If you have ever been in the northern, Dutch city of Groningen, you have definitely seen one of the most iconic elements of its skyline: the gold decorated tower of the “Aa-kerk”. Back in the 800s, the site originally hosted a wooden chapel by the river Aa. In the 13th century it became a parish church dedicated to Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, who happens to be the patron saint of fishermen, and it was also rebuilt as a stone church in a Romano-Gothic style. While it is a place of worship, the pragmatic Dutch people realized that the Aa-Church had to be put to use as a venue for events such as weddings, concerts, trade fairs or lectures in order to survive. Among them is an ambitious group who found the perfect place where to host an event in a more unorthodox location.
And so the “Groningen Wijnfestival” was born. It has taken place in this city for only 3 years. Marijke van der Ploeg, one of the organizers, explained that their goals are to create and maintain an event aimed at wine consumers, and increase its status in the Netherlands. She was very enthusiastic when she told me the number visitors: around 2000 last year, and they estimated that number to reach at least 2500 this year. The number of wine companies that want to attend is also increasing. They have a waiting list of 4-5 companies, while the church itself can only host 38 stands. Because of this, they already decide who can participate 8 months in advance. At this rate the venue is only going to be smaller and smaller, and they’ll have to find a new location.
And so I, a young business student in Groningen, was excited to participate, taste wines, and talk to the various people of the Dutch wine world. As soon as I entered, I was overwhelmed. The first stands were neatly placed right after the table with hundreds of glasses. As I went through the doorway, I received a glass and 4 special coins that were included in the ticket. You see, part of the revenue comes from visitors buying these coins, which go for 2 euros each, and you exchange these for wine samples or food. Most wines go for 1 coin, but some companies bring in wines that are more expensive, so they may take between 2 and 5 coins per sample.
Numbers aside, I was there to taste wine but I didn’t know where to start. Being there twenty minutes after the festival started, there were not many people. I stood there admiring the church’s interior: a grand organ towered over the stands and massive windows providing a lot light inside. I looked at the map of the interior and noticed how many stands there were, immediately realizing that it was impossible to check them all out in 2 days. In order to get a sense of scale, I first went around the church taking some photos. Representatives at empty stands were trying to get my attention while I was walking around. As time went by, more and more people showed up. The light outside began to fade and the light inside turned toward a purple hue. The atmosphere already lit up and the intensity of the voices reached its peak and remained like this until I left around 10 in the evening. From the outside, you could see the purple light in the windows of the church.
I should now tell you who I met here. I have to clarify first that almost all of the people I’ve spoken to were amazing. They taught me a great deal about Dutch wine preferences, competitive landscape, and their own stories. Sadly, I will have to generalize based on the 15 stands that I’ve been to, because I did not have the physical time to see all 38 of them. I will also exclude some from this text, not because they were not on par with the ones I will mention, but because they did not offer unique stories or there’s not much more to say about them.
Before I could decide where to go first, people at the stands were already waving at me, trying to get my attention. So I took a trip Through the Grapevine, an e-shop based in Amsterdam. The owner was a nice Dutch lady, who used to live in Portugal, and now sells Portuguese wines in the Netherlands. I enjoyed her selection of wines from the Alentejo region. I then bounced to Vino dei Colli, another online shop, but this time with wines from the Italian region of Marche. I’ve never tasted wines from this region, despite living in Italy for a year. Wijnhandel Alexander followed, and was an unexpected sight. The owner, Trajko Mitkov, is half Dutch, half Macedonian, and set out to sell Macedonian wines. He told me interesting stories behind most of the wineries he selected. For example, the house wine of the country is called “T’ga za Jug”, or “Longing for the South” and it’s the name of a poem written by Konstantin Miladinov (1830-1862) from Struga. He wrote it during his time in Russia, where he was nostalgic for his homeland. The wine is supposed to be accessible to everyone, being semi-dry, and one could say that it tastes like nostalgia.
Other stands included Beans & Grapes with wines from a variety of countries. I naturally stopped by the “Roemenië” sign and met Adela Camelia Schrage-Simeoni, the lady responsible for importing Romanian wines into the Netherlands for the past 6 years. She even recognized the Club of Uncertified Wine Tasters, of which I am a member and writing an article for. Afterwards I dropped by Henri Bloem stand and immediately made the person responsible there to question his sanity after I inquired about Dutch wines. He had an impressive wine collection, and so he was skeptical when I told him that I will drop by his shop to buy 2 Dutch wines that I planned on taking home. Needless to say, after the festival I showed up at his shop in the morning, on the same day I flew back to Romania.
Going back where we left off, I have to mention Wijnhandel Cahors with a big variety of Malbec wines from the Cahors region. Next is a Germany based company called MB MasterBlends which imports South African wines, coffee, and salt and pepper. One of the wines is from the renowned South African designer, Carrol Boyes. Her brother, John Boyes, partnered up with his sibling. He makes the wine and she creates the beautiful designs for the bottles. MB recommended to me their partner’s stand, Sovino. Apart from their wine shop, they also told me that they organize private wine tastings.
Last but not least I had the pleasure of meeting the students at the Fransekwaliteitswijn stand. One Dutch man travels to wineries in France and only buys what he likes and wishes to sell in the Netherlands. I did not speak to him personally, but I’ve had lengthy discussions with his nephew about their wines, their reasons for trying wine and helping out.
And so I have to end this article because there are many things that cannot be expressed in words, rather experienced in person at the festival. You have your usual assortment of wine shops, restaurants, a few of wineries and a few wine bars, but they are much more than that. Most business in the wine world have their own charm. So my recommendation is to go to this festival if you visit Groningen in 2019. I, myself, am looking forward to the next edition and hope to meet all the wonderful people from this year, and many more.