August 12: Bubblies from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg are ready to make a grand, historical entry into the Indian market, joining countries like France, Italy, Spain, Chile and Australia, with Hema Connoisseurs bringing three bubblies from Bernard- Massard, writes Subhash Arora who was invited to a small, exclusive dinner on Friday 9 August, with the visiting Managing Director, Antoine Clasen presenting four wines including a Schengen Riesling at the residence of H.E. Jean Claude Kugener who has been a matchmaker and a very pro-active supporter
Schengen- Europe and Wine without Border
Ask anyone about Schengen (many pronounce it incorrectly as Shenegen) and those travelling to Europe would tell you it is a type of Visa, valid in 26 European countries. ( Switzerland was the 25th country joining in 2009-editor) They might not have even heard of the country (actually a Grand Duchy where the Grand Duke is the titular head) with a history of over 1000 years . The Delhiites travelling on Lodhi Road would not have missed a prominent signage on the roadside pointing to the embassy in Jor Bagh. But what they may not know is that Schengen is a small wine appellation making quality wines for a long time.
Ambassador of the Grand Duchy and its wines
H.E. Jean Claude Kugener hosted a historic wine dinner to introduce wines from Caves Bernard -Massard a winery in a small town of Grevenmacher, 30 kms Northeast from Luxembourg City, close to the German border and Trier City. Schengen is 30 kms South of Grevenmacher and 35 kms Southwest of Luxembourg City. So passionate is the Ambassador about Schengen and its wines that he personally visits VFS Visa Centers in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai, to popularise Schengen not only as the Luxembourg town where the treaty was signed in 1985, paving way for full-fledged European Union but also where small quantity of excellent wines are produced.
After explaining the connection with India’s legendry artist Amar Nath Sehgal who spent 24 years in Luxembourg and the fascinating acquisition of Arcelor Steel in 2007 that made Lakshmi Mittal, London- based Indian steel magnate the biggest global steel producer ( the merger materialised with a condition laid by the government that since Arcelor had a long history, the headquarters of the merged entity must be in Luxembourg, he introduced us to Antoine Clasen, the Managing Director of the Bernard Massard group.
‘Caves Bernard-Massard is located in Grevenmacher, in the northern part of Luxembourg by river Moselle. Starting from Vosges Mountain in France to its south, it traverses 42 kms in Luxembourg before entering Germany as Mosel. With calcareous soils to the north and clay soils to the south it is different than the black slate across the border, and the exceptional terroir is ideal for the production of outstanding fresh, elegant and mineral sparkling and still wines,’ says Antoine A Clasen, fifth generation family owner.
History in brief
Traditionally, sparkling wine producers across the world begin their journey with visits to Champagne. ‘Jean Bernard- Massard (his wife was a Massard woman) was no different. After training in Champagne he returned home (Antoine stresses this cultural characteristics of Luxembourgers who like to travel abroad and after gaining knowledge come back to start their own business- a practice followed to an extent in India too), and founded the winery almost a 100 years ago in 1921. He was the first to start making ‘Vins Champenoise’. He needed Capital and approached his friends one of whom was my great-great grandfather who invested with him,’ says Antoine.
‘Unfortunately, Bernard died a couple of years later and my great-great grandfather had to step in and take over the company. Since then my family has been managing the company. We have undergone various twists and turns, including selling off the vineyards after World War II to keep the winery. But eventually we bought back most of our lost parcels. We have now 4 wineries, including the one bought by my father in Haut- Medoc, Bordeaux-Château Fontesteau through a German subsidiary. We also bought Chateau de Schengen in 1986.’
Bernard- Massard is primarily a bubbly maker with 3.5 million bottles of bubbly whereas 500,000 bottles are still wines-basically all whites- a total of 65 labels are produced, an unusually high number for a winery of this size. Whereas most wineries of the area sell locally, Bernard- Massard is export focussed with 50% of the production exported to 22 countries including India through Amit Agarwal of Hema Connoisseur.
‘The whole appellation has 1300 hA of vines, with the company owning about 38 hA and buying grapes for the rest of the wine. We are so close to the German and French Border that we buy grapes from there as well,’ he says, clarifying that all their wines are double fermented in the bottle (Methode Traditionelle) with varying degrees of fermenting on the lees from 15 months to 3 years, by law a bubbly can be classified as Cremant de Luxembourg (term used for bubblies outside Champagne-like Cremant de Alsace, Cremant de Bourgogne etc.) only if 90% or more grapes used are local.
One of the reasons why they export more than most producers is because they also import wines. ‘This gives us more exposure to the foreign wines and helps us understand the international taste.’ (An interesting thought for Ambassador Kugener to help international business by exporting wines from India to Luxembourg; our quality has been going up steadily).
Climate Change and global warming
On the question of Climate Change he says ‘we are affected too though the change is generally positive because the cold climate (highest temperature in May and June is 25° C, in July August is 25-30°C and a cooler 20-25°C during harvest makes it difficult for proper ripening. This year has been very challenging for us though; it snowed on May 4 and next day it was -3°C! Two weeks ago it was 47°C and many growers had the grapes cooked! Some farmers have lost 80% of their crop; we lost about 30%. But 2018 was a great year for us all. Our yields were double and the quality was excellent too. ‘
One of the reasons why Luxembourg does not export much wine despite fine quality is because everything is very expensive-including land and labour. ‘Unfortunately, we are more expensive than our competitors for similar products and so cannot compete on the price alone. Bernard Massard Brut Selecion is priced in Delhi at Rs. 4000 and the Millesime is Rs. 5,800 with the mid-ranged Cuvee L’Ecusson (Rs. 4600). However, if we make an (unfair) comparison with Moet Chandon and Dom Perignon, the prices are very reasonable. Affluent and knowledgeable connoisseurs would love the Millesime 2015 for its elegance, structure, flavours and complexity. But it may not attract the Prosecco and Cava loving drinkers, except for special celebrations with a zara hat kay (different) style, especially the experimental millenials.
Charta Wines and Domaine-et-tradition
During my visit in 2011 to The Grand Duchy for judging at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, I visited many wineries and attended several Tastings, the most impressive being Charta wines. Despite the appellation system being quite focused, the rules seem to be still liberal. Many producers have formed their own associations to make top end wines which are known as Chartas (Chapters). They don’t have any legal standing but are known for high quality. Chartas have memberships of producers from Luxembourg, France and even Germany on the Mosel belt. For instance Charta Schengen Prestige has 8 members and is the first such Charta formed internationally. Each member has own labels but also produces one or more Charta wines.
When I quiz Antoine if Bernard-Massard was a member of some Charta, he grins and says, ‘even before Chartas were founded, my father and 7 other producers formed another association in 1988 and christened as domaine-et-tradition. Our Chateau de Schengen (earlier Domaine Thill) and Clos de Rocher are a part of this association.
Evening at The Residence
I was pre-disposed to a high hospitality quotient of the evening when the Ambassador asked me through an email (not through any official) if I would be alone or accompanied as the dining table could handle only 12. He had insisted on a sit-down dinner with perfect table setting. Not only the name tags for each guest, but the dinner plate settings with coat- of- arms were perfect. All their embassies use the same plates globally. Even the white serviettes were appropriately embossed by a Kolkata company.
The Residence is tastefully decorated with paintings, draperies and sculptures from the Amar Nath Foundation. Spread over 3-4 floors the atmosphere was comfortably and warm with the Welcome on the second floor and dinner on the third. His charming Parisienne wife was an elegant hostess.
Dinner is served
The evening had started with the Bernard Massard Cuvee Brut poured generously. It was elegant, chic and zingy on the palate, even though the yeastiness of champagne was lacking. A perfect starter for the evening and the Talk by the host that was followed by a mini Masterclass by Antoine! The Non Vintage blend of Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay had personality with freshness, elegance and light texture on the palate.
Pan fried scallops with artichokes on a foamy puree and the house baked warm bread was a perfect way to start with Bernard Massard Millesime 2015 singing the perfect tune. The blend of Pinot Blanc and Riesling in equal measures from 100% of 2015 vintage. On the lees for 3 years and disgorged about 6 months ago, it was a complex, harmonious wine with vibrant acidity. At Rs. 5.600 MRP, this Cremant de Luxembourg is a perfect bubbly for those who love high- ended bubbles.
The main course, Sea-bass with asparagus and Broccoli on the delicious, orange sauce-colours reminiscent of the Indian tricolour, was perfect wit Schengen Riesling 2017 adding synergy to the dish. I polished off the sauce with home baked buns; Riesling was an excellent condiment- medium bodied fruity, mineral, slightly spicy, citrus and juicy wine with brilliant acidity and floral aromas, it was a heavenly match with the sea bass. The sauce made it a perfect match with the medium bodied wine served at a perfect 10°C.
Even the dessert-a Dark Chocolate Ganache with Cremant Sorbet was a delicious not-too-sweet , a perfect ending to an exquisite meal. Bernard-Massard Cuvee de L’Ecusson Brut Rose NV served with it was a dry Rose Brut from 100% Pinot Noir with lots of fresh red fruits including strawberry flavour with a persistent end. Like their other brut bubblies, the sugar level of 10-12 gms made all 3 of them perfect for Indian palates. However, I am not a great fan of dry Rose bubblies with desserts. It was a classic case of food and wine match being a matter of personal taste-many at the table exclaimed it was excellent pairing.
The dinner intertwined with the informal hospitality of the Kugeners and friendly chat with Antoine Clasen, and a quick cup of espresso ended a memorable and historical evening for me-I reckon our group was the first to be invited to the dinner with wines from Luxembourg. The evening was to be followed by series of lunches and dinners with similar groups. H. E. Jean Claude Kugener has gone way beyond the call of duty to promote the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and its Moselle sparklers and Schengen wines. One hopes the discerning connoisseurs are ready to enjoy these unique beauties when they are released in a couple of weeks after the registration process is complete.