Barely out of Belgium, we headed towards the Netherlands for the continuation of our European tour. Until then, I only knew this country for its delicious cheeses – such as Gouda, Edam and Maasdam – but I had never heard of Dutch wine !
And why not us?!
Although Dutch wine history dates back to the year 968 (the region was then at the heart of the Franc Empire), modern viticulture only appeared in the early 1970’s. At that time, experiments were done in Belgium, just on the other side of the border. “Why not us?!” the Dutch then asked. It also seems that Al Gore’s speech on global warming issued in 1992, finally convinced skeptics to embrace the adventure…
However, making wine in Holland remains a big challenge since a third of the country is situated below sea level. To gain a better understanding, we decided to start with Neimburg, in the south of the country, which with 85 hectares of vineyards, is the largest wine region of the Netherlands.
Domein Wijngaarsberg, pragmatism above all
It is sometimes said that the Dutch have a cold character. This is not true. However, they are very pragmatic. We met with Jules Nijst, the winemaker and owner of Domein Wijngaarsberg. After working for large groups such as Phillips and Vodafone he decided to leave everything behind to be closer to nature.
Curious, I asked Jules what motivated him to endorse the winemaker cap. « I didn’t choose this profession for the money but for the joy of creating something ». He added humorously : « The only way to be rich when starting a winery, is to start very rich ». One needs passion, a touch of positive craziness… and a lot of pragmatism !
On this particular day, his son and some friends from high school came to lend a hand. Why ? To remove half of the clusters in the vineyard ! A daunting task on the 3 hectares planted with Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but worth it : this action reduces the risk of botrytis by 80%, and improves the concentration of the remaining grapes.
For Jules, the most enjoyable part of being a winemaker is to find the right balance between free entreprise on the one side and obligations to the nature on the other. « Man directs the vine in winter; the vine directs man in summer »…
A picnic in the vineyard ?
Next stop Erichem village, in the heart of the Netherlands, where we have an appointment with Diederik Beker, the owner and winemaker of Betuws Wijndomein. Always fascinated by nature, he explained to us how he was able to combine both the development of wine tourism and biodiversity conservation in his vineyard.
But then, it is not always easy having your production known (or recognized) being an emerging wine country. Diedrich’s strategy is simple : highlighting nature while offering tourists the opportunity to stop and contemplate it – like with picnics in the vineyard. « I don’t want to compete with French, Italian and New Zealand wines, Dutch wines are too expensive due to their low production. So we need other ways to attract people ; like wine tourism ».
Some Dutch wines to discover :
–Chardonnay 2012, from Domein de Wijngaardsberg
–Müller Thurgau 2013, from Wijngoed Fromberg
–Linge Wit 2014, from Betuws Wijndomein (100% Johanniter)
–Pinot Noir 2012, from Domein de Wijngaardsberg
–Pinot Noir 2013, from Wijngoed Fromberg
Wijngoed Fromberg, a promising wine estate
The alert was raised in late August 2013 : a new invasive species was attacking the early ripening red varieties ! This Asian insect, the suzukii fly’s (1) particularity is to spawn in fleshy fruits (cherries, grapes…) on which the larva feeds, causing substantial production losses.
On the wine side, the estate is very interesting. Carmen and her husband Marcel are the current owners. The vineyard, which was planted in 1991 by Carmen’s father, is situated on very poor limestone soils.
Respecting nature, perches for eagles are installed on every corner of the field. Why ? “This is the best protection to scare the birds that come to attack the vineyards in summer.”
And when asking Marcel about his greatest satisfaction as a winemaker, please don’t talk to him about medals! “I don’t like medals nor trophies or contests. My best satisfaction is when I’m out of stock !”.
Upon our departure, we came face to face with a beautiful antique windmill, restored by a passionate individual. While we were in contemplation, the owner of the place invited us to climb and visit it.
Thank you to Domein de Wijngaarsberg, Wijngoed Fromberg and Betuws Wijndomein for their warm welcome. And thank you to Gerda Beziade, Xavier Kat and Lars Daniëls, for their advise and guidance in our research of Dutch wineries.
(1) The “suzukii fly”, also known as Drosophila suzukii, Asian gnat or spotted wing drosophila, is a Diptera insect species of the Drosophilidae family. This invasive species has also appeared fairly recently in northern and eastern France (Paris basin, Picardie, Lorraine, Alsace), where it caused significant damage, especially in the strawberry fields. It is also widely spread throughout Germany and since last year in the Belgian vineyards.