Jo Cortenraedt - 2009-02-16
Among the planet’s many wine-growing regions, Belgium and the Netherlands tend to keep a low profile. But the success of Dutch and Belgian vineyards is steadily increasing.
According to certain historians, viticulture in Benelux was interrupted during the Napoleonic occupation. Given that the emperor considered wine-making to be an exclusively French privilege, grapevines cultivated elsewhere would have been destroyed. Others doubt this version of history and blame climate change for the decline of the vine.
In recent years, young plants have been reintroduced to the region, especially in the undulating Dutch and Belgian Limburg valley, where conditions are conducive to the cultivation of wine grapes, thanks to south-facing hills, slightly higher summer temperatures and a sub-soil rich in chalk. Until recently, grapevine cultivation had been confined to such curious regions as the drained polders of Flevoland in the IJsselmeer, a landscape as flat as a lake. But according to connoisseurs, the best wines of Benelux are definitely to be found in the rolling valleys of the south.
Between Belgium and the Netherlands, there are now approximately twenty estates where wine is grown and vinified in a suitably professional manner.
One of Holland’s oldest estates is the Apostelhoeve in Maastricht, beautifully situated on the southern slopes of the Jekerdal. The Hulst family oversees an annual production of some 50,000 bottles of Müller-Thurgau, Auxerrois, Riesling and Pinot Gris. These wines are considered to be among the best vintages of Benelux; you’ll find them on the wine lists of many restaurants here. They are also sold elsewhere, including at the estate, where guided tours are proposed.
There are other wine-making estates of the Dutch Limbourg which produce perfectly respectable wines, including Hoeve Nekum in Maastricht, Wijngoed Fromberg in Ubachsberg, Domein Aldenborgh in Eys and St Mauritius in Schin op Geul. On the Belgian side, the wineries Aldeneyck in Maaseik and Pietershof in Teuven are well-regarded.
The largest wine-growing estate in Benelux: Genoels-Elderen in Riemst
Located in Belgium, this estate is managed by a Dutchman, the ex-businessman Jaap van Rennes. In 1991, van Rennes bought the seigniorial Genoels-Elderen Castle in Riemst, in the orchard-riddled region of Haspengouw; he began planting grapevines the following year.
Nowadays the estate covers no fewer than 20 hectares, and it seems likely that it will soon be extended to 30 – a state of affairs that would make a small-scale French wine-grower turn green with envy! On the average, it already produces around 85,000 bottles per year, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Van Rennes celebrated his 70th birthday some years ago, but he still bubbles over with energy. His daughter Joyce, who’s spent time in Burgundy learning the tricks of the trade, uses all of the modern vinification techniques available, from automated sorting machines to large-capacity wine presses. In great, magnificently restored cellars, the wine is aged in French oak casks which are completely renovated every three years.
The price of a bottle of Genoels-Elderen ranges from € 10 to € 30. Many bottles are found on restaurant wine lists throughout all of Belgium and the southern Netherlands - certain vintages are even exported to Japan and may be found in a few select Parisian establishments. And with over 20,000 visitors taking advantage of the chateau’s very popular guided tours each year, a lot of Genoels-Elderen wine is sold at the estate.
The 2008 harvest promises a top quality vintage, but with a big drop in quantity. ‘We won’t produce even half as many bottles as usual,’ explains Jaap van Rennes, ‘but we can’t do anything about that. Nature makes those decisions, and she’s been less generous this year; the weather was unstable, the soil too wet and the sun didn’t shine very often. Maybe it was a good year for the plants themselves, since they could benefit from a spell of calm. In any case, the most important thing is quality – we can’t afford to make any concessions there. An incredible amount of wine is produced all over the world; quality is the only means that will allow us to make our mark in Benelux.’
Tel: 12 391349