Chef Henk van Oudenhove: "Belgium's wine scene is extremely underrated"

Sans Cravate's owner and chef Henk van Oudenhove says the wine list is just as important as the food
Helen Arnold
By Helen Arnold
Published 22-November-2023
Interview / Bruges

Sans Cravate in Bruges, Belgium has been serving up classic hearty Belgian fare to its army of loyal customers since 2004, and was the recent winner of the Star Wine List of the Year Grand Prix prize, plus the very worthy recipient of the Best Sparkling and Best Long lists in Belgium. Chef/proprietor Henk van Oudenhove explains to Helen Arnold how he grew his wine list, and how he manages the 700-strong references.

Sans Cravate’s owner/chef Henk van Oudenhove and his wife Veronique are passionate oenophiles, (he describes his obsession as “a hobby that got out of hand”), which started off 20 years ago with only seven white and seven red wines on the menu - “we didn’t even have any Champagne at the time,”), and this is reflected in their stunning wine list, described by judge Piotr Pietras, MS, during the Star Wine List of the Year awards as “beautiful”, focusing mainly on artisanal producers. Pietras particularly admired the sparkling list, “a very detailed grower Champagne section with some lovely sparkling wines from other winemaking regions.” Praise indeed from some of the best in the business, so how does Henk feel about the award?

“Winning the three awards was a very nice surprise,” he says. “I was secretly hoping for the best sparkling wine award, so to win the other two on top was just crazy - especially when you see who we were up against. There are some real treasures of sommeliers who know their job a hundred times better than I do.”

Sans Cravate, as the name suggests, (it means without tie), is a relaxed, un-stuffy kind of venue, with a loyal phalanx of regular customers, along with a steady flow of dedicated foodies who make a beeline to visit the restaurant when in town. “We try to keep the price barrier as low as possible to attract as many guests without them being afraid that it will be too fancy or too expensive,” explains van Oudenhove.

The way someone draws up a wine list tells you a lot about them, and how important they think it is.

And Sans Cravate’s wine list is central to its overall offer. “The wine is just as important as the food,” he insists. “The way someone draws up a wine list tells you a lot about them, and how important they think it is. If you only see mass producers or big commercial names then you know they have been influenced by major importers who only want to sell, sell sell. It’s likely their philosophy around the food will be the same.”

Henk van Oudenhove and his wife Veronique are passionate oenophiles, and have built up a 700-strong collection

Conversely, with wine being a self-confessed passion for van Oudenhove, San Cravate’s list has grown organically over the years and now has over 700 references. However, it is only in the past ten years that it has grown exponentially as van Oudenhove’s wine knowledge increased. He also undertook two years sommelier training, and spent a lot of time visiting various vineyards. “Now it’s almost like a sport for me, finding the next big things - who will be the next Coche Dury, or Kagami, the next Selosse, that’s fun to do.”

Van Oudenhove admits that a lengthy list can be daunting for many customers, so they limit the initial list presented to guests to only around 50 wines. “We always say that if they want to see more just to ask and we will give them the bible!”

San Cravate’s award-winning list is traditionally arranged by Champagne and sparkling wines, reds, whites and sweet. There is also a section for orange and macerated wines, vin jaune or oxidative wines, magnums and even bigger bottles, as well as still white and reds from the Coteaux Champenois. “I really believe in these types of wines but you hardly see them anywhere, but they have very low production levels and people are not very familiar with them, which is why I like to highlight them.”

Van Oudenhove thinks that the biggest mistake made with wine lists is to choose the easy, commercial route. “But that is a problem of society,” he says. “I understand that not everyone can know enough about wine to put a nice list together. But I suggest they should ask a more knowledgeable colleague or friend to help them instead of being guided by the big companies. As a result you will get a more personal and diverse list.”

Henk and his dedicated team, who have all contributed to the success of the restaurant

When it comes to pricing his wines, van Oudenhove says he never uses the same formula across the board. “That’s just not possible for some wines - some you sell easily and then you can call your supplier and tomorrow you’ll have it back in stock again.” However, other wines are more difficult to source, he points out, often because they are over-hyped, though often they are small producers with low levels of production , making availability more challenging. “So that means if I can catch some of these bottles I rather want them to be consumed by someone who knows the story and appreciates it.”

As an example, van Oudenhove says that at one time he had many bottles of the cult Jura wine Domaine des Miroirs, which he sold for 45€/ bottle. ”I had so many complaints from people who didn’t know the story, didn’t understand what they were drinking and that was a pity.” That was when he decided to change his strategy on costs, pricing regular, easier to source wines at lower prices, with those wines that were harder to source being priced accordingly.

Don’t put it on the list if you don’t want to sell it - that’s just showing off!

“And if I think the wine is too young and would benefit from some years in the cellar then I raise the price and hope that no one orders it!” He is dismissive of those restaurants who include wines on their list EV (et vieillissement). “That means, we have the wine but you can’t have it -I think that’s ridiculous. Don’t put it on the list if you don’t want to sell it - that’s just showing off!”

He’s also opposed to listing bottles at eye-watering prices. “I don’t stock bottles at over 2500€ so I don’t know if they would sell or not. But I don’t think there are any bottles that warrant that kind of pricing - that’s just the market and auctions that make these wines so expensive. Personally I could never enjoy a wine that cost that amount of money.”

Best selling bottles at Sans Cravate include some of the most widely known appellations, such as Sancerre, Meursault and Chablis, while amongst the red wine drinkers, Gevrey-Chambertin, Chassagne-Montrachet, and Cotes du Rhône all remain firm favourites.

Natural wine has been on the market for many years but unfortunately there were more cowboys making wine than real wine growers who knew their craft

However, van Oudenhove reports that natural wine is starting to take its place on an increasing number of lists, deservedly so in his opinion. “This is in part thanks to the younger generation having more respect for nature and people. Natural wine has been on the market for many years but unfortunately there were more cowboys making wine than real wine growers who knew their craft . This is now thankfully changing, because a lot of that junk was just not drinkable . If there is a fault, it's just wrong and please don't say this has to be "funky".

“I have always been a fan of it but only of the correct natural wines.” He goes as far as to say we should not be talking about “natural” wine at all, only wines made with “healthy grapes” while conventionally produced wines should be referred to as “wine with chemicals... The tide is definitely turning, for winemakers, sommeliers and their customers,” he asserts.

With a strong selection of grower Champagnes, van Oudenhove says the Coteaux Champenois wines are particularly interesting. “This is because a revolution of young talented winemakers is taking place in Champagne, coming from under the wings of their well-known masters. Other regions outside Champagne are mainly Jura, but this has been conquered by the whole world for a long time now.”

He adds that Savoie-Bugey is another French region which remains relatively undiscovered. “The region certainly deserves a bit more attention - but not too much , otherwise the whole world will jump on it again and it will become unaffordable. Lombardy, Valtelinna is another underrated region, there are some super wines coming from there!” Etna, and Tenerife are two other producing regions that he’s keeping a close eye on, areas where the younger cohort of winemakers are doing great things.

But interesting things are also taking place closer to home, he says. “Even in Belgium more and more beautiful things are happening. In Burgundy where land is becoming unaffordable they are also creative. There you find young winemakers who show beautiful things with less sexy sounding apples. Just look at Fixin, Maranges, Marsannay, they are all also creative with the Aligoté, that was once different.”

Cooking up a storm in the kitchen, where hearty Belgian fare is the order of the day

Sans Cravate offers all its bottles on the menu by the glass, with the bottle price divided by six, allowing for six glasses per bottle - and the sommelier must be convinced he can sell the remainder to the other guests. “This means that sometimes we open unique bottles to sell by the glass, but we have to make sure we can also sell the rest, and you can only do this if you know who else is in the dining room, and you have the confidence that you will be able to sell to them.”

The restaurant works with around 30 different importers, both domestic and overseas, sourcing its wine from all over the globe. “Sometimes I get the impression that our country is not taken seriously, and I have to look abroad for our wines.”

As for the overall Belgian wine and restaurant scene, van Oudenhove thinks it is “extremely underrated”. “We have here the best restaurants, the most passionate sommeliers and hidden gems of Europe,” he says. “And in terms of wine bars we are spoiled in our little country. You can find top food and drinks here in all corners of the country, but you have to find them. Awards like these [Star Wine List of the Year] help the globetrotter find them.”

When asked which other wine lists he particularly admires, he doesn’t hesitate, naming Terminus in Watou and Paul de Pierre in Maarkedal. “Both are extremely passionate and specialists in their craft - next to them I just blush! They also both remain ordinary people with their feet on the ground.” However, he says there are so many other restaurants and bars in Belgium doing great things, pointing to tabla'vin, Pinot in Knokke, and Sir Kwinten in Lennik as other outstanding examples.

It’s not about the thickness of the wine list but the content

Despite being the custodian of a weighty wine list himself, van Oudehove says it's quality not quantity that really counts. “It’s not about the thickness of the wine list but the content,” he insists. “You may still have 100 references but nothing with a soul. I can quickly work that out in a list, even just by reading the first ten lines. In that case I’d rather not drink the wine but have a beer instead!"

A great example, he says, was a recent visit to a burger joint where they served up top burgers with beer from micro breweries and a wine list of only six white and six red wines. “But I wanted to order all six. Only then do you have a top wine list when you can’t choose because everything attracts you.”

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