Crazy is an appropriate descriptor for the world today. From weather, fires and COVID to world politics, the news shocks us a bit less each day as we numb to it. So, it was no shock when our friend Bruno Suter told us he was planting a vineyard and starting a winery– Wijndomein De Boe– in the southwest province of Zeeland in the Netherlands, just south of Middelburg.
But while it might seem crazy at first, in fact, it is a well-thought-out project with a lot of potential. As climate change is pushing the latitude lines of viable grape growing further north, it means knowledge, hard work and patience are required when establishing vineyards in new locations. We recently visited Suter and discuss his immense undertaking below. We note he doesn’t have to worry about watering his vines. At least not now.
This mostly flat landscape has a maritime climate. The Netherlands receives an annual average of 790 millimeters (31 inches) of rainfall over the year. The warmest months are July and August (72° F (/ 22° C) and the coolest in January 34° F / 1° C) with snow periodically dusting the landscape in winter. But what stands out in this mostly cool and damp climate is the wind.
The wind is constant in Middelburg, a bit like the Mistral in the Rhone Valley of France yet it doesn’t stop. And Middelburg’s location next to the North Sea adds a sea breeze saltiness to the air. The benefit of the wind equals a drying effect- it pulls out and evaporates moisture from the vine canopies. The downside pertains to the salt- it can damage the leaves, blackening them around the edges, although minor compared to the benefit.
While some might consider this climate undesirable, Suter, a native of the Netherlands, was inspired to take on this challenge in his home country. Suter was a classmate of Mark’s in the International Master of Science in Vineyard and Winery Management program at École Nationale Supérieure des Sciences Agronomiques in Bordeaux (a.k.a. Bordeaux Sciences Agro). After that, he completed some research on how grapevines manage water use and berry development in response to changes in climate. He gained further experience working in wineries in France, Germany, England and the Netherlands. Perfect background for his endeavor.
Grape growing and wine making has existed in the country since at least 1970 but probably earlier. The history is sketchy, but monasteries in the middle-ages were some of the first to produce wine in that region.
In 1997 there were seven wineries in the Netherlands. In 2005 there were forty and in 2017 each Dutch province had at least one winery. Source
Vineyard at De Boe
After a long search, a perfect piece of land was found. The building on the Wijndomein De Boe property (“Wijndomein” translates to “wine domaine” and “de boe” to “forest”) used to be the gardener’s house when the property was a farm estate surrounded by elegant French and English gardens. It eventually became a house with an attached work shop and processing area for an apple and pear farm. Today it is Suter’s home and the future winery. In true researcher fashion, he even has an internet connected weather station!
He broke ground on the vineyards at Wijndomein De Boe this past April. The property is 6.3-hectares, of which 5.5 are suitable for planting. 3-hectares were planted in April and the remaining 2.5 are temporarily planted with sunflowers.
It took tremendous work to prepare the property for grape vines. All apple and pear trees were removed, and a drainage system installed at a depth of one meter to enhance the drainage needed for quality wine production. The Dutch have a way with moving water around and were responsible for much of the drainage constructed in the 17th century, allowing quality wine production in the northern Medoc region in Bordeaux.
The vineyards are planted in four plots with a single guyot vine training system in each. He prefers this over the double guyot system as it is easier to prune and should be more productive, having fewer basal buds per vine. Most of the property is surrounded by a border of trees that help retain heat, with one plot completely surrounded by a hedge, similar to a clos.
Historically, the property had a creek ridge with clay and sandy sediments underneath peat. As the area was drained, the peat was exposed to oxygen and decomposed, revealing the sediments underneath. In contrast to the old creek beds, this provides an interesting mixture of calcareous sandy and clayey soil types with seashell material down to one meter. Sandy soils are known to produce elegant, aromatic wines, while clay provides more body and color.
Taking stock of the roots and grapes
Dutch soils are known to be quite vigorous and Suter completed significant research looking at appropriate rootstocks given his soil types. He chose 3309 for the whites on the sandy parts of the property (65%) and the less vigorous 101-14 for red grapes on the clay soils (20%). The remaining vines in calcareous soils are on SO4 rootstock, common in cool climate wine regions. SO4 is a vigorous rootstock, requiring more work to tame the vines.
Different rootstocks can confer different levels of vigor to the vines, thus in a rich soil like Suter’s, rootstock selection is important. One way to regulate vine vigor is to put the vine on a less vigorous rootstock.
For the white grapes, Suter selected Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Muscaris (a hybrid), Savagnin, (traditionally from the Jura and Savoie regions in France), and Pinot Auxerrois (exact origin unknown however possibly the region of Lorraine in France or Burgundy near Auxerre). For the red grapes he selected Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir Précoce (called Frühburgunder or Pinot Madeleine in parts of Germany), and Pinot d’Aunis (traditionally from the Loire Valley in France).
He foresees a few blends and a few single varietal white wines including Savagnin and Chardonnay. For a ‘muscaty’ type of sparkling wine, he envisions a blend of Auxerrois and Muscaris. He will most likely produce a rosé with the red grapes, and may plant Trousseau Noir (traditionally from eastern France) at some point to make a red wine.
Yet he acknowledged, his ideas about wines depends on the quality of the grapes and what they will be suitable for making in this area.
None of the varieties he chose are grown on the island except Pinot Gris, giving him one reference profile. A vineyard on a neighboring island grows Pinot Auxerrois.
After walking the property and all the discussion, Suter pulled out a German wine: Weingut Forster Frühburgunder vom Quarzit 2019.
Suter spent time researching and tasting grape varieties in Germany which historically, experienced a cooler climate similar to the Netherlands. Frühburgunder was one, found mainly there with a small amount also in the UK and Switzerland. Synonyms are Pinot Noir Précoce and Pinot Madeleine. A mutant of Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder), it ripens earlier with qualities similar to Pinot Noir. The downside is possible low yields and being prone to rot. Yet the constant winds in the area should help alleviate any rot challenges!
In addition to this Frühburgunder, while on our trip we tried very nice wines from the Limburg PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) area further to the east in the Netherlands near Belgium. They may provide a preview of what to expect from Wijndomein De Boe in the future.
Our fantastic visit enabled us to witness first-hand Suter’s impressive endeavor. And how about his funky Deux Chevaux?!? We look forward to seeing his project develop… and perhaps giving him a hand during harvests (in exchange for wine of course)!