Henri Ruppert’s cellar, the wave that suddenly appears above Schengen on the Markusberg hillside, is one of the Luxembourg Moselle valley’s icons. And this makes perfect sense since its owner is also one of the most interesting winegrowers working in the Grand Duchy’s vineyards.
Today Henri Ruppert is one of the standard-bearers for winemaking in Luxembourg. Not only do his wines enjoy a fine reputation, but his cellar – built in 2008, designed by the architect François Valentiny and which stands majestically overlooking the three borders at Schengen – has become a landmark for the area. Everything would seem to point to Henri Ruppert being an established dignitary, a winemaker who typically inherited an estate with a long-established name. However, Ruppert has quite a different story. In 1984, when his father made him take over the family’s three hectares, it wasn’t tears of joy that were flowing down the cheeks of the 15-year-old adolescent he was then. Let’s rewind a little.
Back then, the Ruppert family was already involved with liquid, but of a different sort: petrol. Henri’s father had been running a petrol station on the outskirts of the village since the 1960s. “Wine was just a sideline, we had three hectares, planted mostly with Elbling and Rivaner,” Ruppert recalls. “My father used to sell wine ‘en vrac’, i.e. people would come with bottles to fill up. The vats were in the petrol station.” So not the stuff of dreams.
As a pupil, Henri Ruppert idled his time away because school simply wasn’t up his street. “I wasn’t the stupidest boy in the village, but school just didn’t inspire me,” he explains. “Fairly early on, it became obvious that going to a standard sixth form wasn’t right for me.” This didn’t go down at all well with his father, who wondered what he was going to do with his son and Henri had no clear idea about his future. Then one day, in 1984, he was dealt a severe blow: “My father said to me: ‘You’ll stay at home and look after the wine estate’.”
“Back then wine was a completely different beast; customers just didn’t appreciate it in the same way […]. In social circles, working as a winegrower was not seen as being of any great value…”
Rather than being a gift, for the young boy this actually felt like a punishment. “I cried..,” he whispers. “Back then wine was a completely different beast; customers just didn’t appreciate it in the same way and all we were aiming to do was sell our wine in bistros. In social circles, working as a winegrower was not seen as being of any great value…” The work was hard, the estate didn’t have much of a reputation and the choice hadn’t been his: with this background and feeling traumatized, the stirrings of a vocation didn’t come easily.
Without having chosen this path, Ruppert ended up spending three years learning the ropes on Herbert Oberbillig’s estate in Trier. “I learnt a great deal about Riesling and the influence soil brings to bear, even if in the Luxembourg Moselle valley we don’t have the schist that they do.” As an apprentice, he used to take the train morning and evening over to the other side of the river to Trier. “My season ticket cost me 120 marks and I used to earn 137: just enough to buy a vinyl record from time to time!” he laughs. On summer evenings, he would go straight from the station to the family’s vines.
That same year, Ruppert experienced a revelation: “While visiting the Witwe Thanisch estate (in Bernkastel, on the German side of the Moselle), I tasted a fantastic Riesling which sent shivers down my spine. I’ve only experienced this sensation twice; the second time was with another Riesling from the Zind-Humbrecht estate (in Alsace).” This was how contrary to all expectations, Ruppert decided that his vocation was indeed to be a winemaker. Working the vines was now no longer simply a calling, he also realized that it could be exciting.
“I wanted to stand out from the crowd.”
The following year took him to Bad Kreuznach (on the River Nahe, in Rheinland-Pfalz) where he got his Wine Technician Certificate. “I learnt to be organised and manage things on my own,” Henri Ruppert recalls. He loved his new work so much that he wanted to apply to work in Canada for a year. “When I told my father about the vacancy, he replied: ‘No problem, but when you get back I’ll have sold all the vines’.” The casus belli was quickly settled, he didn’t send off his application.
By 1990, it was time for Henri Ruppert to take over the family estate. He already knew that he wanted to change everything. Being a mediocre winemaker was out of the question: “I wanted to stand out from the crowd.” At the outset, he was hampered by having a limited area and rather low-end vines. Since he couldn’t dig everything up all at once, he made do with what he had but implemented new methods. “To improve quality, I decided to work through the vines several times when harvesting, so that only perfectly ripe grapes were picked.”
A revolution also took place in the cellar where the plastic vats were replaced by stainless steel ones. In the very first year Henri Ruppert bought a large filter to remove the deposit from must. “Previously, we always had problems getting clear, pure wines,” he explains. “Thanks to this filter, which I still have, the quality of the wine we produce has increased enormously.”
The next goal was to increase the estate’s surface area; however, when you’re starting out nothing is straightforward. Vines were not cheap, “surprisingly, a hectare back then went for the same price as it does today,” he recalls. The estate grew in size, but without going mad.
“This cellar was the best thing I ever did. When I had it built, it was obviously too large and this shocked quite a few peoples. However, today, I’m once again running out of space.”
When the new cellar was built in 2008 this marked a major milestone. With his new site, Henri Ruppert now had the infrastructure to allow him to move up a few notches. Eleven years ago, when the cellar was opened, his estate covered 6.5 hectares whereas today he works almost twenty hectares! Within ten or so years, the size of his estate has tripled while his turnover has quadrupled. “This cellar was the best thing I ever did. When I had it built, it was obviously too large and this shocked quite a few people,” he states. “However, today, I’m once again running out of space and thinking about investing in a new warehouse.”
Now, as he is about to turn 50, there is no doubt that Henri Ruppert’s gamble has paid off and that he “stands out from the crowd”. His wines are among the very finest produced in Luxembourg and are also highly valued well beyond the country’s borders: as far away as China and Japan where they are exported. Over time, his attachment has become more intense and his taste for Rieslings a real passion. He reveres this grape variety and is proud to work with it on four different terroirs (see box). “Why plant Chardonnay when it’s all over the place? I firmly believe in limiting yourself to the few grape varieties – Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir – which are able to produce better wines here than elsewhere.”
And come to think of it, Pinot Noir is one of the varieties he is really keen on at the moment. One of Ruppert’s current priorities is to have more control over the barrels and the part they play, by carefully selecting his barrel makers and wood which will enhance the quality of his wines. Because he is firmly convinced that “there’s still room for improvement in this area”. Well if Henri Ruppert says so!