16 February 2017

Leave Hong Kong to Bohol, Philippines

Sorry to leave our nice hotel. It's early in the morning we got to catch a 07:50 flight and the fabulous Airport Express is not running early enough. So we need a taxi and get a brand new electric Tesla. Beautiful, quiet and of course not polluting the Hong Kong air, which is often on the brink of health limits. In part this is because of factories on the Chinese side, but traffic, air-conditioning and so much more energy consumption in Hong Kong itself play a part.

As we drive past the Kowloon station I notice a lot of roadwork, and I ask our driver. He says they are building a new high speed train station that will connect with the Shenzhen station just on the other side of the border and offer seamless superfast connection with Beijing. One more way that Hong Kong is becoming more and more integrated with the mainland.

To fly to the Philippines you need to check-in at terminal 2, but there are no gates there. After check-in, you can walk to terminal 1, about ten minutes, or take a shuttle which takes virtually no time.

The Hong Kong airport is my favorite in the world. Bright, spacious, beautiful, full of great shopping and food, efficient. Of course, free and fast wifi everywhere.

After an uneventful flight to Manila we have to wait a few hours for our connection to Bohol. Manila airport is a bit chaotic but we find a nice bench outside, it's a sunny day and wifi is free. Time goes by relatively fast before we are called in to board a Philippines Air flight. It's OK, nothing to write home about.

When we arrive in Bohol it's raining, not a good start. But it's warm and our driver has a comfy car with cool water and A/C, so the two-hour ride to our resort is bearable. Before setting off we stop at a large shopping mall near the airport to get some cash from an ATM, it would be our last chance here.

Seafood soup
By about 7:00pm we reach our resort, Amun Ini, in Anda, on the eastern side of Bohol. We are tired and hungry. After leaving our stuff in the room we head to the restaurant, a beautiful terrace overlooking the resort's garden and pool. Food is plentiful land varied, and
it will be for the rest of our stay.

12 February 2017

Massage and electric treatment

Today Ouyang takes us to his favorite Spa for a session of massage and hot tub bath. To get there, I ride on his motorbike while my wife rents a moto-taxi. None of us has any helmet, in keeping with local practice. I am not sure if I am more scared of hurting my head or making my cold worse. In the end everything goes smoothly.

It is a great couple of hours. He knows this town very well, he says he does not like to travel and spends some time every day taking care of his body at various salons. He is in his mid-forties and looks a good ten years younger. He has a membership card with many and the staff clearly know him very well as a regular.

Two minute Chinese ladies perform a powerful and very professional massage in a dimly lit room. Massage sessions alternate with dips in a very hot tub filled with water and herbs. A thin sheet of plastic is laid on the tub's surface before it is filled up with steaming water, ensuring proper hygiene. We get nice slippers and disposable undies, as well as soft towels. Quite a break compared to the chilly weather outside. At the end, we are served herbal tea in the waiting room, and Ouyang joins us for a chat with the owner, a lady she knows well for being a regular. Our two masseuses stand by. I can only speak to them with the help of translation, but I want to make sure they know I really enjoyed their treatment and look forward to coming back soon.

Electric practitioner diplomas and Chairman Mao

Traditional Chinese herbs
We then go to a practitioner who Ouyang says can treat my cold. Upon arrival I am offered a potion of tea and herbs to drink. He then performs a kind of electric treatment by gently rubbing my back with his hands while electricity flows through his body. He can adjust power with a pedal. It is a bit uncomfortable at first but then I get used to it.

My muscles contract when he revs up the current. All of this lasts about 45 minutes. More herbal tea is served at the end.



As we leave the practice, I feel a bit shaken up by the electricity, but overall I do feel better. My cold is still there, we'll see the results later.

Street vendor of fruits and veggies
Just outside a lady with balancing baskets on her shoulders approaches. We buy some from her, she is quite friendly and the prices are good, so says my wife. It is a pleasure to find these sellers in a day and age where supermarkets (which I think do have a role to play, so convenient!) seem about to take over even in smaller Chinese towns like this.

04 February 2017

Arrival in Hong Kong

Every time I arrive at the Hong Kong international airport I am amazed. By the beauty the spacious check-in area wrapped the high concave ceiling, by the brightness of it all by the free superfast internet connection that does not require complicated login procedures.

And by the MTR train. The Mass Transit Rail that takes you to Hong Kong in a little over 20 minutes. At each station, luggage carts are ready for travelers, perfectly lined up in sets of three in front of each door of the train: solid, clean, smart-looking and free. I think back to Rome Fiumicino, where it costs 2 Euro to rent one and they are usually rickety and dirty. Never mind...

Meet and greet from our hotel. A very thin man, in his early sixties, come to help with our carts full of cases and diving equipment. he said he has been working for our hotel for 24 years. He leps us buy a ticket for the Airport Express, takes our trolleys to the platform, puts them in the luggage racks of the train car for us, tells us on which side of the train the door will open at our stop, and leaves after refusing a tip which I was handing him in gratitude.

13 January 2017

Film review: The Story of Qiuju (1992) by Zhang Yimou, ****


Synopsis

Qiu ju, a peasant woman in Shaanxi province (central China) seeks redress for her husband, who has been badly kicked by the village chief following a trivial dispute. Local authorities rule in her favor, the chief is ready to pay compensation but does not apologize.

Qiu ju appeal to ever higher higher levels of government but the result is always the same. There is a stalemate in the proceedings until an unexpected turn of events puts Quiju and the chief face to face again. She will come to regret being so stubborn.
going to see a doctor

One of the first films by director Zhang with his long time collaborator and, at the time, partner Gong Li.


Review

Interesting peek into provincial China in the 1980s, and the contrast between hard, backward rural life and rapidly modernizing cities. The director uses "verité" camera to show us real street life, which makes the film part documentary.

This film also shows a very sympathetic bureaucracy, ready to listen to the grievances of a country girl, which may not always be the case in real China. Maybe the director was trying to be ironic about this or perhaps the movie is meant as an encouragement for real civil servants and law and order officials to do their job.

It is also a story of human relationships: one moral of the story is that even when something wrong is done to you, you need to keep calm and find a way out that is reasonable. For us non-Chinese the film illustrates very well the value of not "losing face" in China. All is well that ends well? Not really, but I won't give the ending away...

See my reviews of other films about China here in this blog.


selling chilis to pay for a lawsuit













In the UK buy it here



In the US buy it here




11 January 2017

Tasting of Belgian wines

Tastings of Belgian Wines, January 2017

Here are my tasting notes for a selection of Belgian wines I have tasted in December 2016 and January 2017.

Scoring follows the A.I.S. scale of 0-100. Prices are indicative and may vary with time and depending on source. QTP = Quality-to-price ratio

Genoels-Elderen, Haspengouw

Magnificent castle at Genoels-Elderen, on the edge of the homonymous village, a stone's throw from Tongeren, near some Roman tumuli (tombs) of the 1st century AD. The original building dates back to 1132, it was the summer residence of the bishop of Liège. The people of Tongeren, angry with the bishop for excessive taxation and other vexation to which they were subjected, burned the villa a couple of times over the centuries, but it was always rebuilt. The underground cellars of that period are still in use.

The owners, the van Rennes family, planted the first 800 vines in 1990 as a hobby. Today, the vineyard boasts 22 hectares and over 10,000 plants. Joyce, the original van Rennes’ daughter, is the firm’s oenologist. Her husband Stefan manages all the work in the vineyards. Since 2006, sparkling wine has been produced with the Classic Method. In the coldest years, like 2015, they produce only sparkling wines, in the warmer ones, like 2016, only still wine. Otherwise both.

Sparkling Zwarte Parel (Black Pearl) 2012, 12.5% vol.
Chardonnay 41%, Viognier 59%
Intense straw yellow, energetic and fine perlage. Exotic fruit and yellow flowers prevail on the nose; carbon exuberance and the refreshing effect of lemon notes; Despite the unusual cuvée, the palate offers freshly balanced freshness. Moderate persistence (5 sec). Mature. It can be paired to with fish soups, or seafood spaghetti with lemongrass. Score 80. Euro 15 at vineyard.

Sparkling Zilver Parel (Silver Pearl) 2011, 12.5% vol.
Chardonnay 100%
We move one step up with Coer de Cuvée, obtained by eliminating the first and the last part of the must during pressing, and keeping only the “heart”. Brilliant straw yellow, intensely fragrant, both in fruity and in the note of yeast (three years on lees), pineapple and yellow peach bring complexity along with a slight hint of white flowers. It has a freshly attenuated effect with elegance from a little dosage, closes with an aromatic return of roasted hazelnut. It can accompany white meat, from lemon sauce chicken with a slice of suckling calf with light cream. Score 84. Euro 22 at vineyerd.

Sparkling Rose Parel (Pink Rose) 2013, 12.5% vol.
Prevalence of black pinot
Light cherries color. Vibrant foam and microscopic bubble. Fragrant and fruity, ripe red apple, white plum and yellow cherries. Vigor in fruity freshness derives from Pinot and the sapidity helps build a rich structure. Paired with champagne-sauce risotto and seafood pasta dishes, possibly with a Wienerschnitzel. Score 88. Euro 19 at vineyard.

Chardonnay white label 2014, 13% vol.
After 18 months of steel it has a brilliant golden yellow color with some green shades. The nose is full of classic chardonnay fragrance: white flowers (iris and acacia) and tropical fruit are accompanied by vanilla to make for a complex wine. Balanced soft / sapid effect, which makes long and elegant aromatic persistence. Grilled fish and vegetables. Score 90. Euro: not available for retail, only for restaurants.

Chardonnay blue label, 2014, 13% vol.
It has a golden color tone, the nose is intense of mango and papaya. Six months in wood after six in steel make for a balanced wine. It is perfect for crustaceans. Also for tartare or carpaccio. Score 92. Euro 13 at the vineyard, great QTP.

Chardonnay Gold Label 2012, 13% vol.
Late harvest (late October) and Draconian limit of 25 hl / hectare. Flagship wine, this bottle shines with a magnificent deep gold, and the nose expresses intense apples and orange jam. One year in wood and 6 months in steel, then one year in bottle. Very complex to the nose and palate, buttery end. Very persistent (10 sec). Great with dishes full of character, such as lobsters, quail and structured cheeses. Score 95. Euro 26.

Pinot Nero 2013, 13% vol.
The only red of the house: deep ruby, fresh, notes of raspberries and Goji. Moderately intense and persistent. One year in French oak barrels (30% new). A wine that could express itself to the best after a few years in the bottle. It can be combined with soft cheeses, but it may also take on an eggplant parmigiana. Score 86. S bit expensive at euro 26.


Schorpion, Haspengouw

The vineyard lies in the heart of Limburg. In 1994 the brothers Wilfried and Robert Schorpion launched the company and have since reaped growing success, focusing on their bubbles. Chardonnay and black pinot are flanked by white pinot and auxerrois. Intriguing the old Roman motto adopted by the house: Sapere aude! (Dare to know!)

Sparkling Goud (Gold) 2014, 12% vol.
Chardonnay, Auxerrois and Pinot Bianco
Very fresh this blanc de blancs. Average size of perlage with regular chains. Moderately intense notes of lemon and green apple. Moderate persistence. Good aperitif with raw shrimp or caviar, it can be combined with a pasta with four cheeses. I found it excellent also as a sorbet, served quite cold, between two full-bodied dishes. Ready. Score 88. Euro 20 online.

Clos d'Opleeuw, Haspengouw

Peter Colemont produced fruit, only later thought of wine, and so was born Clos d'Opleeuw, adjacent to the village of Gors. Clay soil and an ideal slope of 7% create an ideal stage on which Peter can perform. He decided to focus on the chardonnay, trying to mimic the style of Burgundy, using French and Belgian oak barrels. Only about 4000 bottles, of which a few hundred are part of his Cuvée prestige: more wood, the best part of the parcel and vines planted closer together.

Chardonnay Cuvée Prestige, 2014, 13% vol.
What a surprise! Deep gold, deep, intense and consistent. Vanilla scents blossom in the strong sapidity. This does not detract that the wine is already round and soft (due to a year in new French and Belgian oak), and in perfect balance. Ready for those who love chardonnay fresh and savory, a bit Chablis style. A persistent, harmonious wine with potential to explore over the years. Pair it with pork ribs or American roasted turkey in red fruit sauce. Certainly with mussels with white wine, garlic and parsley à la belge. This bottle is a real flagship of Belgian enology. Score 96. Euro 35, very well spent if you are lucky to find some bottles.


Entre Deux Monts, Heuvelland

Martin Bacquaert grew up in his dad's wine shop and studied viticulture and winemaking in France. In 2004, the first kerner plants, followed by other varieties of vines for a total of 14,000 plants today. The name comes from the two mountains (rolling hills, actually), Red and Black, which put the vineyard in Heuvelland, just a few hundred meters from the border with France.

Sparkling Wiscoutre Rosé 2014, 12% vol.
Chardonnay, pinot black, kernel
The name of this wine comes from an ancient Frankish tribe who lived in the region. Cherry color, very fresh nose and prevalence of lime and mandarin to the palate. Red fruit notes in the background. An assembled rose obtained with prevalence of hard sensations. Moderate persistence (5 sec) and intensity. One year sur lattes. A mature wine. You can drink it alone, as an aperitif, perhaps accompanying it with nuts, salted peanuts, pistachios or olive paté croutons.


Pietershof, Vlaamse Landwijn

Vineyard in the Fourons region, between the cities of Aachen, Liège and Maastricht, on the border with the Netherlands. Limestone rich in minerals. The nearest town is Nurop, near Teuven, in the Gulp valley. Region of wine traditions since the Romans. Varietals used by Piet Akkermans are white and gray pinot, auxerrois, chardonnay and black pinot.

Pinot Gris / Pinot Noir Rosé, 12.5%
The best of Pietershof's wines is this interesting cuvée of two Pinot. Light yellow cherry color, moderately consistent cherry blossom immediately reveals intense strawberry notes on the nose. Tasting is balanced with raw almond and parsley. A wine of moderate texture and persistence. Mature. It can be paired to a sauté of mussels and clams.

Aldeneyck, Vlaamse Landwijn

Already in 750 AD vineyard were cultivated around the abbey of Alden Iker Saints Harlindis and Relindis, in Limburg. After centuries of darkness, Jake Purnot and then Hein and Charles Henckens and his wife Debbie in 1999 decided to make their passion for wine a real job. The first white pinot were planted on the slopes along the Meuse. The experiment has consolidated into a 7-hectare vineyard with 30,000 black and gray pinots. Yield is kept below 50hl/hectare by hand selecting about half the bunches (egrappage).

Aldeneyck Chardonnay Heerenlaak 2014, 12.7% vol.
Last born in Aldeneyck family, a surprising Chardonnay. Intense and complex in the nose, vanilla and pineapple in the foreground. Mineral and fresh but already round, soft, perfectly balanced. Two years in new barriques. Very persistent (10 sec). A wine of great structure, harmonious, still young but with great and unexplored potential. To pair with moderately structured dishes such as a pan-fried sole, or a seafood risotto. Score 95. Euro 18 online.

Aldeneyck Pinot Noir 2014, 12.8% vol.
Intense ruby red, moderate intensity of yellow cherries on the nose, champignon in the mouth. When the cork was pulled out, despite 10 months in barrique, it offered overwhelming hard feelings that were smoother several hours later. Moderately persistent. As a character recalls the Pinot from Alsace. Wine that has to wait in bottle to achieve greater balance. Combined with strongly structured and greasy dishes such as an Alsace choucroute or a Belgian stoemp with boudin. Score 86. Euro 18 online.

Château Bon Baron, Côtes de Sambre et Meuse

The first vineyards of these lands that we know of appear in postcards of the nineteenth century in the area of Profondeville. Bon Baron adheres to strictly organic principles. Jeannette van der Steen and her husband Piotr started in 2001. What was a small production to be shared with a few friends has become, with 17 hectares, one of the country's largest vineyards, spread over three plots along the Meuse.

Château Bon Baron Pinot Noir 2013, 12% vol.
Intense ruby color, mossy and smoky to the nose. On the palate moderate persistence with predominant wild red fruit. Freshness coexists alongside a pleasant velvety feeling and results in a balanced wine. Little structure despite a year in barriques. An easy black pinot without much evolutionary potential. It can be combined with medium structure cheese. Score 78. Eur 22 online.

Château Bon Baron Acolon 2014, 13% vol.
The best red of Bon Baron, perhaps of all of Belgium. Acolon is a German varietal created in 1971 by the Staatliche Lehr-und Versuchsanstalt für Wein und Obstbau in Weinsberg (Baden Württemberg) crossing dornfelder and blaufrankisch. Dark ruby red color. Moderately intense to the nose, red and black fruit with embryonic notes of cocoa and leather. Good minerality and a year in new barrique make it a balanced, medium-structured, ready wine that could give more satisfaction in the years to come. To be paired with game, mushroom risotto or medium-aged cheese. Score 89. Euro 19 online.

Château Bon Baron Chardonnay 2013, 12.5% ​​vol.
Deep yellow gold. Medium intensity and persistence of vanilla and ripe pineapple. On the palate are mature yellow apples, with honey notes. Minimality prominent but well balanced by 18 months in barriques. Medium body. Ready, secure evolutionary potential for 3 or 4 years. You can drink it with a pasta with red sauce seafood, or with monkfish and baked potatoes. Score 89. Euro 21 online.

Le Vignoble des Agaises, Vins de Pays des Jardins de Vallonie

Beginning with 600 pinot black plants, Raymond Leroy realized a dream that had begun in his wine cellar. From the two initial hectares in 2002 today we have23 that maybe will increase again, perhaps up to 30 or so, no more because the land with the ideal characteristics is limited. The great advantage of the farm is the constant ventilation that dries his plants from the frequent Belgian rains. Not by chance, just beside the vineyard, there is a powerful battery of wind generators. He only produces sparkling wines with the classic method. White grape chardonnay. Pinot Noir and meunier only for rosé.

Spumante Ruffus Cuvée du Seigneur 2014, 12.5% ​​vol.
Chardonnay 100%, Little sugar added (6 g)
Base wine, straw yellow. You immediately feel the chard fragrance of fresh bread. Freshness is decisively prevalent on the palate, with decisive and capricious perlage and medium minerality. A wine of moderate balance and persistence, suitable to be enjoyed as an aperitif with seafood or bruschetta. Score 84. Eur 16 at the vineyard.

Spumante Ruffus Sauvage 2011, 12.5% ​​vol.
Chardonnay 100%, pas dosé
The only difference from the Seigneur is the lack of dosage. Straw yellow color. Lime and yellow apples on the nose. On the palate it is fresh and mineral. Apples appear with citrus hints but they do not disturb the balance. Although it is a 2011, it is advisable to wait a few years to smooth the acidity. Moderately persistent. Perfect with oysters and seafood or raw crustaceans. Score 89. Eur 19 at the vineyard.

Spumante Ruffus rosé 2014, 12.5% vol.
50% chardonnay, 25% pinot black, 25% pinot meunier, 6g sugar
Unlike in Champagne, where white and red wines are produced separately then blended to make rosé, here they work on the right maceration of red grapes and vinify the whole cuvée together. Light cherry color, this rosé displays a medium perlage, the nose is intense with apple and yellow cherry. The palate is less fresh than the white cuvées, with ripe tangerine notes and ends with surprising vanilla hints. Balanced, moderately persistent and ready. Pair with "matjes" herring or smoked salmon croutons. Score 89. Eur 22 but very difficult to find this bottle.

Thorn, Maasvalleiwijn, The Netherlands

This vineyard is located in the Dutch Limburg, near Maastricht, just a few hundred meters from the Belgian border. So it is a Dutch wine, though they are asking, along with Aldeneyck (Belgian Limburg, see above) a cross-border designation (Belgium / Netherlands) that will be called Maasvallei Limburg. One can build Europe also with wine. It produces its whites (Auxerrois, Pinot Grigio, Dornfelder) in steel or mixed steel and French oak (new or old). On the other hand for its Pinot Noir it opted exclusively for French barriques.

Thorn Black Pinot 2013, 13% vol.
Ruby red is very intense, nose offers underwood and fern. Moderately consistent, complex and intense. On the palate peppercorn notes and cocoa. Round tannins, gifted by its time in oak barrels (30% new, 70% used). Well balanced, and moderately long. A mature wine. Combined with sweet ham of Friuli, medium seasoning cheese or French onion soup. Score 83. Euro 22 online.

10 January 2017

Controlled designations of origin and protected geographical indications of Belgian wine

As is the case in so many other areas, viticulture Belgium is divided into two regions: Flanders (Dutch-speaking) and Walloon (French-speaking).

Flanders

The designations of origin in Flanders are: Hageland, Haspengouw, and Vlaamse Heuvelland Mousserende Kwaliteitswijn for sparkling wines.

The Hageland region is at the center of the country, and it includes Aarshot, Tienen and Leuven. We know of vineyards going back at least to the twelfth century. The soil is mainly composed of silt, sand and sandstone. Hageland denomination was the first to be established, in 1997. Authorized varietals include müller-thurgau, optima, ortega, kerner, siegerrebe, pinots (gray, white, black and precocious black), chardonnay, riesling, auxerrois, bacchus, schön citizen, dominatrix, dornfelder, limberger, sirius, regent, wurzer, johanniter and merlot.

Haspengouw ( established in 1999) is located in the northeast of the country, in Limburg, between Hasselt, Sint-Truiden, Herk-de-Stad and Herstappe up to the border with Holland. The origins date back to the twelfth century. The soil is mainly sandy, with clay and limestone substrate. The grapes grown are Müller-Thurgau, Kerner, Siegerrebe, Pinot (white, gray, black and Meunier), Chardonnay, Riesling, Auxerrois, optima, ortega, Dornfelder, Wurzen, Bacchus and Merlot.

Heuvelland (established in 2000) is situated in the west, in the hills of Monteberg, Kemmelberg, Vidaigneberg, Rodeberg and Zwarteberg. Though mainly in the Flanders, a small part crosses over to Wallonia. The hills provide ideal draining slopes even if their altitude does not exceed 120 meters. Sandy soil is alternated with clay and rich in iron ore sandstone. The main vineyard are in Klijte, Dranouter, Kemmel, Loker, Nieuwkerke Reningelst, Westouter, Wijtschate and Wulvergem. Varietals admitted include: müller-thurgau, kerner, siegerrebe, pinot (black and gray), chardonnay, riesling, auxerrois, dornfelder, regent, cabernet sauvignon, johanniter and muscat.

Since 2005 there is a specific name for sparkling wines produced in Flanders with the traditional classic method: Vlaamse Mousserende Kwaliteitswijn (quality sparkling wine of Flanders). Maximum yield 80 hl per hectare. Permitted grapes: chardonnay, pinot (black, meunier, white, gray), auxerrois, riesling. It is a sector of wine production that is enjoying rapid growth.

Finally, there is a geographical indication for wines without designation of origin: Vlaamse Landwijn (loosely translatable as table wine of Flanders). The only requirement is that the must be made from grapes of vitis vinifera, or from hybrids between this and other species of the genus vitis.

Wallonia

IIn Wallonia there is one geographical designation: Côtes de Sambre et Meuse (2004), and another, Crémant de Vallonie (2008), for sparkling wines.

The production area of Côtes de Sambre et Meuse corresponds to the catchment area of the river Meuse, consisting in turn eight sub-basins: Meuse upstream and downstream, Sambre, Ourthe, Amblève, Semois, Chiers, Vesdre and Lesse. These areas correspond to the valleys between the two rivers Sambre and Meuse. The hills are very suitable for vines, with optimal slope for drainage and oriented to take advantage of the heat released by the water of the two rivers. The substrate consists of a thin layer of clay with silt, limestone and sand. There are around thirty winegrowers, for a total of about thirty hectares, about 80,000 plants and a production of one thousand hectoliters. The authorized grapes are auxerrois, bronner, chardonnay, chasselas, chenin, gamay, gewürztraminer, johanniter, madeleine of angevine, merlot, merzeling, müller-thurgau, muscat, ortega, various pinots (white, regent, riesling, gray and black) rivaner, seibel, siegerrebe and traminer.

Sparkling wines produced with the classic method have enjoyed rapid success and have demonstrated some of the best wine produced in Belgium. For the Crémant de Vallonie the varietals are Chardonnay and four pinot (black, white, meunier, gray). If a winemaker adds auxerrois or riesling the denomination becomes Vin mousseux de qualité de Wallonie (quality sparkling wine of Wallonia).


For the geographical indication Vins des Jardins de Vallonie (wine of the gardens of Wallonia, 2004) the rules are the same as for the Vlaamse landwijn.

For a brief history of wine in Belgium see another post in this blog.

NOTE: This post is part of an article which appeared in Italian in the issue n. 12 of the magazine Vitae, published by the Italian Sommelier Association (AIS).

09 January 2017

A brief introduction to the history of Belgian Wine

Sparkling wine made in Belgium
When one thinks of Belgian drinks, it is beer that come to mind. It is, without any shadow of a doubt, among the best in the world. One also think of fried potatoes and chocolate. Or perhaps Flemish lace and jazz, after all Adolphe Sax was Walloon. Few among those who will to read this post probably heard of, let alone tasted, Belgian wine. And yet, wine production in Belgium goes back a long time, and has recently made a remarkable comeback.

Ancient origins

When the Romans colonized a new land, they paid attention to two details: thermal baths and wine. Vital pleasures to reward the legions after their battles. In Belgium, the town of Spa (in Latin it means Salus per Aquam, health through water) has become synonym with thermal baths all over the world. And how about wine?

When I moved to Belgium in 1994 I could not find any local wine, for a good reason: there wasn’t any. And yet, wine in Belgium has ancient roots. It was part of that cultural heritage that Rome had inherited from Greece and would have left to the rest of Europe. In the Gallia Belgica, besides Spa, one finds the footprint of Roman wine. The Gallia Belgica was larger than today’s Belgium, and we know for sure there were Roman vineyards along the river Moselle, in today’s Luxembourg and Germany, and one find traces of Roman vines along the Meuse and the Schelde rivers, in today’s Belgium.

Unfortunately it often happened that Roman works were neglected after the departure of the legions, either for lack of interest by local populations or because of their technical incompetence: the thermal baths of Bath, in England, which were clogged up with mud until the nineteenth century, are a case in point. Likewise, the vineyards of Gallia Belgica grew wild and no more wine was produced for a long time.

The middle ages

It was in Amay, around 634 AD, that someone once again planted vines. Around the eighth century, in the late Merovingian period, we have once again reports of vineyards around Liège and Huy, along the banks of the river Meuse. By the ninth century various historical sources tell us that viticulture had spread widely, with small family vineyards in many villages, not only along the Meuse. However, we do not have detailed information on the quantities of wine produced, let alone on its quality. The main wine centers were Brussels, Malines (Mechelen), Briolet (near Charleroi), Tournai, and especially Torgny, in the extreme south of the country, which produced wine almost without interruption until the end of the twentieth century.

From the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, there is more documentation on Belgian winemakers and vineyards, though not much about the wine they produced. A certain Monsieur Schayes wrote two articles on the subject: "Sur la culture de la vigne en Belgique" 1833, and "Sur l'ancienne culture de la vigne en Belgique", in 1843. The scholar mentioned that vineyards appeared around Tournai, Leuven and even within the walls of Antwerp. Belgian wine survived, just, hanging by a thin thread.

In the seventeenth century northern Europe was hit by the so-called "Little Ice Age", with many very cold vintages, which yielded sour and acid wine. Many vineyards were destroyed by the weather or had to be extirpated.

But a more threatening enemy, worse than the fiercest storm, appeared on the horizon of the North Sea: the potato. With its arrival from America and its rapid spread in the north European cuisine, many local farmers found it more profitable to cultivate tubers than grapes. Potatoes supplied more nourishment and the harvest was rich immediately (with a vineyard it is necessary to wait at least four years). Still today, Belgium is famous around the world for its fried potatoes!

Independence and the re-birth of Belgian wine

A further blow to viticulture came between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the protectionist policy of Napoleon imposed heavy taxes on all non-French wines. New hopes arose with the independence of the Kingdom of Belgium, in 1830. The new state was trying to support its wines with a Royal decree of 8 February 1833 on the development of “model vineyard”. But the tricolor wine, black, yellow and red, found it hard to take off.

The agricultural census of 1846 tells us that across the country there were only 66 hectares of vineyards. The next one, of 1866, refers to 290 hectares, a significant increase, even if a part of the harvest was intended for the production of table grapes and not wine. The first greenhouse were built around Brussels (Hoeilaart, Overijse), to try and fight off the weather. Different grape varieties were tried: Frankenthal, Royal, Colman and Chasselas. It looked like the foundations had been laid for a sustainable recovery, but it was not to be. From the seventies phylloxera hit Belgium, like the rest of Europe, clipping the wings to the budding production. Belgian growers tried again, against all odds, towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Joseph Halkin, in his little book Culture de la Vigne en Belgique, published in 1895, listed dozens of places across the country where, according to land registry archives, there were notable vineyards. The long list includes Brussels and many surrounding areas, such as Wavre, Overijse, Auderghem, Schaerbeek, Villers-la-ville and others. Very small family productions, varying quality, and virtually no regulation.

In the first half of the twentieth century viticulture developed largely in greenhouses. During the world wars, wine was not a priority for the small country, once again ravaged by highly destructive battles fought on its soil by foreign armies, and vineyards disappeared almost completely.

Belgian wine today

Clos de la Zolette, near Tragny, in the far south of the country, was responsible for the post-war revival of wine in Belgium. In 1955 Auguste Lajoux tried to cross Riesling and Sylvaner, but the newly planted vines were destroyed by the following terrible winter. Undaunted, Auguste tried again in 1959, an exceptionally warm year, and he managed a first harvest of 800 kg of grapes.

In 1961 Lajoux was succeeded by René Waty and subsequent years yielded mixed results. In 1964, and then in 1970, 3500kg. In 1968, nothing, everything was lost to spring frosts. During these years wine was initially made in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, where there was availability of facilities, but in the sixties Jean Muneaut bought the necessary equipment and vinification took place in Belgium. In 1973 Georges Petit took the reins, and remained at his post for over thirty years, maybe too many, he was not able to upgrade and innovate at the Clos.

The Clos de la Zolette enjoyed a promising period. From 1980 there was also an attempt to start commercial production. But in 1987 a new tremendous frost made it necessary to uproot the vines, which were doggedly replanted the following year. With highs and lows, production continued until 2005, when this pioneering and noble attempt was abandoned. Today, Clos de la Zolette is a nature reserve.

At the same time, other growers, both Flemish and Walloons, continued to challenge the elements to make wine. The qualitative leap occurred in the nineties of the last century. A series of warm years, the acquisition of new technologies, more methodical scientific research to find the most suitable areas and grape varieties, and the training of young agronomists and oenologists abroad, all contributed to the first significant achievements.

In 2015 wine production exceeded for the first time the one million liters mark, a significant increase compared to previous years. Nearly eighty percent was white (including sparkling wines): Chardonnay was the preferred variety. Twenty percent are red, among which the Pinot Noir is the star. Sparkling wines are playing a growing role and in some years have come to exceed forty percent of production. Rosé wines amount to under five percent.

In general, small vineyards prevail, two or three hectares on average, although recently there has been a considerable expansion of some companies. Some were born as a family pastime and then grew to reach over ten hectares.

Today about seventy varieties of grapes are grown by over 250 professional growers in Belgium, of which thirty-four are authorized in controlled designation areas. The main ones are Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Müller-Thurgau, regent, Auxerrois, Sieger, Dornfelder, different varieties of Muscat, Riesling, Sirius, Léon Millot, Solaris and Gewürztraminer.

For a discussion of Belgian controlled designation of origin and protected geographical indications, as well as some tasting notes, see other posts in this blog.

If you live in Belgium and are interested in joining a club of wine lovers visit www.brusselswineclub.eu and get in touch!

For a description of Belgian controlled denominations of wine see another post in this blog.

NOTE: This post is part of an article which appeared in Italian in the issue n. 12 of the magazine Vitae, published by the Italian Sommelier Association (AIS).

29 December 2016

Film review: Alamar (2009) by Pedro Gonzalez Rubio, ***

Synopsis

Jorge and Roberta have been separated for several years. They simply come from opposite worlds: he likes an uncomplicated life in the jungle, while she prefers a more urban existence. He is Mexican and she is Italian, and she has decided to return to Rome with their five-year-old son, Natan. Before they leave, Jorge wishes to take young Natan on a trip, hoping to teach him about his Mayan origins in Mexico. At first the boy is physically and emotionally uncomfortable with the whole affair, and gets seasick on the boat taking them to their destination. But as father and son spend more time together, Natan begins a learning experience that will remain with him forever.


Review

The real life of a family of mixed ethnic background. Or, rather, of what could have been a family but wasn't. Not sure what the point is about this film. You can get a glimpse of a lesser known part of Mexico, yes, and pristine waters along the Banco Chinchorro, one of the largest and most stunning coral reefs in the world. But then what? The little kid is going to grow up and probably wonder what were his parents thinking when they made him. What was his mother, especially, thinking to get pregnant with a man she knew she could never live with. Or perhaps she could have but she did not want to. She preferred her cosy life in Rome to giving her son a family. The father too, he might have moved to Rome, but didn't. Maybe the movie is an indictment of irresponsible love adventures by careless travelers, and if so maybe it does have a purpose after all. Beautiful photography.


You can buy this film here.

11 December 2016

Film review: A Perfect World (1993), by Clint Eastwood, ***

Synopsis

Academy Award winners Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood confront each other from opposite sides of the law in A Perfect World, an acclaimed, multilayered manhunt saga (directed by Eastwood) that rumbles down Texas backroads toward a harrowing collision with fate. Costner plays Butch Haynes, a hardened prison escapee on the lam with a young hostage (T.J. Lowther in a remarkable film debut) who sees in Butch the father figure he never had. Eastwood is wily Texas Ranger Red Garnett, leading deputies and a criminologist (Laura Dern) on a statewide pursuit. Red knows every road and pothole in the Panhandle. What's more, he knows the elusive Haynes – because their paths have crossed before.





Review


A film about America's south in the 1960s, its gun culture and trigger-happy police. The story unfolds against the background of pre-civil rights movement racial relations. A culture that is still to a large extent there, half a century after the time when this movie is set and despite eight years of a black American president.

Clint is his usual hard-nosed expression-less man, and Costner plays very well the role of an equally tough criminal who reveals his inner kindness, even to the child he loves and who eventually contributes to his death.

The movie is a succession of apparently casual events that decide the life or death of people, seemingly by fortuitous coincidences. In a perfect world, there would have been a happy ending, or rather this story would not have started at all!



Choose your favorite Clint Eastwood movies here.

In the US buy it here



Buy other movies by Clint Eastwood here.

03 December 2016

Film review: Eroica (2003) by Simon Cellar Jones, *****

Synopsis

By the time the first public performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ('Eroica') took place in Vienna in 1805, a privileged few had already heard the work at a private play-through at the Lobkowitz Palace in June 1804.

This release brings to life the momentous day that prompted the great Haydn, Beethoven's teacher, to remark 'everything is different from today'.

Review

A film that keeps you glued to the screen from beginning to end even if you don't like classical music. It is a film about a day that changed Western culture, not just music. It put thought into music. Classical music is no longer just for pleasure or, worse, for background, but it is a means of expression for ideas and ideals. In a way, no film can possibly be expected to convey such an enormous feat, it's too important, too far reaching an event to encapsulate in 83 minutes.

Acting is quite good, and so are the costumes. Of course the symphony itself if always a pleasure to listen to. In this case it's Gardiner conducting.

One small inaccuracy is that when he learns that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Beethoven is shown as ripping the title page off, with the famous dedication to Bonaparte, and throwing it away. In fact, he crossed out the words, ripping up the paper in doing so.



In the UK buy your favorite version of Beethoven's Eroica here on Amazon.



Browse your Eroica versions here on Amazon

Here about the novelty of this symphony and a version played at the BBC prom