Within the citadel of Namur, the Belgian city that provides a gateway to the Ardennes, lies a tunnel that for more than sixty years has been quietly ageing the wines of one of Belgium’s leading wine ‘negociants’.
The conditions for holding up to 1,200 oak barrels are near perfect. Temperature is constant between 11C and 12C and the humidity reaches over 90% in these tunnels.
Bernard Grafé, the CEO of Grafé Lecocq, took me to visit the impressive cellars within the Namur citadel and explains the story behind this incredible wine house.
After our visit to the tunnels inside the Namur citadel, he takes me to the cellars of the Namur cathedral and the Courts of Justice, just opposite the house from where the business had started 130 years ago. There he shows me over 500 square metres of storage space with ideal and stable temperatures where the bottles are aged before they are distributed. The cellars have been used pretty much since the business started and had been built to support the cathedral structure.
Bernard Grafé is the fourth generation leading the business into the 21st century. He tells me the story of how Grafé Lecocq came about. “My great grandparents Henry Grafe and his wife Leontine Lecocq started the business in 1879. My great grandmother was an integral part of the business and that is why the wine has been produced under the label Grafé Lecocq.
What makes the story unique is that Grafé Lecocq has a portfolio which covers the most important regions of France unlike typical French negociants who only specialise in their own region. And they also have a history of bottling some of the greatest wines in France such as Bordeaux first growths and top Burgundy appellations, though this has changed as wine growers moved towards bottling their own wines in their ‘chateau’.
I was impressed by the quality of the wines I tried (more about that in another post) starting from their entry level wines which represent incredibly good value for money to the more important ‘grand crus’.
Mr Grafé is so confident of his entry level wines that he has no qualms with allowing me to taste them at the end of a barrel tasting after a splendid Pomerol from Bordeaux.
“The entry level wines in a way represent our philosophy, which is to let the wines express the terroir and the region they come from,” he tells me when I visited the cellars in Namur recently. “Even our entry level wines are aged in oak barrels. This is not the norm in the industry, particularly for entry level wines.”
The oak gives balance to the wines but does not overpower them. In fact, only 20% of the oak barrels are new and changed every year meaning that the oldest barrels are always four years old.
But how does a negociant work and what is the difference between the business over the ages, I ask Mr Grafé. He tells me that when the wine house started in 1879, the focus was on Burgundy. “Now we can get wines from all the important regions in France from Bordeaux to Burgundy, the Loire, Beaujolais and Rhones to mention a few names.”
The philosophy has over the years remained the same. “We select our wines on site in France after they have been pressed and have gone through the fermentation process. Sometimes, when the wines arrive in Namur, they are still going through the malolactic fermentation. Most of the wines are transported in small barrels while for the more commercial wines, we transport the wines in compartmentalised trucks with strict temperature control and which are filled till the very top to ensure minimal contact with oxygen. It normally takes less than 24 hours for the wines to reach our cellars.
The process from here onwards is as natural as possible, and without filtration. Mr Grafé said that the wines are nearly all aged in oak barrels before bottling (except for some white and rosé wines). For some particular ‘crus’ this can take up to 24 months.
Mr Grafé said that the selection process is rigorous. “Firstly we have been working with wine growers for a very long time. They know what we expect and what they can expect from us. We select each wine for its growing potential. We have people in each region who guide us to the wines and who also ensure that what we tasted is actually what reaches our caves and cellars. This is an essential part of our operation.”
What I found particularly striking in the wines I tried was the respect for the typicity of the grape and the terroir. Unlike more ‘modern’ wines which are over extracted and at times difficult to recognise, the characteristic in each bottle reflects the area where the grapes were grown and picked.
Grafé Lecocq is mainly present on the Belgian market selling directly to consumers some of whom have followed the story since the beginning. But Mr Grafé is also starting to assess the potential of exporting the wines. “We get more and more interest from abroad. Recently we participated in an auction in Hong Kong which was a very interesting experience and the wines were very well received. And we will be taking part in a number of wine fairs such as Pro Wein.”
Among the interesting concepts of Grafé Lecocq is the Florilège which are Bordeaux wines which come from very good wine growers but which are not labeled under the name of the Chateau. The wine, whether a Pomerol, St Julien or Pauilliac really expresses the terroir and region from where it comes from.
This is a wine negociant that is really worth discovering. They organise tastings in their cellars from time to time and also have a wine shop in Namur. The wine shop on Place St Aubin is open from Tuesday to Friday from 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 6pm. The shop is also open on Sunday from 10am to 1pm and from 2pm to 6pm.