Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Growing Wine in Latvia

For quite some time, the Latvian vineyard Vīna kalns ('wine hill') held the Guinness World Record as the world's most northerly commercial vineyard (contenders must be open-air and capable of producing marketable grape wines). Located near the village of Sabile, the vineyards lie almost exactly on the 57th northern parallel. (For those who don’t know Latvia, it is roughly on the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska, as in freezing winters and cool, often rainy summers.)

When I was last in Latvia some 16-17 years ago, I had heard of vineyards near Sabile. But that was during film days, so thrifty me didn't take any photographs of the vines. This is the hill country around Sabile then.

But the crown as the world's most northerly vineyard was snatched from Latvia when the Lerkekasa vineyard near Gvarv, Norway was planted with Solaris grape vines in 2008, at the latitude of 59.3 degrees north.

Even though beaten by a mere 1.3 degrees latitude, Sabile grape growing has longevity over the Norwegian young vines. Apparently wine grown in the region was popular in the court of the Duchy of Courland (which lasted in various incarnations from 1561-1795), but records hint viniculture started long before then. No wonder Sabile’s coat of arms is a cluster of purple grapes (I couldn’t tell the varietal) on a bright yellow background.

Today tasting is possible at the annual summer wine festivals in both Sabile and Riga (the capitol of Latvia).

The most common cold-tolerant grape varieties used by Latvian winemakers include Melna Kaistule, Alpha, Gailuna Salda, Zilga (which I'm told has a somewhat unpleasant aroma), and Skujins-675, the later bred by ampelographer Kaspars Skujins, who creatively added the 675 to his name when christening the grape.

Latvian grape growing now has spread to the other side of the country, southern Latgale province, where vigneron Evalds Pupols experiments with several varieties, including Jubilejnaja Novgoroda, which reached 23 Brix during a couple of warm summers.

Perhaps with the help of climate change, if those levels of grape sugar can be reliably achieved, watch out France. In the meantime, I’m off to Costco to find a bottle of Zilga.

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