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).

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