Elderly villagers can remember the joining together of the vineyard plots in 1980 and they think back to this famous Machtum terroir with nostalgia. However, forty years on, the vines have once again taken possession of the subsoil and are producing exquisite wines, in particular, Pinot Gris.
When travelling up the Moselle, Ongkâf is the last terroir before the river starts to twist and turn as it flows around Machtum. Ongkâf is a large expanse of green, with rows of vines growing in straight, neat lines on perfectly streamlined plots. This is no surprise, because in 1980 an enormous amount of work went into joining these plots together. Thinking back to all the machinery, certain winegrowers still feel a twinge of sadness, but today, after almost four decades, the effects of what was certainly excessive intervention have faded away, allowing the vines the space they deserve to find wonderful soil and their full expression. When thinking of Ongkâf, it would be unfair to dwell solely on this episode, for this is a terroir which has been long renowned and which today is producing very fine wines. Since then, there have been extensive changes at the National Land Consolidation Office (Office national du remembrement) and the same mistakes are now no longer made.
And the name Ongkâf is itself rather peculiar! It doesn’t really have a Luxembourgish inflection, nor does it sound like a French or German word. So where does it come from? Norbert Schill, Vice-Chairman of Domaines Vinsmoselle and President of the Grevenmacher Cooperative Winery, has the answer: “At the start of the 20th century, there were small cellars along the Moselle at the foot of the hillside and in fact when the plots were being joined up their foundations were discovered. The name ‘Ongkâf’ came from the way the Germans pronounced the French expression ‘en cave‘ (in the cellar) and it eventually stuck.” Ongkâf, in the cellar… It has a definite ring to it, even though today there are no structures left in this area.
This terroir is interesting because it’s actually far less uniform than it might appear at first sight. At the bottom of the hillside there’s obviously an extensive layer of clay soil. You have to go down at least two metres before you come to the shell limestone which is the specific feature in the north of the Moselle area of Luxembourg. A recent survey carried out by the Remich Wine Institute (Institut viti-vinicole) attests to this. However, if you walk up the slope, which may be steep, the rock is definitely in evidence. To prepare a plot to plant new vines sited just below the forest, overlooking his vineyard, Claude Pundel had to turn over some big limestone blocks lying just below the surface.
What’s more surprising is that an area also located at the top of the Ongkâf has veins of gypsum running through it, the rock from which plaster is made, not uncommon in dolomite limestone massifs. “This gypsum [‘Gap’ in Luxembourgish] used to be quarried,” Norbert Schill explains. “When we were young we would go and play there, we used to pick up pieces and use them as chalk to draw with!” Back in the days people used to call this place the “Gapbruch”, but hardly anyone remembers this nowadays, yet its winemaking identity hasn’t been completely forgotten: “Even if it isn’t named after it, the Schengen Prestige Gewurztraminer [from Domaines Vinsmoselle] comes exclusively from here.”
Ongkâf Pinot Gris has got everything it should have: body, fruit and acidity. This is the ideal terroir for it!
The Schlink wine estate (in Machtum) is the main Ongkâf expert since almost half of its vines are located here (7 hectares). Jean-Marc Schlink, a young winemaker (33), who has taken the estate over from his father René is pleased with how the vineyard is laid out. “It faces southwest and gets the sun right through the morning,” he explains. “This is really good, as moisture that has collected overnight gets dried out which means there is less risk of cryptogamic diseases [caused by fungus such as powdery mildew or downy mildew].”
Crucial for the wines’ identity is the limestone that is found deep below ground; however, the layer of clay covering it acts like a sponge and helps prevent the vines from suffering when there is any water shortage. “Last year, which was especially dry, I did have to water the young plants that weren’t yet three years old, as they suffered during the summer,” Jean-Marc Schlink admits. “However, there was no problem with the older vines.”
The Ongkâf’s structure and layout make it particularly well-suited to making Pinot Gris. Charlène Muller, Vinsmoselle’s cellar master in Grevenmacher, is firmly convinced of this. “Ongkâf Pinot Gris has got everything it should have: body, fruit and acidity,” says Charlène who hails from Champagne. “This is the ideal terroir for it! That’s why our Art&Vin cuvee always comes from Ongkâf.” Charlène is more measured about the effect the terroir has on Rieslings, which can lack verticality. “Precisely because Ongkâf Rieslings are fruity rather than mineral, we decided to make our wine from these grapes in oak barrels. Body and structure combine very well when aged in wooden barrels.”
At the Schlink estate, most of its Ongkâf Rieslings go towards creating the estate’s Crémants, always very well crafted. However, a great deal of their wine is produced according to Charta Luxembourg’s strict criteria (maximum yield of 40 hectolitres/hectare, in particular) and also comes from this terroir. Riesling and Pinot Noir are planted here but, as if cocking a snook, there’s no Pinot Gris. “Yes, but it comes from the Göllebur, from a plot that borders directly onto the Ongkâf!” says Jean-Marc Schlink with a smile.