Pinot Noirs from the king’s chamber

This year, Jeff Konsbrück (Winery Jeff Konsbrück in Ahn), was one of the first winemakers to start harvesting. He opted not to over-ripen his grapes and make the most of the last days of good weather in September. In hindsight, it was not an unwise decision…

The grape harvest is now under way on the estate of Jeff Konsbrück, one of the youngest winemakers on the Luxembourg Moselle. He runs one of Luxembourg’s newest cellars, Winery Jeff Konsbrück. This fine modern building boasts a rather magical view of the Palmberg, one of the country’s top lieux-dits. Outside, the weather is still fine. It’s warm too when the sun cuts through the night-time chill. This provides ideal conditions for both harvesters and winemakers, with hour after hour of heat during the day and mild nights enabling the grapes to expand their aromatic range.

Today, the click of secateurs will be heard a little way from the river in Niederdonven. This vineyard is slightly set back from the Moselle, but runs parallel to it. Its exposure (south-east) is just as good as on the river and the soil very similar. This is the northern stretch of the Luxembourg Moselle, with clay-limestone soil. “It’s very similar to the soil in Palmberg,” Jeff points out.

The aim of this preliminary harvest is to pick grapes used to make crémant. His aim is not to over-ripen the grapes, as fizz tends to take off during its second fermentation in the bottle. Indeed, fermentation is all about the conversion of sugar into alcohol. Therefore, if the grapes are very sweet, the crémant will be even sweeter, which is not the outcome sought. Fizz must be fresh and light, characteristics that are incompatible with excessive alcohol by volume.

The vineyard where all the action is taking place this fine morning is planted with Pinot Noir. It is located at the southern tip of this wine-growing area, overlooking the little Baachwéngerten (which translates as “vineyard brook”), running through the picturesque village of Niederdonven. The vine stocks are still not very thick, and for good reason: “they were planted in 2015,” explains the winemaker. Previously, Elbling grew on its fine, fully south-facing slopes. “When I took over the estate from my father (editor’s note – in November 2012), I decided I needed to change grape varieties here. I grubbed up the Elbling and replaced it with Pinot Noir, which I vinify as rosé. It is used in the blend for my crémants.”

There are big differences in terms of ripeness – it’s quite striking.

These white and rosé crémants produced by the estate are rather eccentrically named “Kinnekskummer”. This word has several meanings and can be translated either as “king’s chamber” or “king’s misgiving”. “I asked a friend who is a historian, but he couldn’t find any records explaining the meaning of this name,” he says regretfully. Nevertheless, it was worth rescuing from the mists of time due to its novelty and air of mystery: “since all the grapes I use to make my crémants come from this lieu-dit, I decided to give them that name!”

Once accustomed to the gradient, harvesting is quite plain sailing today. The grape clusters look good and are perfectly healthy, the sign of a warm summer. Admittedly, the grapes aren’t very large, as the dry spell that has lasted since March and the blazing heat of August slowed the berries’ growth. However, the rather large number of grape clusters compensates for the fact that the grapes are somewhat short on juice. “It will take about a kilo of grapes to make a bottle, which is a good ratio,” explains Jeff Konsbrück.

However, not all the vines were as easy to cultivate as those in Kinnekskummer. “They are always slightly delayed compared to others. Flowering occurred a few days later, which was a good thing, as the conditions were better. The grapes have therefore ripened more consistently than elsewhere,” explains Jeff Konsbrück. The very first days of harvesting have largely been used to perform large-scale sorting, with insufficiently ripe grape clusters discarded. “There are big differences in terms of ripeness – it’s quite striking. You can see it within the same parcel or even the same vine stock and sometimes even within the same grape cluster, with one side ripe and the other almost green!”

In most cases, these green grape clusters are written off. Nothing can be done with them. “There’s no point in keeping them, as they wouldn’t have had time to ripen,” murmurs Jeff. In some cases though, it’s not the end of the road. “In a parcel of Gewürztraminer, the least ripe grape clusters were already sweet,” explains Jeff Konsbrück. “I vinified them to find out what would happen and achieved some very good results! I had the idea of making a cuvée of Gewürztraminer crémant and maybe I’ll give it a try. But it might also be useful to incorporate this wine in the Gewürztraminers that I harvest at full ripeness. This will add a little more acidity and freshness.” 

Winemakers are like orchestra conductors – they must strike the right balance in their cuvées, just as a conductor would with the various instruments, so that in the end, they achieve the most harmonious and sensuous possible melody. However, there’s no room for luck if you’re seeking to achieve optimal results. Perseverance and extreme attention to detail are necessary to eliminate all the wrong notes.

Caution, Covid...

Winemakers have had to adapt to the public health crisis to avoid any disasters – one case of Covid means the whole team has to self-isolate, spelling serious disruption to the harvest … 14 people (including two full-time workers) work the vines on Jeff Konsbrück’s estate. “I know them very well as they come back every year,” says the winemaker. “They’re actually from the same family as my employee and his wife, who are Polish. They all live in the same village.” 

As planned, they were all tested three days before the start of the grape harvest and all tested negative, which provided some initial relief! The rules are displayed in the trailer used for breaks, so that no one forgets them. In terms of equipment, disposable gloves (sugar from the grapes sticks to fingers and secateurs) must be disposed of immediately, and each harvester has a dedicated pair of secateurs that must not be shared. Work is performed in pairs that remain unchanged throughout the period, social distancing must be strictly maintained, and face-to-face contact is prohibited. 

Lunch always takes place in the old vaulted cellar in the family home in the heart of the village of Ahn. “But instead of sitting around a large table as we normally would, we have three smaller ones and everyone keeps to the same seats.” There are no particular problems with accommodation as the seasonal workers sleep in this house where four large bedrooms are provided for them. 

As for hand sanitising gel, it’s already second nature here: “Three years ago, one of the harvesters caught standard flu and we were all ill … since then, I always provide hand sanitiser gel and people use it!”  

In the end, common sense and a little discipline prevailed, so there was no need to revolutionise things. And everything turned out well.


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