Pauline - Unloved Countries
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Ode to unsung places
My first time grape picking in Belgium!
1 athletic day
We went grape picking on the family estate of the Closerie des Prébendiers. This winery is located in Huy, in the Province of Liège. It turned out to be quite an athletic day, toning up our thighs while discovering Mr Mouton’s (one of 23 wine growers in the Province) vineyard. The next day, we continue our discovery of the area’s wines with a visit to Joël Petithan in Hamoir. His small vineyard has gathered such momentum, that its reputation even reached the ears of none other than the King of Belgium!
My first time grape picking: quite a work-out!
Well, it hardly qualifies as an earth shattering revelation, but I’m telling you nonetheless; as it turns out, grape picking is quite hard work…especially on Mr Mouton’s land. Although his estate does not stretch out as far as the eye can see, it is located on a craggy hill that would make even the keenest mountain climber think twice about scaling it. His 1,100 grape vines are located on a craggy hill affording sublime views of the river Meuse. Despite the stunning landscape that dazzles us in the early morning light, I predict my body will loathe me a couple of hours from now. Alright, I confess: I’m more used to drinking wine than picking grapes!
Our first time grape harvesting promises to be legendary!
After we are introduced to the team, and warmly welcomed by them, we arm ourselves with harvesting shears and plastic crates and spread out among the rows of vine. Under a surprisingly hot blazing September sun, we work or way through vine stock after vine stock, trying our best not to miss the bunches of grapes that are hidden underneath the vine leaves. First we harvest a small quantity of Pinot noir grapes, and then we take on the Müller-Thurgau and Auxerrois grape varieties (or cépages as they are called in French). The winery only produces white wine. Several vine stocks have suffered from the summer heat and quite a few of them have been scorched by the heat wave. Alas, for winegrowers this is an occupational hazard; grape growing and wine making industries are dependent on the weather’s mercy, even more so in an era with increasingly unpredictable weather conditions.
My hands are sticky with sugar and grape sap, and pretty soon they are covered in blisters. We work alongside the others in a very friendly atmosphere, after a while our group of 20 something people have more or less gotten acquainted. The grapes are harvested by friends and young grape pickers, some of them come back every year to help Jacques with his plots.
The terraced vineyards resemble giant staircases
After a rather boozy lunch, where only small amounts of water are ingested, we put our gardening gloves back on, but are slightly the worse for wear, and walk a bit unsteadily. The combination of alcohol, blazing sun and our thighs aching from the kilometres walked this morning is quite something, and we feel like we have a long, very long afternoon ahead. The vineyard terraces resemble giant staircases, and we relentlessly climb up and down. Well almost…Around four in the afternoon, I admit defeat, park my derrière on the ground, and will budge no more!
From vine to wine...
I make the most of the moment by observing what becomes of the handpicked grapes. Jacques and his friends are tirelessly feeding grapes into the grape crusher and destemmer. This huge machine gobbles up kilos of grapes per minute. It separates the berries from the stalk, the stem that holds the fruit together. The stalk is then put aside for other uses.
Once the grapes in the basin have been separated from their stems and crushed, they are poured into two presses made out of oak slats. The winemakers then harvest the juice from the lower part of the press. The juice is then sifted en poured into enormous vats for the final stage, the vinification. Jacques Mouton produces around 1,100 to 1,200 bottles a year.
He confides in me that he thinks that this year’s harvest is looking pretty good!
But we also enjoy our fair share of drama…In the middle of the afternoon, we hear a loud bang echoing through the hills: BOOM! One of the presses just exploded, it was under too much pressure. Several slats of wood are literally cut in half. Thankfully, the day is almost over and most of the grapes are already in the vats. Once we’ve cut, destemmed and crushed the last bunch of grapes, the exhausted crew climbs up the vineyard alleys to enjoy an aperitif. We sample last year’s cuvee, a refreshing white wine, the perfect way to round off an athletic day. We all spend the evening together, swapping stories with Jacques and his wife.
Belgian Pinot Noir
We don’t want to leave the Province of Liège without paying a visit to another winegrower, located in Hamoir this time. Joël Petithan has been a bus driver for the past 26 years and is passionate about winegrowing. He has inherited his taste for viticulture from his father and his grand-father, who where both winegrowers in France. For Joël, it was self-evident to decide to uphold his family tradition, so our amateur wine grower starts off in 2010 by planting 500 vine stocks in his backyard. In spite of the small size of his plot (in 2019, the plot counted an extra 100 vines), success is almost immediate.
His passion for wine growing leads to a television appearance in 2016, and Joël even gets to meet the King of Belgium! Quite naturally, he leaped at the chance and gifted three of his very own wine bottles to the King! Apparently, the King really enjoyed his wine, Joël tells us with a chuckle and not without pride. His wine is awarded one medal after the other; he won his first medal in 2015, when his wine is elected best red wine in Belgium, a second medal in 2016 when his wine is elected “Best Foreign Red Wine” at the Sigolsheim Wine Fair and in 2019 he snatches the Bronze Medal in the Province of Liège.
Joël swears by Pinot Noir, his cépage of choice, a taste he inherited from his mentor, Gérard Fusch, an Alsatian winegrower. Joël’s wine is made the old fashioned way without chemicals, letting nature work its magic and allowing Joël to put his keen wine growing skills to good use. We couldn’t resist temptation and were delighted with our loot: a couple of bottles we bought on the spot. The 2015 vintage, his very first cuvee is simply excellent. Slightly sparkling when just opened (which sometimes happens to natural wines), the wine has a fruity taste, slightly tannic and easy to drink. The next day, it tastes even better! A wine you should drink with moderation but especially with great reverence and ditto enthusiasm in order to pay tribute to the talent of this incredibly gifted Belgian wine grower!
Enjoy this experience
Closerie des Prébendiers
16 thier des malades, 4500 HUY (Belgium)
Tel: +3285211223 | Mobile : +32486780534
Harvest : around mid-September
Sale on site
Domaine Vin des Crêtes
1 rue de la Crête, 4180 HAMOIR (Belgium)
Mobile : +32497929437
Visit on appointment from May to August
Sale on site