The long track leading to the secluded fortified farm north of Namur slowly reveals Domaine La Falize’s discreet yet innovative practise of horticulture. Carefully-tended fields form a patchwork: a diverse display of sunflowers, vines, strawberries and fallow pockets of ground. As the solid grey stone château appears on the horizon, polytunnels and a large modern barn hint at the 200-hectare estate’s hive of activity. Inside the electronically-gated courtyard, wisteria and creeping vines embellish the walls of the farm-castle. Dating from 1625, it was the site of many a military skirmish, including the famous 1695 siege of Namur and 1815 Napoleonic Wars. Today, a campaign of a different nature is being fought, albeit with no less passion. In addition to its small but high-regarded wine and market garden operation, the estate is enthusiastically pursuing a visionary agricultural project.
Already organically-certified since 2000 and committed to increasing biodiversity and reducing carbon emissions, it’s now practising regenerative agriculture.
Domaine La Falize has been on this groundbreaking mission since owner Frédéric de Mévius took over the farm from his father in 1991. The estate had been in the family since 1904 and an early challenge was cleaning up the water system.
Managing director Pierre-Yves van Haute explains: “We have two wells for the estate and the water was not drinkable. The concentration of nitrates was far too high, probably due to conventional farming polluting the underground water.”
Connecting the isolated estate to the city’s water system would have been exorbitantly costly, so the owner switched to organic farming, a “perhaps naïve but nevertheless visionary” decision, he smiles.
The clean-up project lasted almost 10 years, and it set the domain on a nature-friendly path. “La Falize, along with a few other producers, really pioneered organic farming,” recalls van Haute, who says the seed-to-fork philosophy was aided by sustainability incentive schemes set up by the Walloon region and EU Common Agricultural Policy reforms.
If the estate has been characteristically quiet about its accomplishments, it’s perhaps a result of the owner’s natural discretion. The scion of the family that previously owned Interbrew (merged into the world’s biggest brewer AB-InBev), de Mévius now heads the investment platform Planet First Partners, which reflects his passion for sustainability.
The market gardening operation is a daily business. Fruit and vegetables are sold directly to the organic sector around the country. Depending on the season, they include asparagus, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, heirloom tomatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and carrots, while wild garlic is among smaller-scale foraged crops.
A small range of high-quality sauces and condiments bear the La Falize label. It will soon be joined by a new organic soya sauce. Soya beans and wheat are undergoing double fermentation in old barrels according to a traditional process. “In terms of taste it’s on another level,” says van Haute.
Among the gastronomic restaurants appreciating the domain’s varied harvest is the Michelin green-starred Humus x Hortense in Brussels, specialised in plant cuisine and a key player in the agricultural, culinary and artistic project Soilmates.
It’s a philosophy that has spread to Domaine La Falize. “We’ve moved to a regenerative model of agriculture, which means no tilling or low tilling with the use of constant cover crops to reduce as much as possible the work on the soil,” says van Haute. “Healthier soil stops erosion, sequesters more carbon and increases the yield.”
The principle of this growing global movement to produce more nutritious food is minimum soil disturbance. Keeping the ground covered, mulched and planted with a diverse range of crops all prevent soil depletion.
An early zero tilling trial proved unsuccessful, especially as a ubiquitous brand of weedkiller was banned. A more pragmatic approach has paid off, combining low tilling with adding organic matter to the soil to enhance its level of humidity. Grazing animals also assist in the regeneration process.
La Falize’s commitment to bio stimulants and participation in the independent farming initiative Soil Capital has resulted in a collaboration with UCLouvain. The university study aims to encourage more profitable and regenerative agriculture.
“We’re open to any innovation in this field. Perhaps conventional and organic farming can come together,” says van Haute.
If this type of farming is financially more arduous due to the labour involved, the estate is convinced that sustainable agricultural practices are necessary and will eventually prove to be more profitable than conventional farming.
The first vines were planted at La Falize in 2012, micro parcels dotted around the estate, benefitting from different exposure and conditions. One of the farm’s rustic outbuildings has been lovingly transformed into a wine chai.
If the vineyard remains modest, totalling around three hectares, it overachieves in quality and reputation. This was helped by early partnerships with wine experts Peter Colemont from Clos d’Opleeuw in Limburg and Sylvain Pellegrinelli from Puligny-Montrachet in France.
The result has been impressive, says van Haute, explaining that La Falize started by making white wine – trickier than sparkling varieties. They now match “fancy burgundies” and enjoy complexity, fine balance and lively finish. Accolades include a special mention in the prestigious Gault&Millau Belgian wine guide.
Today, small parcels of pinot noir and savagnin have joined chardonnay grapes. “We have a specificity of terroir that is very interesting. Two parcels almost side by side and yet the taste is completely different,” says van Haute.
The organic vineyard now boasts Demetera biodynamic certification. If it plans to increase slightly its scale, the aim is not to become a large estate. “Our view is that to make good wine, you need low yield.”
This involves aggressive pruning and a green harvest. “We voluntarily cut a large number of grapes so that the remaining ones are more concentrated in flavour.” It’s a ploy to compensate for the lack of sunshine in Belgium and achieve the all-important 12° to 12.5° alcohol content.
Like the market garden operation, La Falize wine is available in a selection of upmarket restaurants and wine outlets. It also exports a little, “more with the mindset of showing that Belgium can produce great wine.”
Otherwise, it’s sold via an allocation system for a closed list of members. With lower quantities available this year, the allocation was snapped up within 22 hours. “We had to make a lot of people unhappy,” regrets van Haute.
The farm estate will be celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2025, a milestone occasion for any enterprise. For the small but progressive team at Domaine La Falize, the focus will no doubt be on further enriching the fertile soil of this tiny corner of Belgian countryside.
Written by Sarah Crew
This article is taken from The Bulletin
Photos: ©La Falize