Palmberg is without doubt one of the best terroirs in the country. Underneath the dolomite cliff, which stores up heat during the daytime to then release it at night, the Rieslings here take on a personality which sets them apart from all others.
Riesling is the king of varietals and Palmberg is unquestionably one of its thrones. Located on the hills above the village of Ahn (which has the highest proportion of winegrowers per inhabitant in Luxembourg!), this terroir is ideally south/southeast-facing. From early in the morning, Palmberg is bathed in sunlight and enjoys heat throughout the day as the sun follows its course.
The vineyards are tiered; their terraces supported by dry stone walls which are currently being restored. The soil is clay-limestone; however, there is Muschelkalk (shell limestone) very nearby. The cliff overlooking this natural amphitheatre is hewn into the dolomite rock, a harder limestone, which was quarried until 1959. These rocks bear witness to a past when this area was underneath the sea. 225 million years ago, the Grand Duchy lay under the waters of a vast tropical lagoon, the remains of which can be seen from shell fossils or seaweed found in this limestone rock.
The direction in which Palmberg faces, its cliff and dry stone walls, as well as the woodland covering its top, have a profound impact on its microclimate. The stone retains the heat from the daytime, releasing it at night to the benefit of the vines and the whole local microcosm. The trees which tower over the cliff ensure that the area is protected from cold north winds.
Palmberg is one of the finest hillsides in Luxembourg, it is meant for great Rieslings
At the foot of the cliff a trout stream flows, the Donverbach, which has hollowed out proper small gorges and which can be quite wild. The stream also creates its own special world with ferns, moss, willows, beeches, blackbirds fishing for aquatic insect larvae and fire salamanders which thrive here under such ideal conditions.
At these latitudes, the area’s vegetation is unusual. Etymologically, Palmberg comes from the Luxembourg word “Pällem” which means box tree. And indeed this tree, which tends to thrive in southern Europe, grows here naturally, even forming a small forest – the only one in Luxembourg. In the fields or among the vine stocks, a dozen or so varieties of wild orchids can be seen growing.
The fauna also shows that this small Mediterranean ecosystem has something very special to offer. The most astonishing example has to be the little mountain cicada, which can be heard once summer arrives.
Palmberg has been classified as a nature reserve because of all these unusual features, and apart from grapes, it is strictly forbidden to pick anything here.
And the grapes, of course, flourish wonderfully in this atypical setting. “This vineyard plot is quite exceptional,” states Antoine Clasen, Managing Director of Caves Bernard-Massard. Here he produces one of the most sought wines from Clos des Rochers, the family’s top-end estate. “With our Palmberg Riesling, we want to show the very best that the Moselle can produce,” he emphasizes convincingly.
The removal of buds, ruthless green harvesting and drastic selection inevitably result in very small yields of only twenty or so hectolitres per hectare. The grapes bunches are only harvested once fully ripened and then the wine is made in 1,200-litre wooden barrels. The wine remains on lees for one year. Once it has been bottled, it waits a little longer in the Grevenmacher Estate cellars where it matures for a further twelve months. “It needs time to age perfectly,” slips in Antoine Clasen. “With age, the wine becomes well-rounded, without any of those petrol notes typical of Riesling. At home, we’re starting to drink our 2007 and 2008 wines.”
For Ben Duhr (Domaine Madame Aly Duhr, in Ahn), this terroir is also in a class of its own. “Palmberg is one of the finest hillsides in Luxembourg, it is meant for great Rieslings.” Traditionally, the wine he produces here is used for his Charter of Excellence “Domaine et Tradition” wine; eight winemakers have signed this charter. “But we’re going to launch it on its own, with its own label as this is what it deserves.”
Whether it’s a good year or a not quite so good one, the terroir’s personality emerges
As well as the exceptional setting, Ben Duhr explains that Palmberg has now reached its prime because of the age of the vines planted here. “They date back to when vineyards plots were joined together in the 1970s, this being one of the first to be joined in Luxembourg,” he explains. “Thirty years or so, that’s the time it takes for the terroir to recover.”
As far as taste goes, what sets Palmberg Rieslings apart from their counterparts is their more floral than purely mineral side, “which is bound to be because of the orchids that grow there,” laughs Ben Duhr. Antoine Clasen also praises the distinctive notes specific to Palmberg Rieslings. “With Riesling you can’t cheat, it’s the most expressive variety of grape and it gives you a real photo of the land”, he explains. “Palmberg produces wines with exotic floral notes.”
Terroir has a powerful impact here because even though the years may vary, the terroir’s characteristics still come through. “Whether it’s a good year or a not quite so good one, the terroir’s personality emerges,” maintains Ben Duhr. “Sometimes, with young wines you say to yourself ‘No, this time it’s different’. But once the first year has gone by, there’s no doubt about it: ultimately, it’s all there!”