Belgium, a story of friends

Did you know that about thirty wineries are fighting to make their 230 hectares of vines a recognized production in the paradise of good beer and fries? The  vineyard surface area in Belgium is tiny!

29_Belgique_M93A0111_EDT
And as the proverb says : ‘everything small is nice’. It’s true, we made friends all the way throughout our trip. All the wineries and all the people that we met during our stay had huge hearts. That’s typical of Belgium, genuine people! Atmosphere and results guaranteed.
Freshly landed in England, we crossed the north of France in order to reach Belgium via Heuvelland.

Entre-Deux-Monts, a family story

The Franco-Belgian border just crossed, a sign indicated the presence of a winery. Yes, Entre-Deux-Monts estate is just 500 meters close to the French border! It owes its name to the two mountains that surround it : the Mont Noir, on the French side and the Mont Rouge, on the Belgian side.

29_Belgique_M93A0016_EDT
With their young 13-hectare vineyard planted in 2004, Entre-Deux-Monts is already a great family story. Three generations are involved in it, Martin Bacquaert explained. « My grandfather owns the land. My father helps me to realize my dream and oversees the business. And I am the young winemaker ». Beneath the watchful eye of his mother, of course.

With poor soils mainly composed of limonite (sandy-loamy compacted rocks with iron), the area offers a beautiful production of white wines.

29_Belgique_IMG_1393_EDT
You can also admire the vineyard from the air via the cable connecting the two mountains. A good opportunity to enjoy some altitude and film an interview with Martin. Normally closed that morning, Regine Becket and Johan Gheysens, Cordoba chairlift owners, put the machine on just for us ; so that we could do the interview. A beautiful gift to Ludo and I, because on this Thursday, July 16, it was our joint birthdays (1)!

Ruffus, the great Belgian bubble

If someone had told me that Belgium have great bubbles other than its Trappist beers, I wouldn’t have believed it. Big mistake… Run to enjoy those of Ruffus estate (2)! Specializing in traditional method sparkling wines, this 20 hectares south facing vineyard, has a superb terroir for the production of fine bubbles.

29_Belgique_M93A0102_EDT
And it works well, John Leroy explained. « Almost all of our wines are pre-sold a year in advance ». The cuvée Franco Dragone 2011 (a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) is of exceptional finesse.
Why such a success ? Very pure chalk soils, only Champagne grape varieties (3) used and long aging are the secrets of their success. « Belgians like minerality in sparkling wines, and ours are full of it », John said.

The man is a phenomenon! As soon as the tasting was completed, John took us to the city of Binche for lunch, with our friend Stéphane, who traveled from Paris just to meet with us.

29_Belgique_IMG_4053_EDT
Friendship is beautiful! The opportunity to taste some Belgian beers (an anniversary requires this), with a special mention of Orval.
Then, a game of pétanque followed in front of the frenzied brand new winery as did the victory of team Stéphane-JB against John-Ludo duo. Don’t mess with pétanque… or with aniseed beverages for that matter. John had warned us that a birthday must be celebrated like that, or not at all!

Château de Bioul, made with love

When a couple of squires – Andy and Vanessa Wyckmans – decided to turn the family castle into a 10 hectare vineyard, they embarked on a crazy adventure together. Their only weapons being energy and determination which force respect.

29_Belgique_M93A1251_EDT
« We had to learn everything from scratch : from planting to farming, through the choice of varietals, winemaking, bottling, marketing and sales », Andy explained. Besides that, they also had to convert some existing buildings, like the winery (an old hay barn). « At first everyone thought we were crazy ; my parents first most! », Vanessa laughed.

The Château de Bioul, which released its first vintage in 2012, can now build its reputation. And the estate’s philosophy does not stop there : creation of lost gardens, cabanas for insects, hedgerows, hives for bees and houses for bats, all around the vineyard. The preservation of biodiversity is one of the primary motivations of this couple of young winemakers.

29_Belgique_IMG_1418_EDT
In the evening, Andy and Vanessa entrusted the keys of the château to us, so that we could park the WINE Explorers’ truck there. That night, we were the guardians of the place!

Some examples of delicious Belgian wines (a climate succeeding primarily in the production of white wines) :
Pinot Gris 2014, from Entre-Deux-Monts
Mossiat 2014, from Château de Bioul (100% Brönner (4))
Blanc de Blancs NM, from Ruffus
Bacquaert Brut NM, from Entre-Deux-Monts (90% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir)
Butte aux lièvres 2007, from Domaine viticole du Chenoy (70% Régent (4), 30% Rondo (4))

29_BELGIQUE_Btl
Domaine viticole du Chenoy, PIWI’s or nothing

At the age of 60, Philippe Grafé decided to realize his lifelong dream : to become a winemaker. The best way, according to him to “sink a happy retirement”. Except that making wine takes (a lot of) time. Now 78 years old and full of energy, Philippe admits that « it is impossible to turn back when you start creating a winery project, and that’s good; although it’s still quite a challenge! ». He added with humor: « all is well this morning, I’m not in the obituary column! ».

29_Belgique_M93A1832_EDT
As a fervent defender of PIWI grapes (5) (otherwise known as interspecific varieties), Philippe strongly believes in these new varieties, resistant to cold, moisture and a number of fungal diseases (6).
“This is the future”, he explained : my vineyard requires four to five times less treatment compaired to a vineyard planted with traditional varieties.
These new varieties with some complex names : Solaris, Johanniter, Cabernet Blanc, Brönner or Merzling for whites ; Rondo, Regent, Pinotin, Cabertin or Blue Muscat for reds (4) were a real discovery for us.
More and more wineries – like here at the Domaine viticole du Chenoy, or the Château de Bioul and in most of the Nordic countries (where the climate is colder) – are now fully planted with PIWI grapes.

29_Belgique_M93A1864_EDT
The taste of these wines, however, seems irregular. Many wonder: can “great” wines be produced from these grapes? Maybe. Not sure. Anyway, the use of these varieties is very recent. And although continuous research is being done (7) , we still lack much feedback on the subject. The debate is open.

As for us, we were off to Mons – the European Capital of Culture 2015 – for a memorable birthday weekend of a camping, where Ludo’s friends joined us for the occasion. The party could begin. 

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

29_Belgique_IMG_1410


Thank you to Entre-deux-Monts, Domaine viticole du Chenoy, Château de Bioul and Ruffus estates for their warm welcome. Thank you to the Cordoba company for switching the machine on just for us. Thank you to Boschman and Christophe Heynen for having advised and guided us in our research of Belgian domains. Thank you to Chai & Bar in Brussels for their support of the project since the beginning of the adventure. Finally, a huge thank you to our friends Stephane Diné, Alain 2015 and Jérome Dieval for making the trip to Belgium to come and enjoy a few drinks with us for a memorable birthday weekend.

(1) Ludo and I are both born on July 16. Remember last year, we celebrated the event on top of the Great Wall of China.
(2) Ruffus is also known under the name Domaine des Agaisses
(3) Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
(4) For more information on these varieties and the PIWI in general: http://www.piwi-international.de/en/information-en.html
(5) PIWI comes from the German « PILZWIDERSTANDSFÄHIGE REBSORTEN », which literally means “vine varieties resistant to fungi”. They were created by crossing European varieties and American fungal resistant varieties. They belong to the type Vitis vinifera, as they are not to be distinguish from a taxonomically point of view (classification of species).
(6) The fungal diseases are usually caused by fungi that attack different species is the green organs of the vine (leaves, twigs, grapes) or trunk; the best known being downy mildew, powdery mildew, Esca, gray mold or the black rot.
(7) For more information, cf. Geisenheim Institute : www.hs-geisenheim.de/


For a tour at Entre-Deux-Monts winery and the region from the air: http://www.heuvelland.be/tourisme/847-www/227-www/606-www.html

England, (a new) kingdom for sparkling wines

Three months were needed for the financing and preparation of the WINE Explorers’ Truck, our new companion. Suffice to say that we were impatient to hit the road again. What a thrilling experience to be able to explore the European vineyards freely!
With an average rate of twelve days per country explored, this vehicle was to be both a customized means of transport as well as an essential working tool for the project.

28_UK_M93A0826_EDT
Our “coach-home-office” ready, we were off to England for the launch of the European tour, with a ferry baptism between Calais and Dover, as a bonus.

A wine history of 2000 years old

Did you know? The history of English wine dates back more than 2000 years (1)! Yet, “modern viticulture” did not appear in England until after the Second World War, under the leadership of Ray Barrington Brock.

28_UK_Exton_Park_M93A0839_EDT
Even though England had always been a country of  connoisseurs (the pioneers in the importation of the famous “Claret” (2) since the twelfth century), the quality of the wines at that time were not yet sufficient, we must admit.

It’s the opposite now. With 135 wineries for less than 2000 hectares of vines (3) (the vineyard area has literally doubled in the last seven years) and some 6.3 million bottles produced in 2014, England has turned to premium wines. And with 70% of the wines produced being sparkling wines, one can clearly say that it sparkles in every way!

28_UK_Exton_Park_M93A0903_EDT
Curious to better understand this phenomenon – and the global buzz that English wines make today – we decided to visit the South, between the counties of Hampshire and West Sussex ; where viticulture would be born.

A similar climate to Champagne

After disembarking from the ferry under a fine rain (and big gray clouds!), we headed to Exton Park, a relatively new estate in the heart of the South Downs, in the Meon Valley. A site where the terroir seems to speak for itself.

28_UK_M93A0894_EDT
“Our vineyard is the dream of every viticulturist. Mainly composed of chalk soils similar to those of the Champagne region, it offers a great variety of sites on the same field”, said Fred Langdale, the vineyard manager.
Best of all, it seems that Southern England has a similar climate to that of the Champagne region 15 years ago. All professionals whom we met were unanimous. An effect of global warming? Who knows… The fact is that the bubbles that we had the chance to taste… literally blew our minds.

28_UK_Exton_Park_M93A0884_EDT
“There is something very special at Exton Park, as elsewhere in the South of England – that contributes to making some of the best sparkling wines”, according to Corinne Seely (4), the winemaker.

Some great sparkling wines to taste urgently :
La Perfide Blanc de Blancs 2009 from Coates & Seely : what finesse !
Blanc de Blancs 2010 from Gusbourne
Rosé NV from Exton Park (70% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Meunier 30%)
Brut NV from Coates & Seely (65% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir)
Brut Reserve 2010 from Gusbourne (68% Chardonnay, 22% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Meunier)

Britagne, the «Britannique Méthode»

Our second stop took us to Coates & Seely, only 1h30 drive from London. This 12 hectare estate, mainly planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, was born from a beautiful friendship story between Nicholas Coates, a former London banker – now converted into a passionate winemaker – and Christian Seely, managing director of AXA Millésimes ; two longtime companions.

28_UK_Coates_seely_M93A1815_EDT
It was during a dinner at Château Pichon-Longueville, in 2007, that these two men took the leap. “Christian already had a business plan in mind”, Nicholas explained.
Around Christmas 2008, and after eight months of research, Nicholas found a vineyard less than 2 miles away from his home. The Coates & Seely’s adventure could begin. Both men had the same goal: to produce sparkling wines that draw both on the tradition of 300 years of great champenoise winemaking methods, while remaining proudly British (5).

At lunch, Nicholas told us the fun story of  the “Britannique  Method”, otherwise marketed ‘Britagne’. An acronym from the words “British” and “Champagne”, well reflecting the humor of our British friends.

28_UK_Coates_seely_M93A1860_EDT
After all, what is best : to make “a French quality sparkling wine” or a wine of “Champagne” wine ?, Nicholas asked us.
“A number of English sparkling wines regularly beat French wines in blind tastings. It was time to invent a generic word for our own English sparkling”, he added, smiling.
The friendly (and eternal) rivalry between the French and the English do not only touch on rugby. And that’s fair !

Gusbourne Estate, a well assumed ambition

“Producing the best sparkling wines in the world”, is the ambition of Andrew Weeber, the founder of Gusbourne, an estate created in 2004.

28_UK_Gusbourne_estate_M93A9437_EDT
With the expertise of key people such as Ben Walgate (managing director), Charlie Holland (oenologist), and Laura Rhys MS (in charge of sales and who joined the team earlier this year), Gusbourne is on track to play in the big leagues. “Although we must be patient”, Ben admitted, since a lot of the vines are still very young. Stay closely tuned, the beginning is already very promising…

28_UK_Gusbourne_estate_M93A9430_EDT
We ended the trip with a dinner at Ben’s place. His wife Emy prepared a delicious chili with homemade guacamole. We ate outside around the fire at the end of their garden, enjoying some ‘local craft beers’… once did not hurt. After dinner, we headed to the village pub for one last pint. A must practice! “All of the villages in England has at least one pub”, Ben said.

An opportunity to remember that although sparkling wines are more than ever at the heart of the debate, Britain first remains the kingdom of beer.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Exton Park, Coates & Seely and Gusbourne estates for their warm welcome. Thank you to Gérard Basset for his valuable recommendations of wineries to visit. Thank you to Laura Rhys for having shared her precious wine knowledges with us.
Finally, thank you to all of you who participated in the financing of the WINE Explorers’ Truck : the VIDELOT group, Chateau Calon Segur, Chateau Lafon-Rochet, Chateau La Conseillante and all the friends and relatives of the project to who we will offer some well-deserved rewards once the project is completed.

(1) Archaeological excavations have revealed amphoras and bronze cups of wine dating from the 1st century BC in southern England.
(2) The famous “French Claret” imported since the twelfth century under the leadership of Henry II – King of England, are wines of a light red color, ranging from a color similar to that of burgundy  to that of a rosé. They have made the fortune of Bordeaux at the time.
(3) There are actually 135 wineries in the country, for 470 vineyards and 1,884 hectares under vine.
(4) Corinne Seely is a brilliant winemaker, who first started winemaking at Chateau Lynch Bages, where she was part of the team that created the first white wine from this estate, before becoming the oenologist at the Domaine de Chevalier, one of the most beautiful vineyards of Bordeaux for white wines.
(5) An English sparkling wine that is named “Britagne” must at least be made from Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay,  have its second fermentation in bottle (plus a number of other wine growing and winemaking techniques that must be strictly adhered to). These wines will therefore be designated as made according to the “Britannique Method”.


For more information on English wines : http://www.englishwineproducers.co.uk