Beer or wine, you’ll feel fine

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Karel and Tine Henckens-Linssen, Aldeneyck Winery

Gault&Millau present their first guide to Belgian wine.

Belgium is no longer just the home of the world’s greatest beers – we now have some pretty fine wines to choose from as well. Gault&Millau (G&M) presented its very first Belgian wine guide this year. In order to assess the wines G&M assembled a jury of 30 nationally and internationally renowned sommeliers for several blind tastings, it wasn’t an easy task! 

The wine sector is booming in Belgium, there are more than 250 registered winegrowers, cultivating more than 800 hectares of vineyards. That may seem modest compared to the middle ages, when Belgium boasted more than 10,000 hectares, but Belgium’s enthusiasm and aptitude for winemaking looks like it’s on an upward trajectory that shows no signs of slowing down.

Almost 50% of Belgium’s production is dedicated to sparkling wine, usually made using the painstaking techniques of refermentation in the bottle.  The Domaine du Chant d’Eole in Hainaut put a few noses out of joint a few years ago, by winning a prestigious sparkling wine competition, surpassing some rather well-known French Champagnes in a blind-tasting. G&M describes their Cuvée Réserve Brut 2018 as “truly top class!” 

Together had the chance to speak to Dimitri Vander Heyden and Sophie Wautier of Domaine W, at the G&M awards ceremony held in the Steigenberger hotel. Domaine W is fascinating on many levels. They’ve used participatory financing to construct the company. “Club W” members benefit from deductions and what looks like a lot of fun exclusive events. Their wine is the only biodynamically certified wine in Belgium. The decision to choose the biodynamic method – which is more stringent in its approach than simple bio wines – was based on their experience of living in Austria where the best wines are produced using this method. Their Brut de Brabant (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier) received a ‘coup de coeur’ mention. 

Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape variety, accounting for around a third of the total hectarage. Hein Henckens, scion of the Henckens’ Aldeneyck winery in Limburg says: “The Chardonnay has a good acidity here. Not everybody is used to that because sometimes they can be very buttery, ours have a more mineral-like taste.” According to the G&M guide, wines from cooler regions are in great demand because of their extra refinement that comes from their acidity and modest alcohol content. 

Only 15% of Belgian wine is red and a large portion of this is – like in Burgundy – supplied by that most capricious, but rewarding of grapes: Pinot Noir. Indeed, there are many similarities between the Burgundy region and Belgium in terms of soil and climate. Hein says the Limburg region has the climate that Burgundy enjoyed thirty years ago. While everyone is a loser with climate change, the impact has been somewhat favourable for wine growing in Belgium. Aldeneyck’s Charles 2018, was the winner in the G&M red wine category and is described as, “the archetypal Pinot Noir in all its glory.” The fact that Karel Henckens has given the wine his name shows it is a wine he is particularly proud of. 

Interestingly, Hein explains the Maasvallei/Limburg PDO (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) is the only cross border ‘terroir’ in Europe, straddling the Meuse – or the Maas as it is known in that part of the world, it is the warmest and driest part of Belgium.

Aldeneyck’s Riesling 2019 was also a winner. Hein says that Riesling is not always as popular in Belgium, but that it can produce great wines: “My dad is such a fan of it” – as is the guide that describes the wine as: “Lively, fresh and with a subtle presence of residual sugar.” 

With every year knowledge and expertise is growing, but Belgium still only produces around 2 million litres of wine on average per year. This may sound like a lot, but it’s a lot less than we consume. On the whole, Belgian wine growers don’t like to get bogged down in bureaucracy, you won’t hear many passionate defences of the eight protected designations, or even the looser protected geographic indications (Vin de pays des jardins de Wallonie and Vlaamse landwijn), this may change over time. 

The Wine Guide Belgium 2023 has text in Dutch, French and English: www.gaultmillau.be