New world wines: now from the north

January 31, 2010

global_post_logo This article by Paul Ames originally appeared in GlobalPost.

The terrace of the elegant 18th-century chateau offers views over the formal French garden and fields filled with neat rows of vines.

This idyllic scene could be reminiscent of Bordeaux or the Cotes du Rhone … were it not for all the snow.

Wijnkasteel Genoels-Elderen is the biggest and best-known vineyard in Belgium. It is one of a growing number of wineries taking root in parts of northern Europe once considered too chilly to produce drinkable wine.

“We can compare this region with the Champagne region or Burgundy, or the Chablis,” said Belgian winemaker Joyce Kekko-van Rennes. “If you are in period of warming, we are in a fantastic place for winemaking.”

The extent to which global warming has encouraged the expansion of winemaking in northern lands better known for their beer is up for debate.

There is no doubt, however, that it was perfectly possible to toast the arrival of 2010 with some very drinkable English bubbly, Dutch riesling or even Swedish chardonnay.

“In less than a generation, English wine has gone from being a joke to a serious investment prospect,” wrote The Financial Times’ wine critic Janice Robinson.

A 2006 report by a group of U.S. scientists found that average growing season temperatures in 27 of the world’s top wine regions rose by 1.3 percent in second half of the 20th century, with warming well over 2 percent in parts of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the U.S. west Coast.

In most cases the warming has had a positive impact on wine quality, the study concludes, but it warned that accelerated temperature changes over the next 50 years could wipe out production in parts of Spain, Italy or Australia while boosting grape growing further north.

“It is getting hotter around the Mediterranean, and that’s not good for wine production,” said Ingrid Dahlberg, owner of the Wannborga vineyard on Sweden’s Oland Island, who is working with experts from Spain to develop production from her 5,000 vines.

Recent temperature changes may be helping the northern vintners, but they are quick to point out that wine production there is nothing new. Dahlberg said Bronze Age Scandinavians were growing grapes more than a thousand years before she and her husband started planting vines in 2001.

“The area here used to be a wine region since the Romans, who knew that it was good for vines,” said Kekko-van Rennes during a tour of her vineyard close to the Dutch border in eastern Belgium.

“It all stopped at the time of Napoleon who wanted to protect his wines from competition and made all the vineyards here disappear … . He had them burned or taken out.”

Kekko-van Rennes’ parents were fascinated to discover the wine-making past of the chateau in 1990. They toyed with the idea of planting some vines for fun but after consulting a French expert decided to set up a commercial vineyard, planting the traditional Burgundy grapes chardonnay and pinot noir. Daughter Joyce headed to France to learn the art of winemaking.

Today they have 20 hectares producing 100,000 bottles of red, white and sparking wines, picking up international prizes and earning a place on the wine lists of some of the top restaurants in Belgium and even in the hallowed wine cellar of the Tour d’Argent in Paris.

Belgium now has four French-style appellation d’origine controlee wine regions to ensure quality control. The system was introduced in the late 1990s after an adventurous merchant sought to pass off cheap German and Chilean imports as Belgian wines to profit from the growing interest, and rising prices, of indigenous tipples, causing a scandal.

Of course, the northerners still have a way to go before they start to rival some of the more established wine growers.

Denmark produces about 75,000 bottles a year, Sweden 92,000 bottles a year and England an impressive 2 million. However they represent a drop in the ocean compared to the about 8 billion produced by both France and Italy.

In the rolling countryside of Belgium’s Haspengouw region, Joyce Kekko-van Rennes said the Wijnkasteel Genoels-Elderen is increasing its acreage to meet effervescent demand. She insisted however that they are in no hurry for any increase in the temperature to boost production.

“A normal average year here is perfect for winemaking,” she said over a glass of 2006 chardonnay. “The really hot years we’ve had like 2003 were too extreme for us, so global warming can stop right here, it’s more than enough.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a reference to the 2006 report on temperature changes in winemaking regions.

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Photo: A wine selector tastes red wine from the latest vintage at Bonini winery’s wine-cellar in the village of Brestovitsa, about 150km (93miles) east of the capital Sofia, December 8, 2009.  REUTERS/Oleg Popov

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