Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Wine tourism in Latvia: Libertu Winery

Less than an hour's drive from Riga in Ikškile we're greeted by a man in green overalls, who looks like he just jumped off the pages of an Irish storybook. His mop of wild curls won't stay still for a moment- nor does he. Mischievous smile never seems to leave his face. Welcome to Libertu Winery!

It's 9am and we've just been served our first glasses. Latvia is a great country.

The man is Linards Liberts, one of the winemakers we had a chance to meet during our trip to Latvia. If the story of Abavas struck to you as crazy, this doesn't lag far behind. In a greatly entertaining Gyro Gearloose-sort of way. 

In a couple of dozen steps he's crossed the yard from his home and we reach a cellar where the magic happens. The magic is sparkling wine. Made with traditional Champagne method. Out of  birch sap (I told you - crazy!)

Linards is a man passionate about birch. He started out in the business for twigs (saunavasta in Finnish) that Scandinavians use to whip themselves with in sauna (nothing kinky there - it's good for circulation and released a wonderful aroma in the heat of the sauna) but decided to branch out to sap instead. He doesn't have any formal training in wine-making either, but he won't let that slow him down. "Internet!" he laughs. "It's full of all sorts of instructions!"

He collects the raw material from his own trees. Only trees in the cold climates produce sap. The season is short and all the sap is harvested in a pan of few weeks. The exact time changes every year: this year for instance the season started a couple of wees earlier than last year. During the season a birch tree extracts 5-15 litres of sap a day, depending on the size of the tree. Latest harvest yielded 37 000 litres of the nectar.

Mostly the sap is water, but it also contains sugars (xylitol), fruit and amino acids, protein and vitamin. In Latvia (and the rest of the Baltic countries) it's considered a bit of a superfood and it's wildly popular. In the spring and summer Latvians go through several liters of it a day!

Linards is surprised to find out I've never even tasted the stuff - I who come from the country famous for the tree. He is familiar with Hermanni's Wines in Finland, whose bubblies we fell for at the latest Travel Expo. 

I'm not sure what to expect, so the taste is a bit of a surprise. For some reason I thought it might be thicker and sweeter, you know, more syrup-like, but no. It's clear and fresh. Like water, only with cooler, fresher hint to it.

Fresh birch sap won't keep for long though: it needs to be consumed withing a couple of days from collecting or processed, either pasteurized or frozen. 

If you leave a glass of sap on the table in the morning, it will have naturally started fermenting by evening, Linards instructs. And this, birch sap fermented over several months, is their #1 product that he exports to Taiwan by container-load. In addition to Baltics Asia, especially China is wild about the stuff.

Some of the sap goes into natural cosmetics industry such as Madara, but the process I'm most acutely interested in is this. Rows and rows of bottles going through their second fermentation under the vaulted ceiling of Linards' cellar, to the soothing tones of classical music Linards plays to his bottles. 

Linards is one of the only three winemakers in Latvia using the Champagne method.

The whole process takes 2 years and the learning has been very much the case of trial and error. Wine is still looking for its style and each batch tastes a little different", Linards explains, grinning.

His sparkling wine is a bewildering, though a very positive surprise. It's lacking the heavy yeastiness that often clouds the novelty wines people in non-traditional wine countries make with berries and fruits. Instead it's characterized by clarity and freshness, though the purity of the taste borders on clinical and as such perhaps lacks character. A little more energetic bubbles might help the overall impression. There's nice acidity, which is not too overpowering. 

Reviewing the fizz is tricky as the taste is just that clean. But it was interesting. It certainly was nice.

Sap deemed unfit for sparkling wine is converted into a grappa-like drink which is really good and would fool most Italians, too. It's got some kick to it but finishes on a lovely, very smooth note. 

When thinking of sparkling wine producing countries, England is not one of the first to spring to mind. Yet, the evolution and improvement in quality acts as the inspiration to all of the winemakers we met in Latvia. Linards has even spent some time with Langham Wines in Dorset.

Annual production is small here, too and at the moment won't exceed 5000 bottles. The products have generated tremendous interest in Russia, too, but being a small family company they don't have the resources taking that step would require. In order to get into that market, you'd first need to get a local agenture which would cost at least 10 000 euros. 

"Maybe one day", Linards shrugs.

Until then, he'll keep experimenting and improving. They say it takes three generations to finalize the formula of a good wine", he smiles. "Maybe my grandchildren will get it right!"

One of the most recent ones is rosé-version of the sparkling wine which gets its tint from cold pressed cranberries. Another innovation is syrup. The intense taste reminds of maple syrup or miel de caña- honey though the process is rather exhausting: 10 litres of birch sap only yields about 1 dl of syrup.

A stop here is another visit worth recommending - just get in touch with the rascal over here.

The products are being sold all over Latvia, too. You can check out the list in here.

That syrup is used for instance at Vincent's, the #1 restaurant in the country and place, where I had the best dinner of my life. Should we check that next or you want to continue to another winery?





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