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Wine not: Take a tour around Wallonia's most fruitful vineyards
Wine making in Wallonia is hardly a new occupation. The first vines were planted in the 9th century and by the Middle Ages nearly every village had its own vineyard. Booming hop production led to the decline of local grape growing, until a few pioneering growers revived the tradition in the early 1960s. Since then, the industry has slowly prospered and Wallonia now has 156 vineyards.
Cooler climes favour sparkling and white wines, though red varieties are increasing. Grapes vary from regional hybrids to international names such as pinots and chardonnay.
Many vines are grown in microclimates, such as river banks, walled vineyards and south-facing slopes. There are four labels of quality promoting the larger producers: the AOPs Côte de Sambre et Meuse, Crémant de Wallonie and Vin mousseux de qualité de Wallonie, plus the IGP Vin de pays de jardin.
Despite a minority of vineyards selling their wares, wine production is flourishing, confirms Françoise Dargent, responsible for the wine sector at Apaq-W, Wallonia’s agency for promoting agriculture. “Fortunately, supporting sustainable and local produce is in fashion,” she says, adding that it’s not difficult to be passionate about her job. Part of her mission is encouraging the public to visit estates and discover how local wine is produced: “One of the characteristics of Wallonia’s vineyards is that each estate makes very different tasting wines.”
Home-grown crops include the bigger professional vineyards such as Domaine des Agaises in Hainaut, better known under its brand name Ruffus. It’s been winning awards for its zingy Champagne-style fizzes for a number of years. So popular is demand, customers need to place their orders in advance.
Namur province is home to a number of well-rooted estates. Growing vines on the banks of the river Meuse, near Profondeville, is Château Bon Baron. Equally garlanded, it supplies bottles to gastronomic restaurants in the region and beyond. Domaine du Chenoy and Domaine Ry d’Argent cultivate a variety of grapes on the same south-facing slopes in the Sambre-Meuse valley, while the nearby Château de Bioul produces predominantly white wine. Walloon Brabant’s biggest producer, Domaine de Mellemont, has been growing traditional and lesser-known varieties since 1993.
These established names have inspired newcomers, who are gravitating towards sustainable and organic production. They include the Vin de Liège cooperative, which has been increasing its acreage and volume by raising funds through private investment. Behind the red and white vintages of Septemtriones, also in Liège province, is the Galler family, renowned for its chocolate.
Sparkling wine is the speciality of Domaine du Chant d’Eole, which cultivates the chalky soil of Hainaut, while organic wine is the business of Le Poirier du Loup at Torgny in Luxembourg province, the southernmost of the region’s vineyards and also focused on tourism. Meanwhile, the far-west corner of Wallonia, Comines, is home to La Ferme Bleue, a white wine producer. Another recent convert to the art of growing grapes is the Clos du Chapitre at Nivelles-Baulers. Its owners have transformed 8.5 hectares of land previously devoted to raising cattle into a viable vineyard.
Since 2012, an association of winemakers in Wallonia have made it their mission to develop and protect vineyards in the region. It estimates that production will continue to increase and reach 1 million bottles a year. In 2015, winemakers produced 710,000 bottles; in 2016 that had grown to 850,000.
Wine tourism is also evolving, thanks to initiatives by the Wallonia tourist office and themed events promoting local gastronomy. The domains of Chenoy, Ry d’Argent and Villers-la-Vigne are among the producers spearheading rural tourism, an untapped asset in the region. Wallonia aims to be a destination for wine loves both home and abroad.