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Luxembourg, the new Alsace

by Tom Stevenson

If you are fed up trying to find dry wine from Alsace, then why not try Luxembourg instead? I recently spent a week in that country's wine region, a disproportionately lengthy considering its low profile, but I was researching the next major revise of my Sotheby's encyclopedia (Dorling Kindersley, due September 2005) and was delightfully surprised by the large range of wonderfully fresh, deliciously dry wines on offer.

It was as if fate meant me to discover these hidden wines at the very moment it had become so difficult to find dry wines in Alsace. Most of the varieties grown in Luxembourg are the same as those found in Alsace, and the essentially dry style in which they are made fits beautifully into the niche currently being vacated by Alsace producers, as they make sweeter and sweeter wines. Should Vins Moselle Luxemborgeoise grab this slice of the market, and can maintain their relatively low prices, it will be almost impossible for Alsace to reclaim the lost ground.

The Grand Duchy grows Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Riesling, Gewürztraminer (with an umlaut) and Pinot Noir, all of which are produced as varietal wines. There is also a Crémant de Luxembourg to compete with Crémant d'Alsace. If Luxembourg's grape varieties are coincidentally similar to those of Alsace, then where they are grown is even more spooky - in a narrow band of vineyards running north to south along the country's eastern border with Germany. The Moselle has a direct influence on the vineyards, whereas in Alsace the Rhine does not. The wines of Alsace are often described as Rhine wines, but few visitors ever see the great river, since it is a good 20 kilometres from the nearest vineyards. In Luxembourg, however, the vineyards come within a stone's throw, literally, of the Moselle (which changes sex mid-river, where it becomes the German Mosel).

The vineyards

The AC Moselle Luxembourgoise is a 42-kilometre strip along the country's southeastern flank, where 1,300 hectares of vines grow on the left-bank of the Moselle river. Vines are not allowed to be planted anywhere else, thus this is Luxembourg's one and only appellation (Crémant de Luxembourg being a designation within AC Moselle Luxembourgoise). The vineyards are scattered around 28 towns and villages, from Wasserbillig in the north, to Schengen in the south. This viticultural area is the mirror image of the German Bereiche of Obermosel and Moseltor, which are situated on the right bank. Luxembourg's vineyards are best observed from the German side, as the river bends north and south. From the German side, the height and incline of Luxembourg's vineyards are easier to discern.

These vineyards are at their narrowest in the northern half of Luxembourg's Moselle valley, where the dolomite limestone subsoil has resisted erosion, leaving a narrower valley with steeper slopes. More than 400 hectares of Luxembourg's vines are grown on slopes in excess of a 30% incline, and most of these are found on the dolomite slopes north of Remich.

 

This pinkish-brown bedrock can be seen overhanging the old Caves St. Martin - now owned by the firm of Gales - which were carved out of the dolomite in 1919-1921.

Going south from Remich, the soil becomes more marly and clayey, which is much softer, consequently erosion has widened the valley, facilitating the growth of vines on a broader patchwork of gently, rolling hills. It has been said that the wines in the south are soft, mellow and best drunk young, whereas those in the north are crisper, and finer, requiring more time in bottle, but my tastings did not support this notion. If yields averaged one-third of their current 120 hectolitres per hectare, then provenance might become a major factor in determining two contrasting styles of wine, but the differences that currently exist are most likely due to specific yields and the stylistic preference of individual growers.

Luxembourg's grape varieties
Based on 2002 statistics

Variety
Rivaner
Auxerrois
Riesling
Pinot Gris
Elbling
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Noir
Gewürztraminer
Chardonnay
Others
Total
Hectares
411.62
171.31
169.08
166.68
143.03
136.96
81.67
14.35
11.77
2.62
13,09.11
% of vines
31.4%
13.1%
12.9%
12.7%
10.9%
10.5%
6.2%
1.1%
0.9%
0.2%
100.0%
hl/ha
140.44
120.55
97.62
98.80
144.98
119.57
90.42
72.72
95.94
12.08
121.25
Hectolitres
57,424
19,397
16,376
15,686
20,834
15,744
6,532
925
922
32
153,872
% of wines
37.32%
12.61%
10.64%
10.19%
13.54%
10.23%
4.25%
0.60%
0.60%
0.02%
100.00%

Rivaner
Minimum natural ripeness (2003): 57° Oechsle (7%ABV). Maximum yield:140hlha. Aka Müller-Thurgau. Although this ubiquitous grape accounts for almost one-third of all the vines growing in Luxembourg today, it is definitely on the decline. Twenty years ago every other bottle of wine produced in the Grand Duchy was made from Rivaner. This grape is grown at very high yields (140hl/ha) and turned into a sweetish, Liebfraumilch-type wine, making it Luxembourg's least interesting variety, but one that enjoys high-volume sales. Rivaner prices are low, and the popularity of this style of wine extends beyond the domestic market to Belgium, where it accounts for more than half of the global exports of Vins Moselle Luxemborgeoise. As long as the cultivated area of this variety continues to decline, there seems little point in getting high-minded about its yield. It will eventually bottom-out, and lowering yield will hardly produce a noticeably finer quality of Liebfraumilch style wine.

Auxerrois
Minimum natural ripeness (2003): 63° Oechsle (8%ABV). Maximum yield:120hlha. One of Luxembourg's most successful grape varieties, which is nothing short of amazing considering that its yield is second only to the rampant Rivaner! Yet Auxerrois ranks with the best you can find in the Haut-Rhin. Some producers leave a little residual sugar in these wines, but essentially they are light, dry and delicious to drink. Reducing yields has not produced significantly better Auxerre in Alsace, so Luxembourg can carry on churning it out at 120hl/ha as far as I'm concerned.

Riesling
Minimum natural ripeness (2003): 63° Oechsle (8%ABV). Maximum yield:120hlha. This is Luxembourg's finest potential wine, but most Riesling growers should be put against the wall and shot. In such a northern, Atlantic-influenced area, it is sheer idiocy to average almost 100hl/ha. It is widely understood that Riesling can be successfully cultivated only on fully south-facing sites in Luxembourg, yet the growers throw away the potential of the country's greatest sites by squeezing every last drop from the vines. They should be aiming for 12-13% ABV without chaptalisation, but they are averaging barely 9%. It's madness, they cannot rely on every year being a heat-wave like 2003. Luxembourg Riesling is dry, and if some are surprisingly good, it should not be taken as vindication of such ridiculously high yields. If all Riesling vines grown on the best slopes of Luxembourg's finest lieux-dits were cropped at a maximum of 35hl/ha, this country would have an international reputation for some very special wines indeed. Riesling is tailor-made for Luxembourg: it adores cold October nights and is the only grape that can continue ripening at 12ºC (Pinot and Gewürztraminer stop at 18ºC). A few specialists are producing excellent wines at reduced yields, but even they need to crop lower and, unlike Alsace, there is no danger inducing such overripe grapes that the wines will become sweet.

Pinot Gris
Minimum natural ripeness (2003): 63° Oechsle (8%ABV). Maximum yield:120hlha. Luxembourg's Pinot Gris has none of the spice found in Alsace, and is simply a slightly richer, equally delicious version of Pinot Blanc - everything Italy's Pinot Grigio should be, yet seldom is. It is probably impossible for Pinot Gris to ripen sufficiently in Luxembourg's climate to create enough terpenes in the grape's skin for these to develop into spicy bottle-aromas. If some growers want to try lowering crop levels in certain terroirs, there is nothing stopping them, but this variety is successful enough as it is, thus what is there to gain from generally reducing yields, other than lowering profits?

Elbling
Minimum natural ripeness (2003): 57° Oechsle (7%ABV). Maximum yield:140hlha. Traditionally grown as low-quality, low-tax fodder for Germany's Sekt industry, Elbling typically provides a neutral-flavoured, high-acid wine. At the beginning of this trip, I thought it might be interesting to look out for the odd wine made from low-yield Elbling, but gave up when it became patently clear that no such thing exists!

Pinot Blanc
Minimum natural ripeness (2003): 63° Oechsle (8%ABV). Maximum yield:120hlha. The crystal-clear, refreshing, light, dry and fruity entry-level wine for any half-serious Luxembourg wine drinker. The sooner that plantings of Rivaner and Elbling are reduced to statistically insignificant numbers, the sooner that Auxerrois will be the entry level wine for all consumers, and the better Luxembourg's wine reputation will be.

A little potted history
Luxembourg derives it name from Lucilinburhuc ("Little Fortress"), which is Saxon for a defensive position built by the Romans on a rocky promontory around which the city was destined to grow. Luxembourg became an independent entity when the castle was purchased by Siegfried, the Count of Ardennes, whose descendants enlarged the lands by conquests, treaties, marriages, and inheritances. It did not become a formalised domaine until 1060, when Siegfried's great-grandson, Conrad I, declared himself to be the first Count of Luxembourg.

The county became a duchy in 1354 by dictate of Charles IV, the Holy Roman emperor. By 1443 Elizabeth of Görlitz, the Duchess of Luxembourg, had been forced to cede the duchy to Burgundy, which itself shortly afterwards was passed on to the Habsburgs. This was the beginning of 400 years of tortured sovereignty. Following the division of the Habsburg territories in 1556, the duchy came under Spanish rule. In the revolt of the Low Countries against Philip II of Spain, Luxembourg took no part, remaining with the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium). The duchy was conquered by France between 1679 and 1684, but was returned to Spain in 1697 under the terms of the Treaties of Rijswijk, then passed back from the Spanish to the Austrian Habsburgs by the treaties of Utrecht and Rastatt (1713-14). However, in 1795, Luxembourg once again came under French rule, but this ended with the fall of Napoléon in 1814. The future of Luxembourg was decided at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when it was raised in status to a grand duchy, and given to William I, Prince of Orange-Nassau and King of the Netherlands. Its position at this time was unclear, since it had the legal standing of an independent state, yet was united with The Netherlands as a personal possession of William I. It was also part of the German Confederation, with a Prussian military garrison housed in the capital city.

In 1831, after the Belgian revolution against William, the Great Powers (France, Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria) allotted the French-speaking part of the duchy to Belgium, while William retained the Luxembourgian-speaking part. The grand duchy was administered autonomously from The Netherlands until 1867, when its perpetual neutrality was guaranteed by the Great Powers, which vested its sovereignty in the house of Nassau.

And now...
Abdication seems to run in Luxembourg's royal family. In 1964, Grand Duke Jean succeeded his mother when she abdicated, and in 2000 Jean stepped down in favour of his oldest son, Henri. There appears to a genuine affection for the Grand Duke amongst his people, who regard him as a cross between a favourite uncle and chairman of Luxembourg Plc. Most people in Luxembourg are bi- or trilingual, speaking Luxemburgish and either French or German, or all three. Luxemburgish (aka Luxemborgeoise, Letzeburgisch or Letzebuergesch) is an old Moselle-Franconian dialect that is spoken exclusively in Luxembourg, enriched over the years by many French words and phrases. From an outsider's perspective, the oddest linguistic divide is that while French is the language commonly used in government and the courts, most newspapers are published in German.

Pinot Noir
Minimum natural ripeness (2003): 63° Oechsle (8%ABV). Maximum yield:120hlha. The clones planted are 115 and 114, which are good, but also 375, which is not (overcropper, low quality, poor varietal character). I tasted nothing interesting from 2002, which was a riper than normal vintages. The wines have a certain sour-cherry varietal character, but lack fruit, structure, finesse and complexity. If nothing special is produced from the 2003 vintage, then they should give up Pinot Noir as a red varietal wine (although it would make a useful sparkling wine component). It's just too far north to ripen properly. Even Alsace struggles to get this grape right (with the exception of Deiss's world-class Burlenberg).

Gewürztraminer
Minimum natural ripeness (2003): 63° Oechsle (8%ABV). Maximum yield:120hlha. This grape is not as abundant as it is in Alsace, and it lacks the gravitas and broader notes found in the latter region's truly classic examples. The significantly lower level of ripeness reduces the availability of spice-laden terpenes, while its lower alcohol content (3-4%ABV lower) gives an entirely different, much lighter, less viscous, mouthfeel. If anyone in Luxembourg is really serious about this grape, it must be grown on the very best, south-facing sites that have been traditionally reserved for Riesling, with yields halved, and harvested as late as possible.

Chardonnay
Minimum natural ripeness (2003): 63° Oechsle (8%ABV). Maximum yield:120hlha. The clones planted (96 and 95) are good for both still and sparkling wines, although 96 fares better at the latter. Everyone who had this variety told me that their Chardonnay had been planted for sparkling wine, yet they all just happened to be making a still wine from it, none which was any better than a Belgian Chardonnay (Clermont, Genoels-Elderen etc). A certain warmth is required to make premium quality Chardonnay, and Luxembourg just does not have this on any regular basis. If decent quality still Chardonnay is extremely rare in Champagne, what chance has Luxembourg?

Others grape varieties
Minimum natural ripeness (2003): 63° Oechsle (8%ABV). Maximum yield:120hlha. Gamay did not impress me, although the three only Muscats made in Luxembourg demonstrated that it might be worth persevering with, especially Charles Decker's Muscat Ottonel (deliciously creamy 2001, and evocatively strawberry 1997).

Other wines

Crémant de Luxembourg
Maximum yield:120hlha. This was created as part of the deal with Champagne not to use the term méthode champenoise, and curiously gets lumped in with French Crémant appellations (Alsace, Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Die, Jura, Limoux, Loire and Luxembourg) at the annual Concours des Crémants.

Most Crémant de Luxembourg encountered outside the country is boring, but the general standard is much higher. The style is fresh, soft and elegant, with good acids providing a crisp, fruity finish.

Although there is no attempt to replicate Champagne, "real" Champagne was in fact produced here by Mercier from 1886 up to almost the beginning of the Second World War.

During this time, Mercier was known as "Champagne Mercier, Epernay-Luxembourg", and both establishments were famous for being completely powered by electricity. Champagne Mercier was located close to the railway station in Luxembourg city 's, and the road is called Rue Mercier to this day.

Vendange Tardive, Vin de Glace, and Vin de Paille
Maximum yield:120hlha. The authorised varieties are:

Vendanges Tardives (VT)
Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer.

 


Vin de Glace/Äiswäin (VG)
Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Riesling

Vin de Paille (VP)
Auxerrois, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Gewürztraminer.

The minimum ripeness levels expressed in Oechsle are:

Variety
Riesling
Auxerrois
Pinot blanc
Pinot gris
Gewürztraminer
VT
95°
105°
105°
105°
105°
VG
120°
-
120°
120°
-
VP
-
130°
130°
130°
130°

A number of interesting wines have been made in these three styles, although high VA has spoiled some Vins de Glace and Vins de Paille. Although 95° Oechsle is much too low for any true late-harvest character to emerge from a Riesling Vendange Tardive, hopefully the mere process of trying to achieve this level of ripeness (13%ABV) without chaptalisation (forbidden for all three styles) will make some growers realise just how superior and expressive dry Riesling - not sweet - can be if only yields are cut so that 90-95° Oechsle would become commonplace.

The boring image of Luxembourg wines
Luxembourg's wines were a curiosity in the UK in the early 1980s, but they never gave the slightest hint of taking off. For a start, the only brand that was available was Bernard Massard, whose fizz lacked freshness and elegance, while the only still wine shipped, a Pinot Blanc, was dull and boring. I suspect that the wines were not like this when they left the Grand Duchy, but after arriving in the UK, and hanging around because few consumers could be tempted, they probably tired. I suspect this because Bernard Massard used to be imported by a group of independents, including Eldridge Pope, when its wine buyer was Joe Naughalty, a Master of Wine whose palate I had learned to respect, tasting with him on an annual basis. Joe was always enthusiastic about the "delicious freshness" of Luxembourg wines. It was just a pity he could not shift them quicker, and it's an even greater pity that it has taken me 20 years to follow up his interest in any depth.

But why did the wines tire so quickly? Why did they not travel well? One factor was, I think, is the remembrement, a reorganisation of the vineyards similar to the Flurbereinigung in Germany. The remembrement started in Wormeldange in 1970, and by the early-1980s was in full swing, consequently a large proportion of the vines would be less than five years old at any time. Young vines that far north and dangerously overcropped: little wonder the wines were less than hardy!

Today, however, overcropping is Luxembourg's biggest quality problem.

Yielding to demand
If this country's best wines are to be recognised on export markets, then the yield of its classic varieties must be reduced. Not by 10 or 15 per cent, but by between one-third and one-half. For Elbling and Rivaner, it is the level of plantation, not yield, that must be reduced. These low-quality varieties account for 40% of all the vines growing in Luxembourg, which translates into more than 50% of the harvest, due to its yield exceeding 160 hl/ha. This reflects badly on the country's wine reputation, but reducing yields will not turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, thus growers might as well make as much money out of these two vines before grubbing up.

Cru cut above the rest?
There is just one appellation, Moselle Luxembourgoise, and all the wines under this appellation must carry a state controlled Marque Nationale mini-label. To get the Marque Nationale, wines are submitted to the Institut Viti-Vinicole (IVV) for chemical analysis and blind tasting test. To obtain the basic Marque Nationale Appellation Contrôlée, a wine must score between 12 and 13.9 points out of 20 from the board of tasters. Any wine achieving less than 12 points is declassified into vin de table.

This basic Marque Nationale appellation is open to all varieties and styles of wine, but it is the highest level that the lowly Elbling, noble Pinot Noir, and Crémant de Luxembourg may aspire to. If a Rivaner scores 14-15.9 points, it is designated as a Vin Classé, but that is the highest this grape may aspire to. For all other varieties, if a wine scores 16-17.9 points it is classified as a Premier Cru, while a wine scoring 18-20 points will be Grand Premier Cru.

The use of the term "cru" is, of course, irrational in this context. Some very ordinary Premiers Crus, and other wines denied the basic appellation because they do not fit the IVV's idea of typicity is clear evidence that the scoring should be tightened-up, and a certain flexibility allowed to encourage innovation and progress. But before that is attempted, the terminology must change. Particularly if the meteorologically-based classification of the lieux-dits is to proceed (see below), and not to move forward on that would hamper Luxembourg's chances of becoming accepted as a world class wine-producing country.

Changing the terminology could be as simple as changing Premier Cru to Premier Vin Classé, and Grand Premier Cru to Grand Premier Vin Classé, both of which would neatly fit next to Vin Classé. I would also suggest opening up all categories to all wines. Why not? It's doubtful that an Elbling could realistically score more than 13.9 or a Rivaner more than 15.9, but if one did, why should it be denied due merit? And it might even prove useful when grubbing up these two grapes, should it demonstrate a few special places where Elbling and Rivaner deserve to survive.

Luxembourg's non-Luxembourg wines
Crémant de Luxembourg must, of course, be made exclusively from grapes grown within the appellation Moselle Luxembourgoise, but any wines labelled Vin Mousseux, Vin Pétillant, Perlwein, or sold as "boissons effervescents à base de vin" may be blended from imported grapes, juice or wine.

So, is Luxembourg the new Alsace?
Not entirely or, at least, not yet. Luxembourg has nothing to compare with Trimbach's Clos Ste-Hûne or, with the exception of a tiny, recent, and relatively untested production of Vendange Tardive, Vin de Glace, and Vin de Pailles, Luxembourg does not any the truly great wines to compare with the best of Alsace. However, if it does not have the highs of Alsace, it also does not have the lows of badly made wines. There is a general competence amongst Luxembourg's winemakers, within which there is a small handful of producers who are trying to go further.

All in all, the Grand Duchy offers a fairly large range of refreshingly easy to drink, fine quality, varietal wines made in the dry style that Alsace used to be so famous for. During my visits, I tasted in excess of 350 wines, of which 148 are recommended in part II. Considering that a large number of those excluded were acceptably fresh and fruity, I think this confirms my general impression of consistency.

It takes a rebel like Decker or a Riesling specialist like Hartmann to stand out, but in so doing, they sometimes veer from the consistent, and the competent, creating as many lows as highs. But that's how progress is made. I'd like to see more Deckers pushing the envelope, and although no longer owned by the Hartmann family, that domaine's concept of specialising is legacy that should give growers and négociants pause for thought.

Why should producers feel obliged to make every varietal wine going? The Anglo Saxon phrase "Jack of all trades, but master of none" springs to mind (even more so in Alsace). If a domaine grows the variety best suited to its soil and exposition, the producer will develop a reputation for specialising that should enable him or her to charge a premium over regular bottlings produced by those who do not specialise.

go to part II - the wine villages, and ratings for 148 wines