Although chiefly admired for its Pinots, Schengen Markusberg has plenty of other strings to its bow. This lieu-dit has played an important role in the history of wine-growing in Luxembourg, and what’s more, it’s also a magnificent terroir … for Riesling!
Markusberg enjoys something of a special status in Luxembourg. Schengen is one of the country’s best-known and most visited destinations, and, more to the point, this village on the border between three countries lies in the midst of a fantastic terroir. The neat rows of vines on the hillside above are pictured on all postcards celebrating this important site for European history, where agreements opening the borders for people and goods within Europe were signed in 1985 and 1990.
Although not (yet?) the driving force behind Schengen’s global reputation, its wines are nevertheless well worthy of note. Indeed they have been for many years, since Markusberg could almost be seen as the birthplace of modern wine-growing in Luxembourg. Let’s turn back the clock a century.
The interwar years were tough for Luxembourg, a small country stuck between three much larger, not always benevolent states. Political, social and economic instability was rife during this period. Germany’s defeat in 1918 led to an overhaul of the economic structure. The Zollverein, a customs agreement that had provided outlets for agricultural products since 1842, was scrapped (at the time, Luxembourgish wine was almost entirely transformed into sparkling wine known as “Sekt Outre-Moselle”). It was replaced by the Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union, which was signed in June 1921 and supplemented in May 1937. The economic crisis linked to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 came on top of several years’ difficult weather conditions.
In 1930 and 1936, the weather was too poor for grapes to ripen. The winters of 1927 and 1929 were so cold (with temperatures reaching -21°C) that many vines died, including on Markusberg. To make matters worse, a late frost wrecked 80% of the harvest on 9 May 1930.
Insect pests also proved a scourge during this decade. The vine moth struck particularly hard in 1932. Vine roots were also ravaged by that infamous American aphid, phylloxera. Although 1933, 1934 and 1937 were fortunately good years, there had been sufficient disruption to cause major market instability, harming both producers and consumers.
Several decisions (including the move to create the Marque Nationale, a quality mark for products made in Luxembourg, in 1935) were taken in an attempt to get the country out of this rut. One of these initiatives was directly instigated by Schengen’s 85 winemakers. To overcome their difficulties, they decided to modernise and consolidate Markusberg’s 20 hectares of land. This was not about replanting any old grape variety in any old way. Detailed and visionary requirements were set out.
To overcome their difficulties, Schengen’s 85 winemakers decided to modernise and consolidate Markusberg’s 20 hectares of land.
These firstly spelled the end for Elbling, a variety that sold well in Germany, but was otherwise unpopular. It was compulsorily replaced by Riesling, Rivaner, Pinots (Blanc, Gris and Auxerrois) and Gewürztraminer. Secondly, a decision was taken to reorganise parcels to create more consistent units. Finally, vineyard paths had to be made accessible to horses. Production costs fell by 35% as a result,
and the winemakers’ union quickly decided to create a new brand: Schengener Markusberg. Provided they met government-monitored quality criteria, producers were able to include this name on their labels – a PDO before its time! Although seemingly insignificant, this was actually a revolution, with bottles starting to replace casks.
Nowadays, the layout of this wine-growing area is relatively unchanged. The paths have simply been widened to allow the passage of tractors. The Markustuerm tower, whose origins remain a mystery, is a potent symbol of this landscape. It was renovated in 2016/2017, and is now used as a viewpoint. The statue of Saint Mark positioned at its south-eastern corner is the work of Claus Cito, who also created the Gëlle Fra (Golden Lady statue) in Luxembourg City.
Markusberg owes its status as one of the country’s finest terroirs to its exposure and subsoil. The half moon-shaped hillside is south/south-east facing with 15 to 30% gradients. It is therefore exposed to the sun throughout the day. To the south, it is protected by Stromberg, a slightly higher hill across the border in France (314m in altitude), usefully acting as a barrier against winds and clouds. The vines are therefore rarely affected by storms or hail, and the climate here is slightly warmer and drier than in the surrounding area.
I want to promote this terroir and show that great wines of character worthy of global recognition can be produced here.
However, these sunny conditions that proved a boon in the 20th century are now somewhat less beneficial. One of the great specialists on Markusberg is Henri Ruppert, whose impressive cellar building built in 2008 based on the plans of Moselle architect François Valentiny has become symbolic of the area. The winemaker, who cultivates a hectare of land on this terroir, explains that circumstances have changed here in recent years due to global warming. Although the marls admittedly retain a certain amount of water, they inevitably dry out when it stops raining. “You have to wonder whether Markusberg may actually be too well oriented,” he suggests. “In very hot spells, the vines suffer from constant exposure to the sun from morning to night, and the soil dries out quickly… My parcels in France on the other side of Stromberg grow better in these extreme conditions that have become increasingly common.”
The subsoil consists of thick layers of marl interposed with dolomite (a calcareous rock) from the lower and middle Keuper. The heavy, red soil is the product of sedimentary deposits from the Triassic period dating back over 200 million years. It is clearly distinct from the northern half of the Luxembourg Moselle, where shelly limestone is dominant. This substratum in the south of the region has always been considered conducive to Pinot grapes. “Markusberg is a terroir typical of southern Luxembourg. Its wines are more full-bodied than in the north, often with a creamy finish,” comments Josy Gloden, winemaker and President of Domaines Vinsmoselle. “This roundness is a constant in each vintage, regardless of weather conditions.” It’s no accident that a Markusberg Pinot Blanc has been added to the new Vignum range, the cooperative’s top-level product line intended for fine dining and exclusively available from its wine stores.
However, Markusberg is not an exclusively Pinot-growing terroir – just ask Henri Ruppert! “Great Rieslings can also be grown in the south – it’s not just the privilege of the north!” he smiles. We should point out that he’s doing his bit for the cause. His Markusberg Riesling is one of his cellar’s stellar wines. It’s also one of his most expensive products (€28). “Such high-quality results are dependent on reducing yields,” he explains. “I produce 25 hectolitres per hectare here, compared to 35 for my other Rieslings. This results in wine that is more mineral than creamy.” More than just a bottle of wine, it has almost become a profession of faith. “I want to promote this terroir and show it has greater potential than people think and that great wines of character worthy of global recognition can be produced here. The “Riesling Commune” (editor’s note – a slogan used to promote the town of Wormeldange) is not the only place capable of producing good Rieslings!” It’s clear that in Schengen, everything is political, even wine-growing!