A few years ago, when I was on St. Barth, I had been invited to a Friday night wine party at a small resort. St. Barth suggests, above all, two things to its visitors: luxury and France. If anything, I had expected that the Parisian transplants had brought with them their preferred vines and replanted the roots into the soil of the island.
“I’ll try what’s local,” I said to the sommelier behind the bottles.
“Local?” He was puzzled. “The Caribbean is not a place for growing wine.”
But today, that statement is false. Wineries have recently opened in the Dominican Republic and will open on St. John’s, as vintners have discovered rare microclimates scattered across the vast archipelago, where the right combination of heat, breeze, and sunshine combines for growing wine grapes in the Caribbean.
The Curacao Winery
When Dutch winemaker Roelof Visscher rubbed the loamy soil at Curacao’s largest former plantation between his fingers and noted that naturally-sourced water with a high mineral content and low salinity ran from the mountains, he called in a pair of German advisors. They specialized in growing wine in the tropics. After surveying the property and running tests, the conclusion was in: the land beside the international airport, which had once been used to farm corn and watermelon, and had been fertilized for centuries by cattle and goats, could most likely function as a vineyard.
Clearing the land was no easy task. It took Visscher’s team eighteen months to cut out much of the desiccated brush and unforgiving cacti. Then there was the challenge of preserving history. As the land was once part of the island’s largest plantation and was home to Curacao’s governor, relics were uncovered. Behind his vines sits an 18th century family cemetery. Scattered about the property are three slave-dug water wells, standing as graves, too, as they had claimed lives during excavation. Stretches of walls built by slaves run the property. And down almond-littered paths, past junked cars and rusted engines, is a crumbling 17th century slave prison tinged with oxidation, neglect, and tragedy. (If growing wine in the Caribbean wasn’t already a challenge, Visscher, in the process of creating something new, also found himself tasked with preserving something old.)
After the struggle to clear the land and plant his vines was complete, the Dutch winemaker harvested his first grapes at the end of 2015 from his two hectares of cleared land. Visscher is quite certain that his yield of tempernillos, cabernet sauvignon, and four other grape varietals will produce quality wine, but no one will know until April of this year when the corks on those first bottles are popped. Because growing grapes in the Caribbean is still only a skilled winemaker’s best guess, on part of his sun-cracked fields Visscher also grows experimental vines, trying to determine which of a dozen or so wildcards might produce unprecedented magic.
There are also variables on the island that he had never considered in all his years as a winemaker on the other side of the Atlantic. As Visscher walked his fields, he had to pinch off leaves from vines that blocked out sunlight to his grapes. And we were constantly stepping over corrugated steel fences designed to keep out the iguanas. But there are benefits to growing on Curacao, too. For instance, the island has three growing periods in one year, (though the winery will only use two, so as not to overwork the vines and soil).
“I’m a farmer and I want to grow… in a location where people said you can’t do it,” Visscher said. “I wanted to do it here in Curacao.”
Back at the patio, where bottles are served from Visscher’s winery in Holland, planes skid into paradise down the airport’s runways, which sit only a kilometer or so in the distance. Beyond that the island drops to the sea. The afternoon tipplers surrounding me were mostly European. If farming grapes in Curacao was a challenge, perhaps getting the locals to like his wines would be an even larger one.
“They are very proud of us,” Visscher said. “But they like sweet drinks. I don’t think locals will drink so much of our wine.”
And perhaps that’s true. Earlier, I had walked the grounds with a local man. While I was peeling back leaves to examine purple-skinned clusters, the local man was a good twenty meters ahead, ecstatic with his own find.
“Callaloo,” he shouted to me, smiling hugely. He plucked a few dozen leaves from a plant that grew between the vines like a weed. “I will make soup tonight,” he announced, more interested with the culture native to the land than that transplanted into the Caribbean.