A Look at Curaçao's First Winery
The island of Curaçao is one of the Caribbean’s last great secrets—a delicious melding of Spanish, European, and tropical influences that boasts unparalleled natural and man-made beauty. Located 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, it’s the C in the ABC islands, which also include Aruba and Bonaire, and until 2010 was part of the Netherlands Antilles. Curaçao has a strong Dutch history, showcased through its colorful architecture and historic capital, Willemstad, which was designated a UNESCO world heritage city in 1997.
Since it exists outside the Hurricane Belt, Curaçao enjoys a relatively mild year-round climate that’s closer to Santa Fe than San Domingo; on a recent trip we saw more cactus than palm trees and, when it rained, lizards the size of small dinosaurs emerged from the roadside. It’s a tropical paradise, to be sure, but not the sort of place you would imagine ideal for a winery. However, four years ago Roelof Visscher, of award-winning Dutch vineyard Hof van Twente—the largest vineyard in the Netherlands—visited Curaçao and saw an opportunity. He, along with his sister Hermien and her partner Marc Oldeman, began turning one of the island’s oldest plantations, the Hato Landhuis, into its first vineyard.
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For centuries Curaçao has been known primarily for its namesake liqueur—Blue Curaçao—a bittersweet mixture made from the dried peels of the indigenous lahara fruit. However, with the introduction of this new vineyard, that might soon change. Currently there is just a smattering of vineyards across the Caribbean, including Bodegas San Cristobal in Cuba and St. John Winery in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But a growing international tourism sector with cosmopolitan tastes, coupled with the introduction of a popular yearly food and wine festival, have created a demand for the development of a homegrown wine trade. Luckily the mild climate, perennial sunshine, and rich volcanic soil make it plausible, if not ideal, for grape growth.
This isn’t the first time the Dutch have established a successful wine industry in what was previously thought to be a harsh or inhospitable climate. After fears of scurvy along the spice route sparked panic in the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company established a series of grape fields in South Africa that later attracted winemakers from Holland, Belgium, France, and beyond. These proto-vineyards still stand, and have thrived in locations like Stellenbosch, Constantia, and Paarl. Today South Africa is considered a power player in the global wine scene, commanding both respect and its own aisle at the liquor store.
“The difference between growing tropical grapes and European grapes is that here [on the island] there is all this warm sun to help,” says Hermien Visscher. When we visited, she educated us on the finer points of growing wine grapes, letting us know that Caribbean grape vines are wider-spaced to allow for maximum vitamin D absorption. Each of the fledgling plants is propped up by a bright blue barrier erected to protect against marauding iguanas. “They love to eat the grapes!” laughs Visscher.
Though the winery uses European samples, the production process will be unique to Curaçao. “We can't use specifically Dutch techniques here because it's totally different [to grow] in a tropical terrain,” she explained. Starting with just 11 original plants, the team has now expanded to over 2,000, and currently bottles an assortment of reds, whites, and rosés, ranging from Syrah to Chardonnay. They will also harvest a blend made from local, wild grapes—hybrids that could potentially yield an entirely new flavor.
The winery’s 300-year-old plantation structure also doubles as a luxury bed and breakfast, with several rustic country suites that feature local textiles and furniture designs. Guests can take their light European breakfasts on the veranda, which overlooks both the fields and a hint of the ocean. In the afternoons, the vineyard hosts a happy hour featuring wines imported from Visscher’s Netherlands estate. It’s an easy 10-minute drive from Hato Airport, and a stone’s throw from the Hato Caves, whose reserves provide fresh water for irrigation. Visiting Hato Landhuis, located in one of the largest and oldest architectural structures on Curaçao, is like stepping into the island’s past—only with fully functioning air-conditioning. For history buffs, the nearby caves are also home to several ancient indigenous Arawak drawings, which were found during excavation and construction.
Currently, the Hato Landhuis vineyard’s official visiting hours are every day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., with tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays—though private tours can be arranged. The Curaçao Winery also hopes to launch educational and apprenticeship opportunities in the near future. The winery will harvest its first crop this month, potentially ushering in a groundbreaking era of winemaking on the island.