Wine never tasted so Swede

Milder summers mean Europe’s most northerly winegrowers can challenge rival producers, but the Swedish alcohol laws are just one of many obstacles they face.

The song of a skylark mingles with the clink of glasses from the small bodega by the winery. Inside, the sommelier is serving visitors as they gaze out on to rows of vines stretching down a slope of rolling hillside.

This may look like Languedoc, Rioja or the Mosel, but it’s not. It’s rural Sweden, where climate change is midwife to the slow birth of Europe’s northernmost wine region.

The plot of fertile soil a short drive from Malmö, Sweden’s third city, has been in Håkan Hansson’s family for five generations and, thanks to his mother, he has detailed records of the climate when she farmed here 40 years ago.

“It is clear that we now have an extra month in the growing season each summer,” says Hansson, whose Hällåkra vineyard has six hectares under 20 000 vines. “There have been changes even since we started with grapes 15 years ago, when we didn’t enjoy the warm Septembers we have today. Some growers are harvesting five or six weeks earlier than they used to, even at the end of August,” he said.

The rise in temperatures in the country has been roughly twice the global average change since the late 1800s, leading to summer heatwaves and winters milder by almost 2°C, according to Sweden’s Rossby Centre for Climate Research. The change is helping to turn Nordic viniculture from a retirement hobby into a small but resilient commercial reality – there are more than a dozen vineyards selling to the country’s alcohol stores, and many more have created businesses around their wine.

Few Swedes themselves have even heard of Swedish wine; for those who have, it has been something of a joke – a poor imitation of New World and Mediterranean wines that have transformed the country’s drinking tastes. But a Michelin-starred restaurant in Gothenburg has just started to take Hansson’s wine, and he has ambitious expansion plans.

What started as a midlife crisis after a career in finance has become a dream of placing Sweden on the wine-producing map.

“Sweden is like England 15 years ago,” says Hansson’s sommelier, Karl Sjöstrom, who is inspired by the story of how Kent and Sussex vineyards learned to make fine sparkling wines. “We have the potential to develop the reputation that English wine has built.”

But the obstacles are formidable. As a wine region, the county of Skåne in southern Sweden, where most of the vineyards are based, is barely two decades old and still has much to learn, says Jannie Vestergaard of the Skåne Food Innovation Network.

“People came into wine with passion, but not with knowledge, so in the early years lots of mistakes were made – middle-aged men who had tasted good French wines wanting the same to happen in their back yard,” Vestergaard says.

Many growers are tearing up their red grapevines, she says, after concluding the soil and climate aren’t suitable. Swedish vineyards are still searching for a grape variety that perfectly suits the specific Nordic terroir, where the short growing season produces fruit with high acidity.

Developing a reputation
While the past two summers have been scorching hot, May and June have been the coldest since 1962.

“The northern latitude makes it possible that even with climate change the average temperatures will be low, with the risk of frost in the autumn,” says Jörgen Bogren of the department of earth sciences at Gothenburg University. “So it is very uncertain to be making investments in the wine industry in Sweden, which is likely to remain marginal.”

Loosening the rules
Sweden’s strict alcohol laws mean vineyards are not allowed to sell bottles of their wine on site, but instead have to supply the national alcohol retail monopoly, known as Systembolaget. This means visitors to a vineyard who have tasted the wine in the Swedish countryside can’t take a bottle home with them, depriving growers of valuable income.

“Swedish wine growers are like a small ant delivering a grain of sand to enormous alcohol supermarkets, so the transaction costs are high,” says Paulina Rytkönen, a researcher at Södertörn University outside Stockholm. Small volumes, low yields and high costs mean that Swedish wines retail at three times the price of French or Italian.

The country has a strong and institutionalised temperance movement, Rytkönen says, making politicians wary of loosening the rules governing alcohol sales. A parliamentary inquiry five years ago concluded that the rules could be relaxed to allow wine sales at vineyards without threatening the overall monopoly, but it was quietly shelved.

But Murat Sofrakis, whose Klagshamn vineyard lies in sight of the famous bridge linking Sweden to Denmark, is undeterred. The cold spring has meant he has had to thin 30 000 grape clusters from his vines, which usually flower at Wimbledon time, but are three weeks behind.

“I like to compare Sweden to Central Otago on South Island in New Zealand – the world’s most southerly wine region,” he says. “It now has some of the best pinot noirs, but for years they said it was impossible because it was too cold.”

Looking for innovative ways
In 2001 Sofrakis and his partner, Lena Jørgensen, took over a small farm, replacing cabbages with vines. They visit European vineyards every year to improve the quality of their wines. Swedish wine writer Alf Tumble named Klagshamn’s Terra Scania 2014 as one of his top 10 wines, with a “roundness and sweetness in flavour balancing the crisp acid”.

Sofrakis embraces the acidity of his grapes: “Fruit has more flavour grown in a cold climate because of the acidity. When you taste the wine here, you realise what you have lost.”

At 1.5 hectares, Klagshamn is small, Sofrakis admits, but the average size of vineyards in the German wine region of Mosel is only two hectares. The English experience shows it takes 25 years to learn to produce good wine, he says, but once a vineyard succeeds, suddenly the wine world takes an interest.

Swedish wine growers have found innovative ways to make up for the trade they lose to the retail monopoly. One vineyard in Åhus allows people to sponsor a row of vines and to spend time tending it; there are also bicycle tours of local vineyards that end in tastings. Others encourage culinary tourism by opening restaurants at their vineyards.

Staffan Lake, chair of Sweden’s wine growers’ association, supplies restaurants in Stockholm, based on establishing an emotional relationship with the wine. “We are selling a story and an experience, showing that our cold climate can produce wonderful wine,” he says. “This is a craft, locally made by hand. This is why people will pay higher prices.”

The production of Swedish wine
At Hällåkra vineyard, Hansson is so confident that he is persisting with an aromatic, fruity red and is planning to nearly double his vines by 2018.

“Wine growers from hot southern countries say they would die to have the acidity of Swedish grapes; it’s what makes our wine distinctive,” he says. “We knew the problems when we started – we just have to prove we can produce top-quality wines.”

Wine critic Tumble remains sceptical. “Swedish wine production may have a future if the climate continues to gets warmer,” he says. Balance is a problem thanks to high acidity and lack of fruit, and many growers are enthusiasts rather than professionals. “We’ll just have to wait and see – and taste along the way.” – Guardian News & Media 2015

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