German winemaker Henri Fink has been living on Mallorca since 2014. Raffaella Usai visited him during the grape harvest. Fink told her about his northern German roots, his path from the Moselle via the USA to the island and his unusual project "Isla Wine".
You originally come from the North Sea coast. It's not a place that's famous for its wine. How does a Frisian come to become a winemaker?
Henri Fink: The idea to train as a winemaker came after I finished school. In my hometown of Bockhorn, there were no good job prospects for me at the time. Most of my family still works at the Airbus plant near Wilhelmshaven. After a brief interlude with a degree in social sciences, I was looking for something more tangible.
Did you have a connection to wine before?
Henri Fink: Only in the broadest sense. My parents had a beverage market.
So you were a real wine beginner.
Henri Fink: Let's put it this way, I wasn't born into it. A good friend gave me the idea to try winemaking. So I wrote an application - one application to be exact - and immediately got the apprenticeship. That was in 2005.
What was your first impression of being a winemaker?
Henri Fink: When I first came to the Moselle, I was fascinated. Vines everywhere, steep slopes, I had never seen anything like it. It was my first trip to the south of Germany (laughs). In the beginning, I had a very romantic idea of viticulture and of working in the vineyard. I wanted to enjoy nature, have a snack among the vines during the break. And that was indeed the case there.
Where did you do your apprenticeship?
HenriFink: In a vineyard in Maring-Noviand. The winery is one of the pioneers in organic viticulture on the Mosel and worked with Ecovin very early on. At the end of the training, it was finally clear to me: this is what I want to do!
What happened next?
Henri Fink: By chance, I met a winemaker from the Palatinate who had been working in the USA since the 1980s. He was looking for someone to help with the coming grape harvest at his winery in Michigan. So I applied for a visa, flew over and was there on time on the first day of the harvest.
Henri Fink: Yes, and not even a little. It is a classic cool-climate region with long winters and late budding. But viticulture there benefits from the Great Lake effect, which cushions the weather extremes. Mainly Riesling, Pinots and Gamay are grown, but also other international varieties. Even Sangiovese! The guys are very experimental.
What did you do there?
Henri Fink: Almost only cellar work. The winery cultivated around 150 hectares and I learned there how a large winery works. Until then, I had no idea about cellar structure and systematic teamwork.
You stayed for a harvest?
Henri Fink: No, I was in the USA for two and a half years. To extend my stay, I was enrolled at Ohio State University in oenology and viticulture. But at some point I had to go back. Because I wanted to deepen my knowledge, I did my technician training at the viticulture school in Weinsberg. After this second training and the work experience in the USA, I was ready to take on responsibility myself.
And then you emigrated to Mallorca?
Henri Fink: No, I went back to the Mosel and worked for two years as the field manager of a winery. My girlfriend at the time, also a winemaker, had always wanted to move south. When I got a job offer from a small German-run winery on Mallorca, I passed it on to her. And since I was still tied up with work, she applied.
But it was clear that you would follow her?
Henri Fink: Yes, the plan was that I would take over the job later. She drove up and took the vacant position - which she liked so much that she really wanted to continue there. However, the winery was too small for both of us.
That means you went to Mallorca for love and were unemployed?
Henri Fink: Exactly (laughs). I needed an idea of what I could do as a winemaker here on the island. As a result of these thoughts, the company WeinWert was born in 2016.
What is behind it?
Henri Fink: WeinWert is a service company that plants and maintains vineyards on behalf of customers. There are an incredible number of people on Mallorca who spend part of their lives here but are not permanently on site. Most of them have large plots of land around their holiday homes because the building law stipulates that you have to own at least 1.4 hectares of land. And these areas often lay fallow and were not cultivated. That's where we started.
Was the idea of having your own vineyard accepted by the finca owners?
Henri Fink: We first advertised the project with the question: "What do you need to be happy? - and that worked well. If you own a finca, maybe you have a boat in the harbour, of course you are not missing anything. But the idea of having their own wine appealed to many owners. In addition, there was the aspect of landscape conservation, because who wants to look from their terrace onto a fallow area? Viticulture is a cultural theme and encompasses nature, history and philosophy. Many of our clients already brought a passion for wine with them.
How big are these turnkey vineyards and how many hectares do you cultivate with wine value today?
Henri Fink: We have planted vineyards in a wide range of sizes. The minimum size is 1,000 square metres. On average, the planted area of a vineyard is a few thousand square metres. For a few customers we have also planted hectare-sized vineyards. In total, there are now over 100 hectares all over the island between Andratx and Artà.
And each customer gets his own wine?
Henri Fink: Exactly. The second step after planting the vineyards was the vinification of the grapes. To do this, we founded the company Vino de la Isla and bought the château in Algaida, where both companies are based today. With the 2023 vintage, we produce well over a hundred different wines in the château.
These are often only microvinifications, aren't they?
Henri Fink: Yes, that's why we have so many tanks in the cellar. Each customer has his own label, and some have several wines, depending on the size of the vineyard. During the hot phase, a round to taste the wines takes about three hours.
How do you keep track of the amount of wines?
Henri Fink: That is sometimes quite a challenge with the huge amount of data. We are currently working on a personalised software solution to structure the whole thing even better.
Henri Fink: If I compare it with the places where I have worked before, the Mediterranean climate is decisive above all. The soils and the growing conditions are completely different from what I knew. Slopes, for example, are not needed on the island because there are no problems with ripening here. Here we take special care that the wines do not develop too much alcohol and retain as much acidity as possible. The soils are very alkaline and have high pH values. You can also feel this in the musts. I had to adjust to these microbiological conditions first.
How did you do it?
Henri Fink: I experimented a lot. Making a fresh, crisp white wine on Mallorca is sometimes not so easy. It requires a delicate touch. We did some experiments with a very early harvest, but you automatically bring a lot of green aromas into the cellar - you really have to consider all the details.
What about sparkling wines?
Henri Fink: It is indeed a topic we are working on. We have some basic wines from the Macabeo grape variety in the cellar that are definitely suitable for bottle-fermented sparkling wines. We will definitely try that. Because the demand is there and there is little sparkling wine from Mallorca.
What about the autochthonous Mallorcan grape varieties?
Henri Fink: Viticulture has a long tradition on Mallorca. Today there are still 3,000 hectares of vines, but in the past there were many more. I like to work with the autochthonous grape varieties, especially Manto Negro, a variety from which you can make light red wines with a great fruit.
You make wines for your clients. Don't you also want to make your own?
Henri Fink: I consider every vineyard that I have planted here to be mine and treat it accordingly. For me, all the wines that lie in the cellar are my "babies". "Vino de la Isla" is a project that keeps me busy around the clock. I don't need my own label.