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The Markusberg Gets a New Lease of Life

It’s spring and the time has come to plant the vines. In Schengen, on the Markusberg, Frank Keyser (Domaine Keyser-Kohll by Kohll-Reuland) has decided to invest in Chardonnay, a grape variety perfectly suited to this terroir and one he’ll be able to use in many different ways (still wine, crémant, cuvée blends, etc.).

On Tuesday 4 June, the sun is beating down over the three borders. The timing is good as it’s vital that the surface of the ground is thoroughly dry before the young plants are put in the soil. Nowadays, this planting is mostly mechanised. Three employees from Carlo Faber’s vine nursery, based in Wellenstein, are working on the tractor which is going backwards and forwards across the hillside. At the steering wheel, the driver follows a straight path as he marks out even spaces from the top to the bottom of the plot. His two colleagues are seated on the trailer facing the other way. One is loading metal stakes and the other the very young vines. At regular intervals, a wheel drives them into the furrow that has just been ploughed. “It’s far quicker than in our parents’ day!” laughs Frank Keyser, who doesn’t take his eyes off the tractor. To plant 25 ares (2,500 square metres) takes no more than an hour and a half.

However, although planting the vines might not take long, everything had to be carefully thought out well in advance because this replanting will have an impact on the estate for decades to come. First, the old rows had to be pulled up, not a decision to be taken lightly. “The last time was in Ehnen, on the Rousemen, three years ago,” the winemaker recalls.

There may be different reasons for replanting. “I had a Rivaner that had been planted in 1982 and six rows of slightly younger Pinot Gris, planted by my father, but they just didn’t work for me.” It’s not practical having several grape varieties on a modest plot, especially when the family estate is 20 km away in Ehnen. Most importantly, Rivaner offers less added value than Chardonnay. The decision was taken: “At the end of the grape harvest I had made my mind up and as I had seasonal workers there I used them to pull everything up.”

Yes, but to plant what? There’s a wealth of varietals in the Moselle. “I opted for Chardonnay. I can keep it as a still wine, include it in my crémant and even in my cuvées [blended still wines].” Although Chardonnay had been decided upon, the right clone still had to be chosen and there are dozens of them! “I left that up to Carlo, he selected one for me with fruity aromas which is exactly what I need.”

First harvest in 2023

Next, the density of seedlings per hectare had to be worked out as this information will influence the quality of the future wine. Density is calculated based on the gap between the vinestocks on the same line and by the space left between each row. Keyser has gone for an eighty centimetre space for each seedling in the same row. “This is ideal for single Guyot pruning [a single stem bearing the fruit]. The shoot climbs better, and with eight to ten buds it stops just at the level of the next vine. With a one-metre gap, you’d need to train the shoot higher, have more buds and therefore more fruit, which isn’t the point. A gap of this size will allow the foliage to spread out nicely. And since it’s the leaves which produce the sugar in the grapes, this is useful.”

As for the space between the rows, that’s determined by the width of the tractor that will be used in the vineyard: “With 1.90m, it will just get through!” This means that the plot’s density will be close to 6,000 vines per hectare.

However, all these calculations will only come to fruition on the ground if the plot is perfectly straight. And obviously this is never the case. So the actual shape of the plot has to be played around with – and planting vines also becomes a geometry lesson! On the Markusberg, they’ve had to be clever. Since the ground spreads out more at the foot of the hillside, simply marking out straight lines from top to bottom would not have made the best use of all the available surface area (which will also affect the density). So the nurserymen planted two small rows down below and then reverted to a single row going up to the forest which overlooks the vineyard.

Now that the tractor has gone, it’s up to Frank Keyser to plant the metal posts which will support the two metal wires upon which the vine stems will grow. Since the stocks are only ten or so centimetres high, there’s no immediate hurry, but it will have to be done before the end of the year.

The winegrower now has to wait for this new vineyard to grow and by law he can only make wine from the grapes after three years. “However, to harvest them so early they’ll need to grow quickly. With a little luck, that might happen. But I’m banking more on having my first harvest in 2023,” he qualifies. And he’ll have to wait another ten years or so for these vines to reach full maturity and produce grapes that will best demonstrate the characteristics of this lovely terroir.

Satellites to the rescue

There’s nothing haphazard about the way vines are planted – serious thought is given to everything. Before starting out, a GPS interface has to be installed which sends the exact layout of the ground to be planted to a computer on-board the tractor. This means that when the tractor is in motion, the computer system guides the driver with great accuracy giving the direction to follow as rows are made for the young vines. Thank to these new technologies, a huge amount of time is saved and the best possible use is made of the area based on what the winegrower wants.

However, although there have been significant advances in the tools used today when compared to the not-too-distant past, despite having these new tools the challenges still remain fundamentally the same. “In days gone by, our forebears were extremely careful not to waste a single square metre or damage a single vine!” Frank Keyser says with a smile. “Nowadays, it’s just that all this work is done much more quickly and is far less laborious.”

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