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Yves Sunnen’s unusual gems

2018 was an outstanding year, which Yves Sunnen (Caves Sunnen-Hoffmann in Remerschen) realised sufficiently early to adapt his winemaking methods for certain wines. This led him to create a new collection, aptly christened Insolite (French for “unusual”), which, among other things features a Pinot Gris that’s … red!

 

There are times (usually just a few years in a century) when wine-growing becomes a minor miracle. Yves Sunnen, who always works closely with his organically cultivated vines near Remerschen, was quick to sense that the 2018 harvest would be exceptional. “The conditions couldn’t have been better, with an unprecedented response from the vines,” he explains. However, ideal conditions did not mean he could take it easy: “a lot of work was required to support the vines,” he reminisces. “On some parcels, we turned the soil manually as the machines did not do a sufficiently good job. This was essential for getting water to the vines.”

Week after week, he observed extraordinary development. It was reminiscent of the heatwave of 2003, although this time he was armed with experience. “I made mistakes in 2003 that I managed not to repeat in 2018,” he smiles. 

As harvest time drew nearer, Yves Sunnen increasingly wondered how to make the most of what nature was offering him. The idea then struck of isolating the cream of the crop and working tirelessly with a completely open mind. “This inspiration was manifested in a new brand that we named Insolite,” he explains. These wines were produced as a very small series with no appellation. In the end, there were four wines in the first batch of Insolites, which were all interesting in their own unique ways. 

Yves Sunnen selected his Muscat Ottonel grapes for special attention. The ten-year-old vines planted on Hommelsberg (Wintrange) were so productive that year that the winemaker decided to sacrifice half of them in late August: “the vine stocks were overloaded and their growth was perilously impeded by a lack of rain.” This resulted in an extremely small yield of approximately 25 hectolitres per hectare.

Some of the grapes (50 kg) were entirely destalked by hand

In the cellar, the grapes were crushed (without being destalked) before macerating for three to four hours “to retain their fruitiness”. Fermentation occurred spontaneously (prompted by yeasts naturally present on the grapes and in the air) so minimal intervention was required in the cellar. “The quality of a wine is 100% attributable to the vines,” asserts Luxembourg’s first organic winemaker. “All the work carried out in the cellar affects the quality and my aim is to support rather than tamper with this.” The end result is a thoroughly original wine with a high level of purity. Its light finish exhibits great finesse.

The fact it is made with Cabernet Blanc grapes also comes as a surprise. Normally, this variety selected for its resistance to diseases produces a simple wine, often with peppery aromas. That’s not at all the case here! The vines are planted on Felsberg in Wintrange on 45° slopes that are inaccessible to tractors. In the heat of the action, Yves Sunnen admits that this parcel slipped his mind during harvesting. “I’d intended to leave the grapes to ripen longer than usual … but perhaps not as long as I eventually did! This Cabernet Blanc was the last to be picked.” 

At 110 degrees Oechsle, it was very rich and the winemaker opted to use a 300-litre barrel as a more effective means of tempering its character. The wood blends in elegantly, with an unexpected dash of gooseberry aromas. This is a great wine made with a grape variety that one would not expect to scale such heights!

2018 was also a very special year for Pinot Gris, which always laps up all the available sun, thus ramping up the sugar levels! “The main issue was identifying ways of cultivating grapes with a potential volume of 15% ABV,” acknowledges Yves Sunnen, a man who is never short of solutions. He struck on two particularly original ones.

With grapes from a parcel of Schwebsange Kolteschberg, he took a punt on a method that he had never used before. Some of the grapes (50 kg) were entirely destalked by hand: “it took four of us three hours!” The rest were crushed, macerated and pressed for three to four hours. The grapes were placed in an empty vat, marking the start of spontaneous fermentation. Pre-pressed must was added later. This method offers the advantage of intracellular fermentation (i.e. occurring in intact grapes) enabling a high level of freshness to be retained: “three months later, 95% of the grapes in the vat were still intact”. 

I didn’t think twice about the colour and only noticed it after two weeks of fermentation.

This Pinot Gris is unlike any other produced in 2018. Its alcohol is fully integrated and its style is both fruity and elegant. “I laid a few bottles down to see how it develops,” the winemaker reveals, confident that it will age well. 

His second Insolite Pinot Gris is even more unconventional – this one is red! “I harvested it at 115 degrees Oechsle without any signs of rot,” beams Yves Sunnen. The grape clusters were macerated and fermented after crushing, complete with skin and stalks. The aim was to produce highly structured wine. At first, I didn’t think twice about the colour and only noticed it after two weeks of fermentation. I thought: ‘Wow! That’s not what I was trying to achieve, but it’s interesting all the same!’” The grapes were never pressed to prevent loading the wine with tannins. The free-run juice flowed naturally and the rest (approximately 80%) was disposed of.

This unusual wine is rich with a precise, dense yet slender structure. It defies convention and demonstrates that an audacious experiment can be successful! 

As a winemaker, Yves Sunnen is always on the ball, which enabled him to ask new questions in response the exceptional harvest of 2018. Not content to stick to old routines, he adapted his methods to make the most of his vines’ character. For him, the most gratifying aspect is that he can now enjoy the fruits of his labour: “Having been involved in organic farming for 18 years and biodynamic farming for 10 years, I am now beginning to reap the benefits.” After all, an appreciation of passing time is part and parcel of being a winemaker…

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