Bold Belgians hatch plan to reverse wine's tide of history

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The Independent Online

Neat rows of vines stretch right across the hill and, as the temperature hits 33 degrees, it looks like a scene from Bordeaux, as workers tend the plants in the summer heat. But this is Belgium and the home of a small but audacious plan to dent Gallic domination of the wine industry.

Neat rows of vines stretch right across the hill and, as the temperature hits 33 degrees, it looks like a scene from Bordeaux, as workers tend the plants in the summer heat. But this is Belgium and the home of a small but audacious plan to dent Gallic domination of the wine industry.

After 40 years in the drinks business in Namur, Philippe Grafé is on a mission to reverse the tide of history and bring large-scale wine-making back to Wallonia, the French-speaking half of Belgium.

If things go to plan, by 2008-9, Mr Grafé expects an output of 60,000 litres, or 80,000 bottles, of his Domaine du Chenoy - about 70 per cent of it red wine. Meanwhile, the government of Wallonia is creating a new appellation d'origine contrôlée which, from next year, will license wine from the region under the name Côtes de Sambre et Meuse.

As he looks out over his recently planted vines, 13km north of Namur, Mr Grafé cannot conceal his excitement. "I want to prove that it is possible to complete this project here, 50km from Brussels. This is like throwing a stone into the garden of the traditional producers in France, Italy and Spain.

"I am 66, I am retired and I feel as if I now have a second life because I have the chance to make my convictions come true, and to fulfil my dream."

Inspiration came when a Dutch friend brought a bottle of Seyval Blanc wine from - of all places - Cornwall. It was, Mr Grafé says, "delicious - superb". And then came the thought: if such a product can be produced in England, why not Belgium? After all, it has been done before. Records show that there were vineyards near modern-day Liège as early as AD987, and during the Middle Ages wine was produced in abbeys right across the region. But by the 19th century production had dropped to a trickle. The causes of this decline are the subject of controversy among historians: some blame the French for sabotaging an industry that competed with their own. But it is more likely that during the 19th-century wars French soldiers ripped up vines for fires to keep warm, while the dislocation produced by years of conflict produced a slump in demand.

A modest revival has been under way for some years in Flanders where, in 2001, 53,195 litres were produced in the Hageland region and another 71,699 litres in Haspengouw. Most of this is white wine (some of it very good), although there is some pinot noir.

No figures are available for Wallonia, with its estimated 58 producers, underlining the fact that wine-making is small-scale and strictly for local consumption.

Mr Grafé is determined to take advantage of what he describes as a "revolution" in wine-producing techniques. He is importing new varieties of vines, produced in Germany and capable of withstanding the climate of northern Europe, resisting diseases such as mildew, and producing gamay or cabernet franc-style wine.

Jean-Jacques Delhaye, secretary-general of the Belgian Wine and Spirits Association, acknowledges that Belgium is never going to take on France as a wine producer. But he believes that a small but strong industry can help farmers to diversify and spawn tourism, and promises that under the appellation system being created "we will not let anything but quality products through".

Efforts to boost local wine-making are supported by José Happart, Wallonia's Agriculture Minister, whose aide Hugues Decaminada argues: "There is no pretence that we are going to compete with the big French chateaux,but it is possible, if things are done correctly and with good ingredients, to create a good-quality product."

Mr Grafé opens a couple of bottles of extremely drinkable wine produced in Germany from the vines he has planted. As he sips a glass of ruby red, with a strong bouquet and a distinctive, New World flavour, he declares: "If I am able to make that, and sell it for €6 to €7, I shall be happy." He has invested about €800,000 (£550,000) in the venture, but if he can match the quality achieved by German producers, Belgians can be relied on to support a home-grown project. As Mr Grafé puts it: "People are curious to see what I will produce. They will want to taste it and, if it is good, they will come back."

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