spray won’t stay on the vines when they’re wet. The trouble is this: Folger is paid by the hectare, not by the hour. The vineyards on the Middle Rhine between Bingen and Bonn are some of the steepest in Germany. Some are so hard to reach that helicopters have to be brought in for crop protection purposes. This can be dangerous for the pilots and it’s expensive for the wine growers. But, conversely, if it weren’t for the helicopter, the continued existence of this ancient cultivated landscape would be threatened.
Defying the chill morning air in just a shirt and thin vest, the second man, Andreas Mollink, pushes back his ear muffs. “Now we have to wait,” he says. Mollink is the man on the ground, the person who deals with everyone wanting to know what’s going on here – and that means he’s busy, because the helicopter has image problems. The noise upsets people, and no matter how accurately the pilot stays on course, a little spray always lands beyond the vines. “After we’ve passed over, there are white spots on the leaves, and people think we’re spraying poison,” says Mollink. Yet the regulations in place for helicopters clearly rule this out. “It’s just crop protection products,” says Mollink, “to combat things like fungal diseases.” Today, they’re spraying microfine sulfur, a substance that is approved for organic wines and is harmless to bees. Come into contact with it and you may smell a bit, but it doesn’t do any harm.
On inclines of up to 80 percent, all the work has to be done by hand
The signs Mollink is putting up at this early hour sound ominous: “Spraying in progress in the vineyard – RISK OF DRIFTING – Keep out!” Not everyone stays calm when the chopper, its spray nozzles mounted beneath a 13-meter boom arm attached to the skids, flies just meters above the vines. But for Jörg Lanius, the whirring of the rotors puts him at ease. “I can get up in the morning knowing the work is already done,” says the vintner, pleased. He and his wife Anja run the Lanius-Knab winery. Spread out over around 470 hectares, the Middle Rhine region is the second-smallest wine-growing area in Germany. Riesling grapes are primarily cultivated here, which produce fine wines of world repute. The nine-hectare Lanius-Knab winery also produces some of the finest wines made with this grape – on inclines of up to 80 percent.
One of their best slopes is Oelsberg hill, where the vines grow between chunks of slate. The path downhill between the rows running perpendicular to the valley is slippery. After climbing back up the hill, my thighs are burning and my heart is pounding. “All the work has to be done by hand up here,” says Lanius, showing no sign at all of tiring. The helicopter cannot take care of everything and Lanius cannot send unskilled workers to do the rest. Someone – he, or a skilled employee – has to climb up here to do the spraying by hand, and that’s expensive. He is currently selling his best wine, the Oberweseler Oelsberg Riesling, Großes Gewächs, for 25.50 euros a bottle. If he did without the helicopter altogether, he would have to double the price of the wine, Lanius estimates.
Wines from steep sites are famous for being very difficult to produce. For example, to produce a fine wine, a vintner spends roughly 500 hours a year working a single hectare of level ground; in comparison, the Oelsberg terrain demands up to 1300 hours’ annual attention from Lanius. The main focus is on quality. In the old days, farmers planted vines on these meager slopes, reserving the fertile, level ground for vegetables or grain, since vines – like weeds – will grow anywhere. That’s how these unique landscapes came about beside rivers such as the Mosel, the Neckar and the Middle Rhine. Only later was it discovered that slopes were ideal for growing wine. Thanks to the incline, the sun’s rays reach the plants better and temperature control is more reliable. The poor soil is also an advantage: It forces the vines to grow their roots further into the ground, making them more resilient in dry weather. The grapes don’t get as big, but they are more aromatic. “Good wine has to suffer,” according to an old winegrowers’ saying, but more and more often, vineyards on steep slopes are lying fallow. Fewer and fewer vintners are willing to take on such backbreaking work. The winegrowers here share the helicopter, which costs between 250 and 350 euros for one hectare of crop. In the summer months, weather permitting, the helicopter sprays roughly every 10 days. That’s nine expensive flights per season.
Lanius needs the helicopter for two hectares, but generally, the helicopter is needed less and less. “These days, caterpillar vehicles can make it onto the slopes,” he says. That’s a cheaper option, also for Lanius. But there is no decent road leading to his vineyard, which is why he needs the helicopter. Drones aren’t a viable alternative, either. Experiments have been made, but so far the performance of the remote-controlled devices is no match for a chopper. If necessary, a pilot like Folger will cover 150 hectares in a day, something no drone could possibly manage. Nevertheless, Folger’s business in the vineyard is shrinking: Three years ago, he sprayed 26 hectares in and around Oberwesel, now it’s only 19.
Two hours later the drizzle has stopped and the vines are now dry enough for Folger to get started. He has 400 liters of water-diluted spray in his tanks. He takes off, comes back 20 minutes later, fills up and takes off again. Folger has been a pilot for a very long time; every move he makes looks unstudied and at the same time, precise. Time and again, he flies so close to the vines that he could run his fingers over them if he chose to. As well as working in the vineyards, he combats mosquitoes along the Upper Rhine, if demand dictates, or flies freight to the Alps. Here as there, the job is not easy. A problem can arise from something as seemingly trivial as a frightened bird suddenly taking flight. Not only that, the helicopters are heavily laden at takeoff and close to the ground. “If something goes wrong, you don’t have much time to react,” says Folger , taking a deep breath, but nothing’s ever gone wrong while he was spraying, he says.
Originally, he had wanted to do something completely different in life: become a graphic artist. But his father, a soldier, argued that it was too artistic a job for a man. Training to become a chef was a non-starter, so in the end, Folger joined the army. That was in 1971, and he has been flying ever since. He bought his first helicopter 38 years ago.
Around midday, the wet vines gleam in the few timid rays of sun piercing the clouds. Mollink’s phone rings every few minutes with queries from vintners wanting to know whether everything went OK despite the rain. His replies are always friendly, but he sighs after each call: “Would we have flown otherwise?” He looks over to the helicopter. Folger fills the fuel tank for his flight home. He touches his cap, climbs on board, fastens his seatbelt and buzzes away over the slopes of the Middle Rhine valley.