Mother Nature used her wintry palette to redefine Luxembourg in mere minutes, lacing its naked boughs and barren lawns with soft, tufted snow. This, too, is wine country.
This was the scene gently unfolding on the morning of Feb. 16 as I arrived by charter bus in the city of Luxembourg, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, with 15 other members of a European Union study group coming to hear a lecture by Koen Lenaerts, a distinguished judge in the Court of First Instance of the European Court of Justice. His lecture was predictably brilliant and no less so was the wine I enjoyed a few hours later at Caves Krier Freres, an outstanding fourth-generation winery (tel. +352 69-82-82/fax 69-80-98).
The capstone was Marc Krier, the fourth in an unbroken line of Krier Freres wine producers at this much-respected winery with roots dating back some 120 years. Krier Freres vinifies grapes, overwhelmingly white, grown on 54 hectares, 18 hectares of which it owns itself. This places it in the small-medium to medium category.
In addition to growing its own grapes, the winery buys them from about 50 vintners in this picturesque area, as much of a delight to behold clad in silvery snow as it is in the warmer seasons.
Winemaking has been practiced in the Moselle region, where Luxembourg is located, since Roman times some 2,000 years ago. Grapes here are the Riesling, pinot gris, pinot blanc, Auxerrois, Gewurztraminer, Rivaner, Elbling and pinot noir. All but the last are white wine grapes accounting for about 95 percent of the land under vine.
Rivaner (Riesling and Sylvaner, or Muller-Thurgau) is Luxembourg’s most widely grown grape variety. Elbling, grown in this region since Roman times, is likely the oldest. The pinot gris is believed to have originated from mutations of the pinot noir, and the pinot blanc from mutations of the pinot gris. Luxembourg wines are produced to demanding official standards under a system of appellation controllee (AOC) akin to France’s.
Unlike many other excellent wineries in this prestigious wine-producing region, Krier Freres lies not by the Moselle River but cozied back in the nearby hills with a commanding view of the river and beyond.
“The history and high quality of Krier wines inspire constant requests for tour-group visits,” says Marc Krier, “but since we want someone from the family to look after you personally, we accept at most at one time only a few serious wine lovers, not packs of tourists surging through, trying to cram everything into an hour.”
Fair enough. This is wine that deserves some time. Krier is among those who think more Luxembourgers should be enjoying the Grand Duchy’s own wine rather than certain costlier but not necessarily better imports.
“Luxembourg is too traditional, too disposed to drinking foreign wines at upscale restaurants,” said Krier. That’s ironic, for as he noted, “In Luxembourg officially 62 liters of wine is purchased per capita per annum, but only 18 liters per capita is bought each year by Luxembourgers. Belgians and Germans come in to buy good Luxembourg wine here at supermarkets and at gas stations along the border because of our very low taxes.”
This was noted also by Lucien Gretsch Feb. 16 in La Voix du Luxembourg, Luxembourg’s trilingual daily newspaper (French and German as well as the native Germanic dialect). Like most Luxembourgers, Marc Krier speaks all three of these and English as well.
So now you know. A good way to capitalize on the tax-free feature is to hop a train from Brussels to Luxembourg, a two-hour ride through the verdant, rolling Ardennes, and enjoy not only the wines of Luxembourg but also buying them at low-taxed prices. If you go by car, the gas is tax-free, too.
Most Krier Freres wines are sold as Grand Premier Crus, and many have scored very high in important competitions. Among those particularly enjoyed was the Cremant de Luxembourg, made with 50 percent Riesling, 30 percent Auxerrois and 20 percent pinot blanc grapes. This is a dry, very well balanced sparkling wine that could accompany almost any food, and Krier Freres is also one of only two wineries in all of Luxembourg to produce a cremant made entirely from pinot noir cremant, Luxembourg’s only red wine grape. (Under the law Luxembourg cremant may be made only from grapes grown in Luxembourg.)
Krier Freres is the first Luxembourg winery to make an ice wine (Eiswein), achieving this with the Riesling grape and scoring 18.5 out of 20 points, the highest score ever awarded, in a blind tasting by national experts.
If you see the cremants or a Krier Freres Riesling ’98 or Pinot Gris ’98, expect to be enormously pleased. The Riesling is acidic, as Riesling tends to be, and is crisply dry with vanilla and peach on the palate and something reminiscent of Brazil nuts on the nose. A good wine with food. Marc Krier noted about his pinot gris — round, fruity and strong — that “women love this wine because it has no disturbing acid.” I love this one, too.
A moderately priced hotel worth considering during your visit to Luxembourg is Hotel Campanile, near the city and not far from the winery. It has good amenities, comfortable rooms and generally good service from a pleasant if occasionally phlegmatic front desk. Its buffet breakfast (included) is quite good and its wine list attractive and affordable. The equivalent of about 1,000 yen covers a buffet dinner that would cost quadruple that price in Tokyo, and the equivalent of 700 yen buys a rather impressive patisserie buffet, both “all you can eat.” Luxembourg is the little country with a lot to do, and fortunately, a lot of good wine of its very own.