Climate change may have many losers, but also winners. Belgian wine definitely belongs to the latter category. In the 1990s the pioneers were declared crazy to plant vines in rainy and cold Belgium. Nowadays, their example is followed by dozens of others. The number of hectares under vine went up from 72 hectares in 2006 to 383 hectares in 2018, a year in which nearly 2 million litres of wine were made by 140 producers. Apart from the spectacular rise, these numbers also show that the average surface per producer is 2,7 ha, which indicates how much the boom in Belgian wine making is driven by small iniatives. While there are a few bigger wineries with 15-20 hectares, this is nothing compared to the UK, another winner of climate change, where top sparkling wine producer Nyetimber alone has 350 hectares. While available surface in the UK is obviously much bigger, it illustrates the difference in size of these undertakings.
Not very surprisingly the pioneers mostly made sparkling wines in the early years, as these are not so demanding in terms of ripeness of the grapes, or they made still wines with hybrid grape varieties that are more disease resistant. Nowadays, however, there are countless experiments with grape varieties and vinification techniques. Just to give an idea : one audacious wine maker even planted Tempranillo, not exactly the variety that springs to mind as a candidate for the Belgian climate.
Another sign of the dynamism in Belgian wine making is the fact that vineyards pop up literally everywhere. Despite the fact that there are protected designations of origin (PDO), there are many new vineyards outside of these zones. And even within the PDOs the rules are deliberately kept very flexible in terms of allowed grape varieties or vinification techniques. The regulatory bodies are well aware that wine making in Belgium is in full development and that sufficient leeway should be given to see what works and what doesn’t.
All of this makes for very exciting times for Belgian wine making. And the next logical step has been made : for the first time in history Belgium had a pavilion with nine wineries at ProWein (Düsseldorf), one of the world’s biggest wine trade fairs. Some of the Belgian wineries already export to neighboring countries, but for others this was a window to the rest of the world. But most importantly, perhaps, this was an occasion to show what is going on in Belgium, gain experience and, above all, get feedback from an international professional public.
An important nuance needs to be made, however, as only the Dutch speaking Flemish side was represented. The wineries from French speaking Wallonia decided the timing was not good to participate this year. Indeed, 2021 was a challenging vintage and the yield was very low, dramatically reducing the number of bottles to be sold. A concern, by the way, that also some of the Flemish participants voiced.
In general the diversity of the wines was big, but more importantly : the quality of the wines was good, and at times even impressive. ProWein showed that Belgium is making wine that should be taken seriously. The leading wineries have become professional organizations and their best wines can compete internationally.
Below are some of the highlights of the wines that were presented at ProWein. The prices between brackets are consumer prices.
Meerdael is one the pioneers of Belgian wine : the vineyards were planted in 1994 and the first bottles of sparkling wine appeared on the market in 1998. Situated 30km east of Brussels, they have 8 hectares with 60.000 vines of Chardonnay planted on chalk soil. Making sparkling wine was the plan of Paul and An Vleminckx-Lefever from the beginning, and that is what they are still doing today. Apart from a very limited production of rosé sparkling wine, Meerdael only makes one wine, the Chardonnay Meerdael (+/- 19€), a traditional method sparkling wine of 100% Chardonnay. The wine spends 2 years on the lees, resulting in a very pleasant and accessible sparkling wine with apple and pear aroma’s and fine bubbles.
Genoels-Elderen is the biggest winery in Belgium and another one of the pioneers. They are situated near the border with the Netherlands, just next to Maastricht. When they planted their vineyards in 1990 many declared them crazy to try and make wine in Belgium. Today they have 22 hectares and are not only known in Belgium, but also export to the UK, Hong Kong, Japan and even France, where their wines are on the list of the restaurants of famous chef Alain Ducasse. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the main grape varieties here, with which they make both still and sparkling wines. Cellar master Joyce van Rennes was trained in Burgundy, and that is clear in the wines she makes. The Chardonnay Goud 2018 (28,20€) has a very attractive nose with ripe apple and well-dosed oak. This is full-bodied, yet well-balanced Chardonnay that can perfectly rival its famous siblings from Burgundy. The sparkling wines are also particularly good : both the Zwarte Parel, or Black Pearl, (18,90€) as the Zilveren Parel, or Silver Pearl, (28,20€) are attractive sparkling wines. The Zwarte Parel is 100% Chardonnay (7g/l dosage, 3 years on the lees) and displays green apple and yeasty notes. This is very refreshing and refined with an elegant mousse and mild acidity. For the Zilveren Parel (8g/l dosage, 5 years on the lees), the Chardonnay is aged for one year in the oak barrels that have been used for the still wines. The result is a somewhat riper and fuller sparkling wine, with a delicate mousse.
40km further north lies Aldeneyck, a winery that sold its first wines in 2003 and is one the forces behind Europe’s first cross-border protected designation of orgin , the Maasvallei, uniting Belgian and Dutch wineries along the river Maas. Aldeneyck has 10 hectares and a relatively big range of wines, both still and sparkling. While a few of the grape varieties that are used here are also found in the Alsace, France, the style is anything but Alsatian. The Pinot Gris 2020 (14,90€), for example, is very mineral with beautiful flint aromas, and refreshing acidity. The Riesling 2019 (14,90€) is also a big success here. While some wineries in Belgium try their hand at making Riesling, it is rare to find one that has the typicity of Riesling. At Aldeneyck they succeeded not only in making a Riesling with good typicity, but also a very attractive one, with loads of exotic fruit and minerality, and gorgeous acidity. Finally, the Chardonnay 2020 (22,90€) is simply an impressive wine with aromas of apple, oak, and buttery notes. The balance of this wine is impeccable, with purity of fruit and a creamy mouthfeel.
At the other end of the country, on the border with France, lies Entre-Deux-Monts. From 3 hectares in 2005 the winery evolved to be one of the biggest today with 20 hectares and 11 different wines, both still and sparkling. The region is popular for weekend getaways, and Entre-Deux-Monts made a smart move to respond to this with organising guided walks and offering lunch boxes that you can have in the vineyards. The style of their wines in general is fruity and accessible. The Wiscoutre traditional method sparkling wine (17,50€), for example, is made of Kerner and Chardonnay and makes a pleasant apéritif (7-9g/l dosage, 15 months on the lees). The Bacquaert Brut (22,25€), named after the owner, is clearly a step up on the ladder, offering more complexity and power, green apple and refined brioche aromas. The still wines of this blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (5-7 g/l dosage, 30 months on the lees) were aged in wood barrels, although this is not immediately noticeable in the nose, but rather in the volume that is nicely supported by fine and creamy bubbles.
Less than 10km from Ghent, and practically on the banks of the river Schelde, lies Domein Waes. Created by brothers Lodewijk and Lieven Waes in 2005, the winery has 4 hectares and works exclusively with hybrid grapes, the likes of rondo, regent, solaris and others. Lodewijk Waes is also the president of the Flemish association of wine makers, representing more than 100 wineries. While hybrid grapes are still seen by some as second rank grapes, Domein Waes proves that it is possible to make attractive wines with international appeal from these grape varieties . The Waes Wit 2020 (20€) is a white wine made of Bianca and Solaris and has a very fresh citrusy nose, with delicate smoky aromas. On the palate this wine is particularly fresh and lively due to its vibrant acidity that lingers in the finish. The Waes Rood 2020 (20€) is made of Rondo, Regent and Leon-Millot and has a very appealing nose with ripe, luscious fruit and oak. On the palate this wine has a fresh, acidic vein running through the wine that gives elegance and balance.
Another winery that practically lies in the shadow of a big city is Oud Conynsbergh, situated at roughly 10km from Antwerp. With the first vines planted only in 2014, Oud Conynsbergh is a recent creation by a group of 8 friends. There are four different vineyards, together 10 hectares, where they planted Pinot Auxerrois, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gamay. Oud Conynsbergh is certified organic, no small feat in Belgium, and it is clear from their wines that they make few compromises. The Parel Chardonnay 2018 (27€ – 26 months on the lees) is a sparkling wine without dosage and very little sulfite (less than 35g). With its beautiful green apple and brioche aromas, it is particularly appealing . The mousse is very refined and the wine is elegant and pure. The fact that this is made from very young vines makes this effort even more impressive. The Pinot Auxerrois 2019 (18€) is an intriguing wine. It underwent spontaneous fermentation and was aged in a barrel of acacia wood. While it is a bit timid on the nose, it is very expressive on the palate with exotic fruit and well dosed wood. It is very round and creamy and you might even think that there is a bit of sweetness. That is why the wine did not do the malolactic fermentation, to preserve the freshness, and that worked out really well for this wine.
Domein Hoenshof is situated in the east of Belgium, in a village called Borgloon. What started in 2002 as a hobby is now a project of 6,5 hectares where no less than 30 grape varieties are planted. The will to experiment at Hoenshof is strong : there is a Chardonnay (12,90€), for example, that is dry hopped, a cheeky wink to Belgium’s beer culture. Or a Souvignier Gris with the name Goddelijk Monster (12,90€), or divine monster, aged in barrels that were used to make Belgium’s famous Gueuze beer. It’s the red wines, however, that are the showstoppers here. The Cabernet Barrique 2020 (19,90€) is a blend of Cabernet Cortis, Cabernet Cantor and Cabaret Noir. The nose offers forest fruit and a vegetal note, slightly reminiscent of a Loire Cabernet Franc. The juicy fruit is supported by good acidity, which makes for a nicely balanced, medium-bodied wine. The Stierenbloed 2019 (19,90€), or Bull’s Blood, is a reference to the Hungarian Egri Bikaver, and a blend of Cabernet Dorsa, Cabernet Cantor and Cabernet Cortis. It spent 24 months on barriques. This wine is slightly riper and more powerful than the Cabernet Barrique. This makes for a very complete and attractive wine with forest fruit, subtle oak, freshness and ripe tannins. The balance of this wine is just beautiful.
The most recently created winery at the Belgian pavilion was Gloire de Duras, a family project that is partly converting from fruit trees (apples and pears) to grapes. Despite the fact that growing grapes is much more labor intensive than growing pears and apples, it is considered to be a better investment for the future. Especially growing apples has become a real challenge, as cheaper fruit from Poland is making it sheer impossible to still compete, says owner Peter Nijskens. Even if Gloire de Duras is a very recent creation, the wines already show that there is talent and potential here. The Chardonnay Barrique 2020 (18€) is a very fresh, almost Chablisian Chardonnay, with nice smoky notes in the nose, and apples. Freshness and elegance are the key words for this Chardonnay, and in fact for most of their wines. Also the Pinot Gris Barrique 2020 (17€) is a great example of this style with fresh pear and again those delicate, smoky aromas from the well-dosed wood. This is not an Alsatian style of Pinot Gris, but a lively and balanced wine.
Finally, the last winery at the Belgian pavilion, was perhaps also the most controversial. Wijnkasteel Vandeurzen is the project of entrepreneur Urbain Vandeurzen, who in 2013 bought a castle with 11 hectares of ground in the region of Leuven, just east of Brussels, and turned it into a modern winery with restaurant. The choice of grapes here is an eclectic combination of Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner, Albariño, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo. The latter may raise more than a few eyebrows, but ironically it is the wine that is most of interest here. The Tempranillo 2019 (25€) has ripe red fruit, and while the wine does not have the body of its Spanish siblings, there is a good balance here between the fruit and the freshness. With the tannins still being a bit angular, this wine will need some time to soften its rough edges.