Welcoming and friendly people, varied and spectacular landscapes, generous and sensual cuisine ; how is it possible not to fall in love with Sweden? Personally, we succumbed…
It is via the Øresund Bridge(1) that we left Denmark, heading to the south of Sweden, where a handful of die-hard winemakers were waiting for us. An enchanting journey in a country with a climate as Nordic as austere, where direct wine sales at the estate is not permitted, where it was forbidden to produce (commercially) until 2000, yet offering (a few) wines like no other.
“Maybe we will be able to harvest early November ; if the strong cold spare us this year… of course”. It was with these words that Håkan and Lotta Hansson, owners of the Hällåkra Vingard’s estate welcomed us. A little piece of paradise, home to 6.5 hectares of vines, planted in 2003 on beautiful south-facing slopes.
We were in the village of Anderslöv, in the south of the country. Håkan grew up here. It is the house of his childhood. “I remember little. Fetching water from the well. We didn’t have electricity either. Life was good, simple”.
After becoming a redoubtable businessman – first as a banker in Stockholm, then as a member of the Swedish government attached to the Ministry of Industry – the midlife crisis of 50-years finally overcame its bureaucratic side. “At the time, I didn’t think for a moment about all the work involved in producing the bottles of wine that I was drinking. Today, it makes me a philosopher”. Adding : “when you have a top job in Sweden, wine is one of the things to know to shine socially, as well as playing golf or hunting”.
It makes him smile now. He received us in shorts, hair in the wind, smiling from ear to ear.
This return to the earth is a success. And thanks to his sensitivity, and with the expertise of Peter Bo Jorgensen, his winemaker, Håkan produces lovely wines and is constantly creating. Like with his new amphora wine project. A delight.
But why would one want to make wine in Sweden? Icy winds, early snow, late frosts, long winters and short days… it is hard to find more extreme circumstances. “Swedish wines have managed to create a new identity in terms of taste, with a higher acidity and low alcohol degree. The profile is atypical : fresh and very tense, accommodating marvelously the local cuisine!”, Karl Sjöström, the sommelier at Hällåkra Vingard explained.
Because traditional Swedish cuisine is a clever combination between seafood (its fleshy salmon is a must!) and those of the forest.
To prove it, Lotta Hansson, a genuine hostess – who leads the kitchen with a master hand – took us for a picking in the forest, in order to compose the menu that would be served for lunch… An ancient practice, and a great inspiration to many restaurants. Here as well, Noma(2) makes its market.
Upon our cheerful return to the estate, basket filled with herbs, plants and all kinds of wild fruit, one more appetizing than the other, it was time for cooking! At noon, Lotta would serve a monkfish fillet with a cranberry white butter, accompanied by mashed potatoes and a homemade chutney. Memorable.
Forget about independent wine shops in Sweden… The retail of wine – and more generally that of alcoholic beverages of more than 3.5 degrees – is under the exclusive management of the Systembolaget, the state monopoly. Why such control? To curb alcohol consumption(3) (in theory). The rules are strict and not always understood : sale to persons under the age of 20 is prohibited, as is promotional offers and bottles are only sold individually.
All these constraints – including high taxes on wine – lead many Swedes to buy their wine via the “thirsty drive”, to Germany for the southerners, and to Estonia for those in the east.
Even worse for the few Swedish winemakers is that they are unable to sell their wine directly from the estate… unless they have a restaurant (in which case wine can be sold by the glass). Damn frustrating for the tourists.
“It is very difficult to sell to the final customer”, Claes Olsson and Thorsten Persson, the owners of Ekesåkra Vingard winery told us. After having proved the veracity of their vineyard project to the government (creating a business plan over 6 years!), they now have the right to sell their production to three stores in the south.
“If I had to start it again, I will never do it”, Claes, a former commercial director for a large US firm, who simply wanted above all to reconnect with his farmer family roots, likes to say.
There are however two positive points regarding the Systembolaget that deserve to be highlighted : the diversity in the supply of wine is superb, and the quality of information available to the consumer, impeccable.
“If some have managed to make wine in Denmark, we can succeed in Sweden”, Gabriel, the owner of the (former) Gabriels Vingård estate, used to dream. As builder of green homes, he began this venture in 2007 with 2,000 vines planted in his garden (only white); with a few viticulture and wine books purchased online, as only technical support.
Located in Yngsjö, south (60km north from the other wineries visited), Gabriels Vingård faces a major problem: it is at the gateway to the Baltic Sea. Result : strong winds throughout the year and late frosts almost every summer (sometimes until June 6!).
During six seasons, with a large dose of perseverance and courage, Gabriel planted, replanted and replanted again the majority of the plants, uprooted or destroyed by the ruthless weather, without ever having been able to do one complete harvest… Just half a harvest in 2011, the birds having spared the remaining grapes. Each year, he said to his wife: “Again. I try again next year. I’ll get there”.
Until his pragmatism prevailed. He realized that the climate here will never allow him to make wine. “Sometimes you have to resign yourself and stop”, he told us not without some emotion in his voice. A humbling and a rare moment of sharing, savored around delicious tacos cooked by Gabriel. We were kindly invited to join his family for dinner.
Our Swedish trip ended on a sparkling note with Carl-Otto, the owner of Köpingsberg Vingård estate, the only exclusive producer of sparkling wines. A future solution for the production of Swedish wine according to him.
Because as he rightly summarizes: “the only way to become a winemaker in Sweden one day, is to be above all a dreamer first!”.
Thank you to Hällåkra Vingård, Gabriels Vingård, Ekesåkra Vingård and Köpingsberg for their warm welcome. And thank you to Christofer Johansson, Torbjörn Rundqvist and Per Fritzell for their warm invitation to the north of the country to taste ice ciders : we hope to honor it next time we visit Sweden.
(1) The Øresund Bridge, 7.8 km long, connects the cities of Malmö in Sweden and Copenhagen in Denmark, for a crossing price of 36€. This bridge is on two levels: on top is the E20 motorway, and on the bottom the railway line.
(2) Noma, two Michelin stars, is a restaurant located in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was ranked “best restaurant in the world” by Restaurant magazine in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014.
(3) It was in the nineteenth century in Stockholm that Magnus Huss (Swedish doctor) introduced the concept of alcoholism as a disease.