The New Gastronome
Wines From Scandinavia
The Rise of the World’s Most Northern Wine Regions
by Sara Emilia Nässén
by Sara Emilia Nässén
“Don’t complain about lack of wind – learn to sail” is an old Swedish saying. Perhaps the essence of this proverb has been the lodestar for the ambitious farmers who have been growing grapes in the cool Scandinavian climate for a few decades: “don’t complain about the lack of sun, learn to grow grapes”. But not only climatic obstacles, but also cultural prejudices must be overcome to start producing wine in a part of the world more commonly associated with dense pine-forests than with rolling vineyards, and with vodka and beer rather than wine.
The concept of terroir, so loved by wine aficionados, underlines the link between the characteristics of soil and wine, what sometimes is called the ”taste of place.” In the prestigious wine area of Burgundy, this belief is strongly rooted in the folklore idea of the “génie bourguignon” – the Burgundian spirit, a vision of a spirit belonging to a place, its “genius loci”. How this spirit is being transferred to the wine in concrete terms can be discussed, but it certainly adds to the mythology of a winemaking area in an alluring way. Following this reasoning, it’s tempting to find similarities between wines and the people and culture of their origin.
Let’s play with the idea of a muscular Napa Valley Cabernet as an analogy to American individualism, an elegant Chablis reflecting French elegance and an intense Rioja alluding to a passionate Latin temperament. So, imagine a Scandinavian wine – what would its true expression be? Perhaps a bit introvert and modest? Maybe ethereal like delicate fogs dancing like elves over open fields, crispy like a cold and starry winter sky and luminous like the northern lights, aurora borealis…
Storytelling put aside, wine making in Scandinavia is not a fairy-tale but a reality to be counted on in the future. We are now talking about wine according to the regular definition, made of fermented grape juice, and not by other fruit and berries which is an older practice up north. Winemaking from grapes in Scandinavia is a small but quickly rising industry, fuelled by the last decade’s cultural and climatic changes.
“So, imagine a Scandinavian wine – what would its true expression be? Maybe ethereal like delicate fogs dancing like elves over open fields, crispy like a cold and starry winter sky and luminous like the northern lights, aurora borealis…”
Today, the possibilities within the wine world are constantly being pushed and challenged. In a world where China is considered, by many, to be the new promised land for wine production and where, for years, French winemakers have been buying up land in England to assure their future success facing climate changes, means that wine lovers need to expand their ideas about what a wine can be.
Although Vitis vinifera grapes, which are used for winemaking, grow best in temperate climates between 30-50 degrees of latitude, changes in temperature in combination with improved viticultural technique are challenging this rule. What today is considered the world’s most northern commercial vineyard is located in Lerkekåsa in Telemark, Norway. However, the best-suited areas for growing grapes in Scandinavia are located further south, in Denmark and the lower part of Sweden, Skåne, or Scania. While climatic changes are helping the production to evolve, cultural changes are nurturing the growing interest in wine in general.
The total wine consumption in Scandinavian countries has increased during the last ten years, and Sweden was to be found at the top among them with its 26 litres per capita in 2015 (compared to the European average of 23.9 litres). A big interest in travelling and discovering new food cultures is contributing to new habits, and in the major Scandinavian cities, the restaurant world is booming. Copenhagen in Denmark has become one of the gourmet capitals of Europe, attracting gastronomes from all over the world, and the curiosity for wine, especially within the natural wine niche, is flourishing.
Grapes are not a naturally growing crop in Scandinavian countries but by choosing varieties well suited for cool conditions and short growing seasons in combination with adapted practices in the vineyard, vine cultivation is today possible in some territories. The white grape Solaris and the red varieties Rondo and Regent are some of the varieties which have proven to give good results. They are all so-called ”piwi”, hybrid grapes common in Northern Europe, which have been created by crossings in order to obtain certain characteristics such as a strong resistance to frost and some grape diseases. These types of resistant grapes, sometimes called “super-bio” grapes, also allow for less intervention in the vineyard, something that harmonizes well with the interest in organic agriculture in Scandinavia.
Modern winemaking in Scandinavia is only a few decades young, however, its roots might be older. Production of wine has been traced back to the Medieval period when the North Atlantic region enjoyed a milder climate. In Denmark and Sweden, some evidence of vineyards established around Catholic monasteries has been found. But when the climate got too harsh, the viticulture was abandoned and it was not until the late 1990s that winemaking was rediscovered.
Denmark was the pioneering country due to its somewhat milder climate, and it is still the country with the largest production, with around 90 commercially active producers today. In Sweden there are no protected designations of origin for wine yet, meaning that all wines are classified as table wines and there is no distinction for quality wines. The winemaking region of Dons in Denmark, however, got designated a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) in 2018, as EU´s most northern wine appellation.
So, most importantly, what do these wines taste like? Is there such a thing as a Scandinavian wine style? Beyond folklore and poetic metaphors, the connection between taste and place for sure has some reason to it. The shorter and cooler Scandinavian growing season tends to give wines with high acidity and perhaps a bit of a harsher profile than wines from warmer countries. It’s a delicate task to produce wines in cooler regions since grapes sometimes have to be picked before they are fully ripe, at times resulting in a too low sugar content.
Although the intensity of a wine from warmer places is harder to achieve, the acidity can be an asset for the longevity and freshness of a wine. White wines made from the grape Solaris tend to have a taste of elderflower, minerals, gooseberries and green fruits. Making red wines is a more complicated story and it’s not rare for them to of sour berries, but producers are working hard on improving the sugar/acidity balance.
“The shorter and cooler Scandinavian growing season tends to give wines with high acidity and perhaps a bit of a harsher profile than wines from warmer countries.”
The future for Scandinavian wine looks promising with big enthusiasms among both, producers and consumers. But a legal limitation is still a major obstacle for producers in Sweden. Being a country with an alcohol monopoly system, Swedish wine producers cannot sell their products on their estates, differently from those in Norway where it has been allowed for a few years. So basically, you can go to visit a vineyard in Sweden, do a tasting, but you cannot bring home a bottle should you want to. This constraint has a hindering effect on the growth of small agricultural companies and producers are doing their best to carry through a change of law.
For obvious reasons, Scandinavian wines will never become the superstars of Burgundy or Tuscany. The quantity of production is still very limited, the producers are few and the work is labour intensive and costly. These wines will never have the long-established know-how and romantic appeal of the old world’s prestigious chateaus. But they might offer a new experience and become something in their own right, in a globalized wine landscape. And being a newcomer means being free from the restricting shackles of tradition, which perhaps could encourage experimentation.
When not being facilitated by the weather gods or historical reputation, a certain dose of creativity might help. You might need to learn how to sail without wind, or perhaps, in this case, with too much of it. And maybe that spirit, of doing something against all odds, represents more than anything else the taste of this place.
Some Scandinavian Wine Producers: