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Wine adventure

By RigaNow!. 27.08.2015

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Latvia makes surprisingly palatable wines. French connoisseurs might turn their noses up, but as we discovered in the village of Sabile, a degustation of the fruity drinks makes for a memorable trip out of the city.

If the mention of Baltic wines Hill), easily reached up a footpath from the prompts mental images of center of the village, has a place in the potent homemade concoctions Guinness book of records as the world’s laced with potato vodka, a northernmost open-air vineyard.

Grating aroma of spring onion Jacob Kettler, Duke of Courland, grew and aftertaste of beetroot, vines here in the 17th century, circulating you’d be wrong. Latvia makes the wines among friends and sending it to the loveliest wines this side of Paris. In the 1930s, President Kārlis Ulmanis the Tatra mountains. revived the tradition, and in the 70s Latvian the tiny town of Sabile, about 100 scientists experimented with local apples, kilometers west of Riga, has been creating plums, strawberries and other fruits as well wines from locally grown varieties of grape as grapes. more than 20 grape varieties now and fruits for 500 years. Vīna Kalns (Wine grow on the hill, but only a few are suitable for winemaking. They have been harvested now for 18 years straight, yielding 13 or 14 years of wine.

Of course, as the global climate changes, grapes will soon be growing in Tromsø. But a visit to Sabile is something special. This lusciously verdant valley provides an insight into rural Latvia you can’t come close to in the capital city.

Visitors flock here one weekend every July for a wine festival, but at other times it’s a peaceful backwater. On the other side of the valley is an open-air sculpture park at Pedvāle manor created by artist Ojārs Feldbergs. Its installations are bizarre, its periodic cultural events bohemian.

Through Sabile’s energetic one-person tourism information center, we arranged
a degustation in advance at Drubazas, a farm beside the Kandava-Sabile road. But beforehand we sheltered from a sudden storm at the friendly Vīna Kalns Krogs, or café-bar, by the village crossroads.

Spotting a few bottles of Latvian wine standing proudly on the bar, we decided to hold our own impromptu tasting, accompanied by some local dishes. We tried two wines with the Sabiles label – a very dark apple-and-aronia (chokeberry) blend, sweet with a slightly bitter aftertaste, and an apple wine that reminded
me of experiments my father, a keen amateur winemaker, used to conduct at risk of blowing up the house. His granny’s apple wine, or “grapple” for short, was famous within the family but not something you’d consider marketing to the general public. We ended up staying at the Krogs for a full hour, growing to actually quite like the wines and feasting on a delicious boletus mushroom hotpot, “men’s salad” (egg, cheese, pickles, dried meat, lots of garlic), and the biggest cheese-covered pork chop we’d ever seen. We also had the pleasure of trying a deliciously crisp and bubbly semi-dry cider, Sabiles Sidrs.

Dark place

Drubazas stands out along the road with its wicker-fenced “botanical garden”. The farm has about 40 hectares of land, which owner Smaida Dzērve says is home to many plants listed in the red book of protected species. Driving in, we were confronted by a huge red hound, which we later learned was absolutely harmless. Smaida beckoned us into her cool dark cellar, closing the creaking dungeon-like door behind us.

Once our eyes got used to the dim lighting we could see 15 massive glass carboys gently bubbling away amid the mossy Stone Walls. Our host told us the cellar predated the house, by several hundred years, and it definitely carried that musty ambiance.
Wine enthusiasts have come from around the world to taste Sabile’s wines. Smaida has welcomed into her cellar groups from Germany, the Nordic countries, Russia, the US, the UK, Greece, even Japan. She’s hosted German and Swedish television crews, and travel agencies in Riga arrange winetasting packages. With me she spoke Latvian and Russian through an interpreter I’d brought along.

Smaida works with her daughter on the Wine Hill, tending the grapes. She’s not paid for this arduous work, but the municipality allows her to take grapes away for her wines. She also has her own vines growing close to the house, which have yielded two harvests so far. Some years she makes up to a thousand liters of wine, other years far less. Latvian politicians present some of
the resulting bottles as official gifts on state visits.

For our own winetasting we shamelessly swallowed rather than spat. We got through about ten wines, the translator gradually getting merrier, and we ended up choosing three or four to buy as bottles to take home.

Only the first was a grape wine, which personally I liked the most. Sweet wines are not for me, so this dry, smooth, subtle, almost scentless wine made from the early-ripening “veldze” grape was a pleasant surprise. There was no bitterness and just the tiniest hint of fizz. The alcohol content was around 14% ABV, Smaida said alcohol is added as she doesn’t use copper sulfates.

The further north people live, she commented, the more likely they’ll like sweet wines. The further east they live isn’t it? I felt inclined to correct her. She replied that actually she didn’t enjoy drinking wine at all. But, she said, Latvian tastes in general are changing with every year, from sweeter to drier.

For us, the wines we tasted at Drubazas went steadily from dry to sweet. Those made from local berries – raspberries, blackcurrants – had the strongest aromas. Glasses of wines made from lingonberries, chokeberries, cranberries, redcurrants and honey were also passed around. Many would have gone down nicely with a rich dessert like chocolate cake.

The translator asked for a second helping of the cranberry wine before Smaida sucked at her flexi-pipe and poured our wines-to-buy into bottles, which she then sealed professionally with a portable heater and stuck on tiny labels.

Rhubarb magic

Another producer in Sabile is Abavas. This new vineyard has quickly developed a reputation for reliable wines made from a variety of fruits and recently developed its first successful wines from grapes. The owner, Martiņš Barkāns, is a horticulturist who provides winetasting sessions for groups, usually in summer, if booked
in advance. Abavas wines can also be sampled in Riga in restaurants (upscale ones that use local produce) or bought
in stores (try gift shops such as Pienene, Kungu 7/9, map-ref g-3).

The family-run farm can be seen from the Kandava-Sabile road. We procured several to try at home. Many come in slender bottles and have elegant labels with the farm’s characteristic dragonfly logo. Abavas is a professional outfit, and
is perhaps now Latvia’s best-known wine producer. Understandably, one of the most popular is a sparkling wine made from the farm’s own rhubarb, which is harvested at the start of summer and bottled by year-end. With its lovely rhubarb aroma, dry taste and fresh finish it is definitely, as the label says, one to pleasantly surprise your friends. Served chilled it could be a unique welcome drink on a special occasion.

Aroniju Ports is a semi-sweet chokeberry wine fortified with Abavas’ own apple
brandy, aged for six months and sold in
half-liter bottles. it has an amiable taste of sweet wild berries with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Rondo, meanwhile, is a 2013 rosé wine made from the vineyard’s own grapes, with a pinky blush and a playful fizz on the tongue. it also carries a taste of bitter northern berries – and is the finest grape wine you’ll find in Latvia.

Of course, in the wake of any degustation where you’re actually drinking the wines, it’s advisable to find somewhere to stay overnight. Conveniently, it’s possible to stay or camp at Drubazas. In the pretty nearby town of Kandavas, a small hospital has been converted into a hostel (www. hostelhospital.lv). Other places to stay in the region can be recommended by the rural tourism association Luku Ceļotājs (www.celotajs.lv).

More upmarket stays can be found at the Imulas guest House (www.imulas.lv)
or, most distinctively, at Kukšu manor (www.kuksumuiza.lv) not far from Kandava, with its stunning lakeside setting, excellent restaurant, sparkling chandeliers, antique furniture, gorgeous carpets, paintings and frescos. 

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