Kathleen Van den Berghe
Stage 3 MW student - DipWSET - WSET Level 4 graduate
What do construction engineering, contemporary arts and biodynamic wines have in common? They all are expertly mastered by the same (and real 🙂 ) person: Kathleen Van den Berghe.
DipWSET Graduate of WineWiseBenelux and stage 3 student of the Master of Wine Institute, Kathleen creates organic and biodynamic wines in Loire Valley as an Owner, Managing Director and winemaker of Château de Minière (Bourgueil AOP) & Château de Suronde (Quarts de Chaume).
We talked to Kathleen about her unusual journey and how she manages to build bridges between wines, arts and hospitality.
From managing steel, cement and construction sites in Belgium to organic and biodynamic winemaking in the Loire valley – there must be a strong passion or motivation behind this path. What inspired you to switch into the wine business?
In between I was also an international strategy consultant at McKinsey, travelling the world in the basic materials sector. So wine is my third career. There are many reasons behind the switch…
We were looking for a family holiday home and at the same time I was looking for another career/job after having our first daughter. I wanted to be master of my own schedule and having found out that being an employee was not for me… so being an entrepreneur was the way to go.
So I went on a hunt for a holiday home in red wine regions in the north of France: Burgundy, Beaujolais and Loire, as we looked for a red wine area in a relatively cool climate, not too far from Belgium.
And all requirements came together in Château de Minière, when we arrived in the courtyard, I saw the potential of the buildings/estate and upon tasting the potential of the wines, but it would all require a lot of effort and time, so there and then I decided that this was going to be my future job.
The fact that my husband Sigurd had been in the mining industry for 25 years at that point, and that the estate had been managed by women for over 2 centuries, were for me signs from the universe that we can choose to see or to ignore…
So then started my professional wine journey, because I had been of course a wine enthusiast for many decades before that.
At the same time I think it is useful to reinvent oneself, to change careers or industries or jobs. It is interesting to combine experiences and skills in a whole new environment, so I highly recommend it. It seems scary to leave behind what we know and do very well, but it is very fulfilling!
You create wines in Loire Valley as an owner, managing director and winemaker of Château de Minière (Bourgueil AOP, Cabernet Franc) & Château de Suronde (Quarts de Chaume, Chenin Blanc). Could you introduce your wines, please?
I make a wide range of wines with only 2 grapes, Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc, which I find fascinating. You can find wines in all styles in my portfolio, no need to look further ;-). And this on 2 different soils: Minière is on limestone and Suronde is on schiste/slate but many different variations of soils and microclimates and age of vines and winemaking etc.
In Minière I make several different still red wines, a still and a sparkling rose wine, a blanc de noir in still and sparkling version and my famous red sparkling wine “Bulles rouge de Minière“. Now I also make a white wine from Chenin Blanc.
In Suronde everything is Chenin Blanc where I make three dry wines and two sweet wines.
All our vineyards in Suronde are in Quarts de Chaume Grand Cru, the only grand cru in Loire Valley for sweet wines only. So the dry wines we make in that appellation are (by law) labelled Anjou Ronceray.
What makes your wines different?
My overall style is to make very pure wines with little interference from winemaking on nose and palate, with a personality and a direct link to the grape and the terroir they come from.
Our Cabernet Franc wines are always ripe and pure, which is essential for me.
Our Chenin Blanc wines are also very pure and linear, quite reductive but very complex.
I want the wines to make an impact on the taster, that they remember them, that they notice them. Nothing worse than anonymous wines that leave you indifferent.
So you can love or dislike my wines but at least you will have an opinion. And I am confident that among my wide range of wines, everybody likes at least one, but most people like more wines of course!
Were your châteaus already certified for organic and biodynamics or was it your decision to switch to this approach? If so, why did you decide to practice a biodynamic approach?
I started Château de Minière in organic farming right from the start in 2010 as that was essential for me, and that transition took some time of course as the vineyards needed to adapt to it… but I am glad we started early, to be well ahead of the hype.
Château de Suronde was organic and had been biodynamic in the past, and we continued organic practices of course and restarted biodynamic practices immediately.
We will now also start biodynamic practices in Château de Minière, which is a bit harder on the larger vineyard area of Minière, as there is quite some logistics involved…
People always love to talk about the romance of wine and winemaking but the practical challenges are very important in all steps of the process…
As you mentioned at your LinkedIn profile: “Start of my professional career, driven by a passion for bridges, until I found that bridges take several years to build, which was not compatible with my lack of patience…” It seems that your passion for wines is much stronger, since it can take even longer to make wine and it requires even more patience. What is the most challenging thing about the wine business, except patience?
I see a challenge in everything in life and want to keep learning and developing, I have done this in each of my careers, and now in wine as well. Patience is indeed not my strong point, and I had indeed to develop it in wine, as we have a cycle of 1 year… but I am still learning to cope with that 😉
Planting a new vineyard is a process of about a decade from deciding to getting a new wine… so patience is important, as is foresight… planning now for the future…
I am still as passionate about bridges as I was 30 years ago, I still get super excited when I see a new type of bridge. And I am equally passionate about wines, but I encounter more wines in my life than bridges… and I am also passionate about nature and about art. I follow my passions and I include them in my business!
The most challenging aspect of the wine business is that the supply of wine in the world is larger than demand, which affects the overall market price, and which creates local dramatic situations as in Bordeaux currently but also happening in all traditional wine production areas. And the oversupply seems to remain, despite ripping up vineyards in the “old world” because new wine regions keep emerging… so we collectively keep this situation.
Hence for a small wine estate like ours, making premium wines, we need to get noticed among the big brands and we need to explain why our wines are more expensive than the “market price”. And there are of course less clients in this premium market segment, but luckily they are looking for high quality products, made by real people and with a story and a vision behind the product.
I always say: Wine with a story tastes better, compared to anonymous wines you buy off a shelf. So I look for clients who are interested in the story behind the bottle, and that seems to work. Clients are happy to taste or gift a wine bottle made by a person they have met personally and heard the story or visited the estate…
As a less famous appellation, we also need consumers who dare to choose less famous wines and labels, and who dare to follow their own taste and who know that you can buy very good wine for very reasonable prices in these less famous appellations. And of course WSET wine courses are perfect to increase that knowledge among wine drinkers!
Once you follow a wine course, you dare to go off the beaten track and you drink better wine for the same price.
Besides the oversupply in the wine business, the other challenge is of course climate change, which poses new challenges every vintage… frost, heat, drought, humidity and rain, disease pressure, …. We need to remain very vigilant and adapt our approaches in the vineyard every year to the new situations, and that then has an effect on the harvest and the winemaking. And our volume of wine production also changes every year, which we need to manage commercially with buffers of stock…
A third challenge is of course the commercial aspect. Alcohol is under increased scrutiny, low/no alcohol alternatives are growing but spirits and craft beers as well. Wine is often used in political battles, eg trade wars between EU and USA or with Russia, hence we suffer from swinging taxes and repercussions on export demand.
And wine is of course a luxury product and not a basic necessity, hence in case of economic crisis, wine demand is under pressure… so again, it is up to us to find answers to these challenges, to keep selling our products and to keep finding new pockets of growth.
There is never a dull moment in the wine industry! No routine whatsoever, which fits very well with my problem solving character.
The process of wine creation requires so many different skills, from pure technical and scientific knowledge to really creative and intuitive feeling. You seem to know the secret: how to reach the balance between. What helps you to keep this harmony?
I do not think I have found any secret… but as I mentioned above, I do like challenges, I like to learn and I like to problem solve and to develop new products. This does not stress me at all.
I think I have a wide experience in many different sectors, different countries and different aspects of business and I also have a broad set of skills and knowledge from my various educations, and I seem to have an ability to combine these things quickly and easily to find answers to complex or new problems…
I think my brain is never quiet, keeps working day and night, and I come up with new ideas at all places and times, especially while driving but also while sleeping….
I would not say I have found harmony… that does not seem to fit my character, it is more a restlessness to keep searching and finding… but I find a lot of satisfaction from solving problems and finding solutions.
But another key aspect of my work is that I focus on the fun in my business. Fun people, fun projects, fun products. Wine business can be hard and we have a lot of problems to solve, as I already indicated, and therefore it is essential that we enjoy what we do and part of this is thanks to the people we interact with. So my team, my clients, my suppliers and my partners need to be fun people to deal with, and need to work with a smile :-).
The advantage of being your own boss is that you can select these aspects and also the people… and having such a mantra helps to make decisions more easily when it matters: is this fun? Am I enjoying this? Does this project or this person make me smile? If not, move over and move on….
During the recent Diploma D3 exam in October 2023 there was a question about commercial challenges of red wine producers in the Loire Valley. How would you answer this question?
Interesting question, I would love to read the answers from the students and learn some new ideas…
Demand for red wine in general has been reducing globally already for many decades, and red Loire wines were not very fashionable when I started in 2010, but this has changed a lot over the past 10 years. Demand is clearly rising, both for the wine style and for the grape, and both in France and in export markets.
In Loire we produce light bodied refreshing red wines with moderate alcohol, which are quite fashionable these days, and our wines are also very food-friendly thanks to the tannins and the acidity, hence sommeliers like our wines as well.
And Cabernet Franc seems to be in demand as a special, different grape that is not planted a lot and does not exist a lot in mono-varietal versions.
Of course, as overall demand for red wines is reducing gradually over time, my answer is to produce several alternative styles of wine from Cabernet Franc, e.g. sparkling wine in white, rose and red, as sparkling wines keep growing. I also produce a still rose wine, and this year also a still Blanc de Noir and a new style of light bodied red wine.
Since the start I make grape juice from Cabernet Franc, which was always a small volume for a niche market, but now with the rise of mocktails I see an increase in demand for high quality grape juice.
Next year we will make a “Pineau” wine style with Cabernet Franc, so stay tuned…
I keep experimenting and trying new products, and when it works the product stays and if not, I stop. Innovation is anyway the key in any business and you can only innovate by observing the market and trying and testing new products.
Speaking of WSET Diploma. Any advice for recent Diploma students and everyone who is thinking about this level of wine education?
I love studying, so my advice should be combined with that warning…
I learned a lot throughout the WSET courses, as you taste so many different wines from across the world, and in Diploma also so many different styles e.g. fortified and sparkling wines, and I take a lot of inspiration from that into my own estate and my wines.
The difficulty of the WSET courses is increasing gradually. So if you managed level 3 easily and you are eager for more knowledge and more tasting experience, then go for Level 4. But I do understand that not everybody wants to spend the time to study all this in this much detail… Also I know that not everybody gets excited and motivated for exams and deadlines like I do, and in Diploma there are of course a lot more of these… so everybody should use their strengths!
But it is worth it, you will learn so much more about wine across the world, which will increase your reach and your potential to buy more interesting wines at very decent prices!
Do you remember the moment when you realized that you want to continue and become a Master of Wine? How is it going and what are your impressions from this study?
As I mentioned before, I love to study, and in everything I have done, I have always studied and I always aimed for the top, so I always had the plan to continue for MW after WSET. Of course step by step, one course at a time, and also evaluating whether it all works for me and whether I can handle the volume of courses, and combine it with my work and my family!
But it all went fairly easily throughout the WSET and also the MW journey went quite smoothly. I passed everything for the first time, except for the Stage 2 tasting exam, which I only passed in 2023. This is the only exam in my whole life that I have failed ever…. It had to happen at one point in my life :-).
And this one I have failed several times, as with failure comes the stress of wanting to perform well the next time and then the anxiety of needing to perform well… and at some point the stress became more important than the knowledge and skills, and obviously the COVID interruption did not help my tasting journey. So it took me a while to get a good perspective about this exam, my strengths and weaknesses and how to succeed and I finally did in 2023.
Because I knew I could pass this exam when I came twice achingly close to the pass line, just missing a few points… I saw this as a sign that something else is needed to pass… So in the end this process taught me a lot more about life and failure than just learning to taste and write differently in order to pass the MW exam.
Another aspect of my character is to always look at the positive side of things and always distil learnings along the way, to improve for the future…. So this exam journey has taught me a lot about myself and I will, weirdly, always be very grateful for that, despite the painful journey.
But I am extremely happy to now be in “stage 3“, which is a research paper, and this plays most to my strengths of research and writing, and thus I can see and feel the end of the journey and the reward coming up…
Don’t ask me now what will be next…. First things first, finishing this one!
But I have started a coaching education during this process as it has helped me a lot along my entire journey, I wanted to know more about that also to help others in their journey, so that might be next, we will see…
All your Châteaus are also touristic properties, which host guests for wine tours, tastings and even overnight stays. What aftertaste should your guests leave with after visiting your locations? What is the most important in wine tourism and hospitality?
I want the clients to remember their stay, remember what they did, ate, tasted, where they sat or walked, what they saw, smelt, tasted, … hence activate all their senses and imprint the memory into their senses. And that they talk about their experience to their friends and family when they come home and thus spread the word, making waves, one person at a time…
And in that sense I also hope these clients keep buying the wine in order to relive that experience, share those memories and activate their senses with a bottle of wine…
So for me and my team, the most important aspect is to ensure our clients have an unforgettable experience, that everything goes smoothly. Especially that we exceed their expectations, that we give them more than they expect or that they pay for, which is what they will remember. In big and small aspects of their experience…
And it is visible in all our ratings which are all close to 5/5 on all different platforms that we are on, all organical and from real clients. I am incredibly proud of that and I am very grateful to my team for their commitment, as they need to make it happen every day for every client.
In your opinion and experience, how Covid-19 changed/influenced tourism? For example, guests became more motivated to travel after a lockdown period or more picky, etc?
Did Covid inspire you to create an “escape” concept for your holiday property?
The inspiration for the tourist offer started in 2010, when a real trend started to go back to nature, back to the roots, meeting the winemaker, etc. So I developed my offer in those days.
Covid has reinforced that aspect but the trend was already there. So my experiences existed already before covid. And luckily tourism largely continued during covid, even though wine sales were more complex, which is a big advantage of diversification…
Should winemakers talk about their wines or should wines talk about themselves? What is the best way to tell the story from behind the bottle (or box) of wine?
As I always say “wine with a story tastes better”, so we need to tell the story of the wine, and that story combines the winemaker, the winemaking, the place where the wine comes from, etc. There is a lot to say about my wines!
I think consumers want to do business with people, so they want to meet and hear the person who made it, but that person talks about the origin of the wine and how it was made etc. So it is a package deal and especially, everything needs to be coherent! The values of the person need to be in line with the practices of the winemaking etc. Consumers quickly feel if that is not sincere and authentic. And in wine, but also other sectors, not everybody is always sincere and coherent….
But consumers like a good story, so I appeal to critical thinking! Ask a few questions, go meet the winemaker on site, compare words and actions, and taste the final product, etc. Also for these aspects wine education of wine consumers is a big plus, in order to understand what is in the bottle and ask the right questions.
Château de Suronde is not a simple château, it is also a creative hub and hosts contemporary artists. Could you, please, share more details about this project? How do you build bridges between wines and arts?
I have a passion for art and specifically contemporary art, via my mother who was a modest but real collector of Belgian contemporary art. I have been actively involved in art myself since 2010 by organising networking events around art with wine (my wine) and there I met Sven Vanderstichelen, a Belgian curator with 25 years experience in Belgian contemporary art.
And I was considering creating an artist residence in Minière when I bought Suronde and discovered Suronde is the perfect place for that, as Suronde is in the middle of nature, we have 10ha of wild nature around our 7ha of vineyards. And we have two smaller idyllic houses in the middle of all this. So the perfect place for inspiration and creation….
Also Château de Suronde is in Quarts de Chaume Grand Cru, and how do you label a Grand Cru wine…. With golden letters? I chose to label the wine with art, to emphasize the value of what is in the bottle.
So I started my first vintage in 2016 with white labels with transparent embossing “ceci n’est pas une etiquette” to announce the art project, as the label is a canvas for art. Since 2017 we have a different Belgian artist who comes and creates art in Suronde, I select the artworks I like the most for our private collection, and out of these artworks we create wine labels. So the artist does not create wine labels but creates traditional works of art. I do this project together with Sven Vanderstichelen.
We launch the vintage with the new labels together with an art exhibition to the public, in order to sell wine and art to further support the artists. And since 2023 we do this in our own venue in Tervuren called HUISBURG, where we combine art, wine and original design and objects.
I choose the artists, together with Sven, and we select them among the people we know, that we have worked with in the past. All are confirmed artists but not yet super-famous, hence affordable. We do this to help them further in their career and to support them to get more exposure and of course more sales so they can continue to create art. A key criterion for the selection is that we only work with fun people, as we need to work intensely together. That should be fun, we should want to help each other and support each other. That is the basis in everything that I do, also for this project.
Would you like to add something? Or wish something to our target group, mostly wine professionals and wine enthusiasts.
I have a few mantras that I would like to share/repeat.
First, wine with a story tastes better, which means that I encourage everybody to buy wine from real winemakers, sold through real and independent wine shops, who will appreciate your support and your business. Each bottle you buy in this circuit makes a real difference for every person along the value chain.
Second, drink less but drink better, encouraging you to drink less wine/alcohol but spend more on each bottle that you drink or gift. Only buy organic wines, so if you drink half the volume, you can spend double on each bottle. This is better for your health, but doing this you buy more sustainable products, supporting real and organic winemakers in their efforts to make sustainable wines that are better for the environment and for your health!
Again, each bottle you buy, makes a real difference for everybody involved and for you!
Third, I invite everybody to explore the wide world of wine, which is full of variety and very interesting bottles, each with a story and with a personality. The winemakers and the independent wine shop will be very happy to guide you in your journey.
A WSET wine course will support you and guide you in identifying your personal preferences and in your ability to navigate the immense offer of wines that exist.
Finally, as some of your readers might know, and if not they know now 😉 : I am nominated for Belgian wine lady of the year, and as I am not as well known as wine people active in Belgium, it would make me very happy if people would like to vote for me. As Sybille told me and has become another mantra: the only way to get off this list is to get elected…. You can vote here
Thanks Kathleen for your time and sharing your priceless experience!