Bacchus in the low countries, a trip down history lane

When Bacchus, the Roman god of vines and wine, reached the Netherlands is not clear, but fact is that the Romans planted vines where ever they could and successfully did so in the Low Countries.

Romans were very fond of their wine and the Roman frontier tends to follow the limits where grapes will grow, in this case the outer limits of the rivers Rhine, Meuse (Maas) and their different tributaries. The fertile land and good transportation facilities made this region densely populated. The Roman winegrowers adapted well to the Northern location, although it is fair to assume that the climate must have been warmer then. Roman grape vines required the annual temperature not to drop below zero to minus five degrees Celsius.  There is archeological evidence of viticulture on the hills of the Maas-, Geul-, and Jeter valley.

Yet what we don’t know is how ancient Roman wine really tasted. We do know that wines underwent fermentation and maturation. Distillation was unknown in the ancient world.  Most wines were fermented to the point where the yeast is killed by the alcohol it produces, which generally resulted in a sweet wine of high alcohol content, often as much as fifteen or sixteen percent. This could offer an explanation for the fact that Romans mixed their wine with water (one part wine to two parts water) and often drank it spicy and hot.  Only provincials and barbarians drink their wine (merum) undiluted was the slogan at the time. Sometimes honey was added as a sweetener or sea water to create the opposite effect. Other aroma enforcing agents were spices, raisins and resin, all of which helped to preserve the wine.

The provincial winemakers must have been successful, because in 92 AD, in an attempt to protect the interests of Italian wine-growers, an edict of Emperor Domitian ordered the destruction of at least half of the vineyards. The Roman Empire needs land for grain and not wine was his excuse. As an extra detriment Domitian prohibited the planting of grape vines for almost two centuries. In obvious defiance, for reason that Roman citizens considered it their prerogative to cultivate vines, the Roman provinces largely ignored Domitian’s edict.  Yet a lot of vineyards were uprooted by force, which led to the breakdown of wine industry in the Northern provinces.

It was not until 276 AD that the new emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus annulled the edict of Emperor Domitian and encouraged the planting of new vines in the Roman colonies to occupy his soldiers in times of peace. Probus’ viticultural ambitions unfortunately lead to his downfall. His soldiers preferred the glory of battle over the hard labor of planting and maintaining vines.  In the fall of 282 Probus was inspecting a legion, which had been given the job of setting up a vineyard in Surmium (now in modern day Serbia), when a mutiny broke out.  His rebellious soldiers chased Probus into a tower and murdered him on the spot. By the time the Roman Empire collapsed, around the fifth century AD, religious institutions became the primary repositories of wine making techniques that had been developed in Roman times.

The Dutch wine story continues in the early Middle Ages when Maastricht became the centre of the worship of Saint Servatius. The order of Saint Servatius had vineyards in Güls near Koblenz, but the yields were insufficient to satisfy the local market. In consequence Maastricht started to produce its own wines. Similar to elsewhere in Europe it were the religious orders who maintained the viticulture in the Low Countries. There was no lack of viticultural knowledge due to a frequent exchange with other monasteries of the Saint Servatius order. The monasteries had the resources, security, and stability to maintain and improve the quality of their vines. While most wine was made and consumed locally, the Maastricht wines were produced for the religious market in Belgium, France, and Germany as well.

It is not known when and how the decline of viticulture started in the Netherlands. There was the discovery and development of distillation throughout the Middle Ages and the rising popularity of beer. The invention of using hop to preserve beer over a longer period made beer a cheaper alternative for fresh, clean drinking water than wine. On top of that the climate changed. The Little Ice Age from 1550 till 1700 lead to the shutdown of many vineyards, it became simply too cold for the vines. Furthermore the start of the Dutch trading system in 16th and 17th Century made importing wines from France or other countries an easier and more profitable business. On top of that the better quality of the imported wines proved to be another difficult hurdle for the local wine industry.

Although on a side note, one could state that Jan van Riebeeck, on assignment of the Dutch East India Company, continued the Dutch viticulture tradition through his planting of vine cuttings in the new province of the Cape of Good Hope. It was known to Van Riebeek that wine, especially young red wine (sometimes carried on ships instead of water) could ward off scurvy for sailors on a stopover from their voyages along the spice route. On the second day of February 1659 Jan van Riebeeck famously wrote in his diary : “today, God be praised, wine was pressed at the Cape for the first time, namely from the new must, fresh from the vat”.  The founding of the South African wine industry coincided with a further decline in Dutch wine production.

It was Napoleon who delivered the final blow. In order to protect French farmers (yes, economic protection is from all times), he laid a heavy tax on the Dutch grape crops. Dutch wine production effectively came to a standstill. Add to this the cool and damp climate, serious diseases and pests, like Phylloxera, Botrytis, powdery and downy mildew in the nineteenth and twentieth century and you will understand why it took until 1967 to open the first new vineyard in the Netherlands.

Only in last twenty years viticulture in the Netherlands started booming again. In the beginning there were only commercial vineyards in the warmer South and a decade or so later in the Eastern part of the Netherlands. Now, under the influence of global warming and genetic manipulation of grapes, you can even find vineyards as far north as Groningen and the Wadden Islands in the North Sea. While in the seventies, eighties and nineties one worked mainly with the classic grape varieties like Riesling, Müller Thurgau, Dornfelder, Auxerrois, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, the new hybrid, mildew-tolerant grape varieties of today (with as an extra bonus early ripening) amplified the art of wine making in the Netherlands.  In 2010 there were about 200 vineyards, of which 100 are commercially exploited. The production amounts to approximately 1.2 million bottles of wine per year. The growth in production and more emphasis on quality increases the likelihood of finding a good quality Dutch wine on the wine list of a restaurant, though I still consider it the most fun to get the wine itself at the vineyard or wine grower’s store.

Allow yourself to be surprised by the craftsmanship of the Dutch wine growers and their ability to make quality wines (under not so favourable circumstances) and remember that Bacchus already in Roman times opened the gate of his heart to the Low Countries.

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