Dutch Wine Doesn't Suck Any More, Thanks to Global Warming
The Earth is dying, but at least the booze is good?
Photos by David Engel
A version of this article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Netherlands.
Even if you're Dutch, chances are you don't know any good Dutch wines, though you'd probably be able to mention at least seven different beer brands. It's a shame, because the Netherlands is actually a phenomenal wine country. Dutch wines have made their way into top-rated restaurants thanks to our wine farmers, because their production process has become more professional over time. But we also owe a debt to global warming.
Mathieu Hulst is a wine farmer and runs Apostelhoeve in the province of Limburg. His dad started making wine there in the 1970s. Back then, people thought you were nuts if you believed that making wine and being in the Netherlands could go together. These days, Hulst produces six dry whites and two sparkling wines on the old apple and pear farm. The most famous one is called Cuvée XII. The vineyard won the first, second and third prize at the Prix du Château Maestricht for the best wine in Limburg in 2012, various medals at international competitions, and Winelife Magazine dubbed Cuvée XII Brut the best Dutch wine in 2016. Essentially, they sell out before you can say 'cheers.'
According to experts, this year’s insanely hot summer will make 2018 into the best Dutch wine year to date. To find out more about that, we went to see Hulst and talked to him about global warming, outrageously high wine prices, and whether or not making wine is actually fun.
MUNCHIES: Hey, Mathieu. Your wine is very popular and not that easy to get. Even the restaurant around the corner from you has run out. How is that possible?
Mathieu Hulst: Yes, we’ve been telling our bigger clients "no" for the past few years. [Dutch airline] KLM has asked about our wines a few times already. But that means we have to sell such a large amount, we have to tell regular customers "I don’t have it this year" for an entire year. You can’t really do that—it’s not right.
The same thing happened when [Dutch national newspaper] De Telegraaf named our wine the best one to drink with asparagus. The writer of the article called me up right away. I was honored, but I said: “I have good news and bad news. I don’t have that particular wine anymore. But next year’s wine will be even better.”
Doesn’t it drag you down that every year that you run out of everything you make?
On the one hand, I’m pretty proud. But when I recently got a request for my wine because they wanted to pour it during a dinner with the king and queen, the fact that I had run out was a struggle. Luckily, a distributor I’m friendly with let me buy some of it back from him.
Why isn’t Dutch wine popular everywhere?
I think most people don’t even know that there is wine production in the Netherlands, which is understandable. If you only go out to dinner once in a while and you’ve never had a Dutch wine, I get your trepidation when it comes to ordering it. Comparatively, it’s usually more expensive. So you pick something tried and true. I’d do the same thing.
Are there people who say: “It’s all well and good with that Dutch wine, but the hype will pass”?
I think there was a lot more skepticism when my dad started out. Even our close family assumed this would never work out, and I can’t say they’re wrong for thinking that. But now we've shown that it’s absolutely possible and even during international tastings, we end up winning. That definitely boosts our ego.
In the beginning, people would kindly look the other way when we had a bad year as long as we improved the year after. That’s over and done with. In the past few years, about 0.15 square miles of [Dutch] vineyard has been eliminated. Because of that, I think only the best winemakers remain. We end up with colleagues who are doing amazingly, like De Kleine Schorre in the province of Zeeland and the nuns in the province of Brabant.
But if that’s the case, why does your wine only cost about 12 euros a bottle?
We get that question a lot. If you put a 25 euro price tag on this bottle, people will end up buying a foreign bottle. You need to be realistic about that. If I had asked double the price, I would have sold the wine for sure, but for a shorter period of time and it would have turned into a gimmick. Because there is no price difference between our wine and imported wine, we can compete with them and many restaurants want to work with us. Plus, they like that the wine is Dutch.
"Every single advisor in Europe said we'd have a small yield because of the heat, but this is the best yield I've ever seen."
Is this a good wine year because global warming gave us the hottest summer ever?
I’m not saying anything definitively, OK? Because we still have to make the wine. But the ingredients are good, everything is super healthy, there wasn’t a moldy grape to be found and the volume was amazing. It’s a bit strange, because every single advisor in Europe said we’d have a small yield because of the heat. Meanwhile, I've never seen a better yield in Europe. We very quickly ran out of space. Luckily I was able to determine early on that we’d have a huge yield and found a few extra tanks. Soon after, those were all sold out.
Mostly, though, you measure the amount of sugar to see what the quality is. This was a dry year, so everything you get from the ground will be more concentrated. At this moment, when I taste, I notice a high concentration and that is very promising.
So you already knew the yield would be big during the summer months?
Well, we had a bit of pinot gris so we could make dessert wine. But to get the right sugar percentage, you need noble rot. And they wouldn’t start rotting. Because it was so dry, the bunches of grapes got soft, so I decided to start harvesting. When I brought [the grapes] in, they contained 308 grams of sugar per liter. That’s unbelievable. Knowing that Chateau d’Yquem, one of the best dessert wines, is harvested at 353 grams of sugar per liter, we’re pretty close to that. It’s a bizarre [number] for the Netherlands, because it’s usually never this high. Ultimately, we could have harvested way sooner.
So the secret of your wine lies in the acid balance?
I think that because of those acids, our wines and ones from other Northern countries, the cool climate wines, are so popular. It’s also because of the soil in [the province of] Limburg. We have loess here, a rocky soil that is rich in minerals, and underneath that sits marl, which contains 98 percent calcium. You taste those minerals in the tingling of the wines. And when the wine ages a bit, the [marl] stone layer adds smokey undertones.
I was a at a wine tasting recently, where I talked to the owner of another wine company. He said: “The temperatures rise and fall. But we don’t really pay it any mind. To us, it’s about making good wine.” Basically, they’re denying that there is such a thing as global warming.
Of course. What’s the alternative? It says something about the future quality, you see. You see it happening when you drive around the most sought-after parts of wine country. In the past, the worst vineyards were located the highest, coldest plots of land. These days, they put the best stuff there. They do all sorts of testing with other [grape] varieties and cloning. So it’s definitely a factor for them.
Last year’s drought forced supermarkets to raise prices. In which other ways will the consumer notice the effects of global warming?
That doesn’t just go for wine but for all food products. I think that initially, there will be enormous wealth in Europe and North America, but after that things will go terribly wrong. Large parts of the earth will become uninhabitable and all those people are going to flee. You can start playing Trump [Translator’s note: I think he refers to closing borders, but I can’t be 100% sure of course], but that’s not something you want to do when people are in need.
Once global warming really hits… will we still be able to have wine?
Wine is just a products that gives pleasure. The wine industry will have to migrate, I don’t think there’s another way. According to European laws, northern countries are allowed to chaptalize, meaning they can add sugar, to reach the proper alcohol content. In the warmer countries, acidification is allowed. Already, northern countries have gotten permission to start acidifying. Imagine what that means for the southern countries.
Is there any hope at all?
In [the French region of] Bordeaux they're researching new grape varieties that will thrive in today’s and tomorrow’s climate. The first wine is being made, but it will take ten years or so before farmers will be using those grapes. I suspect that these are the kinds of solutions that will be created.
But are things looking good for the Netherlands in the next few years?
People don’t realize enough how quickly climate change happens. For the classic grape varieties it’s a win-win situation, but for the hybrid kinds, a kind of safe laboratory grapevine which is used a lot here as well, I expect that the next ten years are their last. With those [grapes], you only make wines that are fun to buy or to gift. Playing around isn't bad if it’s just a hobby, but many people have been unpleasantly surprised while [working] with those hybrids. When the quality is disappointing they end up with a large batch of wine they can't sell. And that’s a serious problem.
"Crawling on the ground when it's 95°F, [or] it's raining or freezing, I don't like that one bit. Whenever someone says 'making wine is the most beautiful thing there is,' I tell them they're wrong."
You’ve said in an earlier interview that making wine is no fun.
Making wine is no fun at all. Crawling on the ground when it’s 95°F, [or] it’s raining or freezing, I don’t like that one bit. Whenever someone says "making wine is the most beautiful thing there is," I tell them it’s not true. You shouldn’t say that it’s the best profession in the world. It’s nonsense. Drinking wine, that’s fun, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s worth the sacrifices.
A sacrifice—the same way people talk about being pregnant.
Yes! Exactly. I’m stealing that from you.