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Even though Latvia is traditionally a country of beer drinkers, it also has some excellent home-made wines. The chance to taste different varieties of beer and find the one that appeals to you the most is offered by beer restaurants and breweries alike, whereas tastings of Latvian-made wines are only available at select farmsteads and markets.
In June in Spīķeri, located near the Central Market in Riga, you will find the largest specialised beer restaurant in Latvia - Merlin. But beer is the number one beverage in most restaurants, pubs, cafes, not to mention the expansive summer beer gardens in Riga and other towns and cities, and this should be your first stop to explore the character of the local brew. Latvians love and respect beer: every man has his favourite variety, and arguments over the very best one are part of the beer-drinking ritual.
Also, beer-drinking competitions, collecting beer paraphernalia, and singing of beer songs exists on larger or smaller scale.
Surveys indicate that Latvian beer enthusiasts prefer the products of small and medium breweries with distinct character: examples include such beers as Tērvetes Senču, Užavas Dark, Užavas Light, Bauskas or Valmiermuižas. Still, the offerings of mass producers – Aldaris, Cēsis, Līvu and Lāčplēša – are not snubbed either, as they quell thirst during the world hockey championships or the football World Cup. All breweries invite their faithful customers, or simply those who are curious, on tours and tastings – but you have to book these in advance to make sure that the beer is served at the perfect temperature, with the perfect background narrative. Breweries are predominantly located in the regions outside Riga, which means that a trip to a brewery is a great chance to take in the Latvian countryside.
However, grapes are also grown in Latvia, and there are enterprising folks who intend to make quality wine out of them. At the moment, it is merely a hobby of a handful of enthusiasts: such as in Sabile, whose Wine Hill was once included in the Guinness Book of World Records as the northernmost location where grapes can ripen (admittedly, this record has now been broken). For over ten years now, a town fair has taken place in the last week of July, and tastings of domestic wines play an important part. A number of farms in the Abava valley have planted vineyards. For example, Ieva and Kaspars Sūniņš own five hectares of vines from which they are hoping to produce quality wine. Yet to claim that viticulture is a recent innovation in Latvia would be absurd. Some 200 varieties of grapes have been developed in Latvia, it is home to outstanding vine breeders, and the first grape exhibition at the Latvian Natural History Museum took place 70 years ago.
The most committed individuals have joined together to form the Latvian Society of Viticulturists and Vintners, but grapes are not the only source of wine in Latvia. Up until the 1950s, every housewife was able to create excellent dessert wines from berries and fruit, which could surely compete in terms of their flavour, aroma and clarity of colour with their nobler cousins. Therefore, if you come across some redcurrant, gooseberry, raspberry, guelder-rose or wild apple wine at a market, don’t let this opportunity slip by! More about tastings: www.valmiermuiza.lv, www.tervete.lv (brewery section), www.uzavas-alus.lv, www.bauskasalus.lv More about the Sabile town fair: www.sabile.lv, more about grapes: www.vinogudarzs.lv