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Destination: Luxembourg

A Wine Region Less Celebrated : Tiny country, roomy farmhouse and their pick of the vines along the Moselle at harvest time--enchanting

August 25, 1996|J.D. BROWN | Brown is a Eugene, Ore., freelance travel writer and author

AHN, Luxembourg — Our French car had a backseat the size of a toy piano, yet it plunked along like a concert grand through the tiny cobbled streets of Ahn, a village on the banks of the Moselle River in the grand duchy of Luxembourg, itself a subcompact among European countries.

My wife, Margaret Backenheimer, and I were here in search of the winery Domaine Viticole Mme Aly Duhr et fils. We had an address but few street signs with which to match it. We didn't need them, though, because everyone we spoke with seemed to know everyone else in town. We just kept driving, corkscrewing uphill through the village until a pink manor house popped into view. We hailed the first worker we saw. He proved to be one of Madame Aly Duhr's sons, Aby.

When we announced that we were the Americans who had telephoned and volunteered to pick grapes gratis for a day, Duhr smiled broadly and motioned us into one of the nearby trucks.

At the height of the harvest last year, in early October, the winery was an imposing edifice surrounded by terraced vineyards, yet we couldn't see a single vine. A thick morning mist from the Moselle encased the slopes, temporarily erasing the magnificent setting.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 22, 1996 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Luxembourg wine--Due to an editing error, the year that Luxembourg became an independent monarchy was incorrectly reported as 1967 in "A Wine Region Less Celebrated" (Aug. 25). The correct year is 1867.

Luxembourg is famous for its outdoor beauty, its idyllic villages and castles. The chief tourist sites are the Bock Casements (ancient battlements and tunnels) in the capital of Luxembourg City, the 9th century castle at Vianden and, of course, the Moselle River Valley wine region.

One of the world's smallest countries at 998 square miles, Luxembourg is bordered by Belgium, France and Germany. Originally settled by Celts, then made part of the Roman Empire, it was ruled by France, Germany, Spain, Austria and other European powers until 1967, when the grand duchy of Luxembourg became an independent monarchy.

A blend of French and German cultures, Luxembourg has its own national identity and its own language, Luxembourgish, a blend of German and a little French. It and French are the two official languages. English and German are also widely spoken, meaning that American travelers have few language problems.

At midpoint in its lazy meander north, the Moselle River connects Luxembourg to the two giants on its borders: to France, where the Moselle begins, and to Germany, where it empties into the Rhine. This fluid line of connection, stretching just 25 miles along Luxembourg's southeastern edge, is a winemaker's river valley of steep, rounded hillsides facing southeast, nearly every inch vineyards. The grape terraces trace their outlines back to Roman times.

The Moselle Valley is generally unburdened by the crowds that flock to the more extensive, more celebrated wine regions of France and Germany. While the dry white wines of Luxembourg--all produced in this valley--can hold their own against similar vintages elsewhere, so little is produced here that few cases ever escape to other countries. (United Nations figures combine it with Belgium's wine output at 20,000 metric tons, compared with France's output of 6.5 million metric tons.) Belgium consumes eight-tenths of Luxembourg's minuscule wine exports, and the French and Germans consume most of the rest. In recent years there have been no exports to the United States.

Luxembourg's cellars are small. Vineyards are one or two acres each, on average. Modern methods are in place, but considerable work is still done by hand. The Duhr winery, founded in 1872, is one of the largest in the valley, cultivating nine grape varieties on 19 acres. The acres, in turn, are divided into nine distinct little vineyards.

We cruised from terrace to terrace on the rutted roads until Aby spotted a dozen pickers gathered in the fog. These were the Polish workers who return each year at harvest. Before we joined them, Aby Duhr instructed us in how to recognize the grapes we were after, and how to tell the pinot gris from the pinot blanc and pinot noir lurking nearby.

The secret is in the color (the pinot gris is green, the pinot blanc paler, whitish, and the pinot noir a reddish purple). He also showed us how much mold we should tolerate on a bunch (no more than 25% of the grapes) before tossing it. Selecting a cluster, he pointed out what the bad mold looks like (white rather than gray); then he picked off a bit and put it on my tongue. "The bad," he said laughing, "is very bitter, don't you think?" The usable grapes were sweet.

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