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All the pleasures of the table at Domaine Mathes

At Domaine Mathes, the wine couldn’t be anything but gastronomic! After all, alongside their love of wine-making, Paule Mathes and her husband Jean-Paul Hoffmann are also passionate about cookery and food service. Jean-Paul is a trained chef who served under no less a figure than Joël Robuchon in Paris early in his career.

Domaine Mathes is a venerable institution on the Luxembourg Moselle. It was founded by Jean-Pierre Mathes in 1907 and handed down to his son Marcel in 1949. The current winemaker Paule Mathes’ enterprising father seized the opportunity to expand the vineyards from 2.8 to 8 hectares. It was also his decision to gamble early on fizz. Having embarked on producing crémants in 1990, the estate was able to pop its first corks when the official appellation d’origine contrôlée was created the following year in 1991. “We were making sparkling wines for much longer, making my father a pioneer of the Crémant de Luxembourg appellation,” emphasises his daughter Paule, who joined her dad on the estate in 1989 and was joined by her husband Jean-Paul Hoffmann in 2005.

However, her role at the head of the family business a stone’s throw from the Wormeldange border bridge was by no means predetermined. The youngest of five daughters, she was initially more interested in the luxury hotel sector and completed a course at the École Hôtelière de Lausanne. After working a while in this industry in Switzerland, the idea of a return to the Moselle began to crystallise. She therefore decided to accept a post at Le Royal Hotel in Luxembourg followed by a spell in the financial sector. “Not because I enjoyed it,” she smiles. “But because I thought it would be useful for my future career to learn how banks work.” She was 25 when she took the plunge and decided to work with her father “to see if I’d enjoy it”. A degree of pressure was also involved, since none of her sisters were interested in taking over the family business. “It’s true that if I hadn’t gone to work there, it could have been the end of the estate,” says Paule Mathes. “But I enjoyed it, so I stayed!”

In fact, she enjoyed it so much that in 2005 she even roped in her husband, Jean-Paul Hoffmann, despite him having a good career of his own.  This chef practically born in his parents’ café-restaurant was trained at the Alexis-Heck hospitality college in Diekirch and honed his craft in France’s finest kitchens including the Prince de Galles and Sofitel Vauban, both Michelin-starred establishments. “I was Joël Robuchon’s sous-chef,” he points out, clearly proud of having worked alongside a genuine icon, 1990’s star “Chef of the Century”. Having developed his skills, Jean-Paul Hoffmann returned to Luxembourg in 1986 to give the family restaurant in Sandweiler a new lease of life.

Cooking is a real passion of mine and it’s true that I missed the restaurant at first.

Although business was booming and the eatery enjoyed an outstanding reputation, the job was demanding and he missed family life. “With all the long hours, I never saw my wife and children, which increasingly took its toll on me,” he acknowledges. So, after lengthy consideration, I decided to join the estate and work with my wife.” As he explains, this was not such an easy change to make: “Cooking is a real passion of mine and it’s true that I missed the restaurant at first.” His wife smiles: “He actually never stopped cooking – every night at home, it was like being at the restaurant!”

A good restaurant is never truly complete without a stock of fine wine. After all, the pairing of food and wine forms part of the “gastronomic meal of the French”, which was listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010. Naturally, this love of wine and good food found its perfect expression on the estate.

In happier times, Jean-Paul Hoffman organised two or three cookery workshops at the estate every week. These events were very popular among amateurs of all levels, “using equipment that everyone has at home, so that people could reproduce the recipes in their own kitchens.” Make no mistake that when the situation settles down, they’ll be firing up those ovens with renewed vigour!

Most of the estate’s eight hectares of vineyards are located in the area surrounding Wormeldange, near the cellar, notably on the Koeppchen where Riesling is king. Mathes owns 1.7 hectares here “which must make us the biggest landowners in this prestigious terroir,” comments Jean-Paul Hoffman. Rather than spreading itself too thinly, the company focuses on two products: Riesling (which accounts for 70% of its still wines) and crémants (60% of all wines produced).

The winemakers and their cellar master Fons Berweiler, who joined them at the cellar, have split the crémants into several product ranges: Sélection, Summum, Grande Cuvée, Prestige and Steel. The last of these is Jean-Paul Hoffman’s baby. When he first joined the estate, he thought the crémants were too sweet, and therefore decided to concoct a new cuvée with less residual sugar. The name Steel was chosen in reference to the metal’s strength, coolness and sharpness. According to the winemaker, this is a tribute to Luxembourgish steelmaking and also reflects the wine’s characteristics, which echo those of steel. The neck label is also the colour of molten steel.

“Back in 2007, we decided to pitch the price of this crémant higher than the other cuvées, but at a level that appeared appropriate to its quality standard,” he reminisces. “Although we attracted some criticism for this, our decisions from the very first cuvée were validated by a gold medal awarded that year at the Concours des Crémants de France et du Luxembourg in Angers. I was really pleased with this reward for a wine that had only just been released!”

Based on the same principles applied in the Champagne region, we like our cuvées to mature for four or five years on the lees.

The care the estate takes over its crémants is particularly evident from the long periods they are left to mature on the lees. “Based on the same principles applied in the Champagne region, we like our cuvées to mature for four or five years on the lees,” he points out.

The estate’s still wine ranges include “Sélection Paule Mathes”, which are “slightly sweeter than the standard range, produced with grapes harvested slightly later,” he explains. This range includes the estate’s organic wines, currently made with Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, with some freshly planted Sauvignon due to be added to the list. All certified parcels (0.5 hectares) are planted on the Koeppchen. “Although we take great care of all our vines, it would be really difficult to convert the entire estate,” says Jean-Paul Hoffmann. “Not all parcels are suitable, particularly the very damp ones.”

The 59-year-old has another project in mind: “produce more red wines”. Although the estate produces a cask-matured Pinot Noir cuvée, only 3 to 4,000 bottles are made depending on the year. “Climate change has given us good reason to start producing some great red wines,” he observes. “Some of our colleagues have already shown it’s possible!” Therefore, the estate’s planted grape varieties may well change in years to come. In his opinion: “We could enhance our reputation with red grape varieties. Foreigners are not familiar with Luxembourgish wines and reds are very popular. It might encourage them to try our whites…”

The estate not only produces some fine wines, it also sells wines and spirits made by foreign producers, particularly those based in France and Italy. Its merchant business represents a large percentage of the company’s operations, and is an area in which Paule Mathes is heavily involved. The estate is Luxembourg’s official importer of Jägermeister, and even produced the famous herbal liqueur between 1968 and 2002.

Vin-Vin: poor timing, but what a crémant!

It takes time to make a high-end crémant cuvée. To ensure its bubbles are small, the wine must mature for long periods on the lees, a process that plays a crucial role in aroma development. Although this approach is applied to all Mathes crémants, it is taken to extremes in some cases! For instance, the Prestige Vin-Vin crémant (2020) took some serious patience, having matured for seven years. “We released this cuvée to celebrate 2020, which had such a nice ring to it. After all, 2020 consists of two “Vins”, which inspired us… (translator’s note: since the French word for twenty (“vingt”) is pronounced the same as “vin”(“wine”), 2020 is “vingt-vingt” or in this case “Vin-Vin”).

Unfortunately, the pandemic spoiled the party and the entire programme organised to promote this wine had to be cancelled.  Crémant (like all other types of fizz) is the quintessential party drink and has therefore been the worst affected category of wine in terms of falling sales. 

That said, this vintage is out there now, and it would be a shame not to partake! The majority Riesling blend (topped up with Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois) is terribly quaffable. The elegance bestowed by its small bubbles enhances the nobility of its flawless base wines. So come on, let’s forget about marketing and these ill-favoured times we’re living in, and enjoy a great wine providing a foretaste of a much brighter future!

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