To describe the Luxembourg wine industry as a ‘hidden gem’ might perhaps be one cliché too far, but there’s no doubt that the ancient and noble wine-producing history of this tiny, landlocked country is little known outside of its own borders.
The small, wine-producing village of Schengen lies in the southeast corner of Luxembourg. From here, one can take just three short steps to visit Germany, France and Luxembourg, for this is the tri-point where the three nations meet. It is also the town where the Schengen agreement was signed, more or less eliminating border controls between most EU countries. So Luxembourg lies at the very heart of Europe. Its population of 515,000 – of whom estimates suggest 25% are foreign nationals – is a rich one too, ranked fifth-richest in the world on GDP per capita. That’s 10 places above the US and 31 places above the UK, for example.
One of the reasons for the country’s lack of visibility in wine terms is simply that all those high-rolling inhabitants drink most of the quality production themselves. And of course the production is small, with around 1,300 ha planted to vine; in France, Alsace alone has around 15,000 ha planted. While there are obvious reasons for Luxembourg’s rarity on international wine lists, lack of quality is certainly not one of them.
Luxembourg’s vineyards, strung out along the Moselle River, are as beautifully sited and immaculately maintained as any in neighbouring France or Germany. There is a 2,000-year-old tradition of winemaking here, and vineyards climb breathtaking slopes from the flower-filled, riverside villages that dot the wine route. These are long-established domaines where family winegrowers have mapped every parcel over centuries. Their connection with the land is equal to anyone in the Moselle or Burgundy.
The vineyards lie literally a stone’s throw from Germany, along a 42-km strip of the Moselle’s left bank. But wine writer Tom Stevenson sees more parallels with the vineyards of 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.” Towards the north, dolomite limestone dominates the steep-sided valley, giving way to broader, gentler slopes in the south with its marl and clay soils.
Luxembourg is a cool winegrowing region, and to ensure ripe grapes at harvest time there are substantial plantings of the reliably ripening Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling varieties, generally going to make some of the cheaper cuvées. For the best producers, Riesling and Auxerrois are the prime focus, with Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and other aromatic white wine varieties found in most portfolios. Indeed white wine is massively dominant, though plantings of Pinot Noir have been increasing.
Only one appellation covers the entire national production, ‘Moselle Luxembourgeoise’. Wines must be made only from locally-grown grapes and meet a certain quality standard. In terms of quality classification, a tasting committee assesses every wine and may award them ‘Vin classé’, ‘Premier Cru’ or ‘Grand Premier Cru’ status, according to their tasting results.
Luxembourg’s best producers are seeking to express their specific terroirs, and with the palette of grape varieties, soils and slopes available to them, it is certainly possible to put a unique thumbprint on a wine. But in Luxembourg that begins with a drastic reduction in yields. Legally, a yield of 120 hL to 140 hL per ha is allowed depending on variety. Much cheap Elbling and Rivaner is still harvested at these elevated yields, but the best producers are planting, training and pruning very differently to cut yields by as much as half. That is key to producing wines not only of higher general quality and intensity, but wines that can express their terroir too.
One giant super-cooperative called Vinsmoselle accounts for 60% of the country’s entire production, but do not assume that the wines of Luxembourg are therefore a little mundane: there are still more than 60 independent estates bottling wines from sites which they farm with absolute diligence, and Vinsmoselle’s own portfolio includes some of the country’s best wines. Some are also amongst the most intriguing, like a €40.00 ($53.00) per 50cl Ice Wine, and a series of ‘Jongwënzer’ wines: so far there are four ‘Grand Premier Cru’ varietal wines in the series, each made by one of the company’s youngest vintners and marketed bearing their names.
Anouk Bastian of Mathis Bastian is typical of the independent, family domaines. A fourth-generation winegrower and producer, she cites the “clarity of fruit and freshness” of Luxembourg’s wines as their essential component. “I’m not interested in producing fashionable wines,” she says, “but I want to produce truly Luxembourg wines. I want to bring out the varietal character, the clarity of fruit, finesse and elegance and particularly, an incomparable filigree delicacy.”
It is that ‘filigree delicacy’ that marks the best wines of Luxembourg, especially those made from Riesling and Auxerrois. But it also marks the best examples of one of Luxembourg’s great success stories of recent times: Crémant.
Though the Crémant de Luxembourg appellation was created only in 1991, these traditional method sparkling wines now account for 15% of the country’s entire wine production, the growth encouraged by very healthy domestic sales. Vinsmoselle alone sells over 1m bottles per year of its Crémant Poll-Fabaire. The country’s diverse array of grape varieties are more or less all made in Crémant styles too.
The establishment of the Crémant de Luxembourg appellation in 1991 was part of a deal struck with Champagne not to use the term ‘méthode champenoise’ on Luxembourg sparkling wine labels. One interesting quirk arising from the deal is that Luxembourg’s Crémants are now judged alongside all of France’s – Crémant de Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Jura, etc – in the annual Concours des Crémants. And they normally do rather well.
At Domaine Viticole L&R Kox in the village of Remich, Crémant makes up 30% of their production, and two of their Crémants picked up gold medals in this year’s Concours. But Rita Kox is just one Luxembourg winemaker who is experimenting, and who clearly sees a job ahead in refining the country’s wine offering more and more. “We try to go further by continually proposing new wines or cuvées,” she says. “In 2012 a new interspecific (hybrid) grape variety, the Cabernet Blanc, was added to our offering.” Not to be confused with ‘blush’ Cabernet, the Cabernet Blanc is a recently developed cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and another hybrid variety that is resistant to disease and can hang on the vine late into the autumn – important in this cool region – and which has some of the aromatic and flavour properties of Sauvignon Blanc.
One very significant family producer, where half of their 300,000 L annual production is Crémant, is Caves Gales, whose most popular wines appear under the Caves St-Martin brand. Their ultra-modern Crémant facility is fully automated with gyro-palettes and robotised lines, while their ancient caves, hewn from the rock beneath the hillside in Remich, is a major visitor attraction, as is their very good winery restaurant just next door.
With four generations having run the company, Isabelle Gales says that: “Climate change is currently a topic of widespread debate. Although it may be to the detriment of so many, this phenomenon might well be to the advantage of Luxembourg: our Moselle Valley seems to benefit from the effects of climate change, the grapes combining richness and minerality.”
Most people will agree that it is too soon to predict the long-term effect of climate change, or indeed whether it is a genuine and predictable pattern, but spending time in the vineyards of the Luxembourgish Moselle does give a feeling of utter timelessness: it is a quiet, beautiful and very natural pastoral landscape, so it is no surprise to find that producers here are very sensitive to changes in climate. It is also no surprise to find that even here, in a northerly winegrowing outpost where rot and rain are always a threat, organic and biodynamic farming is taking hold. The highly regarded estate of Sunnen-Hoffmann, for example, has been farming organically for over a decade, and for the past two years has been experimenting with biodynamic practices, though it is as yet uncertified.
Owner Yves Sunnen is another winemaker who is seeking to create really distinctive expressions from his terroir, the recurring theme of so many here. “Working organically allows us to get more and more individuality in our wines, by focussing on our terroir,” he says. Like others here, he is also aware that the style pendulum has swung in his favour, away from the big, oaky Chardonnays of the 1990s. “The market is interested in fresh, fruity wines – and our price level is interesting for the customer.”
Indeed, the local price for Luxembourg’s wines might surprise: outside its national boundaries, the wines of Luxembourg have little or no reputation. So the locals – many of them foreign nationals with temporary residence (and all of whom can drive to France or Germany in half an hour) – are reluctant to pay the prices of the better-known French and German wines. The result? A bottle of finely-crafted Luxembourg Riesling can be picked up for €4.00 to €5.00.
No wonder most producers do see export as a goal, even though they realise global conditions are tough and they face stiff competition.
Time to trot out another cliché: ‘these are food wines.’ Though the term may be over-used, and sometimes as a polite euphemism for wines that are undrinkable on their own, in the case of Luxembourg’s wines it is invariably true. Of course there is a diversity of house styles, but the dry wines of Luxembourg could be summarised as fruity, elegant and crisp. That’s a recipe that makes for fine aperitif drinking, but also for broad food-matching appeal with fish, seafood, salads and with modern and lighter cuisines, including those with Japanese and Pacific Rim influences. There are late harvest styles too, that can work really well with Chinese and Thai dishes.
Perhaps the time really has come for the wines of Luxembourg to find a wider, international audience. Prices for the quality in the bottle are good, the general style really presses all of the current consumer buttons, and with their varietal-led labelling and general disposition to be dry and fresh, they are neither difficult to buy nor understand. Lately we have seen real open-mindedness among retailers, restaurateurs and consumers, with all sorts of niche wine-producing countries, from Croatia to Brazil and from Slovenia to Morocco, finding their moment in the sun.
Given the size of their industry and the thirsty local population, Luxembourg’s wines will remain niche, but as alternatives not only to Germany and Alsace, but to all of the world’s fresh and fruit-driven white wine and sparkling styles, they present a real opportunity for discovery.