Photo: Lise Hannibal

Food & Drink

Visit Denmark’s largest vineyard

Those of us who are familiar with the Danish climate may well think that Danish wine is a doubtful pleasure. All the skeptics are proved wrong at Røsnæs, though, where they produce wines that win medals and awards, both in Denmark and internationally. We visited Denmark’s largest vineyard in West Zealand’s wine country.

Making wine in Denmark hasn’t always been a successful endeavor. However, new grape varieties that thrive at colder latitudes, combined with a milder climate, mean that good wine can now even be produced here.

Røsnæs, near Kalundborg, with its south-facing glacial hills, a particularly dry and sunny climate and soil containing a mixture of sand, grit, limestone and clay, has proven to have the ideal conditions for making wine.

There are now four wineries here, led by Dyrehøj, Denmark’s largest vineyard, which has 35,000 vines, or 30km of wine, on 10 hectares of land.

“When my brother, Tom Christensen, bought Dyrehøj in 2007, one of the neighbors said that the soil was ‘the best in Denmark for making wine’,” says Betina Newberry, who is the winegrower at the vineyard and is giving today’s tour. “This marked the beginning of a career change from breeding pigs to making wine.”

Betina Newberry in the wineyard. Photo: Lise Hannibal

If you want to make (good) wine in Denmark, you have to be well prepared: “Although there’s more sun here at Røsnæs than elsewhere, we still only have half as much as they do in Napa Valley, so you can’t grow the same grapes here,” Newberry says.

To find out which grapes could thrive here, they visited other vineyards and established a partnership with the wine institute in Freiburg, which works to develop wine regions all over the world. To begin with, they cultivated 26 different varieties to see which performed best and they’ve now narrowed it down to 13.

Photo: Lise Hannibal

“The wines produced in Denmark are cool-climate wines,” Newberry says. “They need to be able to withstand the change in temperature between day and night and they have to be bred to be fungal-resistant so you don’t have to use chemicals to deal with fungus.”

The green Solaris grape has just the properties needed to thrive in the Danish climate, so it accounts for more than half of the vineyard’s 35,000 vines. They also have Rondo, Cabernet cantor, Johanniter – and a little bit of a grape that Newberry, with a wry smile, calls ‘the problem child’: Pinot Noir, which has turned out to be more than a little difficult to handle.

“Pinot Noir is very difficult to grow in Denmark and it’s almost impossible to make the grapes last all the way to the harvest,” she says. “The experiment ended in various stages of rot, so we only have one black variety left.  Generally speaking, it’s very difficult to achieve success with red wine in Denmark, so we’ve decided to concentrate on doing what we can do well.”

Consequently, Dyrehøj mainly produces white wine, rosé and sparkling wine. The vineyard has its own winemaker from New Zealand and produces some of Denmark’s best wines under the Rös label. They make roughly 100,000 bottles per season, including spirits from their own distillery and fortified wine, and they also produce wines using grapes from other vineyards. “We do that because we have a great interest in all Danish wine being good,” Newberry says. “The reputation of a wine rubs off on others.”

Photo: Andrew Blackwell

It’s for this reason that the vineyard has been offering tours, tastings and other events right from the very beginning, so that the rest of the world can come and experience the craftsmanship and achievements of Danish wine. They have a wonderful vineyard shop here and also a café, where the wine is paired with food.

“The overall aim is for our wine to be drunk in West Zealand and to be part of the culinary scene here. It must be a wine that people know and trust.”

They’ve certainly been successful in this approach. Dyrehøj vineyard makes its main sales direct from the vineyard and they have several regular customers.

There are many things that have to come together before the wine can reach this stage, though. “I’d say there are three things you must do to be a successful winegrower: You have to be able to grow grapes, you have to be able to make wine and you have to be able to sell it,” Newberry says.

It all starts with the land. The lime in the soil at Røsnæs is good for the wine’s mineral content but can also be problematic because it gets hard. The soil mustn’t be too compact and compressed, because then the nutrients won’t be able to reach the roots. There mustn’t be too much nitrogen either, as this generates lots of growth and leaves. “Wine is better if the plant has to fight a little more to give the grapes more flavor,” Newberry says.

 Photo: Andrew Blackwell

Then there’s the plants themselves. They start pruning the vines here around New Year. The leaves have to provide photosynthesis and shade, but too much foliage causes fungus. The horizontal vines must be pruned so that there are 10 shoots per meter – or a hand’s width between each bunch. They begin to blossom around the beginning of May, which is when you want a light breeze and a temperature of 20°C, as these are the ideal weather conditions for an even pollination of the flowers. Then come the grapes, growing and ripening at the same time. When they’re ready to be harvested in October, they’re hand-picked over 20 to 25 days by a team of 10–30 people per day.

Before the harvest, the grapes are tested for ripeness. They taste for sugar and ripeness in the must, the flavor of strawberry or raspberry and red fruit. If there’s enough sugar and ripeness, they can make a rosé.

After tasting the must, you have to chew on the skin. If the skin makes you purse your lips and your mouth dry up completely, then it can’t be used in the wine so you can’t make red wine or port, as these both require the skin. If you do, the wine will be bitter. So each year, they make an assessment of which wines should be produced that year.

“In good years we can make everything but in bad years we restrict ourselves to making the things that may turn out well,” Newberry says. 

Photo: Andrew Blackwell

This mantra has ensured that the wines from Dyrehøj set a high standard for Danish wine. Time and again, their wines win awards and accolades abroad. Only this year they won two gold medals and three silver medals at the PIWI Wine Awards in Germany.

“The ambition has always been to produce top-quality wines of international standard,” Newberry says. “What I’m most proud of, though, is that we can make good wine even in bad years.”

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