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Grape harvest: second helpings at the Bernard-Massard estate

The prestigious Grevenmacher estate was the first to send out its harvesters. As early as Wednesday 11 September, seasonal workers were wielding their secateurs on the “Fels”, a very fine terroir overlooking the medieval town. They were tasked with an initial sweep through the vineyards to harvest grapes for crémants.

As well as producing wines under its own name, Bernard-Massard also makes Clos des Rochers and Château de Schengen (Thill estate), both of which are majority-owned by the business owners, the Clasen family. All eyes are on these 40 hectares cultivated using sustainable farming methods (no glyphosate has been used here for 20 years).

As early as Wednesday 11 September, Bernard-Massard CEO, Antoine Clasen confirmed that harvesters had been hired “on the Fels in Grevenmacher for an initial harvest of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, which will be used to make crémant.” No one has ever begun work so early on the Moselle, so this was a truly early start. “If the grapes are sufficiently ripe, why wait?” asks Antoine Clasen. “Grapes used for crémant must not be too sweet. We were among the first to start work last year, so this year too, we wanted to start at what we believed to be the optimal time. With global warming, we can no longer rely on our old habits and must work with what we observe.”

This wasn’t even really the first harvest: “We usually do some green harvesting (editor’s note: a technique whereby unripe clusters are removed leaving the best, more concentrated clusters), but this year it mainly entailed removing sunburnt grapes, especially on the Fells which was badly affected. So, since we don’t want bad grapes to introduce deviant flavours into the press, we eliminated them from the outset,” explains the Bernard-Massard CEO.

A few days later, on Friday 20 September, eight harvesters were out on the slopes of Steilberg near Schwebsange on the southern Moselle. Peter Kohl (aged 39), manager of the Bernard-Massard estates, was their guide on this terroir adjacent to Felsberg, one of the finest wine-growing areas in Luxembourg. “As we do everywhere else, today we are performing an initial harvest of Pinot Blanc grapes that will be part of the blend used for the Château de Schengen crémant,” he explains.

Clos des Rochers and Château de Schengen are real gems and we do our utmost to ensure that these wines are perfect

This distinction between grapes used for crémant and those used for still wines is important, as different things are required of the grapes. “At the moment, this Pinot Blanc is between 78 and 83° Oechsle (editor’s note: a unit expressing sugar content), which is ideal for crémant,” stresses Peter Kohl. The base wines must not be too sweet since the structure of sparkling wines is based on acidity and a sweet expedition liqueur is added during bottling to initiate the second fermentation, generating bubbles. “For still wine, on the other hand, it takes the grapes a little longer to reach optimal ripeness,” adds the estate manager.

These first days of harvesting are by no means easy for the harvesters. Not only do they have to work at a brisk pace, but they must also decide at a glance which clusters to harvest and which ones to leave. Moreover, it is essential that they check the grapes’ state of health: “As soon as rot takes hold of a grape cluster, the affected grapes must be removed to prevent them from contaminating the rest. It is warm today, so botrytis (editor’s note: botrytis is the fungus that causes noble rot) will not develop, but if it starts to rain, things will get trickier,” says Peter Kohl. These proved to be prophetic words, as a little while later, the heavens opened on the Moselle, with rain lasting several days. Another point in favour of a timely start to harvesting is that you can only be sure of a good harvest once the grapes are in the cellar!

This year, with grapes ripening at different rates, it has been necessary to harvest the same vines several times. However, this is standard practice at Bernard-Massard: “this year was business as usual for us – we perform green harvesting followed by two harvests every year,” states Antoine Clasen. Clos des Rochers and Château de Schengen are real gems and we do our utmost to ensure that these wines are perfect. However, it is true that several harvests of each vine were a genuine necessity this year if we wanted to harvest anything decent.”

Several days later on Saturday 21 September, the harvesters were already picking Pinot Grigio grapes used to make still wine. “They are already 100° Oechsle, which is high!” smiles Antoine Clasen. This proves that the grapes ripened much more quickly in late summer than had been anticipated. In late August, producers were planning on starting the harvest around 23 September. Wine-growers have therefore had to be on their toes right up to the finishing line in another year that has shattered many conventions and put an end to many preconceptions.

Bernard-Massard and Thill – over three decades of shared history

Bernard-Massard has owned the Thill estate since 1986. When wine-grower Carlo Thill retired without any heirs, he offered to sell all his land to Antoine’s father, Hubert Clasen, on the condition that the grapes grown on it would be used to make wines whose labels would still bear the name of this estate set up almost a century earlier. Hubert Clasen was more than happy to grant this request as he knew Carlo Thill well and Thill was also a close family friend of Freddy Sinner, the technical director of Bernard-Massard at the time.

Since many of the parcels in the Thill estate were originally purchased from the former owners of Schengen Castle, the label still includes a drawing of that majestic structure sketched by Victor Hugo, who stayed there in 1871 after he had been expelled from France for his outspoken criticism of the repression of the Paris Commune.

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