Historic Wine Huis
EN-ROUTE to the sixteenth century Salentein castle in Nijkerk, wind-farms replace windmills. Once crunching the gravel drive, I glimpse decorators painting window frames. The structure has evolved from mud house to mansion and children's home. For the past 30 years it served as headquarters of Pon Holdings, established by entrepreneur-tycoon, Mijndert Pon, also founder of Argentinian wine brand, Salentein.His father Ben Pon senior was the pioneer importer of Volkswagen automobiles after World War II in The Netherlands and in 1947, mind behind hippy icon, the Volkswagen Type 2 people mover. Even today, I travelled in a modern, upmarket version of that vehicle from Schiphol airport. Pon Senior's son, Mijndert Pon recently renovated the vaulted kitchens, effectively opening up the huis's heart.
Where marble meets lime washed wood, Chef Eric Bikkers prepares a banquet of prime beef. But before meat may hit charcoal, importers and writers are urged up a ladder onto a hay bale-laden cart. Billed as ‘traditional Dutch transport', tugged by a tractor, we take in the estate's 80ha farm.
Amid black swans and sadly all too sporadic mushrooms, 160 Black Angus graze lush pasture - a nod to Argentina's 100,000 strong herd. "They will meet a happy ending on our asador," promises Bikkers, adding: "I take school trips to look into cows eyes. I ask the kids: ‘do you know where hamburgers come from?'"
We lightly sway past the estate's ranch-like offices where staff control the distribution of wine from the pioneer bodega of the promising Uco Valley which takes the Salentein name. The lower floor of the building unravels as a gallery of vivid art, including depictions of gauchos and polo players.
While Ben Pon Senior was an avid amateur artist (his work, Genever and glass graces the Restaurant de Salentein beside the Huis), Mijndert is the archetypal collector, furnishing his huis with vine-strewn landscapes, vital portraits by up-and-coming artists and stormy nautical scenes. The latter refers to a love of sailing, Mijndert having spent many months surveying the chill waters of Scotland and Ireland.
"We slaughter two cows per month," says Bikkers, doling out supple, widely cubed steak tartare crostini, which is unnervingly tasty despite the somewhat pastoral perfume of the calm, jet-black herd. "We take them on a truck to get them used to the journey to the abattoir ‘I'm sure you can taste that a cow like this had a good life," he accurately reassures.
Back at the huis, it is high time to taste Salentein's Portillo ‘11 Sauvignon Blanc while embarking on a tour. The clean, grassy wine takes its name not from the Conservative politico, but well-trod crossing between the Andes and Uco valley.
There, Salentein owns the majority of its high altitude holdings across 5 microclimates. Available to companies wishing for elegance on away days, the boardroom has blackboard walls. Contrasting the ‘Mens Room' complete with leather table and original library chairs re-upholstered by Dutch architect, Arno Twigt in fabric a gaucho might wear, is the feminine, rosé-coloured salon with plentiful rosé-coloured wine.
This comes with flower-like spittoons plumbed into out-of-sight dregs trays and a sheer staircase spiralling to the top of the turret.
In the Gallery of Prints, under a sprawling, elaborate cornice, winemaker José ‘Pepe' Galante, introduces fulsome, aromatic single vineyard Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Reserve Pinot Noir and Malbec as well as "joyous accident" late harvest Sauvignon Blanc.
Born East of Mendoza, the keen golfer and Wine professor at the University of Mendoza spent 34 years at Catena Zapata, and is considered to be one of Argentina's most influential winemakers.
Between his first, arresting visit to Asia, and soon to see the Ukraine, Galante takes time to explain that although Malbec has only been grown in Argentina for approximately 15 years, its exports have grown nearly 1000% in a 10 year period. This is with particular thanks to the UK, it transpires, which takes first place for European export (the Dutch come second).
Galante's attitude is to look positively towards altitude. "Every 100 metres above sea level gives you an average temperature decrease of one degree Celsius," he says, before explaining his philosophy. "I want to fully preserve the full spectrum of fruit aromas and flavours through a smooth, gentle winemaking process and leading-edge technology."
The sun slowly sets. On the patio, empanadas precede pristine seabass then sirloin sizzled over a grill which makes its own charcoal. This is elegantly rinsed by a range of Salentein's single vineyard wines. Despite the slight drizzle, the atmosphere is one of fiesta rather than what one might expect from meticulously drained swamp and fen. Salentein's commercial director, Willem Siebelink cracks a joke: "Argentina has 330 days of sun, which means Holland gets the remaining 35!"
Despite having high octane credentials (Pon once competed in the Dutch Grand Prix), he no longer cares much for the combustion engine. That is not to say he prefers a particularly quiet life. Indeed, it is intriguing to note that Bodegas Salentein was actually one of his retirement projects (in 1992) along with 12 farms (in Argentina and Australia) and an ever expanding array of hotels and Posadas. I raise him a glass, drink deeply, and think of Argentina.
Pon briefly circles, complementing me on my “modern” jacket. Despite having high octane credentials, he no longer cares much for the combustion engine. Farming and Nature is his true love. That is not to say he prefers a particularly quiet life. Indeed, it is intriguing to note that Bodegas Salentein was actually one of his retirement projects (in 1992) along with 12 farms (in Argentina and Australia) and an ever expanding array of hotels and Posadas. I raise him a glass, drink deeply, and think of Argentina.