Mike Juergens, Deloitte's consultant turned Himalayas' first winemaker, at the Yusipang Vineyard in Bhutan.
Visiting Himalayan vineyards. ‘In a century, Bhutan may be the only winemaking country in the world’
The year is about 2050 and you are at your mid-40s birthday party. The closest people to you gathered to celebrate at a restaurant. As everyone sits down and starts browsing through the food menu, the waiter gives you the wine list.
Let’s stop here because opening a restaurant wine list in 2050 is going to be completely different to anything we can imagine approaching the breaking point of the 2020s. You would expect to see names like ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, ‘Bordeaux’, ‘Sangiovese’, ‘Tuscany’, ‘Rioja’, and countries like France, Italy, and Spain.
It is entirely possible that in 2050, the list will feature only one mountainous, landlocked kingdom at the feet of the Himalayas: Bhutan.
Estimates from Statista Market Insights place that the global wine market in 2023 will reach an astronomical value of $333 billion.
258 million hectolitres of wine was produced in 2022 alone. To put these figures in perspective: if all wine produced would be sold, about 89 million bottles would pop every day. However, over the coming decades, the supply of wine is expected to decrease significantly as a result of climate change.
In the short-term, vine is able to adapt to weather anomalies and still allow winemakers to harvest grapes to meet the demand, but as temperatures are expected to rise, in the long run, the plant on which the entire industry relies won’t be able to thrive where the vineyards are currently placed – climate change will make seasons more intense, summers warmer, winters colder, and add periods of unpredictable rainfall.
Farmers in countries traditionally associated with winemaking – France, Italy, Spain – will either have to plant new, more resilient types of vine, or change the industry altogether.
Globally, however, there is an alternative. If the vine thrives where it is colder, the easiest solution – keep in mind that we discuss the future of a multibillion industry – is to move production to regions farther from the equator or higher, further from the sea level.
I learned about that at a vineyard at the feet of the world’s highest mountains, the Himalayas, in the kingdom of Bhutan.
When winemaking is considered, the landscape acts as an advantage to Bhutan like no other – high mountains, which are all joined together by networks of rivers with large valleys. Although it may seem difficult to develop infrastructure, this country is perfect for agricultural activity.
At almost 10,000 feet above sea level I met Mike Juergens, a consultant with the global professional services network Deloitte, who is also the person who launched the first-ever winemaking company in Bhutan. He shared with me his vision of the future of winemaking: “In a hundred years, five hundred years, there can be a scenario where Bhutan is the only wine-making country in the world.”
His unusual career started in 2016 when the attention of this avid traveller and marathon runner was caught by an email invitation to the Bhutan International Marathon. Mike did not even know Bhutan was in the Himalayas, but he responded instantly and qualified for the event.
He ran through the stunning landscape of the Punakha Valley, and having previous experience in visiting vineyards, he truly believed that Bhutan must be a winemaking country.
His belief in the existence of Bhutanese vineyards was so deep that he went on to ask a government official he met during the dinner after the marathon where these vineyards were located, and whether he could visit them. He learned – to his amazement – that there was not a single one in Bhutan.
What he first described to me as a disappointment he soon discovered to be an amazing opportunity.
Seven years later, when we spoke at one of his ten estates, he had just harvested the first grapes for Bhutanese wine and thus became the country’s first winemaker and a trailblazer for a future industry whose emergence is strongly supported by the Bhutanese authorities.
“Bhutan is the world’s leader in sustainable agriculture and the only carbon-negative country in the world,” Mike told me. In fact, Bhutan was the first country to develop an economy that absorbs more greenhouse gases than it emits, but according to Reuters more countries have joined the club since.
Bhutan is an example of how sustainability can become the driving force for innovation and economic growth.
In the 1970s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (who abdicated in 2006) decided not to pursue growth by exploiting the country’s natural resources but introduced policies that limited fossil fuel use and protected the jungle which covers most of the country.
In 2021, trees covered 72-73% of the land, and the law requires the government to maintain at least 60% forest cover. In effect, it is estimated that Bhutanese forests now absorb about nine million tonnes of carbon annually, while the nation’s economy produces less than four tonnes a year.
Bhutanese policies are rooted in its strong ties to Buddhism, the country’s official religion which emphasises that all life is interconnected and instructs its followers not to harm life. This religion-based political philosophy results in sustainable practices having very strong support from the Bhutanese population.
Mike’s wine-making efforts have the support of the administration of the current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who aims to keep the sustainable goals of his father but also to support innovation.
The unique mix of climate change, globalisation, Buddhist philosophy and Bhutan’s push for innovation may result in much more than the Himalayas replacing the Mediterranean as the byword for winemaking by the time one of us will be deciding what to treat the guests to in the 2050s.
Bhutan may change all we know about wine. Planted in 2022 in Southern Bhutan, Mike’s Gelephu vineyard is an experiment in ‘reverse cycle harvest’.
The vines growing there, in a tropical climate suited for orange and banana trees, would not go into dormancy in the winter. The experiment may result in grapes being harvested twice a year – something unheard of in the 8,000-year-long history of winemaking.
Effectively, the wine list you will open in the restaurant may be more than one page of Bhutanese wines – except for reds and whites, it will be also divided into “Spring” and “Fall” harvests that took place at the feet of the Himalayas.