Château de Bioul
In conjunction with Laura Stigter from Quirky Vine Selections, Belgian wines expert based in NY, this is the first organic wine made in Belgium and imported in the US with her help.
Château de Bioul is an 11th century historical estate producing organic certified white, rosé, red, and méthode traditionnelle wines in Wallonia, within the AOC Côtes de Sambre et Meuse and Crémant de Wallonie appellation. Winemaking has existed on the banks of the Meuse and Sambre rivers since the 8thcentury, the area was even called “vignoulle” (a derivation of the French word “vigne” for vine).
The owner, Vanessa Vaxelaire decided to leave her career as a comedian in Brussels in 2008 and convinced her publicist husband Andy Wyckmans to join her to plant vines on her family’s property. It was a quick decision fueled by their passion for wine and their dream to start a vineyard, and they never looked back.
From the eleventh century to the present day, the Château de Bioul has witnessed wars, tragedies and owners with various fortunes. Dilapidated under the occupation of the Jauche family who mortgaged the estate to face his financial difficulties, it was burned down in 1554 by the troops of the King of France Henri II. Soon after the Brandenburg’s family rebuilt it and turn it into a prestigious residential mansion.
A few centuries later, François Vaxelaire, originally from Wiesembach in Lorraine, arrived in Belgium, where he founded the department stores «Au Bon Marché». He began by renting the Château de Bioul in 1896, then acquired it in 1906 and carried out major development work.
Even today, the Vaxelaire family occupies the premises and ensures its preservation. The family motto that you will find above the porch says much about their pride: “In Arduis Constans” (Tenacity in adversity).
2/3 of the soil is classic schist from the Ardenne and 1/3 is clay and calcareous, carboniferous shale: this is the ideal mix found on the property.
Starting with two hectares (about 5 acres) under vine in 2009, the estate currently consists of 11 hectares (27 acres) oriented South, East and West with a density going from 3800 vines per hectare up to 4500, depending on the plots’ nature and the varieties planted.
The vineyards are trained in the utmost respect of nature using naturally disease resistant grapes, low yields, applying biodynamic and permaculture principles, beehives, building perches for birds of prey, and maintaining edges to increase biodiversity on the vineyard.
Yields are low: 30 to max 45 hl per hectare and, on top, we have to consider the damages done by some spring frosts. On average the annual production consists of 50.000 bottles.
Soon after Vanessa and Andy were joined by Melanie Chereau, an agricultural and food engineer whose goal is to let the grapes naturally ripe and express their potentiality in the cellar without overwhelming and invasive techniques.
After many years of work, in 2020, the Chateau de Bioul finally received the European Union organic certification. Channeled grassing, hedges, low yields, a vegetable garden, hives in the heart of the vines, perches for birds of prey are a range of approaches taken in practice to develop biodiversity. These techniques guarantee healthy, rich grapes marked by fragrant aromas, without pesticide residues. Harvest is always done manually.
Soil composition, water flow, and exposure offer the best growing conditions for each grape preserving the environment and elegantly expressing this northern terroir. Each plot is worked, not systematically, but according to its needs. The wines are named after the distinct parcels the vines are grown on: Terre Charlot, Batte de la Reine, Cortil Braco.
“We didn’t really have any issues during the four years long organic conversion time” Vanessa tells us. “Obviously from the beginning we had the classic novices’ setbacks. Facing a new profession, we were full of naivety about natural agriculture, and therefore we felt overwhelmed and the results were before our own eyes: partial loss of harvest, wines badly stabilized, etc … but we persevered just like the motto of our family, “In Arduis Constans“.
Overall Andy and Vanessa, as well as the winemaker Mélanie Chereau are quite enthusiasts to experiment in order to improve their working path whether in the vineyard or in the cellar. “The vines are distributed into five main plots and in each of them we leave four rows without any biodynamic preparation in order to evaluate the practices“.
All the vines are pruned long, in single or double guyot. Then comes the time for the green harvest and everything is done manually except the leafing which is mechanized. The inter-row is entirely grassed and the grass managed with rolofaca (a special grinder) in order to regenerate the soils.
During the winter, four Shropshire ewes graze in the vineyards, producing the necessary natural compost. Furthermore this is another attraction for the visitors during the entire fall and winter. “In the vegetative season we have to remove them from the vineyards because the sheep can show some nasty appetite sometimes!”
The varietals grown are Solaris, Johanniter, Muscaris, Bronner, Cabernet Blanc (all whites), while the reds are Pinotin, Cabaret Noir and Cabernet Jura. These fungal disease resistant grapes are reminiscent of Riesling and Pinot Noir. You’re not familiar with this unusual grape varieties? Well … fear not because you are not alone.
These varieties are called FRG (Fungal Resistant Grapes) which is the translation of the German abbreviation PIWI (Pilzwiderstandsfähig). What are they exactly?
Northern European countries (but also some area in Alto Adige in Italy) started planting these resistant varieties in order to secure decent and constant yields. FRG is a kind of hybrid that has been through several stages of crossing and may include quite a lot of Vitis vinifera and just a little American Vitis.
This means that it has not only a good resistance to fungal diseases but also a taste similar to grapes belonging to the Vitis vinifera family (in French the word is croisement interspécifique). With these grapes, you need to spray less in the vineyard and they are definitely good for the environment.
Mildew and other fungal diseases are completely defeated. “The resistance is real” underlines Vanessa. “In the beginning, we had planted a little of Auxerrois to see the results, but we had to rip it off, because it was pain in the neck”.
One year, part of the harvest was lost due to a rare attack of Drosophila suzukii, but without recurrence since. The vines’ management needs from 2 to 5 treatments in a year with varying quantities of copper (from 200g to 1kg/ha max). “Weather is unpredictable and vintages are never the same here in Belgium, and in 2018 treatments were not necessary at all. Since 2019, we have started to treat our vines with biodynamic preparations and special herbal teas on a case-by-case basis”.
Over the dozen years of Chateau Bioul’s existence, it has suffered three major frosts and three more moderate ones. “In the beginning we started to warm the vines with special candles and the use of fires, but this was not rational, between costs and the waste to be managed afterwards”, underlines Vanessa.
The problem was partially solved with anti-freeze towers (one static and two mobile). “It was a heavy investment indeed, but I have considered it necessary in the long term allowing us to save money and eliminating the waste management practices”.
“After the frost, the biggest potential harvest loss is due to the birds.” Blackbirds and thrushes live in the hedges. In this northern zone, where the harvest takes place around the end of September for the earliest variety, then around October 10-20 for late ripening one, the bulk of the flights of starlings returning from migration are to fear.
The cellar is Mélanie Chéreau’s playground. Landing on a virgin territory, grape varieties to discover, everything had to be written. “Overall the idea is to intervene on less possible because it would be too stupid to come and break the work done in the vineyard by imposing too much of the human hand” says Melanie.
Pumpovers and rackings are limited and done in a soft way. The whole vinification process needs constant analysis even because the must ferments with indigenous yeast only. “For the reds, we are still in the empirical test phase with our experience limited to only three vintages. We prefer total destemming, because here in the North it is not easy to achieve the optimal ripeness”.
“We wanted to produce wines truly reflecting the tradition of this Northern region”, traces Melanie. For this reason she has chosen to elaborate some wines in concrete eggs in order to preserve the freshness and the minerality of the grapes. The ovoid shape allows the constant move of the lees.
She started, as a matter of course, with the whites, and more recently she experimented with the reds. As these containers come at a certain cost, not all wines can be aged in them. The rest of the wines is therefore placed in stainless steel vats, but with an innovative technique: “We submit our vats to musical waves, making them vibrate“, explains Melanie.
The winemaker has chosen the right music to guard them throughout the different phases. “For the start of the alcoholic fermentation I use the openings (overtures) of some famous classic music. During the fermentation’s turmoil, as it is already rather agitated, I tend to use some pretty cool music. During the ageing process I searched for something deeper and turn to yoga meditation music and sometimes also aboriginal tunes played with didgeridoos...»
Using the research of the musical effects on the winemaking, Melanie saw the benefits of classical music waves during the fermentation and especially when the lees are in suspension, helping the wine develop more aromatic components.
“The cultivation of vines (for wine) in Belgium, and in Wallonia in particular, is not new. Charlemagne brought wine around the year 800. He encouraged the monks to make wine in order to bring people back to worship,” explains Pierre Rion, president of the Association des Vignerons de Wallonie and one of the pioneers in the field. “In the 14th and 15th centuries, chronicles mention quite a few vineyards and Joseph Halkin, geographer, had spoken of more than a million bottles produced in 1470. Then, there was a decline due to the mini ice age. The vineyards practically disappeared from our regions in the 16th century.”
As regards the contemporary history of wine in Wallonia, we have to go back to the end of the 1950s, in the Liège region, with Charles Henry and Charles Legot who had a few hundred vines making wine for themselves and for their friends. These were the real pioneers in Belgium.
At the end of the 1990s, driven by curiosity, many wine aficionados and investors landed into the Walloon wine market and realized that making good wines was not only possible but necessary. Important families got involved, such as the Leroy family with the Vignoble des Agaises (and the success of Ruffus) or even Philippe Grafé of the Domaine du Chenoy, who were soon followed in the new millennium by others like Chant d’Eole in Quevy-le-Grand, Château de Bioul or even cooperatives like Vins de Liège.
How to explain this success ? The Association of Winegrowers of Wallonia has had the support of the Ministers of Agriculture which helped to energize the sector through a series of actions. Since then, not a month goes by without discovering a new winemaker. The figures are indeed impressive: viticulture now covers 441 hectares in Belgium, including nearly 200 in Wallonia. The area doubled between 2015 and 2019 and almost quadrupled in the space of 10 years. In 2019 Wallonia produced 747,000 liters of wine.
As for the quality of Walloon wine, it is undeniable. Wines from Northern Europe are low in alcohol and many wine lovers actually enjoy this trend. In terms of terroir and soil, there is great diversity with limestone, loamy, sandy-loamy, schist soils. The Walloon region has four geographical indications: 3 protected designations of origin (Côte de Sambre and Meuse, Crémant de Wallonie and Quality sparkling wine from Wallonia) and a protected geographical indication (Vin de Pays des Jardins de Wallonie)”.
In a nutshell
Château de Bioul