The short winter day is coming towards its end at Krimulda Manor near Sigulda in Latvia. Shallow piles of slushy snow lie outside an old agricultural building whose door stands open. As I approach heat and a boozy aroma waft against my face.
Jānis Mikans, a powerfully built man wearing a straw hat and a black apron, greets me with a smile and a strong handshake. He has been making fruit wines since 2007. His company, Cremon, derives its name from the manor. A castle has stood on the estate since the 13th century. The grand manor house, which is set amid a park, played host to Tsar Alexander II of Russia back in 1862.
Fruit wine in Latvia
“Help yourself to a glass of my fruit wine,” he says in Russian, gesturing to a long wooden table set beneath shelves holding empty demijohns of varying sizes. “Can you guess what flavour it is?” he asks.
I can’t. But then I don’t recall the last time I nibbled at a dandelion. The yellow flowers are used by Jānis to make this particular wine. The process starts in stainless steel vats that stand in the far end of the room.
“As I don’t have grapes I have to find a different way to make wine. Maybe wine is not the correct name,” he shrugs. “Perhaps I should call it ‘an alcoholic drink with a fruit taste’?” he asks with a cheeky smile.
Inspired by European wine estates
“I’m not competing with France, Spain and Italy. People from those countries enjoy tasting this type of wine,” he says, explaining that the rehabilitation centre in the manor house draws people from around Europe and beyond.
Visits to wineries in Hungary and France inspired him to offer a similar experience in his homeland. Legislative changes made it possible for people in Latvia to produce fruit wine and Jānis seized the opportunity.
“It takes me two weeks to select the flowers from the dandelions,” says Jānis. “The weather conditions are important,” he adds. “I need two kilograms of flowers to make two litres of my wine”.
He has up to 10 people to help with harvesting but otherwise works on his own in making fruit wines and liqueurs.
Fruit wines and liqueurs
Pictorial cards on the table show a variety of flowers and fruits along with their names in Latvia, German, Russian and England. Jānis makes wine from all of them and each ends up with a strength of 13 per cent of alcohol by volume. His liqueurs have a strength of 30 per cent of alcohol by volume.
“In good weather there’s lots of sugar in the berries,” he explains. “I need about 250 grams of sugar per litre, so need to add the rest”.
“I was an engineer by profession and this wine making started as a hobby. I thought I’d make it for tourists visiting the manor. In the first year I made around 400 litres. The following year it was 4,000 litres. There’s now about 20,000 litres here,” says Jānis.
“I don’t use sulphates, so instead of taking about seven months to make a wine it takes me between one and two years,” he says adding that his lilac wine won a national award in 2017, ahead of 95 others from across Latvia.
He explains how he has a laboratory where he can run tests on his wine. He recently bought a piece of equipment that can check the volume of alcohol to two decimal places.
Jānis picks up a bottle of apple brandy that has been aged for two years in an oak barrel. It has a strength of 51 per cent. “Something to warm on a winter night,” he utters as he pours a measure that makes me gasp ahead of stepping outside into the Latvian dusk.
Krimulda Manor is now a rehabilitation centre near the town of Sigulda.
The Sigulda Tourism website has information about things to do in and around Sigulda, which has three castles and is a base for adventure activities and winter sports.
For more information the country as a whole see the Latvia website.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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