Belgian wine. It’s doesn’t feel like a given. Shouldn’t there be a question mark behind that?
But bouncing out of the cellars of his vineyard just north of Namur, Philippe Grafé is more of an exclamation mark, looking around with pride on the flinted farmhouse buildings, the barn and the office bungalow that enclose a grassy courtyard. Stretching modestly down towards a local stream, vines are being pruned by three young men, obstructed by two boisterous dogs. I’ve stepped into a haiku. A vineyard haiku, sitting unobtrusively in a nest of juxtaposed hills and valleys against homely Walloon horizons.
When Grafé decided to leave the family wine business in Namur and create the Domaine du Chenoy (http://www.domaine-du-chenoy.com/) he was already 65. He is now approaching 80. He tells me that the—slightly counter-intuitive—motivation behind his decision to establish Wallonia’s first independently professional vineyard was based on sampling an English wine: proof, he felt, that good wines can be produced in northerly climes. Grafé looked for and found a suitable site: an 18th century dairy farm fallen into disrepair and 11 hectares of shallow soil overlying a mixture of limestone, sandstone and shale on inclined terrain (encouraging water run-off). Limestone retains and refracts heat, making the most of the domain’s fully south-facing situation. The auspices were good.
Vine planting began in 2004 using a mixture of interspecific grape varieties created principally at German grape breeding institutes. Grafé shows me the charts detailing the genetic specifics of some of his varieties: Rondo, Regent, Solaris, Bronner, Merzling … are all grape breeds that stand at the end of a long and complicated process involving hand pollination, experimental plantings and production, approval and varietal protection status. Their pedigrees look like something from an upmarket dog show, stretching back for generations. I catch glimpses of old and venerable German grapes (Silvaner, Riesling, Müller-Thurgau) whose familiar bouquets have been cross-bred into these new varieties. And right at the bottom, shoring up the whole shebang are the Adam and Eve of modern European grape breeding: vitis rupestris and vitis lincecumii—grape species native to the United States, used as root stocks to re-establish European viticulture after the Phylloxera wine blight devastated vineyards across the continent in the late 19th century.
The modern European grape varieties nurtured on the roots of the New World are resistant to all manner of diseases. They are robust. Some say that wines made with these varieties reflect that heritage.
Sitting in Grafé’s office, I sample two reds from 2009 and 2010: the Butte aux lièvres and the Taille aux renards. Robust. Definitely. These are wines produced amongst the lairs and burrows of foxes and hares, drunk by an open fire after a day in the fields. But there’s a fruitiness too, the promise of a velvet collar on a tweed jacket. And although the harvest this year has suffered the blight of unpredictable Belgian weather – frost in late April, hail in July – reducing his yield by two-thirds, Grafé beams with optimism as he tips his glass towards mine. We move on to white wines and then sparkling wines. My car sits reproachfully outside. Should I have come on horseback? Or on a pony taken from a woodcut print, wicker baskets full of clinking bottles strapped across its croup?
The charts and statistics, the books and information brochures lie scattered on the rickety pine table. Discarded and disregarded, they’ve given way to the tangibility of Grafé’s most robust vineyard, a haiku of enthusiasm that ends with an exclamation mark: autumn sunlight, a frosted vine, dogs barking. Wine in the barn. Wine on the table. A man that smiles – all day!