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“There was everything still to do, but the cellars were already vast!”

This year, Bernard-Massard is celebrating its centenary. These old photographs presented by its CEO, Antoine Clasen provide a window into the company’s past, which although firmly rooted in Grevenmacher, is also characterised by a strong focus on Belgium.

Can there be a more frustrating time for a centenary? Although Antoine Clasen would have preferred to celebrate this landmark anniversary in style, he is a pragmatist and has therefore taken this involuntary change of plans in his stride. “We decided not to organise any major events in 2021 and I doubt our guests will hold it against us if we postpone everything to next year,” he says. He has decided that things are precarious enough at the moment without adding any more uncertainty, which is no doubt a very wise move.

However, the Grevenmacher firm has not shelved all its plans, as a new Crémant de Luxembourg celebrating the company’s founding date has just been released. This “1921” cuvée blending Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and a hint of Pinot Gris joins a crémant range that already includes vintage Bernard-Massard, Thill’s and the Clos des Rochers crémants (brut, rosé, vintage and Cuvée Frédéric Clasen). 

The intention is for production of this commemorative fizz to continue after the centenary. “In 1971, we set up our flagship Cuvée de l’Écusson brand to celebrate Bernard-Massard’s fiftieth anniversary. This proved such a good idea that we have decided to take the same approach with this 1921,” smiles Antoine Clasen.

Another very high-end special cuvée is due to be released over the course of the year, this time as a limited series (barely 3,000 bottles). This Champagne-style blend of Chardonnay/Pinot Noir with the base wines fully matured in large wooden foudres holds great promise!

The release of this symbolic brand representing a landmark in the already long history of Bernard-Massard, a company set up in the aftermath of the First World War, provides the perfect excuse to go rummaging in the company’s extensive photographic archives. This immersion in a sepia past proves just how clear and ambitious the entrepreneurial vision set out by the estate’s founders (oenologist Jean Bernard and investors Bernard and Frédéric Clasen) was. From the outset, the plan was to aim high and export to Belgium. This strategy dictated by the geopolitics of the day paved the way to an international reputation that no previous Luxembourg producer had ever enjoyed.

“Here you can see the cellar being built in 1920 or 1921. Back then, the train ran along the Moselle and you can see carriages in the foreground. This photo is a good illustration of Bernard-Massard’s lofty ambitions from the moment the company was set up: they started with a blank canvas, there was everything still to do, but the cellars were already vast! From the outset, we were producing about 200,000 bottles a year.”

“Jean Bernard was the founder of Bernard-Massard. This oenologist from Luxembourg began his career in the Champagne region before returning to the Moselle firm in the belief that great sparkling wines could also be produced here. He assembled over 100 shareholders, including my ancestors Bernard and Frédéric Clasen (who were already vineyard owners) to set up the company. When Jean Bernard died in 1923, Bernard Clasen took over from him. My family still runs the company. I represent its fifth generation.”

“This photo shows the Bernard-Massard stand at the Brussels Fair in 1925. Our attendance of these major events from the moment the cellars were founded shows our determination to penetrate the Belgian market. At the time, just a few years after the First World War, the German Customs Union treaty (editor’s note: Zollverein) was repealed and Luxembourg turned to Belgium (the Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union treaty was signed in 1921), which Bernard-Massard was able to use to its advantage.”

“Here is our stand at a Brussels fair in the 1950s or 1960s. Right up to the early 1990s, Belgium was virtually the only place we exported to. These fairs were very important, much more so than they are today. There were no supermarkets back then and customers came to order their wine for the whole year. People in Luxembourg are perhaps not fully aware of just how famous Bernard-Massard is in Belgium. We are probably the only Luxembourgian producer whose reputation is just as good abroad as it is at home!”

“Vic Schuster, shown here in the 1960s, was one of two riddlers who worked in our cellars. By turning the bottles abruptly, he is detaching secondary fermentation residues (particularly dead yeast) from the glass and gradually guiding them to the bottle neck where they are ejected during disgorgement. An experienced riddler could riddle up to 30,000 bottles a day and at that time, we virtually only produced sparkling wines. In 1986, we invested in some gyropalettes that automate all this work. Bernard-Massard was one of Luxembourg’s first producers to get them.”

“Here, you can see our workers on the labelling line ready to put the bottles in boxes which are on the left. Obviously, the machinery has changed since the 1960s! The line is still in the same place though.”

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