Winemaking in Latvia - challenging but not impossible

The seventeenth wine festival took place last weekend in Sabile, seeing the arrival of grape farmers and winemakers as well as passers-by who wanted to partake in the fun of the large gathering, reported Latvian Television on Monday. 

The town of Sabile was once in the Guinness Book of World Records as the northernmost place where grapes are grown. Now vineyards span areas up north to Estonia and even Norway, so making wine from Latvian grapes may be a Herculean feat, but by any means it's not impossible.

Spring came late this year and brought a lot of frost with it, but winemakers say that the grape harvest hasn't suffered because of that.

Smaida Dzērve, a horticulturist at the Sabile Wine hill, said that growing grapes for the express purpose of winemaking is becoming more and more popular these days, though winemakers who deal with other fruit and berries are doing better as growing grapes consumes time and money, more so than other cultures.

"If you want to start a winemaking business you have put in time and wait. Wine is ready only after a year. You have to invest funds, and lots of unpaid work. After a year money starts coming back to you, but until then it's almost like working for free. Grapevines produce wine on the fifth year after planting," said Dzērve.

Nearby the Wine hill, entrepreneur Mārtiņš Barkāns had started the Abava family-owned winery. Barkāns said that anyone can make 'some' wine from grapes grown in Latvia, though whether it'll taste well is anyone's guess. He aims higher than producing just 'any wine'.

"We started growing grapes with the goal of making quality wine from grapes grown in Latvia, to be presented in the fanciest restaurants in Riga and at receptions with renowned guests. However, it's important to make it taste right. Five years have gone by, and we have found out that, of some 40 varieties of grapevines we planted we have four or five which we want to plant in our vineyards. So we have to wait five more years until we get a product," said Barkāns.

If the company wouldn't work with producing drinks from apples, elderberries, black currants, and rhubarbs, perhaps these experiments wouldn't have started in the first place. A vineyard that spans a single hectare requires an investment of about 20,000 euros.

"A Latvian grape contest is held each year. The best samples are gorgeous, but the problem lies in the quantity. These have been one-off runs, volumes of about 5 to 20 liters," said Barkāns.

"If we're talking about a large volume - that is, at least a few thousand bottles of quality drink - it's still a challenge for everyone involved," Barkāns added.

One five-year-old plant produces grapes for a bottle of wine a year at most.

Not all varieties of grape are great for the weather in Latvia. Some freeze to death, some produce little, but others make for sour wine. Making wine in Latvia is still a great and resource-intensive challenge.

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