Denmark, a newcomer on the European benches

I am lacking the words to describe the beauty of Denmark.
Upon our arrival, we were moved by its brightly colored landscapes. Its virgin aspect, wild and unspoilt. Its unequaled blue sky.

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Starting in the South, from the Dutch border, we were eager to discover the Danish vineyards, the young student on the European benches.
Because even though the Danish Vineyards Association (1) was created in 1993, it was not until 2000 that Denmark was  (finally) allowed by the EU to produce wine commercially (2).
Today there are a hundred producers. Most wineries are less than 2 hectares in size, producing in difficult conditions. To make a living from this passion remains quite a challenge. The guided tour follows.

Skaersoegaard, a lush green velvet

Nearby Kolding – on Jutland island, West – our journey started with Skaersoegaard estate. Being the second “biggest” Danish winery with 5.5 hectares, Skaersoegaard is a beautiful place to visit urgently.

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Paddle in hand, we were invited to visit the property by boat. Sven Moesgaard, the owner – and one of the pioneers to have planted vines in Denmark – fell in love with this place, largely due to the lake. “Without this body of water, I would never have planted vines; it provides the necessary protection against frost”.

A family of swans were watching us from a certain distance, hidden in the reeds. These are the employees of the winery, Sven laughingly explained : they maintain the vines by eating weeds and feed the soil with their droppings. Effective and free labor!

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The vineyard tour over, it was time for fishing on the lake for Ludo and for a nap in the shade of a tree for me. We were happily awaiting the evening BBQ at the water’s edge, in which a thousand pinecones would flame and crackle, to our greatest delight.

Not easy to be winemaker in Denmark

However, why plant vines in Denmark, where the climatic conditions are cold and the period of sunshine very short? “By challenge! “, Sven, who was an engineer in the pharmaceutical industry, before becoming a winemaker, said. “People have always thought it was impossible to plant vines and to make wine in Denmark…and I hate what is impossible”.

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As a result, you can find on Skaersoegaard estate – as elsewhere in Denmark – exclusively interspecific varieties (like Solaris, Rondo, Orion, Regent, Ortega, Cabernet Cortis, etc.), which have the advantage of being more resistant to vine diseases (powdery mildew, downy mildew), often with earlier maturities. And it works pretty well. Fortunately. Because vine treatments are banned by the Danish government (only three soft sprays are allowed) and the challenge of maintaining the vines in good condition is huge.

In addition to this, draconian hygienic standards are imposed by the government.

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Danish growers are not only forced to wear a full protective suit and overshoes to access their cellar, but also to have a “white” room, isolated from the rest of the buildings, washable from the floor to the ceiling, for cleaning technical equipment. What a surprise the first time we saw it… It’s (almost) like a hospital room. And attention to regular controls! “If these standards were applied to older wine countries, the majority of wineries in the world would have to close their doors”, Sven laughingly added.
To boot the government doesn’t provide any funding for this new business, which is for now judged as unprofitable. “No matter, the wine is primarily a story of passion”.

A night on Samsø island

Having left Skaersoegaard estate in the afternoon, we had to rally Rёsnes peninsula, East (on Sealand), where we were expected for our second visit. And it seemed that on this day the GPS of the Wine Explorers’ Truck  decided to play some tricks on us.

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Forgetting that the “shortest route” selection had been checked in the GPS, we naively followed it. After barely 20km, we were already facing the sea, in front of a ferry terminal. Amused by the idea of a boat crossing, we quickly forgave our guide.

A first stop halfway forced us to land on Samsø, an island of 100 square km and 3,700 inhabitants – and 100% energy independent and renewable (3). The place is bucolic. The inhabitants live in tune with the rhythm of the sea and the seasons. Everything is so quiet that no ferry will sail in the evening. We decided to spend the night on the island and to leave the next morning at dawn.

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We had the perfect excuse to stay a little longer.  The scenery immediately gave us the feeling of having arrived at the end of the world. We savored the moment with relish. This night, the undertow of the waves would be our lullaby.
Would we continue our journey the next day?…

Dyrehøj Vingaard, the vineyard on the peninsula

Freshly disembarked from the ferry and not yet fully recovered from our emotions, we headed towards Dyrehøj Vingaard, the largest Danish winery. A 8-hectares vineyard literally plunging into the sea. Denmark is definitely full of landscapes one more picturesque than the other.

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We met with Betina and Tom Newberry, brother-sister-farmers, who specialized in the breeding of pigs for a long time. A few years ago, they left everything behind to embark on a wine adventure, focusing on a strategy around oenotourism. The Rёsnes peninsula remains a must in terms of Danish tourism.
And fortunately, the place has a wonderful microclimate for making wine : the sunlight off the water is so particular that its brightness is reflected on the vine with a mirror effect, helping the grapes to mature.

Some Danish wines to discover:
DON’s Cuvée Brut 2013, from Skaersoegaard (60% Solaris, 40% Orion)
RÖS Muscaris 2014, from Dyrehøj (90% Muscaris, 10% Solaris)
Utopia Rondo 2006, from Kelleris Vingård (100% Rondo, aged 9 months in new Hungarian oak)
Utopia Cougar Rondo 2009, from Kelleris Vingård (100% Rondo, aged 22 months in new French casks)
Hedvin 2010, from Skaersoegaard (blend of Rondo, Régent, Léon Millot and Cabernet Cortis), a fortified wine (4) with notes of cooked black fruit.

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Kelleris Vingård, the most bordelais of Danish vineyards

After a (fresh!) morning swim in the Øresund strait, facing Sweden, we took the direction of Kelleris Vingård, two kilometers away from the sea, where the owners, Susanne and Søren Hartvig Jensen, a lovely couple, were going to host us.
Søren is a winegrower like no other. He was told repeatedly that Denmark is not a country suited for producing red wine!

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However…With a lot of courage and a touch of craziness, he bet on a production mainly focused on the blue Rondo variety. “I’m not a little crazy, but completely crazy for wanting to specialize in red wines! As consumers like red wines with a long barrel aging, the challenge to make such wine was fun!”.

An unconditional fan of Bordeaux, Søren even added two round towers to his home, to give his estate a castle-like touch – and built a vaulted cellar in order to store his barrels.
He also planted a few plants of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on an experimental basis and confessed with a smile that in 10 years, none of them have ever reached maturity. A great illustration of how the Danish climate is complex! “Let us not forget that only 12,000 years ago, there were still 3,000 meters of ice in Denmark”.

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We ended the trip with a meeting with Søren’s friend Jean Becker, former president of the Danish Vineyards Association. He explained that mutual aid between wineries is still difficult in the country, probably due to a lack of knowledge and feedback regarding viticulture at the moment.

Denmark remains to this day a newborn throughout the history of wine, with the future ahead.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Thank you to Skaersoegaard, Dyrehøj Vingaard and Kelleris Vingård for their warm welcome. And thank you to the French Embassy in Denmark and especially to Raphael Caron, for having advised and guided us in our research. Finally, thank you to Jean Becker for having accepted an interview for the Wine Explorers’ project.

(1) Danish Vineyards Association (DVA)
(2) Along with Sweden and England
(3) For more information about Samsø : http://www.euractiv.fr/sections/energie/samso-lile-100-renouvelable-et-energetiquement-independante-312971
(4) A fortified wine is a wine whose alcohol content is increased and the fermentation stopped by adding alcohol in order to retain residual sugars.

Belgium, a story of friends

Did you know that about thirty wineries are fighting to make their 230 hectares of vines a recognized production in the paradise of good beer and fries? The  vineyard surface area in Belgium is tiny!

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And as the proverb says : ‘everything small is nice’. It’s true, we made friends all the way throughout our trip. All the wineries and all the people that we met during our stay had huge hearts. That’s typical of Belgium, genuine people! Atmosphere and results guaranteed.
Freshly landed in England, we crossed the north of France in order to reach Belgium via Heuvelland.

Entre-Deux-Monts, a family story

The Franco-Belgian border just crossed, a sign indicated the presence of a winery. Yes, Entre-Deux-Monts estate is just 500 meters close to the French border! It owes its name to the two mountains that surround it : the Mont Noir, on the French side and the Mont Rouge, on the Belgian side.

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With their young 13-hectare vineyard planted in 2004, Entre-Deux-Monts is already a great family story. Three generations are involved in it, Martin Bacquaert explained. « My grandfather owns the land. My father helps me to realize my dream and oversees the business. And I am the young winemaker ». Beneath the watchful eye of his mother, of course.

With poor soils mainly composed of limonite (sandy-loamy compacted rocks with iron), the area offers a beautiful production of white wines.

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You can also admire the vineyard from the air via the cable connecting the two mountains. A good opportunity to enjoy some altitude and film an interview with Martin. Normally closed that morning, Regine Becket and Johan Gheysens, Cordoba chairlift owners, put the machine on just for us ; so that we could do the interview. A beautiful gift to Ludo and I, because on this Thursday, July 16, it was our joint birthdays (1)!

Ruffus, the great Belgian bubble

If someone had told me that Belgium have great bubbles other than its Trappist beers, I wouldn’t have believed it. Big mistake… Run to enjoy those of Ruffus estate (2)! Specializing in traditional method sparkling wines, this 20 hectares south facing vineyard, has a superb terroir for the production of fine bubbles.

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And it works well, John Leroy explained. « Almost all of our wines are pre-sold a year in advance ». The cuvée Franco Dragone 2011 (a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) is of exceptional finesse.
Why such a success ? Very pure chalk soils, only Champagne grape varieties (3) used and long aging are the secrets of their success. « Belgians like minerality in sparkling wines, and ours are full of it », John said.

The man is a phenomenon! As soon as the tasting was completed, John took us to the city of Binche for lunch, with our friend Stéphane, who traveled from Paris just to meet with us.

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Friendship is beautiful! The opportunity to taste some Belgian beers (an anniversary requires this), with a special mention of Orval.
Then, a game of pétanque followed in front of the frenzied brand new winery as did the victory of team Stéphane-JB against John-Ludo duo. Don’t mess with pétanque… or with aniseed beverages for that matter. John had warned us that a birthday must be celebrated like that, or not at all!

Château de Bioul, made with love

When a couple of squires – Andy and Vanessa Wyckmans – decided to turn the family castle into a 10 hectare vineyard, they embarked on a crazy adventure together. Their only weapons being energy and determination which force respect.

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« We had to learn everything from scratch : from planting to farming, through the choice of varietals, winemaking, bottling, marketing and sales », Andy explained. Besides that, they also had to convert some existing buildings, like the winery (an old hay barn). « At first everyone thought we were crazy ; my parents first most! », Vanessa laughed.

The Château de Bioul, which released its first vintage in 2012, can now build its reputation. And the estate’s philosophy does not stop there : creation of lost gardens, cabanas for insects, hedgerows, hives for bees and houses for bats, all around the vineyard. The preservation of biodiversity is one of the primary motivations of this couple of young winemakers.

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In the evening, Andy and Vanessa entrusted the keys of the château to us, so that we could park the WINE Explorers’ truck there. That night, we were the guardians of the place!

Some examples of delicious Belgian wines (a climate succeeding primarily in the production of white wines) :
Pinot Gris 2014, from Entre-Deux-Monts
Mossiat 2014, from Château de Bioul (100% Brönner (4))
Blanc de Blancs NM, from Ruffus
Bacquaert Brut NM, from Entre-Deux-Monts (90% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir)
Butte aux lièvres 2007, from Domaine viticole du Chenoy (70% Régent (4), 30% Rondo (4))

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Domaine viticole du Chenoy, PIWI’s or nothing

At the age of 60, Philippe Grafé decided to realize his lifelong dream : to become a winemaker. The best way, according to him to “sink a happy retirement”. Except that making wine takes (a lot of) time. Now 78 years old and full of energy, Philippe admits that « it is impossible to turn back when you start creating a winery project, and that’s good; although it’s still quite a challenge! ». He added with humor: « all is well this morning, I’m not in the obituary column! ».

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As a fervent defender of PIWI grapes (5) (otherwise known as interspecific varieties), Philippe strongly believes in these new varieties, resistant to cold, moisture and a number of fungal diseases (6).
“This is the future”, he explained : my vineyard requires four to five times less treatment compaired to a vineyard planted with traditional varieties.
These new varieties with some complex names : Solaris, Johanniter, Cabernet Blanc, Brönner or Merzling for whites ; Rondo, Regent, Pinotin, Cabertin or Blue Muscat for reds (4) were a real discovery for us.
More and more wineries – like here at the Domaine viticole du Chenoy, or the Château de Bioul and in most of the Nordic countries (where the climate is colder) – are now fully planted with PIWI grapes.

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The taste of these wines, however, seems irregular. Many wonder: can “great” wines be produced from these grapes? Maybe. Not sure. Anyway, the use of these varieties is very recent. And although continuous research is being done (7) , we still lack much feedback on the subject. The debate is open.

As for us, we were off to Mons – the European Capital of Culture 2015 – for a memorable birthday weekend of a camping, where Ludo’s friends joined us for the occasion. The party could begin. 

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

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Thank you to Entre-deux-Monts, Domaine viticole du Chenoy, Château de Bioul and Ruffus estates for their warm welcome. Thank you to the Cordoba company for switching the machine on just for us. Thank you to Boschman and Christophe Heynen for having advised and guided us in our research of Belgian domains. Thank you to Chai & Bar in Brussels for their support of the project since the beginning of the adventure. Finally, a huge thank you to our friends Stephane Diné, Alain 2015 and Jérome Dieval for making the trip to Belgium to come and enjoy a few drinks with us for a memorable birthday weekend.

(1) Ludo and I are both born on July 16. Remember last year, we celebrated the event on top of the Great Wall of China.
(2) Ruffus is also known under the name Domaine des Agaisses
(3) Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
(4) For more information on these varieties and the PIWI in general: http://www.piwi-international.de/en/information-en.html
(5) PIWI comes from the German « PILZWIDERSTANDSFÄHIGE REBSORTEN », which literally means “vine varieties resistant to fungi”. They were created by crossing European varieties and American fungal resistant varieties. They belong to the type Vitis vinifera, as they are not to be distinguish from a taxonomically point of view (classification of species).
(6) The fungal diseases are usually caused by fungi that attack different species is the green organs of the vine (leaves, twigs, grapes) or trunk; the best known being downy mildew, powdery mildew, Esca, gray mold or the black rot.
(7) For more information, cf. Geisenheim Institute : www.hs-geisenheim.de/


For a tour at Entre-Deux-Monts winery and the region from the air: http://www.heuvelland.be/tourisme/847-www/227-www/606-www.html