Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is a handsome city with many interesting things to do there.  But to be honest, it’s not a wine city.  Oh, for sure, there are excellent wine lists at some restaurants.  But there aren’t many Belgian wineries scattered around the country, so if you’re going to do that much driving, maybe you want to travel for around three hours and go to Champagne in France.  Or, maybe vice versa, you could tag Brussels on to a Champagne visit.

The Grand-Place or Grote Markt.  Photo courtesy of MakeMyTrip.

The best place to start a trip in Brussels is the Grand-Place, which is also known as the Grote Markt.  [The Belgians have a great language divide.  The Walloons speak French; the Flemish speak their own language, which is close to Dutch.  You’ll see signs everywhere in both languages.]  The Grand-Place has a lot of history, going back to the 11th century.  In 1695, Louis XIV’s troops destroyed it, so the good burghers of Brussels vowed to reconstruct it even better than it was.  They did it in about five years and so it remains today.

The Big Market (for that’s what it means in Flemish) is surrounded by opulent guild halls, the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) and lots of places to eat and drink.  The Belgian make great beer, and they serve it by the liter.  There are few things more pleasant on a warm summer afternoon, than enjoying a beer amongst the architecture, watching some Belgians and even more tourists going about their lives.  A word of warning: The Belgians like some of their beers with fruit flavors (Kriek is lemon; Frambozen is raspberry; and Cerise is cherry.)  Most Americans find these fruity beers to be awful, but some of us do like them on a hot day.  Think of them as Kool-Aid with a kick.)

A few blocks away is the city’s symbol, the Mannekin Pis.  It’s a small statue of a little boy, well, pissing.  You ought to see it but you’ll find it a bit disappointing if you were expecting a Belgian version of the Statue of Liberty.  Some enterprising Bruxellois erected another statue, of a little girl, the Manneka Pis.  (You figure it out.)  It’s in a 19th century covered shopping arcade, several of which are near the Grand-Place.  They’re worth seeing just for the architecture and the window shopping.

The Ilôt Sacré.  Photo courtesy of The Brussels Times.

Also just off the Grand-Place is l’Ilôt Sacré, or Sacred Island.  It is neither an island nor sacred, but it is packed with seafood restaurants, with remarkable displays of shellfish and the finned fish.  The restaurateurs take special pleasure in displaying a monkfish, arguably the sea’s ugliest creature, with a grapefruit in its mouth.  Ugh!  But the seafood is fresh and well prepared, so try a meal there.  With wine.

Other sights worth taking in, also in the center of town, are the Grand and Petit Sablons, a neighborhood full of boutiques and excellent restaurants.  There’s a fence surrounding the Petit Sablon, and each post is topped with a statue of a tradesman.  There are 48 of them and it’s fun figuring out how many you can identify.

There are two well-known art museums, one for older (ancien) art and another for the modern.  The old art includes the world’s best collection of Breughels and the modern one has the same for Magritte.  Finally, this is where the world-famous singer, Jacques Brel, was from.  Of course there’s a square named for him and if you are or were a fan of Jacques Brel, just to be there makes you feel close to him.

Caveau de Chassagne

Caveau de Chassagne

Burgundy is one of Wine Country’s greatest and best known sectors.  And the best Burgundy wines come from the Côte d’Or.  On the southern tip of this vinicultural (and cultural) wonderland are the paired villages of Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet.  Puligny is more famous, probably because of its white wines, which some connoisseurs believe are the world’s finest.  We at Power Tasting are merely wine lovers and make no pretense of connoisseurship, so we offer no opinion. 

Photo courtesy of the Caveau de Chassagne.

Chassagne, on the other side of the road, has both excellent whites and reds.  You can visit some châteaux, but there aren’t that many (and not the greatest ones) that are visitor friendly.  So if you want to taste the wines of the two AOCs, we recommend the Caveau de Chassagne (  In some ways, it’s like a cooperative, in that you can sample wines from a variety of local producers.  But it’s more of a regional showcase, with tastings and sales of wine.

To confuse things, the tasting room is also known as the Caveau Municipal, which is emblazoned on the exterior of a somewhat plain, sandy-covered building.  That was the name of the place when it opened in 1986 and they haven’t bothered changing the sign.  The interior is rather dark, perhaps because the walls are bedecked with wine bottles.  There are a few tables and a display case with the wines you can sample.  There are servers, whom they call guides, who are of varying degrees of friendliness to those who don’t speak French, and are quite knowledgeable about the local wines.  All that said, it’s worth going.

Some of the Grand Crus available. Photo courtesy of the Caveau de Chassagne.

Although the tasting room is located in Chassagne, Puligny’s are served as well.  What makes it distinctive is the range of quality of the wines they serve. A few words about Burgundian wine naming rules is called for here.  If the label says only Burgundy, then the grapes can come from anywhere in the province.  If it has a village name, such as Chassagne-Montrachet, on the label then it’s from some of that village’s designated vineyards.  If it says Burgundy Villages as well as a village name, then it’s from its better vineyards.  Premier Cru is even better (and somewhat affordable) and Grand Cru is the top, in both quality and price.  And all these levels are available to sip and compare at the Caveau de Chassagne.

Almost all the wine in Burgundy comes from two grapes, Chardonnay for the whites and Pinot Noir for the reds.  The reasons have much to do with history as well as terroir, but certainly the local vignerons have perfected the elevation of these grapes.  (Yes, there is also Passetoutgrains, which aren’t worth drinking, and Bourgogne Aligoté, which is used in making kir.)  Since all of the wines you are going to taste at the Caveau de Chassagne are from the same two appellations and the same two grapes, comparison tasting really can show you how different micro-terroirs, winemakers and quality levels determine what goes into your glass.

Oh, about Montrachet.  For one thing, it can be pronounced MAWN-rashay or MONT-rashay.  The so-called Mount Rachet is a not very large hill between the two villages.  We suppose a mountain is in the eye of the viewer.

Solo Tasting

Tasting wine all by yourself isn’t that much fun.  There’s no one to exult with when you discover an unknown gem.  Or sneer at a loser.  Or just keep you company.  And wine tasting alone at home leads to all kinds of problems.  Still, there are times when you’re traveling alone and you’re in a place where vineyards are nearby.  In some cases, you may be in a place where you are already familiar with the wines, so passing up a tasting trip may be easy to accept.  But if you are in a distant, previously unvisited location you may feel that you simply must take advantage of the occasion.  So if you may be considering a solo wine tasting adventure, here are some things to consider.

Photo courtesy of Waiheke Island Tours

  • Try not to go alone.  On a business trip, there may be a client who would go with you.  Or a fellow conventioneer.  Or a relative you’ve been meaning to call anyway.  If you are organizing a meeting, you might add on a wine tasting day, for team-building purposes. Before you leave home, give some thought to who you might meet.  Only when you’ve exhausted all the other possibilities should you think of the logistics of tasting by yourself.
  • Take a tour.  We don’t often recommend wine tasting tours.  In general, they go to the wineries that are convenient, that allow large groups or are highly commercial.  Rarely will you encounter the top vineyards in the area you’re visiting.  But they know where they’re going and they do the driving.  If you have no particular knowledge of the region and its wines, everything you taste will be new to you anyway.  Tour companies rarely advertise where they stop, but if they do feature small groups (not a 50-passenger bus) and knowledgeable guides, they’re more likely to provide better quality.
  • Take a taxi.  You can ask a driver how much he would charge for an extended ride.  You probably want to have a map and choose a few wineries in advance, so the driver can know where you want to go.  In general, ask for a half-day price.  Even if you plan on being out for a day, it’s best to plan for a shorter trip and ask for more time than the reverse.  Either way, it can be expensive.  But getting behind the wheel yourself in an area unknown to you, with alcohol to be added, may not be any bargain.  You really don’t want to deal with foreign police or worse, be involved in an accident. 
  • Limit your consumption.  It’s best not to drink too much, no matter who’s driving.  Don’t embarrass yourself in front of a cabbie or a tour guide.  And if you decide to drive, prudence is a necessity.  So sip sparingly; don’t gulp.  Use the pour buckets.  Only ask to try wines you are more likely to enjoy rather than everything on the list.
  • Talk to the people you encounter.  It’s always more fun to share an experience, even if you’re sharing it with strangers.  Engage with the person serving you.  In most places, the servers speak at least some English, as is likely the case with the other passengers on the bus.  And if you want to get to where you want to go, make certain you can talk with the taxi driver.

An Unexpected Tasting

This little wine tasting adventure occurred many years ago, but still seems like a fresh memory.  We were travelling with some other people in Tuscany and had found an 18th century palace that was available to rent.  There were only three of us, taking two rooms and we had the palazzo to ourselves.  It came with some lovely gardens and meals outdoors under a canopy.

There came a day on the trip when everyone had had enough of taking in the sights.  A lazy afternoon in the garden, with the sound of buzzing bees under the shade trees sounded just the perfect.  So after lunch, two of us indulged in a siesta.  But the other soon grew antsy and wanted to do something.  A little wine tasting at a vineyard we had passed the day before sounded very inviting.

San Gimignano in the distance, with vineyards all around it.  Photo courtesy of Artsy Traveler.

We had driven to nearby San Gimignano, the towered village between Florence and Siena.  We had passed a sign for a Bolla vineyard and made a mental note to return.  [This all happened long enough ago that San Gimignano was still a worthwhile tourist destination.  It hadn’t been discovered yet.  Today it is a medieval village that is overrun with tourists arriving by the busload and is better passed by than visited.] 

So the fellow who wasn’t interested in a nap took the car keys and set out to see if he could find that sign again. He did, but on arrival saw that the place was not a winery but rather for a family owned vineyard that the well-known Bolla corporation had hired to make a specific wine.  He drove in and found endless fields of grapes and in the middle of them all, a farmhouse.  There was no one to be seen in the vineyards or outside the house, so he wandered about a while, noticing that the vines were bearing fruit, all of which was white grapes. 

Wanting a taste of the wine that he knew must be made there, he figured his only chance was to knock on the farmhouse door.  It was opened by a woman who seemed rather confused as to why a stranger had appeared at her doorstep.  As she spoke no English and our friend little to no Italian, an explanation was not readily forthcoming.  But he had learned the work degustazione, roughly translatable as “tasting”.  Still seeming puzzled the woman, using a few Italian words and more hand signs, asked, “You want some wine?”  The fellow said, “Si, si”, so the woman led him into the kitchen.  There he found a few vineyard workers sitting at a table just finishing up lunch, looking at him rather quizzically.

She opened her refrigerator and took out an opened bottle of the Bolla wine made from their grapes, from a previous vintage.  Realizing he had intruded, the visitor drank up and figured he had to buy a bottle.  She reopened the fridge, took out an unopened bottle and handed it to him.  He took 10,000 lire (this was before the Euro) from his wallet, gave it to the woman and beat a hasty, somewhat embarrassed retreat.

Imagine how you would feel if some total stranger came to your door and haltingly requested a glass of wine.  You too might give it to him, just because you were so shocked that anyone would be so gauche and impertinent to even ask for it.