Impossible is not a Swedish concept!

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…

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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.

Hällåkra Vingård, a little paradise

“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.

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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.

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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.

Some Swedish wines to discover :
Solaris 2013, from Hällåkra Vingård (100% Solaris)
Blanc de Blancs Brut 2010 (20% Pinot Auxerrois, 20% Chardonnay, 30% Orillon, 30% Seyval Blanc) from Köpingsberg Vingård
Per Ols Röa 2013 (80% Rondo, 20% Cabernet Cortis) from Ekesåkra Vingård
Rondo 2014 from Hällåkra Vingård (100% Rondo)

Products from the forest & Swedish cuisine

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.

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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.

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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.

The Systembolaget, the monopoly on wine sales in Sweden

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.

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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.

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“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.

The limits of northern viticulture

“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.

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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”.

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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.

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Because as he rightly summarizes: “the only way to become a winemaker in Sweden one day, is to be above all a dreamer first!”.
To meditate…

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

 

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.

Denmark, a newcomer on the European benches

I am lacking the words to describe the beauty of Denmark.
Upon our arrival, we were moved by its brightly colored landscapes. Its virgin aspect, wild and unspoilt. Its unequaled blue sky.

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Starting in the South, from the Dutch border, we were eager to discover the Danish vineyards, the young student on the European benches.
Because even though the Danish Vineyards Association (1) was created in 1993, it was not until 2000 that Denmark was  (finally) allowed by the EU to produce wine commercially (2).
Today there are a hundred producers. Most wineries are less than 2 hectares in size, producing in difficult conditions. To make a living from this passion remains quite a challenge. The guided tour follows.

Skaersoegaard, a lush green velvet

Nearby Kolding – on Jutland island, West – our journey started with Skaersoegaard estate. Being the second “biggest” Danish winery with 5.5 hectares, Skaersoegaard is a beautiful place to visit urgently.

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Paddle in hand, we were invited to visit the property by boat. Sven Moesgaard, the owner – and one of the pioneers to have planted vines in Denmark – fell in love with this place, largely due to the lake. “Without this body of water, I would never have planted vines; it provides the necessary protection against frost”.

A family of swans were watching us from a certain distance, hidden in the reeds. These are the employees of the winery, Sven laughingly explained : they maintain the vines by eating weeds and feed the soil with their droppings. Effective and free labor!

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The vineyard tour over, it was time for fishing on the lake for Ludo and for a nap in the shade of a tree for me. We were happily awaiting the evening BBQ at the water’s edge, in which a thousand pinecones would flame and crackle, to our greatest delight.

Not easy to be winemaker in Denmark

However, why plant vines in Denmark, where the climatic conditions are cold and the period of sunshine very short? “By challenge! “, Sven, who was an engineer in the pharmaceutical industry, before becoming a winemaker, said. “People have always thought it was impossible to plant vines and to make wine in Denmark…and I hate what is impossible”.

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As a result, you can find on Skaersoegaard estate – as elsewhere in Denmark – exclusively interspecific varieties (like Solaris, Rondo, Orion, Regent, Ortega, Cabernet Cortis, etc.), which have the advantage of being more resistant to vine diseases (powdery mildew, downy mildew), often with earlier maturities. And it works pretty well. Fortunately. Because vine treatments are banned by the Danish government (only three soft sprays are allowed) and the challenge of maintaining the vines in good condition is huge.

In addition to this, draconian hygienic standards are imposed by the government.

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Danish growers are not only forced to wear a full protective suit and overshoes to access their cellar, but also to have a “white” room, isolated from the rest of the buildings, washable from the floor to the ceiling, for cleaning technical equipment. What a surprise the first time we saw it… It’s (almost) like a hospital room. And attention to regular controls! “If these standards were applied to older wine countries, the majority of wineries in the world would have to close their doors”, Sven laughingly added.
To boot the government doesn’t provide any funding for this new business, which is for now judged as unprofitable. “No matter, the wine is primarily a story of passion”.

A night on Samsø island

Having left Skaersoegaard estate in the afternoon, we had to rally Rёsnes peninsula, East (on Sealand), where we were expected for our second visit. And it seemed that on this day the GPS of the Wine Explorers’ Truck  decided to play some tricks on us.

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Forgetting that the “shortest route” selection had been checked in the GPS, we naively followed it. After barely 20km, we were already facing the sea, in front of a ferry terminal. Amused by the idea of a boat crossing, we quickly forgave our guide.

A first stop halfway forced us to land on Samsø, an island of 100 square km and 3,700 inhabitants – and 100% energy independent and renewable (3). The place is bucolic. The inhabitants live in tune with the rhythm of the sea and the seasons. Everything is so quiet that no ferry will sail in the evening. We decided to spend the night on the island and to leave the next morning at dawn.

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We had the perfect excuse to stay a little longer.  The scenery immediately gave us the feeling of having arrived at the end of the world. We savored the moment with relish. This night, the undertow of the waves would be our lullaby.
Would we continue our journey the next day?…

Dyrehøj Vingaard, the vineyard on the peninsula

Freshly disembarked from the ferry and not yet fully recovered from our emotions, we headed towards Dyrehøj Vingaard, the largest Danish winery. A 8-hectares vineyard literally plunging into the sea. Denmark is definitely full of landscapes one more picturesque than the other.

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We met with Betina and Tom Newberry, brother-sister-farmers, who specialized in the breeding of pigs for a long time. A few years ago, they left everything behind to embark on a wine adventure, focusing on a strategy around oenotourism. The Rёsnes peninsula remains a must in terms of Danish tourism.
And fortunately, the place has a wonderful microclimate for making wine : the sunlight off the water is so particular that its brightness is reflected on the vine with a mirror effect, helping the grapes to mature.

Some Danish wines to discover:
DON’s Cuvée Brut 2013, from Skaersoegaard (60% Solaris, 40% Orion)
RÖS Muscaris 2014, from Dyrehøj (90% Muscaris, 10% Solaris)
Utopia Rondo 2006, from Kelleris Vingård (100% Rondo, aged 9 months in new Hungarian oak)
Utopia Cougar Rondo 2009, from Kelleris Vingård (100% Rondo, aged 22 months in new French casks)
Hedvin 2010, from Skaersoegaard (blend of Rondo, Régent, Léon Millot and Cabernet Cortis), a fortified wine (4) with notes of cooked black fruit.

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Kelleris Vingård, the most bordelais of Danish vineyards

After a (fresh!) morning swim in the Øresund strait, facing Sweden, we took the direction of Kelleris Vingård, two kilometers away from the sea, where the owners, Susanne and Søren Hartvig Jensen, a lovely couple, were going to host us.
Søren is a winegrower like no other. He was told repeatedly that Denmark is not a country suited for producing red wine!

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However…With a lot of courage and a touch of craziness, he bet on a production mainly focused on the blue Rondo variety. “I’m not a little crazy, but completely crazy for wanting to specialize in red wines! As consumers like red wines with a long barrel aging, the challenge to make such wine was fun!”.

An unconditional fan of Bordeaux, Søren even added two round towers to his home, to give his estate a castle-like touch – and built a vaulted cellar in order to store his barrels.
He also planted a few plants of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on an experimental basis and confessed with a smile that in 10 years, none of them have ever reached maturity. A great illustration of how the Danish climate is complex! “Let us not forget that only 12,000 years ago, there were still 3,000 meters of ice in Denmark”.

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We ended the trip with a meeting with Søren’s friend Jean Becker, former president of the Danish Vineyards Association. He explained that mutual aid between wineries is still difficult in the country, probably due to a lack of knowledge and feedback regarding viticulture at the moment.

Denmark remains to this day a newborn throughout the history of wine, with the future ahead.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Thank you to Skaersoegaard, Dyrehøj Vingaard and Kelleris Vingård for their warm welcome. And thank you to the French Embassy in Denmark and especially to Raphael Caron, for having advised and guided us in our research. Finally, thank you to Jean Becker for having accepted an interview for the Wine Explorers’ project.

(1) Danish Vineyards Association (DVA)
(2) Along with Sweden and England
(3) For more information about Samsø : http://www.euractiv.fr/sections/energie/samso-lile-100-renouvelable-et-energetiquement-independante-312971
(4) A fortified wine is a wine whose alcohol content is increased and the fermentation stopped by adding alcohol in order to retain residual sugars.