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.

Canada, a land of great wines to discover urgently…

This is a country that I was waiting to visit with some impatience!
Canada has always fascinated me; its culture, its size, its landscapes, the hospitality of its people. And I must say that I wasn’t the only one stamping impatiently : Ludovic, my faithful traveling sidekick, was born in Pointe-Claire (in the province of Quebec) and spent the first eight years of his life in the Montreal suburb. These formative years was a part of his life which Ludo was eager to share with me. Especially because two of his three sisters live there today! A family story.

Painted Rock - British Columbia

Painted Rock – British Columbia


For any wine lover, Canada is essentially synonymous with ice wine… but not only that! From east to west the whole country has shown that it is also a land of great dry wines, as evidenced by the whites of Quebec and the reds of Ontario and British Columbia. En route to a 3-week trip to the land of loggers and maple syrup, which took us from discoveries to nice surprises and from wine encounters to strong friendships.

Quebec, a boutique vineyard that plays in the big leagues

Do you know the wines of Quebec and its fantastic people?

Vignoble de la Chapelle Ste Agnès - Quebec

Vignoble de la Chapelle Ste Agnès – Quebec


Quebec represents 125 producers in an area of 234 hectares of vineyards and some 2 million bottles sold each year. Among them, 73 farmers came together with a shared passion to grow and spread this industry which is said to be refined from vintage to vintage, through the Association des vignerons du Québec (AVQ), established in 1987. And every winemaker welcomes you with open arms. “Here, you are all at home”,  Jean Joly, the owner of Vignoble du Marathonien loved to point out.

The enthusiasm for wine in Quebec goes far beyond the vineyard : it is a passion, a real pride, almost a patriotic enthusiasm. From the Institute of Tourism and Hospitality of Quebec (ITHQ), where we had the pleasure to present the project to student sommeliers , to the very friendly Harvest Festival of Magog(1), to the Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ)(2), through which we had the pleasure of visiting a wine shop, and all the local Media – such as the TVA information channel, which wanted to interview two French globetrotters – they all celebrate Quebec wine with contagious enthusiasm. And we got the virus!

Les Pervenches - Quebec

Les Pervenches – Quebec


Quebec wine is about ice wine, but not only that…

Although it is native from Europe (late 18th century in Austria and Germany), the largest ice wine production in the world is found in Canada(3) – particularly in Ontario. The climate is suitable for production since the grapes for making ice wine are ideally harvested between -8 ° C and -12 ° C (beyond this temperature the sugar crystallizes due to the cold and the juice no longer flows).
The principle is simple: after the fall of the leaves, grapes – mainly Vidal(4) ; sometimes Seyval Blanc(5) – are waiting for the arrival of frost. When sufficient frost is announced (below 7 ° C) the harvest can take place, between late December and late February, often at night and in nets to avoid losses. The production of this precious nectar is so small that each berry counts!

Vignoble du Marathonien - Quebec

Vignoble du Marathonien – Quebec


In Quebec the method is somewhat different from the rest of the country: the grapes are harvested normally and then suspended in nets until the arrival of  frost. This method – which raises (ethical) debates between Ontario and Quebec … – doesn’t change the taste of the final wine and even produce some of the finest sweet wines in the world.

Evidence for this statement was provided with these five wines which we had the chance to taste: Vignoble du Marathonien (2009), Vignoble de l’Orpailleur (2011), Vignoble de la Chapelle Ste Agnès (2010), Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoises (2012) and Domaine de Lavoie (2012).

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Aromas of delicious candied fruit and great balance between high levels of sugar and high acidity offer spectacular wines which are a pure delight for the senses…

But it seems that the future of Quebec lies also in the production of other wines. Because as rightly pointed out by Charles-Henri de Coussergues – pioneer of modern winemaking in Quebec and owner of the Vignoble de l’Orpailleur : “the problem here is the harshness of winter, we have to do in 7-8 months what is done in France in 12 months. And as the grapes maturation cycles are shorter, it is the white grape varieties that give the best results”. It is often even necessary to cover the vines during winter using geotextiles to prevent it from perishing – expensive and time-consuming work.

Japanese beetles

Japanese beetles


We’ve found a few nuggets for you:
Saint-Pépin 2013 from Château de Cartes, a surprising dry white – its owner, Stéphane Lamarre, roast the seeds of this unusual vine(6) before adding them to the tank, “to raise the wine with a nutty taste”. ($20)
Le Couchant 2013 from Les Pervenches, this very tasty 100% Chardonnay vintage demonstrates brilliantly that well mastered vitis vinifera can adapt to this harsh climate. ($32)
Vendanges Tardives 2012 from Vignoble du Marathonien, another great sweet wine, 100% Vidal, which reminded me on the nose of the parfume of quince pate of my childhood ; with aromas of dried fruit and candied apricot on the palate. ($28 for 500ml)
Paille from Clos Saragnat, a nonconformist wine, like its producer, Christian Barthomeuf, a talented winemaker who married Vidal and Geisenheim(7) in a single cuvée aged two years on the lees… an incredible wine with notes of pastry and a velvet mouth.
-and a red wine that is to be highlighted…the Haute-Combe 2012 from Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoises : an unfiltered blend of Gamay, De Chaunac(8) et Chelois(9). A crisp wine, fresh and delicious. ($18)

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And then there are the Quebec ciders… Gastronomic ciders, delicate, with great finesse, like the ice and fire ciders(10) from Union LibreNot to mention the beautiful whites from Léon Courville (Domaine Les Brome) and the bubbles of Jean Paul Scieur (Le Cep d’Argent) that we enjoyed at our conference at the ITHQ.
Go ahead and buy! These productions are small, even confidential. And vine predators such as raccoons, Japanese beetles, deer or bears, love grapes and can also wreak havoc.

Ontario, Canadian Giant

With 6900 hectares of vineyards, a production of 23.4 million liters and a total turnover of 395 million Canadian dollars in 2014(11), Ontario is by far the largest and best-known wine region of Canada. We decided to focus our visits around Niagara-on-the-Lake, a promising area located an hour and a half East of Toronto. Next time we are going to Prince Edward County (further North) : another great place for wine.

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We went to the city of St. Catharines, where we were expected at Henry of Pelham winery. We were received with a glass of sparkling wine (please!) : perfect – since we were celebrating visiting our 100th winery of the project. Cheers! Their Catharine Rosé BrutNV cuvée (70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay) is delicious and full of freshness. We enjoyed the moment with Paul Speck, the president of the family estate. The estate consist of 120 hectares cultivated mainly with international varieties, including Baco Noir(12), a forgotten grape variety which gives interesting wines with hints of blackberry, plum and spices, like the Reserve Baco Noir 2011 from the winery ($25). And best of all, Baco Noir is one of the varieties richest  in resvératrolle in the world. Resvera… what? You know, that famous polyphenol with beneficial health effects. More reason to love it.

Henry of Pelham - Ontario

Henry of Pelham – Ontario


Then we did a quick detour to visit two of the biggest producers in the country, to see a little more closely what these Canadian giants look like: Jackson-Triggs, with 800,000 cases produced annually and Inniskillin, one of the leading ice wine producers, which surprised us with its incredible Asian attendance: full buses of Japanese, Chinese and Koreans who come here to drink sweet wines and then leave the place with dozens of bags and gift boxes under the arms. There is a future for ice wine in Asia, it is a certainty.

We ended our journey at Ontario Lailey Vineyard, one of the (very) few estates in the country to use Canadian oak barrels for aging its wines. The barrels come from the Canadian Oak Cooperage in Ontario, the  last cooperage factory in the country.

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Derek Barnett, the winemaker of the domain, offered us a beautiful and educational comparative tasting of three wines – Chardonnay 2012, Pinot Noir 2010 and Syrah 2012 – to understand the nuances of ageing in Canadian barrels on one side and ageing in French oak barrels on the other side. With hindsight, it seems that the Canadian oak is more discreet aromatically, with very subtle tannins and wines that need more time to open. This is an interesting contribution to the ageing process which clearly highlight the fruitiness of the wine.

On the way back we stopped at the Niagara Falls.  I have conjured up such a picturesque postcard of this place in my imagination… In reality it was a shock to see so much beauty transformed into a tourist attraction park with a clearly stated goal: to make profit detrimental to this wild beauty.

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I stood there to meditate facing these huge waterfalls  cascading into the lake in an endless roar, speechless in front of this gift of nature.

British Columbia, a wine region not to underestimate

True to the image of Canada and to our delight, British Columbia is extremely dynamic when it comes to promoting its wines. Our first step in the province brought us to Vancouver, at the time of the “Colour BC VQA Fall Release“ event, which the British Columbia Wine Institute warmly invited us to attend. It was a great opportunity to meet many producers and to discover their wines. We learned for example that the province has 215 domains in five sub-regions: Vancouver Island, Fraser Valley, Similkameen Valley, Gulf Islands and Okanagan Valley.

Osyoos Larose - British Columbia

Osyoos Larose – British Columbia


It was in the latter sub-region that we were expected at the Osyoos Larose winery. After eight hours by bus up the mountain we arrived in a small corner of paradise: the Okanagan Valley. Nature, lakes, mountains… an idyllic and ideal place for making great wines. We visited the vineyards on quadbikes in the company of the managers, Julie Rapet & Mathieu Mercier, a young couple of French winemakers. We traveled through the rows of vines and we tasted randomly selected grapes to control maturities: harvest was only a few days away! The grapes tasted delicious and  on our way back we met some malicious black-tailed deers eyeing the grapes with lust. Upon returning from our walk we tasted the wines. The Grand Vin 2010, a Bordeaux blend (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc and Malbec) aged for 18 months in barrel was impressive.

The next day we left for Painted Rock, a vineyard nestled on a ledge at the side of the Skaha Lake, worthy of a postcard. Each plot is treated with great care. We improvised a tough climb up the mountain that overlooks the vineyard along with Tyson Archer, the manager, to gain height and better understand the implementation and sunshine of the domain. Having sweated profusely, we finally arrived at the top. What a scenery…

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We toasted to the beauty of the place with the flagship wine of the house, the Red Icon 2012 ($55), another high class Bordeaux-blend. In the evening we dined with Tyson and his companion. He cooked on the grill a wild salmon with a red flesh as we never saw before. So tasty ! The turntable in the lounge playing a frenzied jazz tune. Time just stopped.

We ended our stay at the domain Le Vieux Pin, experts in the art of making Syrah (and northern Rhone varietals in general – Condrieu, Marsanne and Rousanne). Their Equinoxe Syrah 2011 ($85) is divine.  It has hints of violets and black pepper and reminded me of how delicate Syrah can be.

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Canada has made us dream and wine-growing potential is definitely there. And although the country is still a (very) small producer of wine on a global scale, we must not forget that with 4.5 million hectoliters drunk in 2012(13) Canadians are at the gates of the top 10 wine-consuming countries in the world. Canada is not only a country of great wines – both dry and sweet – but also a land of connoisseurs.
Witness the spectacular selection offered by the SAQ cellars in Quebec, home to the largest selection of wine and spirits in the world, with over 20,000 references in their catalog.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA


Thank you to all winemakers, journalists, agents and friends who have received us during our stay; and a special thought to Annabelle and Elodie Pollet and the Chevrier family for hosting two itinerant travelers.

NB : Nova Scotia & the other Atlantic Provinces will be done next time we come back. They also produce great wines that deserve a lot of attention.

 

(1) For more information: Harvest Festival of Magog (Quebec), each beginning of September; a major event initiated by Jean-Paul Scieur, owner of Le Cep d’Argent.
(2) SAQ: the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) is a Crown corporation created in 1921 and has a mandate to trade in alcoholic beverages throughout the territory of Quebec.
(3) Since 2013 Canada owns the words “vin de glace” and “ice wine”.
(4) The Vidal is a white hybrid grape, crossing of Trebbiano and Rayon d’Or (Seibel 4986), created in 1930 by Jean Louis Vidal and very resistant to cold.
(5) The Seyval is a cross of Seibel 5656 x Seibel 4986. The grape is allowed in many departments in France, as well as in Britain, Canada and the United States.
(6) Saint-Pépin is a white hybrid grape variety of Elmer Swenson 114 and Seyval and able to withstand temperatures up to -32 ° C.
(7) Geisenheim is best known as the Rondo. This hybrid grape of Czech origin is a black grape crossing of Zarya Severa x St. Laurent completed in 1964.
(8) De Chaunac is a red hybrid, derived from Seibel 5163 * Seibel 793 and most often used in blends. It is found in Canada, the United States (New York) and France (Ardèche).
(9) Chelois is a black French hybrid, crossing of varieties Seibel 5163 x Seibel 5593. In 1955, the Chelois covered 906 hectares in France. Today there are only a few strains. It is authorized in the United States (New York, 63 hectares) and Canada.
(10) Fire cider is obtained by the fermentation of apple juice that has only heat, reaching a concentration of sugar before fermentation is at least 28 ° Brix and an actual alcoholic strength of more than 9%.
(11)  Source : Wine Country Ontario
 (12) Baco Noir is a French hybrid grown primarily in Canada (since its early maturity) and the United States. Not to be confused with his cousin the white Baco : a little more than 2,100 hectares are cultivated in France for the production of Armagnac.
(13) OIV 2013 (projection).