Size is everything for little growers spoiled by big harvests
MY first exposure to the wines of Luxembourg came several years ago courtesy of the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. It was a class of 13 wines. The first three or four were clearly late-picked, and I mentally plumped for Alsace Vendage Tardive Tokay d’Alsace (the Alsatian name for pinot gris) and gave silver-medal points. There was then an abrupt descent into a form of vinous hell, with thin, mean, flavourless wines with sharp acidity on the finish.
After three or so wines (given extremely low points), an awful thought occurred: perhaps the sweet wines had been served at the start of the class and what came next were dry pinot gris. So it turned out to be. Given my disaffection for pinot gris I put the episode behind me.
Several years later, I aman expert on the wines of Luxembourg, having been taken in tow by one of its foremost winemakers and having read what Jancis Robinson has to say in her Oxford Companion to Wine (not a great deal and not very complimentary) and an altogether more boisterous and detailed account by Tom Stevenson in Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.
They do agree on several points: Luxembourg has the same area of vines as England (1290ha in 2004) but produces 10 times as much, thanks to Luxembourg’s prodigious permitted yields (120 to 140 hectolitres or 20 tonnes a hectare) and a single bizarre appellation system (Moselle Luxembourgeoise) that, on a case by case, year by year system, may classify individual wines as vins classes, premier crus or grands premier crus.
The rating is given on the basis of a blind tasting of each wine and is not related to the vineyard or region from which it comes. If the wine scores 12 to 13.9 it achieves the basic appellation; from 14 to 15.9 vin classe; 16 to 17.9 premier cru; and 18 to 20 grand premier cru. The rating is a one-off affair, valid for only the vintage being tasted.
You may think that if 32 per cent of all wines submitted are declassified, the system is a tough one. But when you find that 8-8.5 baume is all that is required in ripeness, the rest provided by chaptalisation (the addition of sugar), and that acidification is also allowed (though seldom required) and, finally, that what critics from outside Luxembourg regard as of very high quality may be denied classification (they are not thin and weedy), it is not hard to see why a group of top growers have broken away to set their own standards in the same way as the Charta group in Germany.
The Domaine et Tradition group of seven winemakers has slashed yields by half and most have riesling as the core variety. (Overall it ranks third in Luxembourg after rivaner, the Austrian name for muller thurgau, and auxerrois, with pinot gris and pinot blanc as their second-quality strings.)
Domaine Madame Aly Duhr, with her sons Aby and Leon Duhr jointly in charge of viticulture and winemaking, is the most impressive of the Domaine et Tradition group and hence Luxembourg as a whole.
In 2005 Aby Duhr produced an array of high-quality rieslings ranging from spatlese equivalent through to beerenauslese. The 2005 Riesling Late Harvest (with 90g a litre of residual sugar) showed just why the terraced, south-facing vineyards running down to the Mosel River could be mistaken for a fine German MoselSaar-Ruwer wine. Ultra-intense, it has beautiful line, length and balance, picked at the end of November.
Tiny quantities of eiswein are made, too. Here regulations spring into serious life, specifying that the grapes can be picked only at minus 8C or colder, and once again are of international standard.
Clos de Rocher shares similar slopes with Aly Duhr, which with Domaine Gales and Domaine Mathis Bastian, makes age-worthy rieslings with character and clear varietal definition. But I have to admit one of the most impressive wines I tasted was a 2003 Clos du Paradis (a Duhr estate) bursting with fruit, great balance and intensity, causing me to write ‘‘ Superman pinot gris’’ as my closing words for the tasting note.
If the exceptionally warm and early vintages of recent years (including 2007) become the rule rather than the exception, we may see many more quality wines from Luxembourg. The only requirement is that the permitted yields need to be drastically reduced.