First vineyards planted in Bhutan
New horizons (and heights) in viticulture were reached this week (1-5 April) with the planting of the first two of five small vineyards in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
The two vineyards will soon be joined by three more next week and although altogether they will cover just six acres the plan is to gradually expand them as the right sites and varieties reveal themselves.
The project is the brainchild of American MW student Mike Juergens who first went to Bhutan to run a marathon and noticed that the conditions could be “ideal for wine”, with there being lots of south-facing slopes and iron-rich soils (among other criteria).
As he explained to the drinks business, at a dinner with government officials that same trip he asked if there were any vines planted in the country and was told there were not.
Juergens laid out why he thought the country would suit viticulture and, once home, after some further research he wrote a white paper for the government to follow up on (Juergens is a partner at a “global consultancy firm”).
A third party validated the paper and said it would work but nothing happened until Juergens returned for another marathon and found more people interested in his idea. Having written a business plan for them they then asked, ‘would you help us?’.
For Juergens this represented a “glorious opportunity”. Living in California he explained there was always the possibility of planting his own vineyard. This, however, was something quite different; a country entirely devoid of viticultural heritage (or baggage)* – which holds, Juergens believes “ridiculous potential” –where the industry was starting entirely from scratch.
‘To be able to build not just a vineyard but a whole region,” he said. “It was way too good an adventure [to pass up].”
The next few years were spent in consultation with the Bhutanese authorities as well as finding a nursery to source plants from – and Juergens said that emailing nurseries to tell them you’re setting up a vineyard in Bhutan was often treated in much the same way that emails from ‘Nigerian princes’ are.
Eventually a nursery partner was found in the US however and nine varieties (and various rootstocks) chosen for the initial plantings: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Petit Manseng.
The vineyards are located at various places around the country to take advantage of the various climates that Bhutan offers and see what works best were. Juergens explained that they were, “trying vineyard styles from terraces to flat and with all these different things in play we hope we’ll dial in quickly on what is working and then change accordingly.”
As a mountain country, Bhutan offers elevations from 1,000 feet up to 23,000ft and with it dramatic changes in conditions ranging from fairly temperate to tropical. The highest vineyard that will be planted is at 2,700 metres above sea level, not quite the highest in the world – those are still in Argentina (for now). Juergens said it would be possible to find ‘the highest’ point but it would be more of a marketing ploy rather than a practical venture so he wasn’t interested.
Juergens was also quite clear that, “not everything we’ve bought is going to work,” but he was “highly optimistic” it would be a success and he was already had in mind certain places that he thinks will prove themselves suited to red grapes and a few for whites.
As well as his faith in the climate, another factor is the Bhutanese themselves. “If there’s one thing the Bhutanese are good at it’s agriculture,” said Juergens. “Their site prep was as good as I’ve ever seen in the world.”
And in addition to the people is the relatively pristine nature of the land itself. Bhutan is a carbon neutral country, “revered” for its sustainable practices and on-track to being 100% organic. As such the need for clean planting material was vital as Juergens did not intend to be the first person to, “roll in there and f*ck it up.”
On the other hand, there are very few pests on any of the other crops in Bhutan, the often dry conditions with good breezes should naturally combat mildew and there is no esca or flavesence dorée or any other moths, molds, critters or fungi that are attacking vines elsewhere in the world.
“It’s completely untapped,” said Juergens “and it’s protected on all sides by mountains. If you’re a phylloxera louse it’s pretty hard to sneak over K2 to snack on a vine.”
The only forseeable problems will be birds and frost – unless there’s some abominable vine disease in Bhutan that hasn’t been discovered yet and if there is, Juergens joked he’d at least be known for that.
All that considered, the vines will therefore be worked organically with Juergens – though not a committed ‘disciple’ of Steiner – keen to incorporate some elements of biodynamics as well – principles he also thinks would be readily appreciated by the Bhutanese themselves and their philosophy of agriculture.
But vineyards are only half the battle as there are no wineries in Bhutan either. The Bhutanese make their own rice wines, each family having a “secret” recipe that they guard jealously and Juergens says that locally made peach wines have become popular in recent year.
The only thing approaching wine made in the country is by the army who import bulk wine from India and, more recently, South Africa which is then bottled and sold with the proceeds going towards supporting retired veterans.
No winery, no problem though says Juergens who said: “I’m going to build a winery”.
He hasn’t decided quite where yet, much again will depend on which vineyards look like they’re going to be the most viable and that won’t be known for a few years.
Another hurdle is the lack of winemaking knowledge in the country. While Juergens said he wasn’t so keen on getting in a consultant because that would mean paying someone “to make an educated guess”, he will be looking to bring in a team “of vineyard folks to help with knowledge transfer”, once the successful vineyards have been identified.
Although Juergens said he’s looking into introducing vines to smallholders – of which there are many in Bhutan – and creating a small co-operative system that might lead to a slightly larger base for the industry, the main focus is going to be on terroir-focused wines (Juergens says the wine will be labelled ‘Thunder Dragon’), “you could drink in New York”.
As Juergens said: “There are a range of microclimates and the idea is to produce terroir wines not bulk. I’m not interested in $5 bottles of plonk. We really want to dial in on terroirs and leverage those. This is a long-term project. We’re picking top quality sites.”
It will of course be a “challenge” but, as Juergens saw from the beginning, it’s also, “a chance to make something truly unique on the global wine stage.”
All it needs now, is a bit of time.
*There was once a project in place for planting vines in Bhutan but it never came to fruition.