Genoels-Elderen: Europe’s northernmost vineyard
Emma talks about her first steps in wine tasting on her visit to the chateau of Genoels-Elderen in Limburg.
“The wonderful thing about wine growing in Flanders is the passion of the young owners” exclaims my blond and pink-lipsticked guide, Bertje, waving her hands.
“It’s about quality, not quantity!”
The Genoels-Elderen wine castle – the only one of its kind in Belgium – nestles in the fertile Haspengouw region surrounding Tongeren. Famous for its juicy apples and pears, the area’s loamy soil is also perfect for growing grapes. Introduced by the Romans, viniculture died out in Flanders in the 17th century; thwarted, first, by a mini Ice Age and, later, by the arrival of Napoleon, who paid Flemish farmers to destroy their vines in order to protect France’s monopoly on vino.
Speaking of Ice Ages, “how on earth have they survived our long, freezing winter?” I ask Bertje. Her mouth curls into a proud smile: “The vines have been specially developed to withstand temperatures of -35C, so it doesn’t bother them at all!”
We wander behind the Classical-style castle, to where the vines spread up the gently sloping hill; their knotted wood protruding from the earth like clenched fists.
The current owner, Jaap van Rennes, had to scrape together these parcels of surrounding farmland when he bought the plot in 1990. His 17 year-old daughter, Joyce, abandoned her studies and went to France to learn how to become a wine grower. Two decades later, her still and sparkling pure-Chardonnay wines consistently win awards.
Bertje lifts a piece of plastic board surrounding the base of a younger plant. “Look! Can you see that there?”, she says, pointing to a stump of red wax. “Like most wine varieties, our chardonnay vine is ‘grafted’ onto an American Chardonnay root, which is highly resistant to insects. They’re melded together and eventually the two become one. European wine owes more to America than we care to admit!” she laughs.
“Do Joyce and the family still live in the mansion?” I enquire, nosily. “Of course! Three generations under one roof!” Bertje replies cheerily. “The current castle dates from the 18th century, but one has existed here since medieval times. The 13th-century cellar still survives. I’m going to show it to you now.”
We descend into the dank cellar. The walls are slick with water and a musty tang hangs in the air. Behind locked, ornate iron gates are piles of oak barrels filled with maturing eau-de vie, a grappa-style drink made from the lower-quality pressed grape juice. The barrels are barely visible beneath a black hairy carpet of fungi which feeds on the fermenting sugars. It’s a stark contrast from the fully automated main cellar where pristine barrels are lined up with military precision.
We finish off the tour with an all-important tasting. Bertje brings a royal-blue bottle, the award-winning Chardonnay Blauw (Blue), to the table and pours a little into each glass. She swirls the wine confidently around the base, whips it upwards, sticks her pert nose over the rim and sniffs deeply. Then it’s down to the lips, a quick sip, suck through the teeth, a wash around the mouth, and swallow. I try to look the part and copy her actions, but my wine sloshes out of my glass and splashes my nose as I try to sniff.
I attempt to redeem myself by murmuring approving sounds. “Mmm, I’m getting hints of honey” I say, hazarding a guess. Silence follows, so we contemplate the contents of our glass some more. “This is still a young wine; it isn’t as smokey as the Gold version. Can you tell?” Bertje asks. “Mmm”, I mumble in agreement.
I’m clearly no wine aficionado, but it doesn’t take an expert to appreciate that, in comparison to the grey clouds outside, here was a little bit of sunshine in a glass.
Story created on 23 April 2013