Raphaël Hannart is a relative newcomer to winemaking, and therefore something of a rarity on the Moselle. Having previously launched a range of chocolate-coated dry fruit, this Belgian, who has been living in Luxembourg for the past quarter of a century, set up the Happy Duchy estate in 2010 on the slopes of the Scheierberg (near Remich). And everything he does is organic!
One place you’ll never find Raphaël Hannart is on his tractor. That’s for the simple reason that he doesn’t have one! Actually, it would be more accurate to say that he doesn’t have one any more … his old one was destroyed in a fire that ravaged his storage building in August 2019. The tractor wasn’t the only thing that perished – the building also contained barriques (which were fortunately empty), a generator running on rainwater collected in a recently installed tank, and all his tools. “It happened on a Friday,” he remembers. “I worked in the vineyard until 4 pm and then left for the day. The fire started around 6 pm without any clearly identifiable cause. People from the village called me and a fire engine came out, but it was too late.”
Some would view this as a traumatic, catastrophic event, especially since the building was virtually brand new. But Raphaël Hannart didn’t let it get him down. In a sense, it could even be described as liberating: “I hated that tractor!” he smiles, downplaying the incident. “It was too noisy, broke down all the time, and damaged the soil…”
Fortunately, he had a Plan B in mind – using a drone to spray all his parcels with products authorised for organic wine-growing. It was a success! And what’s more, he now works with an Ardennais draft horse, which is much more pleasant company than the tractor! This was a natural step for this animal lover whose two Shetland ponies trot around an orchard in the middle of his vineyard. The horse named Déclic (which is used in French to describe a “Eureka” moment) is just as hard-working as his owner!
Indeed, Raphaël Hannart is no crank dabbling in the wine-making game out of sheer pretentiousness. He puts in the hours and works hard: “No one forced me to do this – I’m here because I wanted to be!” He enjoys the toil involved in cultivating his 1.8 hectares on the occasionally steep slopes of the Scheierberg, a lovely lieu-dit in Erpeldange (near Bous), where the terraces are made with blocks of gypsum, which has been quarried here for many years.
I learnt everything from Abel, a Portuguese vineyard labourer I met in the café in Bous. He’s a great guy.
However, winemaking wasn’t his first calling. A career in international marketing and business brought him to Luxembourg somewhat by chance in 1995 to work in the banking sector. He left the world of finance in 2002 to join the fine food and drinks sector, an industry in which he had previously been happily involved in Belgium since 1992. In this new phase, he specialised in advising SMEs on developing their export strategies for Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
In 2009, he decided to put his knowledge into practice and set up his first brand, Happy People Planet. This saw him launch a range of organic dried fruit coated in … organic chocolate of course! The company based in Enghien, Belgium (in Hainaut Province in the region of Wallonia), sells products to a dozen countries, with exports reaching as far as Japan. “We use about forty recipes for our brand and for other brands too,” he explains. “They are available in Luxembourg from Naturata, Naturalia and Alima.”
Chocolate is one thing, but why winemaking on the Luxembourg Moselle? It’s partly to do with Raphaël Hannart’s attachment to his adoptive country, where he has been living since 1995. Added to this is the fact that Moselle wine stirs a certain sense of nostalgia in him. “My grandmother regularly visited Luxembourg, and each time, she bought crémant and juice from Vinsmoselle,” he reminisces. “These drinks and Luxembourgian beer were always served at her house. Through my child’s eyes, the Grand Duchy was therefore a place where they made crémants, wine, beer and juice!”
The region clearly holds a special place in his family’s heart, since both his and his wife’s grandparents spent their honeymoon here! With all this in his background, he took a chance and set up Happy Duchy in 2010 alongside Happy People Planet. “I wanted to set up an organic craft business in Luxembourg and it became quickly apparent that winemaking was the obvious choice.”
At first, he was a complete novice, but undeterred by this, started knocking on doors, not least to find out where he could buy a vineyard. “It was Joé Beissel (Domaine Beissel in Bous, which is also organic) who told me that Jean Rhein was selling two parcels and those were the ones I started with,” he smiles. He then bought vineyards from Jean’s brother, Fernand, and Nico Schumacher, a farmer from Erpeldange.
However, cultivating these vines was another kettle of fish. “I learnt everything from Abel, a Portuguese vineyard labourer I met in the café in Bous. He’s a great guy.” Raphaël Hannart’s philosophy is very simple – don’t do anything without showing total respect for nature. A griffe (a pronged tool) pulled by his horse is used to aerate the soil in which he plants indigenous seeds in the spaces between rows, including oats, mustard, crimson clover and buckwheat. “It’s a form of permaculture,” he says appreciatively. The large insect population in his vineyard prove just how rich this ecosystem is.
In the end, vinification and not wine-growing proved to be Raphaël Hannart’s sticking point. With under two hectares, investing in a cellar and all the necessary equipment is not financially viable. The winegrower has therefore enlisted the services of Yves Sunnen (Domaine Sunnen-Hoffmann in Remerschen) a pioneer in Luxembourgian organic wine. “When he has a gap in his schedule, he calls me and I harvest my grapes, which he vinifies in my own barriques or tanks that he sets aside for me,” he explains. This is a good solution as it enables him to benefit from his supplier’s experience and expertise as an astute, meticulous winemaker. However, there is only so much space in Yves Sunnen’s cellar. This means he can’t take on any more grapes.
Although he is a realist, Raphaël Hannart is also a dreamer. “If I had a cellar, I could have more vineyards, which would be great…” Who knows what the future holds? Fortune favours the brave, and there’s no doubt that if the opportunity arises, he’ll snap it up!