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Wine from...Luxembourg?
By W. Blake Gray
May 31, 2011
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Most of you will never taste a wine from Luxembourg.

The country has just 3100 acres of vines, about the same as Wente Vineyards or J.  Lohr.  And the natives have an insatiable thirst:  Luxembourg ranks second in the world in per-capita consumption, at more than 54 liters/year, about 6 times the per-capita consumption of the United States.  (Who's first?  Vatican City, of course.  Praise the Lord and pass the Chianti.)

Before I went to Luxembourg, I thought the combination of limited product and a thirsty, wealthy market would combine to create high prices and a cult-wine scene.  I was so wrong.  Most of the varietal wines I saw cost less than $10 US, and their makers were apologetic for charging so much.  I didn't see a single wine that sold for as much as $30 US.

As a result, I'm ready to proclaim Luxembourg Pinot Gris and Riesling some of the best values in Europe, though you may have to go to the country to get them.

The fact that Luxembourg makes some fine Riesling isn't surprising when you look at a map.  Practically every vineyard in the country is within sight of the Moselle River (that's how they spell it on the Luxembourg side), with Germany's Saar region just a long disc-throw away.  In fact, at one Luxembourg winery I visited, Cep d'Or, from where we sat on the 2nd floor you couldn't actually see Luxembourg outside; you could only see Germany.

What was initially surprising to me was that, despite the quality of the Riesling and Pinot Gris, the country has banded together to market Crémant (sparkling wine) as its main attraction. 

Only 15% of the wine made in Luxembourg is Crémant.  And frankly, most of it isn't very good compared to nearby Crémant de Bourgogne.  They make Crémant in Luxembourg from Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, and a host of other inferior bubbly grapes because the country is a little too far north to have much Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

I had been wondering, after being handed one pamphlet after another about Crémant while the superb Pinot Gris -- lively, full of character in the Alsatian way but lighter in body -- was ignored.  Then, in that tasting room overlooking Germany, I understood. 

Under the Schengen no-internal-checkpoint agreement, Germans drive across a bridge to shop in Luxembourg where clothes and petrol and wine are cheaper.  They're not going to go from Saar to Luxembourg to buy Riesling, even if it is good.  They're probably not interested in Pinot Gris because German Pinot Gris is coming along.  But German Sekt is still usually a sweet afterthought, so Luxembourg wineries are trying to make Crémant their tourism draw.

It's the latest of about 100 years of questionable decisions for Luxembourg wine country.  The main one was a concentration for many years on producing cheap bulk wines -- weird when you consider how little vineyard space there is, and how wealthy people are.  That's the reason locals are reluctant to spend $20 for one of their nation's better wines.

On my last night in Luxembourg, I went to a charity dinner at a posh private club for millionaires.  Four celebrity German chefs came to cook their best dishes; three own 3 Michelin-star restaurants, while the 4th must have been the butt of jokes because he has only 2 Michelin stars.  Normally I couldn't get into this kind of place as a busboy, but I was invited by the winemaker who was donating the wine, so lucky me.

I got to talking to the woman next to me about this wine price conundrum.  Why wouldn't people spend more for their country's best wines, as we do in the US?  She said she was used to drinking Elbling and Rivaner, two highly productive, low-cost varieties, and she resented local wineries for trying to get fancy when an everyday quaff was what she grew up enjoying.  The irony of the setting … you get it, right?

A legacy of focusing on bulk production has more obstacles than the minds of consumers.  Most, maybe all, of the vineyards used now are the same ones used for bulk production; they may have been grafted over from Rivaner (aka Müller-Thurgau, a cross between Riesling and Sylvaner) to Riesling, but the soil is the same.  I didn't see anything like the blue slate vineyards, almost devoid of dirt, that make Germany's Mosel Rieslings so special.  I'm no farmer, but it did seem that the areas immediately around every vineyard I saw had high-growing, healthy looking green plants, presumably a sign of fertile soils:  Great if you want to make a lot of wine, not so much if you want to make a great wine.

But there are some good ones.  As I said, the Pinot Gris is world-class.  The Rieslings aren't quite as good as wines across the river, but I like Riesling more than Pinot Gris so I liked them better as a group.  About 97% of the wine in Luxembourg is white (including Crémant); let's just not talk about the other 3%.

One interesting thing about Luxembourg's wine industry is that groups of wineries have banded together to issue separate wines under one label.  The oldest group, formed more than 20 years ago, is called Domaine et Tradition; there's another about 2 years old called Charta Schengen Prestige.  Members of the group make their wine separately, but to use the group label -- which lists the winery's name in the same size letters as a vineyard, and thus is confusing before you grasp the concept -- every member of the group must approve the wine.  The advantage of this is that these wines sell for $21, a huge premium, because of the implied quality check.

This kind of group would quickly fall apart in the US and most of Europe, but Luxembourg is THE country of agreement and cooperation; it's where the Euro was conceived, along with the no-borders agreement.  Wine labels are in French but the style of referring to the wines -- village first, then vineyard -- is German.  And I liked the group concept.  At the Luxembourg airport, they didn't have any of the wines I had most liked, but they did have some Domaine et Tradition Rieslings, and I bought a couple, laying out a cool $42.  The woman at the counter, hearing my American accent, pointed out that I could buy other, cheaper Luxembourg wines.  Maybe that's why I'm not a millionaire and they are.