Meeting the mad professor of far-north winemaking

If you want to make wine north either Copenhagen or Edinburgh, you should speak with Martins Barkans. He is the man who makes wine on the 57th parallel. That's 57 degrees north. Yes, 57 degrees north.

He's spent eight years experimenting with 40 varietals, to make a drinkable wine from his three and a half hectare vineyard in Sabile, west of the capital Riga, in Latvia.

“I can grow grapes, but I can't make wine” he told me when I first met him three years ago, in August 2015. That year, Latvia had a superb late summer, and he ended up proving that untrue, with a final tally of some 400 bottles of quaffable white wine, made from his Solaris grapes.

In mid June 2018, I went back to visit him, to discover he can now make wine as well as grow grapes, but only when nature permits. His commitment to innovation and experimentation though, gives you the strong feeling that 2015 won't be his only drinkable vintage in the coming years.

Barkans, a former banker, has been experimenting with his 40 odd (yes 40) varietals since 2010. He's been trying to work out, in uncharted local far north Latvian territory, which kinds of vines can survive winter temperates of up to minus 30, sometimes combined with post harvest bud destroying early frosts too, which can suddenly arrive in October.

Supported by his fruit wine and cider business, well known locally under the Abavas brand, named after a spot in the region, Barkans already makes a renowned local sparkling 'wine'. Each year he grows around four to five tonnes of Rhubarb, and buys another 45 or so locally, for his tart, refreshing, high acidity sparkling, served and sold across Latvia. It's an excellent drink, and sold alongside his sweeter cider products, fruit wines, spirits and a really intriguing, Reisling-viscous Apple wine, it supports his experimentation with grape producing vines with names you may not have heard much about.

“It’s an expensive but passionate hobby” he tells me when I ask him why he’s trying to make wine in Latvia. Inspired by a honeymoon in Tuscany, in 2010 he planted his first vineyard, with a focus on quality. His goal is simple “I want to make a top class wine, that the best restaurants in our country will serve”.

Today he has 3 ½ hectares of grapes under development. He calls his winery room “a zoo”, a laboratory, with one key factor the simple survival of the grapevine itself, in temperatures that can drop as low as minus 30 Celsius in winter. And given Latvia’s small size and long Baltic sea coastline, that can often be without the snow cover other cold grape growing regions, such as in Quebec, can benefit from. Winter is not the only challenge however. Latvia has relatively cool and short summers. Some of them have been extremely so, as in 2017, when there was virtually no summer.

His Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and other classical northern European grapes didn't much last the course, dying as they did, after a few years in Latvia's sometimes very harsh winters. Instead he looked west, and east for North American (vitis labrusca) and Asian influenced varietals (vitis amurensis) such as Zilga, and Valiant, a super-hardy weed-like North American grape amongst many others.

Martins used Solaris for 400 bottles of very drinkable white back in 2015, now sadly, all gone, he's experimenting with these hybrids from North America and Asia.

Barkans has been learning from the Quebecois winemakers who have the advantage of snow to protect their vines in winter, something Sabile, 90 minutes west of Riga by car, doesn't always get at the right times to protect the vines from often-brutal Baltic winter temperatures. Barkans points out that being a coastal region, the wind and other conditions don't guarantee snow, so he has to bury his vines and hope they survive the long winter months.

He has experimented with thermo-vinification, this is apparently, where the grapes are heated to around 60 degrees celcius, do a quick extraction, without leaving them on skins, and then do normal vinification. This is one of the processes Martins has been experimenting with, to try and preserve the flavours of berries without the challenges leaving them on skins, given the bad harvest of 2017. Valiant is the grape that may benefit from this.

In his winery, thirty minutes drive from the vineyard, near the town of Tukems, he shows me around the converted pickled vegetable factory he recently purchased. Cider vats, apple wine, the famous Rhubarb and his barrels of apple brandy, ageing in the corner, take up much of the space. But then there's his wine innovation room, which is something to behold considering, again, we are at a latitude of 56.8 degrees north.

“I'm going to christen you the mad professor of Norther European wine” I tell Martins as he laughs and shows me around. Old oak and new oak barriques sit alongside big plastic containers, steel vats, an array of demi-johns and other glass containers, all with different grapes, parcels and combinations, ageing slowly (with floating mustard gas tablets in wax to push the oxygen out of the glass ones. This is an Italian invention, he tells me) to see what happens. “My grandfather didn't make wine” Barkins notes wryly as he points out that as far as he knows, no-one has done what he's doing, where he's doing it, so the wine lab he runs, is genuinely new winemaking territory.

In mid-September, we speak on the phone. I’m keen to know how the best summer in living memory has treated Martins grapes, with the warmest May and driest June in memory. What might this mean for the potential for second good vintage of Latvian wine, when flowering came a month early, in June.

He also avoided a minus three frost in early June, which struck just a few kilometers away, and would have spelled disaster. “This is the best year so far in terms of quality” he tells me cheerfully down the line.

The unusually dry season hasn’t been so good for the rest of the fruit he grows and makes into various ciders, dry rhubarb sparkling and excellent fruit wines. Harvest began on September 12, finishing around the end of the month. Martins was hoping, when we spoke, for a similar grape volume to 2015, around five metric tonnes in total, from different varieties.

I ask him where his main focus will be, and he replies it’s as 2015. With Solaris making up around 10-15 percent of the total, he’s hoping for sugar and acidity levels up around his target for ‘normal’ production, if such normality can exist this far north. Thirsty birds aside, a good harvest will deliver the right ripeness, with more than 20% sugar in the grapes, which could end up resulting in around 10-11% alcohol, normal for cold climate viticulture, in bottle.

Assuming the harvest went as Martins wished, I'll be looking forward to trying some 2018 Latvian Solaris in 2019. The second vintage ever, as far as I know.

Martins is a fascinating man, and there's so much more in the podcast I couldn't get into this written version. So check out the podcast, and the videos below (on ageing reds in Latvia, particularly Zilga) and dive into the world of Latvian wine. Why not? Looking at climate models, we may (deeply unfortunately in most senses) see a lot more of it about in the next few decades.

Finishing this post, I realise I haven't mentioned much about the classic sustainability issues in wine. Reviewing my recordings with Martins, it seems organic and beyond (biodynamics etc) is not yet within the reach of Abavas, but one day, with weather changes, it may be possible.

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