Winemaking in Scandinavia, a world away from French chateau luxe

Making wine in the Nordic countries is far from the glamour associated with Europe's famed wine chateaux: here the sun is fickle, the season is short and diehard aficionados work up more sweat than wine but climate change is helping boost harvests.

Winemaking in Scandinavia, a world away from French chateau luxe
Photo: Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP

Worlds away from the thousand-year-old vineyards of continental Europe, winemaker Murre Sofrakis inspects his vines on this late summer's day, his eyes intently focused on the ripening grapes as he strolls along.

The 51-year-old strapping Swede with craggy Mediterranean looks owns a vineyard of two hectares (nearly five acres) in Sweden's southern Skåne province, and is one of the country's biggest winemakers.

When he started out in 2001, he produced 100 litres (26 gallons) made from 17 different varieties of grapes.

“It takes time in the beginning before you find the right kinds. You have to learn how to grow (them), we don't have those traditions here,” he tells AFP.

Sofrakis now runs two properties: his own, called Klagshamn which he manages with his wife and two employees, and another one called Fladie, where he is the winegrower.

He turns out a total of 20,000 bottles a year, almost a third of Sweden's total wine production.

But that's just a drop in the bucket worldwide. In Sweden, only 100 hectares of land are used for vineyards, compared to 750,000 in France.

And the money can't compare to that made by winemakers in Bordeaux, Napa Valley or the Andes.

According to the Federation of Swedish Farmers, Swedish winemakers' average revenue in 2016 amounted to 600,000 kronor (56,000 euros).

At Fladie, Sofrakis can count on about a hundred volunteers to help him out in their free time.

On this day at the tail end of summer, two pensioners prune the vines to better expose the grapes to the sun before the harvest.

Photo: Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP

Nordic winegrowers are self-taught amateurs for the most part, but lately they've begun recruiting experts, often from abroad.

Sofrakis has hired 31-year-old Chinese oenologist Jixing Ding as his master winemaker to help him make a better product.

Nordic vineyards primarily produce a white wine made from Solaris, a German hybrid grape that holds up well in the cold Scandinavian climate, where the grapes have only a short time to ripen.

Solaris is “very easy to grow in terms of robustness to diseases. It's relatively vigorous,” University of Copenhagen professor and cold climate winegrowing expert Torben Andersen tells AFP.

Despite the difficult conditions, winegrowing is expanding in the region.

Sveneric Svensson, head of the Swedish Winegrowers' Association, says the trend is “not due to climate change, but to new types of grapes” that don't need high temperatures to ripen.

Rising temperatures have however led to better harvests.

An increase of “one degree in a century, it's helping… We see changes that make it easier and more fun,” says Andersen.

The summer of 2018 was unusually hot, yielding an exceptionally large vintage.

In Sweden, about 30 winegrowers sell their wines, and just under 100 in their southern neighbour Denmark.

Only one vineyard in the Nordic region holds the appellation d'origine protegee (AOP) — Europe's badge of quality for a special product rooted in its region: the Dons vineyard in Denmark.

While many Nordic winegrowers claim to produce organic wines, few are actually able to stick an official “organic” label on their bottles, as the administrative process is considered too painstaking and pricey.

“Everything is done by hand, we use no chemicals, we only use organically approved materials.

“In Sweden (and Denmark) it's forbidden to use copper,” which is used elsewhere to combat mildew but is increasingly controversial because of the toxicity it releases into the soil, says Sofrakis.

Nordic wines are mainly sold locally.

While Danish winemakers are allowed to sell their product at their vineyards, that is not allowed in Sweden and Finland, where state-run monopolies are the only ones allowed to sell alcohol.

So how does it taste, this wine hailing from lands more known for beer and aquavit?

“Ninety-five percent of people who taste test it (Swedish wine) blindly think it has a good bouquet and that it tastes very good,” says sommelier Mattias Safvenberg.

Meanwhile, viticulture professor Andrew Reynolds at Canada's Brock University says “the quality is already more than acceptable and will improve with time and with the introduction of other varieties.”

But Swedish wines aren't ready to take over the world just yet — contrary to the country's sommeliers, who regularly place at the top in international competitions, such as Jon Arvid Rosengren who was named the world's best sommelier in 2016.

READ ALSO: Danish Vikings 'may have made their own wine' 


Don’t worry Swedes, you can still get glögg this Christmas

One of the greatest Swedish dramas of modern times began to unfold earlier this week when reports emerged that a new EU rule change could see some drinks previously labeled as glögg stripped of their traditional title.

Don't worry Swedes, you can still get glögg this Christmas
Glögg is a drink similar to mulled wine popular in Sweden at Christmas time. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

But now the European Commission has attempted to end the confusion by releasing a statement through its Swedish branch which clarifies that the Christmas favourite will not be impacted by any rule changes.

“The basis of the reporting in recent days is said to have been an updating of an earlier rule. The update has only been done in certain areas, for among other things to do with technological developments and to guarantee a high standard of consumer protection,” the European Commission in Sweden statement says.

“That update has no effect on the definition of what is considered ‘glögg’, ‘vinglögg’, or ‘starkvinsglögg’.”

In other words, there will be no EU-enforced difference in the glögg available on shelves this Christmas. That includes fortified glögg (starkvinsglögg), which it was previously reported could no longer be sold under the name because it contained alcohol not created from grapes, such as rum or whisky.

The issue even appeared to confuse Swedish state alcohol monopoly Systembolaget, who told The Local on Tuesday:

“In order to continue to sell products which have for a long time been part of our Swedish drinking tradition, Systembolaget has broadened our ‘glögg’ section so that it also includes ‘other Christmas drinks’, for example seasoned drinks where the producer chooses to add alcohol in the form of rum or whisky.”

The head of press for the European Commission in Sweden would not comment to The Local on whether Systembolaget had misunderstood the impact of the rule change, but did say that the EU had not enforced any new rules forcing glögg makers to change the names of their products.

He also made clear that the content of all the usual variants of the popular Swedish Christmas beverage have not been altered, as The Local reported earlier this week, including those with added rum or whisky.

“Fortified glögg as it is defined in the EU rules is a wine drink that includes added alcohol. Those rules say what kind of alcohol is included in it, which is distillates of agricultural products. And agricultural products includes more than just grapes, right? So it could be distillates of apples, cherries. Or rum, which is made with sugar cane, for example,” Johan Wullt said.

“There’s no difference. The updated rules mean no change.” he confirmed.

The Local contacted Systembolaget for comment.