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Dutch influences on the wine world
2015-04-08
By John H. Isacs

I’ve been writing for nearly as long as I’ve been drinking wine. My family in the United States owned a newspaper so writing, like wine, is literally in my blood. One summer when I interned at the paper I remember hearing a seasoned editor state that all good writers can write on any subject, they just have to do the research. This old school approach considers arduous research a prerequisite for good writing.

So when my good friends at Shanghai Daily suggested I write something about Dutch wines, I thought, “Wow, time for some serious research.” The revered editor has long since passed away but as I composed this week’s article I rather fancied that wherever he may be that he was proud of me.

This week’s column entailed quite a lot of research. It’s much like winemakers who take the greatest pride in making good wines in the most difficult vintages, for writers it’s the difficult stories that provide the most satisfaction.

The first mention of Dutch viniculture was in AD 968 but the practice most likely dated back to earlier Roman settlements. The heyday of winemaking in the Netherlands extended from the early Middle Ages to the 16th century when the climate was warmer and far more accommodating to the vine.

Today Holland continues to make wines, albeit in minuscule quantities. A rebirth of sorts started in the 1970s and some of my Dutch friends cite global warming as a positive influence on Holland’s ability to make quality wines.

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Grape varieties

Popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are not options. Only more hearty, cool climate grapes that can reach suitable ripeness in challenging conditions are cultivated. These include the white varieties Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muller Thurgau and Pinot Blanc as well as well-known red grapes like Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Cabernet Franc. A host of lesser-known varieties suitable for cool climates are also cultivated.

On KLM and on a few occasions with Dutch friends I’ve tasted fresh and palatable Riesling and Pinot Blanc wines from Holland. Tasting Dutch wines is still a rather novel experience for most but the small nation has had a profound influence on some of the world’s most important wine regions.

As a prominent seafaring nation, Holland has long been an important trader and consumer of Bordeaux wines. Huge quantities of Bordeaux wines made their way up the coast of Europe to Dutch ports and onward to England. When England’s proprietorship of Bordeaux ended in the 15th century, the Dutch took advantage and became the largest Bordeaux wine market.

The Dutch can also take credit for helping to create one of Bordeaux’s most prestigious appellations, the Medoc. Prior to Dutch intervention Medoc was mostly swampland that was ill suited for viticulture. The technology and know-how of the Dutch enabled the draining of Medoc. So it’s fair to say that at least in part we have the Dutch to thank for the great wines of the left bank including Chateaux Latour, Mouton, Lafite and Margaux.

Sherry also has strong Dutch ties. For much of the 16th century Holland and England comprised over 80 percent of the Sherry wine market. In the 19th century and for much of the 20th century, Holland was the largest market for Sherry wines. Until the later 20th century, bulk shipments of Sherry would be shipped to Dutch ports and bottled in Holland.

Dutch influence on winemaking also extends to South Africa. The founder of Cape Town and the father of the South African wine industry was a Dutch doctor named Jan van Riebeek. Already an accomplished merchant in Asia, on April 6, 1652, he landed on the Cape of Good Hope to help the Dutch East India Company establish a way station for journey between the Netherlands and East Asia.

The long and arduous sea journey killed many a seaman, often from scurvy. As a doctor he knew the sailors needed fresh or preserved fruits and vegetables so one of his first acts was to plant vines. After seven years of failure in 1659 he had his first successful vintage and the winemaking history of South Africa had begun.

Wines from Holland may be intriguing to read about but finding them in China is no easy task. You pretty much have to fly business class on KLM or be lucky to have wine-loving Dutch friends.

Reading about the historic importance of the Dutch on many of the world’s great wine regions may be intellectually satisfying but its hardly thirst quenching. Therefore, I’d like to recommend two Dutch-related wineries that make good wines readily available in Shanghai.

Majestically situated in the Mendoza foothills of the Andes Mountains is the Dutch-owned Salentein winery. Built in the shape of a giant cross this beautiful winery makes delicious wines from international varieties including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

My two favorite wines are the single vineyard Malbec that feature abundant black fruit flavors and silky tannins and the prestige cuvee Grand VU Bland, which is 70 percent Malbec and 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The later wine spends a full two years in French oak and features concentrated black berry, licorice and exotic spice aromas and flavors with a voluminous mouth-feel and a soft tannic finish.

Let’s jump to Napa Valley for another fine Dutch wine drinking experience. On some of Napa’s most prized real estate you’ll find the Dutch Henry Winery. Established in 1992, the actual connection to Holland is somewhat nebulous but the name is entirely fitting.

Three of their single vineyard wines standout, the Terrior Station Syrah, a big Napa wine with black berry, blueberry and cassis flavors, the Argos, a right bank Bordeaux style red with ripe cherry and plum flavors and the Rutherford Zinfandel that’s replete with wild raspberry and cherry sensations. Dutch Henry wines offer big, concentrated Napa Valley characteristics without being over ripe or overdone.

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