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 !
Yet, the country has 176 winegrowers for 250 hectares of vines. A micro-production full of surprises which reveals some very nice wines.
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.
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.
In 2006, Jules had the opportunity to buy a vineyard planted four years earlier by a couple of neighbouring farmers ; as they couldn’t manage the vineyard in addition to their dairy operations.
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 »…
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.
Because with 6 hectares of vines, Betuws Wijndomein is part of the “big” estates of the country and attracts many tourists.
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 ».
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.
And for now there is no treatment, we were told at Wijngoed Fromberg. Last year, a third of the harvest on this magnificent 3-hectare vineyard was lost. To watch closely this year…
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.
We learned to unfold the sails and playing with the wind took us back to childhood…
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.