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The best kept secret in wine?

text and photographs © 2008 Tom Cannavan

The tinny and distant beat of Radio Luxembourg was the background to my early childhood, as my older brother tuned-in his transistor radio in the 60s. But beyond the tunes of The Beatles and the voice of Tony Blackburn, there's not much I could have told you about Luxembourg until my recent visit - and certainly not about its wines.

This tiny, land-locked country of 999 square miles shares borders with Belgium, Germany and France. All of its vineyards are strung out along 26 miles of the river that is Luxembourg's border with Germany: this is where Germany's masculine Mosel finds its feminine side mid-stream, becoming Luxembourg's Moselle.

the vineyards

Seeing the Luxembourgish Moselle vineyards for the first time can only be described as a shock. There is a 2000-year-old tradition of winemaking here, and immaculate vineyards climb breathtaking slopes from the flower-filled villages that dot the wine route.
  

These are long-established, very contented vineyards, where family winegrowers have mapped every parcel over centuries. Their connection with their land and vines is equal to anyone in Burgundy.

the grapes

Though there is a lot of undistinguished Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling planted here to make basic wines, five noble varieties have a strong foothold: Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Riesling.


   A lot of this is grown for the sparkling wine industry, with many millions of bottles of Crémant de Luxembourg sold each year. But the very best, south-facing slopes of chalk, clay or slate over limestone, are reserved for much more serious table wines.

Left: first day of harvest 2007, in the village of Ahn.

the wine industry

How come then, that the wines of Luxembourg are such a secret? The answer is that Luxembourg has - so far at least - felt no pressure to export. Almost half a million people live here, and happily consume the bulk of production. And yet many winemakers that I spoke to are painfully aware of the suppressing effect this has on their industry: outside national boundaries, the wines of Luxembourg have no reputation. So the locals - who can drive to France or Germany in half an hour - will not pay French or German prices. The result? A bottle of finely-crafted Riesling can be picked up for three or four Euros.

Some producers are pushing the envelope in terms of quality. In particular, they are ignoring the high yield limits set by the authorities, and taking an altogether more serious approach. Legally, growers can harvest up to 140 hectolitres per hectare of grapes like Elbling and Rivaner, and up to 120hl/ha of Riesling, Pinot Gris and the other noble varieties. But the most serious growers are halving these levels, bringing in more concentrated juice from 60hl/ha.

the wine producers

There are only around 50 producers in Luxembourg, and all twelve producers that I visited offered wines with pristine clarity of fruit, excellent varietal character (blends are not allowed for still wines) and delightful balance. With their low prices these wines will find many fans.

Vinsmoselle

It is very easy to visit is the Vinsmoselle cooperative, which has no less than six main facilities at Greiveldange, Grevenmacher, Remerschen, Stadbredimus, Wellenstein and Wormeldange. With a vineyards surface of more than 800 hectares, Vinsmoselle produces two-thirds of Luxembourg's entire wine production, so thank goodness the quality is high. I particularly enjoyed all of the wines I tasted in the 'Art et Vin' series, and the excellent Poll-Fabaire Crémants shone too, my favourite of which was the Cuvée Millésimée vintage wine. There are tasting bars and shops at all cellars except Greiveldange.
  
for tasting notes on 12 wines from Vinsmoselle

Domaine Madame Aly Duhr

In the village of Ahn, Domaine Madame Aly Duhr is run today by winemaker Abi Duhr (right). Though the family has farmed here for 300 years, and has made wine since 1872, Abi has a restless, inquisitive mind, and is using fruit from some of Luxembourg's best slopes to fashion wines that are more complex and structured than many. His 2003 is the single truly world class Pinot Noir that I came across on this visit, and his Auxerrois 'Montée des Seigneurs', a late-harvest wine aged in older barriques, overflows with orange peel, blossom, spices and nutty vanilla.
  
for tasting notes on 8 wines from Domaine Madame Aly Duhr

Domaine Clos Mon Vieux Moulin

Just next door, Abi's distant cousin Jean Duhr also makes terrific wines. Here, 10th generation winemaker Jean was generous enough to open some really old bottles to show us how well these wines age - particularly Auxerrois, which I sense is a bit of a passion for him. We tasted all the way back to the 1959 Riesling Palmberg, still with terrific life and zest, proving the ageability of wines from the best lieux-dits of this region. Some of these mature wines are available from the cellar door, at very moderate prices.
  
for tasting notes on 11 wines from Clos Mon Vieux Moulin

Domaine Alice Hartmann

Arguably the greatest exponents of Riesling in Luxembourg, this estate has a vine growing area of 3.5 hectares surrounding their cellars in the village of Wormeldange. I met up with French-born estate manager André Klein (right) on top of the Koeppchen vineyard, perhaps the most famous terroir of the Grand Duchy. Koeppchen is a southern slope on a 55 degree incline, where Hartmann's 30 to 70-year-old vineyards are cropped at just 55hl/ha. These are Luxembourg's purest, most mineral Rieslings, especially from Les Terrasses de la Koeppchen.
  
for tasting notes on 6 wines from Domaine Alice Hartmann

Charles Decker

Winemaker Charles Decker's eponymous estate is another that combines a focus on quality with enough lateral thinking to step outside the traditional norms. Witness his intriguing range of sweet wines, both Vins de Glaces (ice wines) and Vins de Pailles (straw wines, made by drying grapes after harvest). His Pinot Gris Vin de Paille 2006 is delicious, with all sorts of tobacco, fudge and glacé fruit nuances. Decker's Crémant is also a beauty, a blend of 2003, 2004 and 2005 base wines that has a genuine yeasty autolysis, with plenty of nettly verve and vibrant lemon fruit.
  
for tasting notes on 5 wines from Charles Decker

Bernard-Massard

Most visitors to the region will end up in the cellars of Bernard-Massard in the village of Grevenmacher. Now producing over four million bottles annually, this company was founded in 1921 by Jean Bernard Massard, a Champagne cellarmaster, who came here to replicate the success of Champagne wines. The company now makes both still and sparkling wines, and owns the fine individual estates of Château de Schengen and Clos des Rochers. The quality here is very solid, with excellent wines under the 'Domaine et Tradition' label.
  
for tasting notes on 7 wines from Bernard-Massard

Gales (Caves St Martin)

Gales, whose most popular wines appear under the Caves St-Martin brand, is another huge player by Luxembourg standards. Their brand new Crémant facility is fully automated with gyro-palettes and robotised lines, but their cellar in the Moselle village of Remich has some of the few underground storage caves for its Crémant wines, hewn from the rock beneath the vineyards as in Champagne. Built in 1921, the caves stay at a constant 12 - 13 degrees year round and this attraction - plus a very good winery restaurant - means 30,000 annual visitors flock here. Right: Marc Gales in the Caves.
  
for tasting notes on 11 wines from Gales/Caves St Martin

Cep d'Or

Cep d'Or is a striking modernist winery designed by renowned Luxembourg architect Valentini, and owned by the Vesque family who have been winegrowers in Luxembourg since 1762 when they immigrated from Alsace. Johnny Vesque (right) led our little tour and tasting, in their visitor-friendly winery that includes shop, tasting bar, conference facilities and an art gallery. Like most producers in the region, both crémant and still wines are produced. Thirteen hectares of vineyard in various villages are owned by the estate, supplemented by five hectares under long-term contract.
  
for tasting notes on 13 wines from Cep d'Or

Caves Sunnen-Hoffmann

Founded in the village of Remerschen in 1872, the estate is today managed by Yves Sunnen (right). Yves says that the family philosophy has not changed for 140 years - "to produce wines that respect nature, always allowing them to reflect regional specificity and grape variety." We travelled up to one of their seven and a half hectares of vineyards whish is farmed biodynamically - the whole estate has been farmed organically since 2000 and they remain the only fully organic winery in Luxembourg. The Sunnens also run a 'ferme pédagogique', teaching schoolchildren about winemaking in Luxembourg.
  
for tasting notes on 13 wines from Sunnen-Hoffmann

Domaine Mathis Bastian

Domaine Mathis Bastian comprises 11.7 hectares of vines on chalky soils around the villages of Remich and Wellenstein. Quality is a watchword here, in another estate that puts respect for nature and regional winemaking traditions at the top of its agenda. Attention to detail includes every vat of wine being bottled under corks from three different suppliers, to try to minimise risks of a bad batch spoiling a wine. Mathis Bastian's daughter Anouk (right) is winemaker, and she showed me around the vineyards. Despite the stress of harvest going on around her, Anouk's calm, precise character is reflected in the wines.
  
for tasting notes on 13 wines from Domaine Mathis Bastian

Domaine A. Gloden & Fils

Operating from their Wellenstein base, tucked behind the giant Vinsmoselle cooperative cellars, the Gloden family has grown vines here since 1751. Tenth generation Claude Gloden (right) conducted our visit. Claude is a thoughtful and careful winemaker, who carries out a green harvest in his vineyard and picks late, to produce a range of lovely, commercial wines with some fine Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer as well as very sound portfolio of Riesling and Pinot Gris. The cellar combines stainless steel and some large, neutral foudres, and since 1994 the family has produced Crémant too.
  
for tasting notes on 7 wines from Domaine Gloden & Fils

Domaine Schumacher-Knepper

Frank Schumacher and his sister Martine Herrmann-Schumacher (right) can trace their vine-growing family roots back to 1714. Today, their 8.5 hectares close to the village of Wintrange grows the usual assortment of Luxembourgish varieties, to make crémant, dry and sweet wines, the latter being something of a speciality of this house. Their modern cellars in Wintrange are fully equipped with temperature- controlled, stainless steel fermentation tanks and modern equipment, yet they too stress their winemaking is essentially traditional.
  
for tasting notes on 5 wines from Schumacher-Knepper

conclusions

The wine country of Luxembourg is very easy to visit. Luxembourg airport is only 20 kilometres west, whilst Hahn airport in Germany is well-served by budget airlines, and is just a one hour drive away. Once there, you will find a beautiful, traditional landscape that is meticulously maintained, friendly people who speak French, German and invariably English, and a fine cuisine that has learned from both France and Germany.

For lovers of crisp, though often just off-dry white wines, Luxembourg is a dream - and a bargain-hunter's fantasy. The top Rieslings of Alice Hartmann will cost seven or eight Euros, whilst the best Crémants, like the vintage Poll-Fabair Cuvée Millésimée from Vinsmoselle, will set you back just 10 or 11.

A hidden gem - and a very happy hunting ground...