Grape Expectations Flourish Below the Arctic Circle at Swedish Winery
The pine and oak forests of Sweden are a world away from the sunny European river valleys known for their great wines.
Yet Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Vidal Blanc grapes are being cultivated just 500 miles south of the Arctic Circle, in a small vineyard nestled among glacial lakes and thick woodlands.
Goran Amnegard brought a book-acquired know-how of winemaking and 1,500 grape vines with him from Canada when he returned to his home country five years ago. He planted what he thinks is the world’s northernmost commercial vineyard.
He bought an 800-acre farm of grain fields and hogs in central Sweden and, to the curiosity of his neighbors, fenced off 2.5 acres of rocky, sloping land while his Canadian vines sat in quarantine.
He cleaned out an unused 17th century barn with 5-foot-thick walls and installed gleaming metal vats and wooden kegs to hold wine.
Four seasons later he has doubled his acreage with cuttings, produces 25,000 bottles of fruit and grape wines, and makes enough money to underwrite other ventures, including the conversion of one the 12 old farmhouses on his land into an upscale restaurant -- where he intends to be the chief chef.
“I had no doubt in my mind that it was going to work,” said Amnegard, standing in the coolness of his barn beside racks of bottles. “One of my neighbors asked me why I thought I would succeed in making wine when no one else had, and I said because no one else has tried.”
Amnegard arrived at a difficult time for many small Swedish farmers. Facing mounting competition as supermarkets brought in products from elsewhere in Europe, Swedish food prices were plunging below the profitability line.
“If you are a small grain farmer, you’re having it tough right now,” said Lars Hook of the Swedish Farmers Federation, noting the country’s land area devoted to cereal grains is down 11% from last year.
Diversification became the key to survival for many farms in the central Swedish province of Sodermanland southwest of Stockholm, but apparently Amnegard was the only one who thought the climate suitable for grapes.
If the cool, rainy weather is a disadvantage, the long summer days -- even at midnight there is a soft glow on the western horizon -- hasten the grapes’ ripening, and the sharp drop in nighttime temperatures heightens the natural sugars, Amnegard says.
But he had to adapt his vineyard to the relatively inhospitable conditions of Sweden, planting his rows farther apart for greater sunlight and pruning the vines low in an umbrella shape.
Blaxsta Winery produces dessert wines from a variety of fruit -- apples, raspberries and pears -- and a plum port. But his prize winner is the 2003 Vidal Ice Wine, which grabbed a silver medal for sweet wine at this year’s Challengeduvin competition in Bordeaux, France.
Ice wine is made from grapes harvested in winter when they are frozen like marbles on the vine. Picked by hand during the night when light cannot damage them, they are quickly pressed before they thaw. The iciness of the juice concentrates the sugars and acids.
Several months of fermenting in small oak barrels yields a complex wine that is intensely sweet, aromatic and flavorful.
And not cheap. The Swedish liquor monopoly, Systembolaget, sells a 250 mm bottle -- a third the size of a normal wine bottle -- of Blaxsta Ice for 325 Swedish kronor, or $41. Amnegard’s ice wine, in elegantly shaped bottles, is even pricier in London, where he exports 30% of his production.
Ice wine, believed to have originated in Germany, is especially popular in Canada, where Amnegard went in the early 1980s as a trade commissioner at the Swedish embassy.
He left the diplomatic arena to go into private business, while also enrolling in the Culinary Art Institute of Toronto to follow an early love of cooking. His success in competitive cooking, television appearances and his businesses made him comfortable financially, but exhausted and ready to leave the big city.
He returned to Sweden after a plan to start a lobster restaurant in Nova Scotia fell through.
Amnegard hardly knew what to expect from his Swedish endeavor, but he thought the traditional wine-growing areas of Europe were relying on tired soil, overexploited for centuries, and producing a declining quality of fruit.
“At least I knew my wine wouldn’t be laughed at,” he said.