Sweden's Blooming Wine Scene Is Challenged By Regulations More Than Climate – Forbes


Sparkling wine from Köpingsbergs Winery, SwedenKöpingsbergs Winery

Combine the Swedish words for ‘the company’ and ‘the system’ and you have the almost ominous sounding first name of the state-run monopoly that controls the sale of wine—and all alcohol—for no profit in this Nordic country: Systembolaget Aktiebolag. It is referred to locally as ‘the monopoly,’ and includes hundreds of stores throughout Sweden. It does not advertise alcohol or run promotional deals.

And Swedish residents love it.

Claes Bartoldsson is the winemaker for Astad Vingård, a set of vineyards and winery, as well as guest house and restaurant, located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of the city of Gothenburg in southwestern Sweden. He and a consulting oenologist from Germany produce wines from 10 acres (four hectares) of inland vines, as well as on a 2.5-acre (1 hectare) vine plot located near the North Sea. He described the relationship between the monopoly and wine.

Harvest at Ästad Vingård in SwedenÄstad Vingård

In Sweden, most people say they like the monopoly because it’s located in every city and has a big selection. Mostly they have bag and box bulk wine, custom made for the Swedish palate. For example, if Swedes buy an expensive import, it’s typically Amarone. Strong, powerful, and with residual sugar.

Because only state-run stores can sell wine in Sweden, wineries cannot sell take away bottles. Customers must remember the name of any wine that interests them, then drive to a state store for their purchase. Recent changes to the law allow wineries without restaurants to obtain a license so they can provide samples to visitors as part of a specified ‘wine tasting package.’

A land of lakes as well as wines, at Ästad Vingård in SwedenÄstad Vingård

Despite this bureaucratic hurdle, wineries are beginning to thrive in Sweden. Bartoldsson told of recent changes.

The wine scene is growing and there’s a very positive feeling in Sweden now regarding wine making. It’s in the second phase. In the late 1990s and early 2000’s, everyone was trying to grow every grape variety. But as of three or four years back, there have been bigger plantings in the country with just one to three grape varieties. It’s become much less on a hobby level.

White wines such as those from the Solaris grape rule in the country, often sparkling, and pair well with salty fish and light summer food. Bartoldsson told how growing grapes inland can be a challenge.

Solaris is the most common grape in Sweden by far, it ripens most years and makes great wine. It’s not that hard to grow grapes in Sweden on the water, but inland is a challenge. In 2017 we had a production of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds). The next year we had 12.5 tonnes. It’s a hard business model when two out of three harvests don’t work.

Vineyards at Ästad Vingård in SwedenÄstad Vingård

Sweden’s viticultural hot spot is in the south, near the coastline. Many wineries are located in Skåne, the southernmost of 21 counties in the country. At almost 56 degrees latitude, this region sees more hours of sunshine during its growing season than European neighbors to the south, but that light is attenuated because of latitude.

Carl-Otto Ottergren, owner and winemaker at Köpingsbergs vineyard, spoke about wine production in Skåne.

I was one of the first to produce wine commercially in Sweden, rather than as a hobby. In 2005, we were two commercial wine producers. Now more vine growers are coming to the south. More people are investing. Now there are thirty or forty companies—full time with employees. With Swedish wine, professionalism and quality is now at an international level compared to 2005. People are studying in the USA and Germany and then opening vineyards. In the past it was more people with wealth opening a vineyard as a fun project, more a hobby. Now, young people think professionally from the beginning. You see the results—the wines are getting a lot better.

Carl-Otto Ottergren, owner of Köpingsbergs Winery in SwedenKöpingsbergs Winery

Winemaking has such allure in Sweden that residents of Stockholm—including newscasters and media personalities—fly 380 miles (600 kilometers) to Malmö and volunteer to pick grapes. Once his harvest is complete, Ottergren holds a party, at which—he proudly tells—one pair of pickers met and then married.

The beautiful summer weather of 2018 gave Swedish vine growers even more optimism about the future.

“In the next two to three years, we will expand to around double the capacity,” said Håkan Hansson, owner of Hällårka Vineyard, also located in Skåne. This family owned winery produces white, red, sweet and sparkling wines from 16 acres (6.5 hectares) of vines. They supply exclusive Scandinavian restaurants, and export to restaurants in London, Berlin and Paris.

Red wine made from Rondo grapes at Hällårka VineyardHällårka Vineyard

We started in 2003, one of the first vineyards in Scandinavia. We began by planting some of the new hybrids developed for colder climates, starting with the blue [red] grapes Rondo, Regent and Léon Millot. Rondo, developed from the classic grape Saint Laurent, is the main grape in the red wines we produce today. Another is the green [white] grape Solaris developed from Riesling and Pinot Gris. This gives a splendid balance between acidity and sweetness. Characteristics of Scandinavian wines are higher acidity, aromatics and fruitiness.

Most of their whites are made from Solaris, for which Hällårka won a tasting award in Paris.

Since 2008 they also began to grow Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Auxerrois Blanc, from which they produce sparkling wines. Their reds, aged in Swedish and French oak for seven months, pair well with wild dishes, including deer, wild duck and moose, as well as with cheeses.

Sparkling wine from Köpingsbergs WineryKöpingsbergs Winery

Arilds Winery is located along a coastal peninsula in Skåne. Owner Annette Ivarsson told how they have 50 acres (20 hectares) of vines and grow Solaris, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Gris, Muscaris and Cabernet Cortis grapes. Although this wine helps attract customers to their restaurant, the winemaking as yet is unprofitable alone as a business. She hopes for a future change in legislation regarding wine sales.

“In a few years, if we will be allowed to sell wine on the farm, we could probably make a profit.”

According to Carl-Otto Ottergren, the proliferation of online sales in Sweden has reduced the overall presence of shoppers in bricks and mortar stores. Swedes joke that the exception is Systembolaget, because online purchases of alcohol are prohibited, and because it lacks competition. During Midsummer’s week, when most Swedes revel in the longest day of the year, about a quarter of the country’s population of almost 10 million residents visit the state monopoly store to purchase drinks.

Harvest at Ästad VingårdÄstad Vingård

Between 2008 and 2017, alcohol consumption in Sweden decreased eight percent, according to the non-governmental organization CAN—the Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs.

Although buying bottles in other countries and bringing it back home accounts for 20 percent of alcohol consumed in the Sweden, according to an article in the Financial Times, this alcohol originating from ‘unregistered sources’ (both legal and illegal) has also reduced. Yet overall, revenue at the state monopoly increased. The reason is that Swedes may be buying less alcohol, but are purchasing more expensive wares, including premium wines.

Winemaker Claes Bartoldsson (right) at Astad VingårdAstad Vingård

This increased national desire for upscale drinks, combined with a rise in Swedish wine quality, may work to further enhance popularity of wineries as visitor destinations for Swedes. This, consequently, could increase pressure for legislative changes regarding alcohol sales from point of origin.

If you want to sample Swedish wine, this should be an excellent year. The harvest of 2018 provided an unusually high quantity of grapes, and the predicted quality of the vintage is excellent.

Bulging vines at Hällårka VineyardHällårka Vineyard

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