Niklas Christensen has travelled around the world to learn about wine — from his hometown of Hillerød, Denmark, to Bordeaux, France, to right here in the Niagara region.
Christensen has checked Brock University off his list, too, after receiving his Certificate in Grape and Wine Technology (OVEC) at Fall Convocation on Friday, Oct. 15. He is one of 11 oenology and viticulture students that graduated during the ceremony, which was held in a hybrid format and livestreamed for graduates and their families to watch from home.
Christensen became interested in wine while studying horticulture and working in a local bar in Denmark. When he came across a request on Facebook from someone looking to crowdsource the purchase of a vineyard in Bordeaux, he was immediately intrigued.
“I hopped on that wagon and now 20 people have put money into the project and are making wine in France,” he said. “From then on, I just chased the winemaking dream.”
Since the vineyard co-op is more of a hobby than a full-time job (he mainly visits the property during the harvest season), Christensen was interested in coming to Niagara to gain more experience.
In the summer of 2019, he moved to St. Catharines with his girlfriend, Mathilde Skovgaard Kjaer. He worked in the cellar during the harvest season at Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery, while Kjaer completed an exchange semester at the Goodman School of Business to complement her studies at the Copenhagen Business School.
The pair moved back to Denmark after completing their work and study terms, with plans for Christensen to come back to Niagara and complete Brock’s Certificate in Grape and Wine Technology the following fall.
Then the pandemic hit.
Unable to return to Canada and study in person, Christensen turned to then-OEVI Academic Advisor Steven Trussler to see what his options were. They determined that Christensen could complete the certificate online, beginning in the fall of 2020.
“The certificate program is designed to allow those with a background in science or the grape and wine industry to upgrade their knowledge, and Niklas certainly falls into that category,” Trussler said. “Although completing the program remotely is not a traditional route for our students, nor one that we have plans to offer in the future, we were able to find a creative solution that allowed Niklas to still meet his academic goals during a very unprecedented time.”
Although he would have preferred to complete the certificate in person, Christensen said he still gained a well-rounded education that he can apply to his future endeavours.
“We got all the scientific background, all the microbiology and the chemistry, and then built it all into the winemaking process,” he said. “Wine process and equipment was the course where it really came together, and the teacher, Mark Pistor, was really a joy to listen to.”
In fact, Christensen said he even has Pistor’s lectures recorded in an audio archive, which he listens to “every morning” on his way to work.
Although remote learning can be a challenge, Christensen said that everyone, especially Trussler, went above and beyond to support him during his studies.
“I never experienced a person who was so helpful in almost every situation. Even with the smallest question, I could write to him,” Christensen said. “I’m sure if I needed anything more, I could find it. There were a lot of outlets for support.”
Christensen also said the unique breadth of winemaking experience he has now — including the natural process he learned about in his Bordeaux co-op, five years of working at wineries in Denmark, the Canadian industry experience he gained at Henry of Pelham and the scientific approach he learned at Brock — will be a benefit to him going forward.
“The scientific approach is measuring everything, and the natural approach is just putting it all together and letting nature do its thing,” he explained. “It was nice to have both side by side.”
With the first vintage of wines from his co-op now under his belt — noting he was “very happy” with the results — Christensen looks forward to learning even more about the industry and visiting Canada again soon.