Les Agaises Ruffus
In the 1980s and 1990s, Raymond Leroy ran a wine and liquor import business in Belgium that his family had managed for over a century. Fourth-generation Binche wine merchant and enthusiastic oenologist Raymond Leroy first spotted the potential of a strip of chalky land close to the French border almost 30 years ago.
Its farming owner was not interested in selling or renting the ground, so Leroy had to be content with planting a couple of vines in his garden. But he never forgot that south-facing sloping terrain close to the village of Estinnes. Twenty years later, a chance meeting with the farmer’s son led to the founding of Domaine des Agaises.
In 2001, he met Etienne Delbeke, former president of the Walloon Potato Industry, and the two men decided to invite Thierry Gobillard, a Champagne producer, to join them in this adventure.
Established in 2002, Vignoble des Agaises started with only two hectares planted. The south facing vineyards are located in Haulchin, near Binche, in a district called “Les Agaises” on a hillside very rich in limestone over which Lord Ruffus reigned in the 12th century.
The following year the three original partners were joined by Michel Wanty (uncle of Raymond Leroy’s wife) and Joël Hugé (a friend) and two more hectares were planted. The first vintage was released in 2005 and won a silver medal at the Concours mondial de Bruxelles. The team then embarked on the gradual acquisition of the land surrounding their original vineyards.
Two decades later the 310,000 vines of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, spread over 35 ha, makes Les Agaises the largest wine producer in Belgium. Only sparkling wines are produced here under the brand Ruffus using only the traditional method, i.e. with a second fermentation in the bottle, with a minimum lees ageing of 12 months.
The current yearly production is around 300,000 bottles and, generally speaking, the estate’s range consists of a non-vintage brut, a rosé, a zero dosage brut, a prestige cuvée and, more recently, a Ratafia.
Chardonnay is the most planted variety (70%), followed by Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. All the cuvées have already won gold in the biggest international competitions, and the estate was honored with the title of Chevalier du Mérite Wallon in 2015.
The vines benefit from a southern exposure allowing maximum sunshine, at an altitude of 100 m. They are located at the foot of the largest wind farm in Europe, the land is well ventilated and the vines are not affected by many cryptogamic diseases.
Visiting the site, not even the drizzle can detract from what is a glorious bucolic spot. Farm tracks, herds of cows, copses of trees and rows and rows of orderly vines bearing low-lying clusters of grapes stretch along the inclining land.
The combination of the exceptionally chalky soil – a geological extension of the ridge on which France’s Champagne region is founded– plus hillside and southern orientation are the key to the success of the domain, as Leroy’s sons, John and Arnaud, explain: “This is the only chalk area in Belgium and it is necessary, as it drains well.” An enormous hole lies next to the vineyard, an old lime oven that “proves the site had already been exploited for its chalk vein that is an extension of the Champagne growing area.”
Arnaud who graduated in computer sciences and trained in wine studies at the Université du Vin in France is in charge of communication and social media marketing at Vignoble des Agaises since 2009. John who joined his brother in 2010, is an agricultural engineer specialized in fermentation who pursued his oenology degree in Montpellier like his father. He then trained at Moët & Chandon in France and worked at a New Zealand vineyard.
The vine stock that originates from Champagne, is planted in the pebbly and mulched soil. Grafted on to these vines are the Ruffus varieties of 80% Chardonnay, 10 % each Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier.
As he describes the intricate and precarious daily process of growing vines, from the precise spacing of the plants to trigger the correct amount of growth to the dependence on fine dry weather, it is clear this is a labor of love for the whole family. It is also evident that vintners need nerve, confidence and a dash of foolhardiness.
Spring frost can be the real problem, just like in April 2021 when it only took one night to devastate everything. The vintage’s production was down 50%, despite the presence of three small wind turbines stirring the cold air, and which have proven their efficiency in the past.
Their wine takes advantage of the exceptional limestone richness of the hillside to express all its minerality and the palette of aromas that are specific to it (white flowers, hazelnuts, almonds, brioches and citrus fruits).
In conjunction with Quirky Vine Selections, Belgian wines expert, this is the first Belgian methode traditionnelle imported in New York.
In a nutshell
Vignoble des Agaises