When you think of wine-producing countries; Italy, France, Spain, the US, Argentina – with their warm climates and rolling hills of grapevines – Sweden probably doesn’t fit that image.
Overall, the Scandinavian country has a relatively mild climate. In the north of the country, temperatures can drop to -30C, and there are periods of continual darkness. In the south though, it might be a surprise to hear that you will find some winemakers – and the produce is benefiting from milder winters and longer summers, thanks – ironically – to climate change.
I’m in Europe’s most northerly wine region, Skåne County in southern Sweden, looking out over rows of young south-facing vines and enjoying a pinot noir – yes, a Scandinavian pinot noir.
Here at the Hällåkra Vineyard (hallakra.com), a stunning rural setting a short drive from the country’s third city Malmö, Hakan Hansson and his family have been growing grapes since 2003.
Mick Daly and his wife Joanna, who run the on-site restaurant, explain we’re in the youngest wine region in Scandinavia, and that Hällåkra is one of the biggest wineries in the south of Sweden, with 22,000 vines over six and a half hectares, with over 11 different grape varieties.
You may never have heard of it, but solaris – fresh and acidic, developed from five different grapes including riesling and pinot gris – is the main white produced here, and a variety they can always count on for harvest. “It’s suited to the climate and resists a lot of things when it’s damp,” says Mick. “We have to concentrate on wines that suit the region.”
Joanna adds: “The more classic grape varieties don’t always suit us.”
One classic does though: pinot noir. Hällåkra produced a natural wine called Vilde – Swedish for ‘wild’ and the tipple I’m tasting – last year. “When we get a harvest of the more classic grapes, we want to create something different from our standard wines,” Joanna says.
The challenge here is the unpredictability of the weather. “Some years are good, some not so good, 2018 was a fantastic pinot noir year. 2017 was a catastrophe for wine producers,” Mick says. 2019 was another good year, so Swedish wine is on the up.
“We don’t get the same heat, but we have more sun hours than southern Europe,” he adds.
The soil is different too – “a lot of rock and a lot of minerals” – and the industry is in its infancy, so there’s still a lot to learn about wine growing in this type of climate, with this type of soil.
But what they’re keen to emphasise, is that they aren’t trying to produce an Argentinian or New Zealand pinot noir, so it’s important not to compare the Swedish version.
As a pinor noir drinker, I can confirm it’s delicious, and yet different to the grape from more famous pinot noir regions. There’s an exclusive feel to it too – only 1,000 bottles were produced last year and it’s sold in a local Michelin-star restaurant.
Solaris, meanwhile, is only produced in these sorts of climates. “We’re not trying to recreate wine from somewhere else; it’s a Scandinavian product created to handle colder climates, but it’s fresh and has a lot of character,” Mick says. It’s fermented naturally, too.
“More and more, we are taking the step toward being a bio-dynamic production,” says Joanna.
It follows the trend in Sweden for ‘natural’ wines – i.e. wine that hasn’t had anything (or much) added or removed during the production process. “There are restaurants that won’t even buy non-natural wines,” she adds.
“Hakan always ferments his wines completely dry and doesn’t add anything, to let the season speak for itself. Hence, you can taste and smell the difference in each vintage.”
As well as other reds (like rondo) and whites, the vineyard also produces a sparkling (smällglim), orange, rose and sweet wine (cervi). But the varying weather means it’s not always possible to produce them all.
There has been another small obstacle though, namely that not all Swedish people are fully on board with Swedish wine yet (much of the wine is exported). But the couple say the the tide is changing, as the quality of the local products can now compete with international ones.
“It was never a problem for people to drink one glass, but they wouldn’t get a second,” says Joanna. “Now people are buying a bottle.”
In addition, Sweden’s strict alcohol laws mean vineyards aren’t actually allowed to sell bottles of their wine to take away from site (but you can sample the wine alongside the excellent food at Hällåkra) and instead, have to supply restaurants, the national alcohol retail monopoly Systembolaget, or export it.
At the moment, Swedish wine isn’t stocked in UK supermarkets or major wine shops (or at least, it’s not easy to find) but that may not be the case for long. In the meantime, there’s always a trip to the beautiful Skåne.