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The Emergence of Swedish Wine as a Prominent Contender Amid Unpredictable European Weather

Scandinavia may not align with the conventional definition of a prime wine country for connoisseurs. Nevertheless, the influence of climate change, resulting in warmer and prolonged growing seasons, coupled with the cultivation of grape varieties adapted to this evolving landscape, has propelled the Swedish winemaking industry forward.

As traditional wine-producing regions grapple with challenges posed by drought, escalating heat, and other extreme weather phenomena, Swedish winemaking is transitioning from a predominantly small-scale amateur pursuit to an industry marked by burgeoning ambition.

At the forefront of this movement is Kullabergs Vingård, a pioneering vineyard and winery aiming to redefine the potential of Swedish wine. Spanning 14 hectares, with the majority of vines planted less than a decade ago, the winery achieved an annual output exceeding 30,000 bottles by 2022. These bottles, predominantly whites, have found their way into high-end restaurants across Europe and Japan, garnering multiple international accolades.

Felix Åhrberg, a 34-year-old oenologist and winemaker leading Kullabergs Vingård since his return to Sweden in 2017, asserts, "Where vineyards in more traditional countries are suffering, we are gaining momentum." The transformative force of global warming is reshaping Europe's wine industry. Felix also declares, "This is the new frontier of winemaking, and grapes grow best on their coolest frontier."

While grapevines traditionally withstand heat and drought, the past decade, marked by the planet's hottest years on record, has intensified these challenges. Minor weather variations can significantly alter the sugar, acid, and tannin content of grapes, making once-ideal grape-growing regions more challenging.

In response, grapevines have migrated further north, with commercial vineyards emerging in Norway and Denmark, and other regions like the American West expanding into cooler zones. The United Kingdom, renowned for ales and bitter beers, anticipates doubling its vineyard area in the next decade, driven by the demand for sparkling wines.

Southern Sweden has witnessed a temperature increase of approximately 2 degrees Celsius over the past 30 years, accompanied by a lengthening of the growing season by about 20 days. The adoption of disease-resistant grape varieties, particularly Solaris, developed in Germany in 1975, has played a pivotal role in the growth of Sweden's wineries. Solaris, well-adapted to the cooler climate, allows vineyards to forego pesticides.

Emma Berto, a French oenologist at Thora Vingård, notes, "Solaris is like the national grape variety here in Sweden." Berto and her partner, Romain Chichery, emphasise combining traditional winemaking with contemporary environmental practices, such as eschewing pesticides and implementing cover crops to enhance soil quality and promote biodiversity.

The comparative advantages of Sweden include experiencing fewer extreme climate incidents and providing greater freedom for experimentation. However, adapting to cooler and damper conditions necessitates novel approaches, such as adjusting the leaf canopy to allow more sunlight to reach grapes and reduce humidity.

Maarten van Aalst, Director General of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, observes the optimism surrounding the growth of Swedish wine as indicative of the rapid changes in the world's climate.

The challenges faced by Sweden's nascent wine industry include attracting trained professionals and overcoming logistical hurdles in scaling up. Johan and Heather Öberg of Thora Vingård express a desire for Swedish universities to offer more education on winemaking and viticulture. Currently, foreign talent significantly contributes to the industry. 

Moreover, Iban Tell Sabate, hailing from the wine-growing Priorat region in Spain, underscores the problems faced by traditional wine-producing countries and praises Sweden's advantageous position with global warming.

A significant impediment to the industry's global reach is the lack of government support in Sweden. Unlike traditional wine-producing nations, wineries face strict regulations and are unable to sell directly to consumers due to the state's monopoly on alcohol sales. The hope is that as vineyards expand, government perception and support will evolve.

Despite challenges, the growth trajectory of Swedish wines remains promising, with an increasing global curiosity. Henrik Edvall, running an online shop exporting Swedish wine, notes a 10% annual sales growth. Nevertheless, challenges persist, including long wait times for consumers eager to try something new.

Göran Amnegård, who planted his first vines over 20 years ago, reflects on the transformation of Swedish wines and anticipates the emergence of more wineries as the climate continues to shift. Amidst the glacial lakes and dense woodlands, he envisions unprecedented growth, symbolised by the flourishing of fruit trees like peaches and apricots—an unimaginable sight just a few decades ago.

Closing thoughts

In the culmination of this vinicultural odyssey, the emergence of Swedish wine as a formidable contender amidst the capricious backdrop of European weather stands as a testament to the resilient spirit of viticulturists navigating the tempestuous seas of climate change. Scandinavia, once an unlikely candidate for the esteemed title of prime wine motherland, now finds itself at the epicentre of a vinous renaissance, propelled by the forces of global warming and a steadfast commitment to innovation.

The narrative of Swedish wine unfolds in the hands of passionate oenologists. Their dedication to blending tradition with contemporary environmental practices, shunning pesticides and cultivating biodiversity, paints a vivid picture of the symbiotic relationship between man and land. This juxtaposition of innovation and tradition unfolds as a poetic response to the challenges posed by cooler and damper conditions, marking Sweden's distinctiveness on the vinicultural stage. Regardless, the journey towards vinous excellence is not without its trials. The industry grapples with the task of attracting seasoned professionals and overcoming logistical impediments, while a dearth of government support hampers the global dissemination of Swedish wines

To fortify the burgeoning Swedish wine industry, concerted efforts must be directed towards fostering a supportive environment. Government intervention is crucial, necessitating the reassessment of strict regulations that impede direct sales to consumers and inhibit the industry's global reach. Simultaneously, initiatives should be undertaken to enhance educational offerings in winemaking and viticulture at Swedish universities, ensuring a sustainable pipeline of skilled professionals. In tandem, collaborative ventures between established winemakers and aspiring talents can contribute to knowledge transfer and skill development. Addressing logistical challenges, such as the import of wine barrels and equipment, is imperative for the industry's scalability. Additionally, heightened international visibility can be cultivated through strategic marketing campaigns, positioning Swedish wines as distinctive offerings in the global wine landscape. By aligning government policies, educational frameworks, and industry collaborations, Sweden can fortify its position as a prominent player in the evolving world of winemaking.

In the elegant dance between tradition and innovation, the emergence of Swedish wine stands as a resounding ode to the indomitable human spirit and its capacity to flourish amid the ever-changing rhythms of climate and culture. As Sweden's vinicultural pioneers forge ahead, they beckon the world to savour not just the fruits of their labour, but the essence of a vinous renaissance blossoming in the cool embrace of northern climes.

Read Deniz’s article about banning pesticides on winemaking: the case of Conegliano, here.


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