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The Smallest Wine Producing Country in the World, Wallonia, Belgium:
The story of modern Belgium Wine production starts in France. And, in the UK and Germany too. Our first stop on the wine and gastronomy tour of Wallonia was at the vineyards of the charming and effervescent 80-year old Philippe Grafé who is, perhaps, at the heart of all Belgian Wine.
Having spent the first part of his adult life, until the age of 65 working at Grafé Lecocq, where as Managing Director he was responsible for the import, storage and resale of some of the finest wine in the world he decided to reinstate a Wallonian tradition that had all but died out. By the Middle Ages, wine was being produced in Wallonia along the banks of the River Meuse. But, it was mostly for local consumption and the idea that Belgium could produce a quality wine worthy of the International market came, so Philippe said, from a visit to Camel Valley in Cornwall where he saw how the English had developed their own unique range of sparkling wines that could compete with Champagne on the International wine circuit.
He did his own research and selected a range of grapes to use in Belgium that he believed would work well with the terroir. Remember, this is a man whose entire adult life so far had been devoted to wine. So, he might just have had a head start when he picked five different white grape varieties and one red grape to plant on the 10-acre winery he conceived in 2001, Domaine du Chenoy. The original white grapes – Bronner, Merzling, Helios Johanniter and Solaris and the original red grape variety, Regent are all German and mostly originated from a need to develop disease-resistant vines – the work of the grape breeding institute in Freiburg, Germany by Norbert Becker and others in the 1960s. After planting 3 hectares of white grapes and 3 of red, he then went on to plant the remainder of the vineyard with four more grape varieties – Pinotin, Rondo, Cabertin and a table grape, Muscat Blue.
The advantage of Domaine du Chenoy is that the vineyard is situated close to a river, the Ry d’Argent and on a gentle slope which is south facing. It’s a microclimate which works well for the cultivation of grapes, although there are certain techniques used to ensure success – including a planting plan which allows plenty of space between the vines. The soil is 70% limestone and 30% clay. Grapes are picked by hand; Domaine du Chenoy is something of an institution and Philippe told us that people visit to take part in the harvest. And then the wines are made – depending on what grapes are successful each year. We tasted through the range with some local meats and cheeses.
Philippe explained that production depends entirely on the climate in Wallonia each year. In 2015, a good year, there was 100,000 litres of wine while 2016 was poor with just 13,000. This year appears to have had a miraculous recovery from a late frost in April.
The sparkling wine is actually produced at the nearby Domaine du Ry d’Argent but it is clear Phillipe uses methods to create the finest possible results. The 2014 sparkling wine, for example, was produced using the traditional method but had a 15-month second fermentation in bottle. Using Johanniter (40%), Bronner (30%) and Merzling (30%) the Perle de Wallonie is a lovely dry sparkling wine that benefits from a low dosage, just 3.5g of sugar. It is quite delicious…
I enjoyed all of Phillipe’s wine – and loved his passion and enthusiasm. A significant positive influence on the development of Belgian Wine we heard more about him as we travelled to the other vineyards on our tour. And, two of the restaurants we visited also chose to serve us pairings of Domain du Chenoy wines.
On the first evening though, our hosts at La Fete au Palais picked the wines of Chateau Bon Baron – a vineyard we didn’t have a chance to visit but one where the grape varietals are a mixture of traditional French Grapes (pinot noir and chardonnay) and others. I love regional wines paired with regional food and here we enjoyed a Quenelle of Pike followed by Salade Liegoise and pork fillet with mustard butter.
We also had a tasty little amuse bouche that had us all foxed until we learnt that it was a tiny petit gris vol au vent. Across the table there were cries of ‘I ate a snail and liked it’.
Chateau de Bioul, our second vineyard, was another great example of Belgian entrepreneurial spirit. It turns out that Vanessa Wyckmans-Vaxelaire was given the choice by her husband of him or a life on the stage (as a comedienne) and of course she picked him – and then, just because it seems like another perfect marriage, of Chateau and land this time, they started to make wine.
It’s now a family passion – on the way to organic certification and with a wine tour, tasting and restaurant opening in April 2018 for the public.
All in the glorious setting of the Chateau which dates back to the 11th century. After a rather chequered history, it was bought by Vanessa’s grandfather in 1906 – the founder of discount department stores in Belgium. He carried out extensive renovation but, by the time Vanessa inherited, the department store business was no more, so she and her husband needed a new way to generate an income.
It’s obvious when you meet Vanessa that she loves what she is doing. Up on the hill at the top of the vineyard we looked down on rows of neatly planted vines puncutated by beehives to help with pollination. She spoke enthusiastically about her wines. Most depend on the same German grapes that Phillipe works with, but Vanessa also has a particularly delicious sparkling rose which is made from Pinotin and black Cabernet produced using traditional methods.
We went on to dine at Le Grill des Tanneurs – a restaurant in one of the boutique hotels in Namur. There, our steak was ‘Boeuf Blanc Bleu Belge’ – a specialist breed famous for ‘double muscling’ – a characteristic that results in particularly tender meat. Served with a sauce sambre et meuse (tomato and tarragon) it was my idea of a simple heaven.
Dinner in the evening was a more refined gastronomic affair.
Moma in Annevoie-Rouillon served us a four-course menu which included a slow cooked poached egg and smoked eel followed by Chicken Rousse de Lustin, from a farm in Wallonia that specialises in managing some heritage breeds on a free range basis to produce the ultimate result.
My companions finished their meal with the famous Wepion strawberries marinated in vervain with an olive oil sorbet. But, since I have an allergy to strawberries I ate chocolate instead;)
At Domaine du Ry d’Argent the next day we found more evidence of the influence of Philippe on Belgian winemakers. Jean-François Baele dreamed of converting the family farm to a vineyard. At the age of just 22 he started his dream working with Philippe, whose vineyard is next door.
He planted a hectare of solaris grape vines in 2006. Now he has 7.5 hectares and a thriving wine cellar where he not only makes his own wine but also produces sparkling wines for Philippe. While his techniques are modern, his enthusiasm is no less.
Our tour of the vineyards of Belgium ended, as it should, with a meal. This time at Les Vents d’Anges where we enjoyed pork with a fruity sauce made from Sirop de Liège. And, more wines from Domaine du Chenoy.
For me, this was a true insight into how things evolve due to chance. Philippe starting winemaking at the age of 65 was perhaps fulfilling a lifelong dream. Jean-François was his neighbour and was clearly under the spell of this charismatic oenophile. The jigsaw is completed by Vanessa who inherited a Chateau – and so obviously, needed to make wine!
Thinking of travelling to Wallonia? Why not pin this post for later
I was a guest of The Wallonia Tourism Board. For more information see their website
I travelled by Eurostar from London to Brussels. Fares start at £29 one way and the journey takes just over two hours