Cider Sleuth on Tour: Luxembourg

Cider is made in Luxembourg, who knew? Not me, well not before being sent some cider to try in October 2016 and very good it was too! It’s not a place I had really considered visiting before, but I wouldn’t be much of a sleuth if I only investigated cider from its cultural home land, would I?

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The view from my window.

After an amazing offer from the guys at Ramborn cider, we set a date for my flight. I feel out of place on the plane, sat amongst men in suits on their commute to work. The view from the window was inspiring. Huge patches of pine forest and farm land separate quaint villages. Already, I’m thinking there’s a huge potential for planting a lot of apple trees here (I know, I’m cool). I am greeted at the airport by Carlo Hein, the founder of Ramborn Cider. We chat about how our passion for cider began on the walk to his car: “Mine started at age 5, with little sips of ‘Viez’ straight from the barrel” Carlo laughs. On the drive to Born he tells me more about cider’s history in Luxembourg. ‘Viez’ is the traditional name for cider in the region which has Roman origins. “First, they would press the grapes for making wine and second, they press the apples and pears, viez comes from the Latin ‘Viez Vinum’ meaning second wine.” We’ve not made it to the village yet and I already have learnt that people have been using apples wisely in this region for as long as we have in Britain!

Soon we reach the banks of the Sauer river and for as far as the eye can see the hills are coated with vineyards. Luxembourg has a thriving wine industry which is steadily picking up more awards and respect internationally. With the production of wine and cider being quite similar, there’s a wealth of experience to be shared and learnt. Carlo tells me that it is like a shared economy, gaining knowledge and resources from one another. It’s great to hear. We arrive at the Ramborn Cider Haff where Carlo is keen to show me an apple tree held dear to the company. It’s a Rambo apple, a dual-purpose variety that is very traditional in Luxembourg and one which they love to use in cider making here. The company’s name is a portmanteau of this variety and the village of Born where they are based.

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Ramborn Cider shop entrance

We head into the recently renovated farmhouse and my word, what a job they have done. It’s a beautiful building where this traditional farm house enjoys a sleek and contemporary face-lift.  I get to meet more of the staff at Ramborn before Carlo takes us on a tour of the site. The building which historically was a distillery is now a media room, a cidery cinema if you will. We watch a short film they have put together which aims to teach the locals about cider history and culture in Luxembourg as well as about their brand. Plain speaking and concise, it’s full of fascinating historical titbits and draws similarities to the loss of orchards in Britain. In 1912, Luxembourg was home to 1.2 million apple trees (a 5:1 tree to civilian ratio!), but by the end of the 20th century, 90% were lost… As our conversations go on, it’s becoming clear that this isn’t just about them, this is a passion project, they want to get the locals excited about cider and revive an almost lost cider culture here.

Next, we’re off to the orchards with Chantal Hellers, Ramborn’s orchard manager. Glorious old apple trees stand side by side with the recently planted. Some are as over 80 years old, but still cropping well. Carlo has a fascination with full size, standard apple trees. In fact, they do not plant anything else. He believes these trees to produce superior apples, but more than that, it’s what they provide for the environment in the biodiversity they encourage. It’s quite a statement from a young company as standard trees can take up to 10 years to begin cropping heavily. This orchard sits on a steep slope, down into the valley with the river glistening in the distance. It must be hard work picking fruit here, but what a sight on a well-earned lunch break. The forecast rain makes an inconsiderate appearance so we hop in the car and continue the tour.

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Newly planted Star Apple tree

Further round, in a large clearing, they have started planting a very special orchard. Two trees per variety of traditional Luxembourgish apples and pears. One of which the Star apple, or Sternapi, is believed to genetically date back to Roman times. So far, they have planted 34 trees with 150 being the goal. Essentially, this is a gene bank, where these varieties will be known and preserved. It reminds me of the work that’s being done at Brogdale Farm in Faversham. This is truly important work for the genetic diversity of apples in Luxembourg. There’s a real sense of satisfaction amongst the group as they look out at these trees which will be here for several generations to come.

 

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City orchards should be a thing.

In the evening, we head into Luxembourg city. If you like architecture, you must visit. The Downtown area is visually dominated by an ancient wall, built into the stone cliff face. I can only imagine what a daunting sight this must have been for an ancient warrior. The wall alongside the Germanic homes, cobbled streets and lively night life was all beautifully distracting. We meet with Adie Kaye, head of marketing at Ramborn, for a tour of its streets and a particularly special orchard. At the foot of the city wall, on the bank of the river, a community orchard is planted over two tiers. “I can’t think of any of major European city with an orchard like this in the centre” says Adie. They have also managed to get access to use these apples for making cider. It is an impressive sight and just goes to show the significance of apples to this region. We stop at Updown Bar for refreshment. The bottled cider selection is lined up on the bar with several from Ramborn and a few typical British imports. With so many Britons working here midweek, cider has become a more common sight in local bars. In turn, this has created a greater demand for cider in Luxembourg which is to Ramborn’s advantage. They are very keen to get the Luxembourgish to try real cider, made from fresh local apples, something that seems to be going well in this pub!

The next morning, its back to the Cider Haff for coffee where I get to meet Caroline Riplinger; Ramborn’s head of production. She’s surprisingly young for a person in her position but she has a wealth of knowledge as cider was the topic of her master’s degree. She has a very technical knowledge of fermentation and takes it very seriously, it’s not something that’s just left to chance. Interestingly, Caroline uses a technique she refers to as the clarification stage, where the freshly pressed juice is left to settle for 24 hours before fermentation. After 24 hours, the now clearer juice is pumped away from the sediment at the bottom of the tank and put into their fermentation vessels. Caroline also believes this process allows the microflora in the juice to relax and develop. This meticulous process is evident in the flavour of the cider. There are zero off notes. All their ciders are refined, crisp and really bursting full of appley character. More so than you might find in some traditional English ciders. There’s certainly no questioning the quality and variety of fruit in Luxembourg.

Cask aged cider. Whisky, Bourbon and Rum!

Recently filled Whisky, Rum and Bourbon casks. The aroma was incredible!

So, I’m not sure who will get more out of this blog, Visit Luxembourg or Ramborn Cider! It was a fascinating trip, I have learnt a lot. What a beautiful country, such friendly people, and top-quality cider, I need to go back. I want to say a massive thank you to Carlo and Adie for making this trip possible and for their hospitality during my stay. Thanks also to the rest of the guys at Ramborn for their time and their knowledge. Finally thanks to you my readers, without your interest in my impassioned ramblings I would not have had this opportunity!

Cider looks set for a renaissance in Luxembourg, I am sure it will be successful with the passionate guys at Ramborn behind the wheel! For concise reviews of their cider check out Real Cider Reviews. I shall also be featuring a selection on Twitter soon!

Cheers!

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