Size is ev­ery­thing for lit­tle grow­ers spoiled by big har­vests

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.

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