When you picture Curaçao, you’ve got visions of blue—the sea, the sky, and the island’s namesake liqueur, served on ice with a cocktail umbrella. But one Dutch family is confident you’ll soon be seeing red and white, too—wine, that is.
Curaçao Winery’s main building fits its island surroundings to a T: egg-yolk yellow with a green trim, white wooden shutters, and a terracotta roof. Marked by a single swaying palm tree and weathered oak barrels bearing its name, the winery doubles as a bed and breakfast, with four homey rooms and a small pool (no wine with breakfast, unfortunately). The big yellow house is where tastings are held, but also acts as a gathering space for boisterous parties. Under the glow of fairy lights, with the Caribbean Sea visible over the vineyard, locals sit on the back terrace and patio, sipping and munching to a soundtrack of Dutch, Papiamentu, and English chatter.
Curaçao Winery has 2,000 vines across two acres, all planted in neat, tidy rows. This October, the work it took to prepare the vineyard—testing soil, sampling water, and insulating buildings to protect the winemaking from the Caribbean heat—produced the winery’s very first harvest.
The story of how the Caribbean’s first vineyard came to be goes back fifteen years and 8,000 kilometers, to the small Dutch town of Bentelo. It was here that Roelof Visscher and his wife Ilse put 7,500 vines into the ground and hoped their efforts would come to fruition. That The Netherlands’ climate is less than ideal for wine production would deter some, but the couple was hopeful and, besides, Roelof had a solid background in agriculture. The gamble paid off, and today, 13.6-acre Vineyard Hof van Twente produces wine for 30 other vineyards.
It was the Visschers’ plucky attitude that sent them to the islands. “Starting a vineyard in Holland is fairly uncommon, and after we did so, people who wanted to start vineyards in island countries got in touch,” says Roelof. Several years ago, Luis Trinidad, a 73-year-old Dutch expat living in Curaçao, contacted the couple. “He wanted to start growing grapes there,” remembers Roelof, “and he asked me if I thought it could be done. I said, ‘It’s tropical, so I don’t think so, but I’ll work it out. And I did.’”
This is how a parcel of land in Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, became the Visschers’ Field of Dreams. “If you look in the Caribbean, there are no wineries. If you go further—Thailand, Indonesia [Bali], Brazil, Ecuador—you see quite successful companies in similar climates who are growing grapes and making wine.” Roelof had experience, land, and manpower in his sister Hermien and her partner Marc Oldeman, who were keen to take on island life. The only thing missing was capital. What’s a 21st century viticulturist to do? Crowdfund. With a goal of NAF 700,000 (approximately $390,000), the Visschers turned to the (online) public to raise money.
Curaçao Winery is a sweet family-run operation. Hermien and Marc are at the helm, cheerfully greeting guests who pour in for Friday happy hour, where there’s a spread of complimentary bar bites like Dutch favorite kaas ballen (fried cheese balls). They’re on Twitter (mostly in Dutch), posting things like “De oogst is begonnen” (The harvest has begun), a surprisingly calm Tweet for such a momentous day. They post on Instagram (in English) with cheerful missives like “First little grapes spotted! #thirsty.”
These first little grapes have produced four varieties—Tempranillo (black, from Spain, and Roelof’s favorite), Shiraz (a.k.a Syrah, black, grown worldwide), Chenin Blanc (white, from France’s Loire valley), and Colombard (white, from France). There are some serious downsides to making wine in a hot and humid climate, but it also has its perks. “It never rains where and when you want it to,” muses Roelof, “but the nicest thing about a tropical vineyard with no cold season is that you can do two or three harvests a year”. Following October’s harvest, one white wine and one red will be available by the glass and bottle ($10-$15/bottle) by early March next year. Curaçao Winery is trying to plant several other varieties and will eventually expand to 25 acres. At next harvest, the Visschers’ plan is to make at least four wines—two red, two white—and possibly a sparkling wine, as they’ve done in Holland.
Roelof goes back and forth between his two wineries. When he’s on the island, you’ll find him on the vineyard’s terrace, sipping a glass of Chenin Blanc and tucking into a cheese plate (“My favorite is Dutch cheese—we make some very nice cheese, you know? But I also like French.”). Seeing the successful harvest Curaçao Winery has had, the Visschers have been approached by other Caribbean islands about setting up wineries there. Though we have our doubts that locally produced wine will replace rum punch as the beach drink of choice, we’ll toast to the Visschers’ valiant effort.
Thinking about going? Here’s your information:
Curaçao Winery is open daily 10am-8pm. Happy hour Friday 5-6pm. Until its own wines are bottled in early 2016, Curaçao Winery is serving wines from its Netherlands vineyard. Groups of at least 10 can visit any time. A tour and three tastings is NAF 26.25 per person; five tastings is NAF 35 per person. For smaller parties, a tour and five tastings is offered Wednesdays and Sundays from 3-5pm. All tastings include marinated olives and baguette with aioli and tapenade. Reservations are required. Free self-guided tours are available any time, followed by a three- or five-wine tasting (NAF 17.50 and NAF 28.50, respectively).
Tel: +599- 512-3542