The Wallonia Route: Forget beer, Belgium's wine is rapidly becoming a tourist attraction
From grain to grape
My hands are already stained purple, but I can't resist grabbing another plump grape from the vine, which is eye-catchingly shrouded in autumnal golden leaves.
It's maybe the sweetest fruit I've ever tasted, all gooey with juice and perfectly ripe.
I'm not in France, by the way. I'm actually just across the border, in a country much more widely renowned for its beer. Belgium is so synonymous with grain over grape that the cutesy-cobbled city of Namur, about an hour's drive from Brussels, has a street called Rue des Brasseurs (Brewers Street) which centuries ago housed an impressive 18 breweries.
But now, there are none in the centre of Namur. Instead, we're here to visit the luscious green fields of the Wallonia countryside (a region in the predominantly French-speaking south, of which Namur is the capital) where three trend-setting vineyards lie.
Visit these essential stops on the Wallonia wine route.
1. Domaine Viticole du Chenoy
Where: La Bruyere.
How much: €9 for a one-and-a-half to two-hour visit of the vineyard and the cuverie, plus a tasting.
Wallonia is known for its unabashedly slow place, so we take our time driving from Namur along the River Meuse into the countryside.
At the end of a muddy track, bundles of pretty yellow, pink and white roses adorn vines, which slope for 10 acres over the rolling hills of the Ardennes.
We are greeted by 80-year-old Philippe Grafe, who only started making wine at the age of 65, but now produces around 40,000 litres every year - he sells to restaurants in the area and it can also be bought from online (belgianwines.com/nl).
Philippe always knew the fertile soil in Wallonia could be worthy of high-quality wine once again. The Belgians have a history of wine-making dating back to the 9th century, but making beer quickly became more popular. Add to that a huge drop in temperatures, and wine-making had virtually disappeared by the beginning of the 19th century.
But a visit to Camel Valley Vineyard in Cornwall finally inspired Philippe to try and give wine-making a go - and not just for local consumption, but to produce bottles worthy of the international market. And so he started with five different white grape varieties and one red grape, back in 2001.
His charming farmhouse is a delightful place to spend a lunchtime tasting wine - especially with the accompaniment of creamy Belgian cheeses, such as Le P'tit Fagot, Nosterdam, and Fromage a la biere, from Namur's famous cheese and charcuterie shop, Maison Saint Aubain (saint-aubain.com).
We even have a go at cutting the vines and picking the grapes ourselves; there's something unexpectedly relaxing about being out in the fresh air, not using machinery, but simply snipping away. Philippe says many locals love to come and help out with the harvest, just for fun (and tourists can, too).
Tipple to take home: The Perle de Wallonie is a delicious dry sparkling wine made with three grapes - johanniter (40pc), bronner (30pc) and merzling (30pc). It's left to ferment for 15 months in the bottle (the same as Champagne) but uses only five-and-a-half grams of sugar per litre. Expect fruity aromas (peach, apricot), with a touch of lime at the finish (€14.25a bottle).
2. Chateau de Bioul
How much: Hunting dinners from €115; new tours will be from €15pp
What do you do when you inherit an 11th century castle? Turn it into an 11-hectare vineyard, of course. That's exactly what former comedienne Vanessa Wyckmans-Vaxelaire did.
Walking over the drawbridge into the beautifully restored courtyard, wine barrels transformed into tables, it's undeniably a special setting.
Renovated several times over the last few centuries, the castle is a fascinating patchwork of different styles, and there's a magical French elegance about the place.
After showing us around her home (she is the 5th generation to live here) Vanessa walks us up a steep hillside behind the castle's looming stone brick walls to snoop around the vines. The different varieties include johanniter, muscaris and pinotin (reminiscent respectively of riesling, muscat and pinot noir).
The grapes are perfectly adapted, she says, to northern climates, so there's no need for any chemical fertilisers and they will be certified as organic in 2019.
With it's beautiful Sleeping Beauty turrets glinting in the sunshine, I imagine how wonderful it must be to live here.
The doors of the castle are open Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, and Sunday afternoons until December 17, for a gourmet Hunting dinner cooked by Namur chef Stefan Jacobs. There are also plans to start tours and open a restaurant at Chateau de Bioul in March next year.
Tipple to take home: The sharp passion fruit flavour of the Terre Charlot (€12.50) is particularly memorable. But my absolute favourite? The Brut des Houilleres (€18.50) is one of freshest, perfectly balanced sparkling rosés I've ever tried.
3. Domaine du Ry d'Argent
Where: Bovesse, Namur
How much: €10 for a one-and-a-half-hour tour, including a tasting of four wines.
After working with his neighbour Philippe (from Domaine du Chenoy), young talent Jean-Francois Baele converted a weathered family farm into a vineyard.
Set in a perfect location between the Sambre and Meuse rivers, it's on the same south-facing hillside as Philippe's enterprise, and the two men share machinery.
Walking us around his wine cellar, Jean-Francois tells us Belgium has huge possibilities for chardonnay, as there isn't the pressure of fungus, which blights other European wine-growing regions. He is already selling his produce - made from German grapes - to restaurants and retailers in Belgium, and hopefully Luxembourg soon, but his ultimate aim is to crack the British market.
From the window of the cosy room upstairs, wine in hand, we peer out over the 7.5 hectares of solaris grape. On a clear day, you can see the fortifications of the rocky outcrop of the Namur citadel in the distance.
Even though Wallonia shares similar grape growing conditions with neighbouring region Champagne, Jean-Francois is experimenting with "new-style" wines - and his flavours are remarkably unusual, such as the acidic punch of the Brin de Paille, with green apple and citrus aromas, that goes particularly well with smoked salmon.
Tipple to take home: Matured in oak barrels, the full-bodied Le Boise 2009 (€16.50) was voted runner-up Belgian red wine at the 2011 awards of the VVS (Vereniging Vlaamse Sommeliers), the professional association of Flemish sommeliers. But my top choice is the Rosee d'Audrey, the Ry d'Argent estate's first sparkling wine, which has the aroma of strawberries, raspberries and cherries, with a lemony freshness (€16).
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