Overlooking the village of Wintrange and the Remerschen lakes, the beautiful rounded slope of the Felsberg is not a typical terroir for the Southern Moselle. Its chalky subsoil in fact proves to be a magnificent soil for Riesling… but not just that!
They say that the Northern half of the Moselle (from Remich to Wasserbillig), with its predominant shelly limestone soil, favours Riesling, whereas the marl soils of the South (from Schengen to Remich) is best for Pinots. But, as always, you have to beware of generalisations: this simplistic pattern does not take account of the Felsberg, a terroir that defies the norms.
A steep slope which curves in a crescent moon shape facing due south, the Felsberg is set distinctively into the countryside. It rises up towards the statue of Saint Donat which dominates it as soon as you pass the last houses in Wintrange, as far as the Natura 2000-classified wood that sits at its top. From up there, the view is magnificent. You can see as far as Schengen, and the plain – irrigated by the lakes at Remerschen – stands out against the pronounced inclines which delight the winegrowers.
“It’s the exception in our area,” smiles Yves Sunnen, who is working on his oldest vines there: a parcel of Riesling planted in 1943 and bought back 20 years ago. “The limestone subsoil brings to the wine a minerality and a distinguished character that is completely different from the surrounding terroirs, such as the Hommelsberg which adjoins it but which produces more rounded wines, with more body,” says the country’s first organic winemaker.
The longstanding establishment of the planting here does much for the personality of the place. “Since the vineyard was set up, the structure of the soil has never been altered and the roots can draw from the original terroir,” Sunnen emphasises. Although a consolidation project was launched at the end of last year, it should only involve the periphery of the terroir and not its heart, much to the relief of the winemaker and several of his colleagues.
“It was in 1897 that a general meeting of the residents of Wintrange approved by a very large majority the layout of the vineyard”
The origin of this vineyard can be dated precisely. To learn everything about it, all that is needed is to ask Gast Schumacher, the father of Frank and Martine Schumacher (Domaine Schumacher-Knepper), whose estate and tasting room are located practically at the foot of the steps that lead to the statue of Saint Donat. This friendly man has kept all the archives!
“It was in 1897 that a general meeting of the residents of Wintrange approved by a very large majority the layout of the vineyard,” explains Gast Schumacher. The works were completed by 1900. At that time, the Moselle benefited from the customs union with Germany (the Zollverein), because its grapes were taken to make Sekt (sparkling wine) by those on the other side of the Moselle. The expansion and modernisation of the Luxembourg vineyard enabled it to respond to this strong cross-border demand.
“Before this decision, there were no roads to reach the vines,” emphasises Gast Schumacher: “Everything had to be transported on people’s backs, on difficult paths.” There is a nice anecdote about this, in which the statue of Saint Donat plays a key part. To accompany the development of the Felsberg, the priest in Wintrange, M. Schrohweiler, launched a plan to bless the slope by erecting the famous statue there. The parishioners approved the idea and in 1898 Jean Hengers, the strong man of the village, undertook to carry the statue on his back and to slog his way up the hill via a poorly-made path (the 590-step climb was only made in 1933)!
Very quickly, the vineyard’s qualities were recognised, but the Felsberg has a problem: every two or three years, it suffers a late frost that ruins a large part of the harvest. In 1952 and 1953, two studies (one by Geisenheim University, the other by Trier Meteorological Office) were conducted to find a solution. They proposed cutting the trees at the summit to allow the cold to descend, and creating a lake which would serve as a heat reservoir. Paradoxically this suggestion, which was rejected at the time, exists today because the Remerschen lakes, born from ancient sand quarries, are now playing this role.
“What is attractive here is the bed of clay soil which retains the water during dry years”
Eventually, to combat frost, a complex system for spraying the vines was installed in 1956. 12,600 metres of pipes and 99 sprinklers are fed with water from the Moselle, pumped by two large diesel pumps. When the temperature drops, the vines are watered and the cocoon of ice which surrounds the buds protects them from any more intense cold, like an igloo. Later on, two electric pumps came to replace the diesel engines. Global warming is set to make redundant a system which has saved plenty of harvests. With late frosts becoming ever rarer, the significant work to maintain this network is no longer financially viable.
Today, the Felsberg is one of the most highly-regarded terroirs in the country; its wines are regular award-winners in the biggest competitions (Mundus Vini, Best of Riesling, etc.). The Schumacher-Knepper estate holds eight hectares here, bought from Remich notary Constant Knepper in 1964. Frank Schumacher would not sell them for anything in the world – they are part of the estate’s DNA. “What is attractive here is the bed of clay soil which retains the water during dry years,” he explains: “Last year, thanks to that, the vines did not suffer, particularly those located lower down where the soil is deeper.” Frank Schumacher also prefers his vines planted close to the village, in a richer soil than at the top, where the limestone quickly becomes exposed on the surface.
Far from sticking to routine, in recent years he has planted two small parcels with new varieties: Merlot (18 hectares) and Pinotage (11 ares). “I want to see what that produces, with global warming – I’m telling myself that it could be interesting…” The Felsberg has not finished surprising us!