Can wine become more popular than beer?
The wine bar has arrived, as our experts reveal in the first of a twice-monthly column looking at eating and drinking trends in Holland.
The new bar is Anglo-Saxon, not Italian in style. Of course, Italy has known enoteche since before wine became fashionable in the English-speaking world. But with wine having become popular in this country over the past two decades, and with American influence as strong as it is, it is hardly surprising that a wine bar, not an enoteca, should eventually open its doors in the capital.
While the name of Boelen, Janssen en Bergen may suggest an upmarket law firm, this is indeed a wine bar, albeit with the looks of an upscale, modern restaurant. On one corner of an intimate, tree-lined triangular square, the bar has a decidedly metropolitan air, vaguely reminiscent of major Latin cities.
Boelen, Janssen en Bergen, at 1e v/d Helststraat 50, is truly fashionable - on a weekday night, the inside tables and all but three sidewalk tables were reserved, while one side of the bar had been hired for a private party.
Its web site (www.wijnbar.nl) says patrons can choose from 100 kinds of wine, ordering by the glass. The wine list is more or less equally divided between whites and reds. No sherries or ports, but with a few bubblies and rosés thrown in.
From the somewhat conservative list we selected a 1999 Müller Thurgau from the Apostelhoeve vineyard and a Sancerre the waitress recommended. Compared to the 1999 Sancerre, Domaine de Nozay, the Dutch wine was surprisingly more attractive.
From the reds we also tried to select the most appealing quality wines. One of the few eccentric names was 1997 Giacomo Bologna's Il Bacialé. The fabulous 97 harvest in Northern Italy and the rare combination of Pinot Nero and Barbera offered a complex wine in which dark fruit, the light taste of oak and a breath of cigar smoke were well in balance. We tasted two 1997 Burgundies, a Givry 1er Cru and a Pinot Noir. The first was rather good, though a bit too young. The latter was undrinkable.
The wine bar is an interesting feature on the Amsterdam scene. But it's doubtful it will succeed in initiating novices to the true enjoyment of wine - one of the owners' goals. We felt its prices were rather too high to attract new drinkers to the delights of wine. This bar is more to be praised for trailblazing its way into the Netherlands than for the quality of its list and the price of its wines.
Deciding to forego the temptations of the bar's cuisine, we decided to walk to nearby Mulliner's on Lijnbaansgracht, which has been around for some time but evidently has a smaller marketing budget.
Here, in as congenial an environment as could be, we ordered a bottle of 1996 Santenay 1er Cru Clos Rousseau. While at first it was disappointing, this wine, along with the Tuscan stew we ordered, turned out to be quite in order.
The wines are as young here as at the bar in De Pijp, though the list is not nearly as long. And while we couldn't notice a difference in quality, prices were a lot friendlier.
Grape and grain
It's doubtful wine will ever replace beer as the main alcoholic beverage in the Netherlands. While wine has become an attractive alternative for numerous beer consumers, or at least an additional option, it is hard to believe that football fans will find consolation in a glass of Burgundy after the Dutch team has suffered another of its frequent setbacks.
According to the Dutch Production Organisation of Wine, Dutch imports are falling, although consumption is increasing. More than a third of regular alcohol consumers (36 percent) prefer wine. With 43 percent, beer consumers are still the majority.
The Dutch wine market is rather complex. The number of importers and so-called "brokers" is absurdly high. Bearing in mind the dominant role of Albert Heijn, Dirk van den Broek and Hema in the wine market, it seems even more absurd.
It's now possible to find decent Barolos or Uruguayan Tannats at quite reasonable prices. And if you consider the price of an empty bottle, a decent cork, import taxes and excise duty on alcohol, as well as shipping costs, you wonder what the original price of the wine itself must be.
Still, small wine sellers find their niche in this competitive market. The secret of their success is largely a matter of clever logistics and smart marketing. As long as people keep expressing a generic preference for "Bordeaux" or "South African wines", consumption will continue to grow. The most important task for a dealer is to teach customers about the various labels and names.
Quality versus price
Everyone is interested in quality wines at a reasonable price. These may be found in supermarkets - if you know what you want - but more likely at the smaller specialist wine stores. The few guilders extra are worth it.
Unfortunately, the average restaurant and bar in this country offers middle-of-the road wines at high prices. There's still a lot of work to be done by consumers and sellers to improve the quality of product on the market.
But the nagging question is whether the Dutch consumer really believes quality is more important than price. If current consumer behaviour in culinary matters is any indication, the Dutch market will remain one of cheap or mediocre bulk wines to be guzzled down thoughtlessly, like beer.
Pascal van Duijnhoven owns import company Vini Nobili, which selects quality wines from Italy. From November he will also be associated with 5 Sensi, an Italian cultural and culinary centre and a meeting place of the Slow Food association.
Hans Vogel teaches Latin American and world history at a Dutch University. He has published widely on Latin American and military history and is also associated with studybuddy, "your site on history".
Subject: Wine bars