Belvedere’s search for terroir in spirits

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Location: Europe

Belvedere vodka has released two new single-estate rye vodkas and found proof that terroir in spirits can indeed be expressed.

The two products, Belvedere Single Estate Rye Smogóry Forest and Lake Bartężek, come from two farms in different parts of Poland and are made with the same rye varietal in the same way, yet taste completely different.

So why did Belvedere decide to explore the concept of terroir in spirits? The answer is that it didn’t – the team stumbled across it.

The story begins with the development of Belvedere Unfiltered, a product that was made with the intention of ‘creating a vodka with character and flavour’, explains Claire Smith-Warner, director of spirits education at Moët Hennessy. ‘But what we didn’t realise in 2009 was that it wasn’t just the grain varietal that produces this, but where it was grown as well.’

The grain varietal she’s referring to is the Dankowskie Diamond rye, which was planted at a farm near to Lake Bartężek in north Poland for Belvedere Unfiltered.

Belvedere uses Dankowskie Gold Rye in its core expression, which undergoes distillation to 92% abv before being rectified to 96% abv, then diluted with water, and finally filtered with cellulose and charcoal.

What Belvedere did with its Unfiltered, as well as using the Dankowskie Diamond and only growing it at a single site, was to skip the filtration part at the end (the clue is, unsurprisingly, in the name). It turns out that Belvedere Unfiltered was the first step on the journey to try and establish whether terroir can be expressed in spirits, and it started with the decision to plant Dankoswkie Rye at a farm in Smogóry Forest, in the west of Poland.

‘We planted elsewhere because we were curious,’ Smith-Warner says. ‘We were so excited and impressed by the Dankowskie Diamond Rye. We were trying to get as much out of the grain, that’s why we tried a different location. But what it actually gave was real differences in flavour.’

Indeed, a tasting of the raw spirit from both sites highlights just how different that flavour actually is – Bartężek’s is vibrant and fresh, while Smogóry’s is funky and rubbery. They’re like chalk and cheese. The differences between the final products post-rectification and dilution aren’t quite as marked, but still clear to taste.

The science bit

Subjective opinions weren’t really enough for the team at Belvedere to believe in what they were tasting, however.

‘I wanted to believe in the concept of terroir in spirits before, and when we were tasting the raw spirits that desire was really powerful. But I needed to test what I wanted to believe,’ Smith-Warner says.

That’s when the company got the University of Lodz involved.

‘The university took the worts from the two locations, and fermented and distilled them in a controlled environment, using the same yeast, the same fermentation length at the same heat; everything… before conducting a sensorial evaluation and a GC (that’s gas chromatography) chemical analysis.

‘When you overlay the data between the two sites, you can see that the two vodkas lie at opposite ends of the spectrum,’ Smith-Warner says. ‘Smogóry has higher maillard congeners, resulting in more nutty, meaty characters, while Bartężek has higher lipids and a higher level of esters, resulting in fresher characters such as melon, cucumber and grassy notes. Chemically and organoleptically speaking, they are totally different. What we’ve gathered by working with the University of Lodz has given us that proof.’

The two vodkas are a great case study in expression of terroir in spirits for anyone who is interested.

The rye for Belvedere Lake Bartężek is grown in the Polish equivalent of the Lake District, where the winters are long with lots of snow, which puts a strain on the grain. The resulting vodka is very elegant, with fresh characters of grass, apple and lemon verbena mingling with a soft sweetness and a slightly chalky character.

Smogóry Forest, meanwhile, is very wet and moist, and is one of Europe’s cleanest, most unpolluted areas. The resulting vodka is much bigger and more full-bodied, with a savoury-salty character, some caramel sweetness and a huge amount of pepper to it.

What’s going to be interesting is seeing where Belvedere – and other spirits companies – go next with the terroir conversation. This is merely the latest giant step in the trend towards creating vodkas with more flavour and character.

‘I don’t think even back then it was going to be a conversation about terroir,’ mused Smith-Warner. ‘The project took us on a journey. I feel like we’re detectives, following the trail of evidence to come to a conclusion.’

Price TBC/70cl, Moët Hennessy UK, 020 7808 4400

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Laura Foster

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