“They make wine in Sweden?” That was pretty much the standard response when I told friends that I was on my way to Sweden for a few days to visit a Swedish winery. I can now tell you that yes, they do make wine in Sweden, the wines were surprisingly good and what’s more, the wines I tried were reds made from the variety rondo! I was totally expecting cool climate whites to be coming from Sweden.
Sweden is probably better known for it’s knit jumpers, tall blondes and the brooding detective Wallander but they are quietly working behind the scenes on becoming recognized quality wine producers. The man behind this stealth move into the wine industry is Hakan Hansson, the owner of Hallakra Vingard, set just outside the lovely town of Malmo, in the southernmost province of Sweden, Skane.
After driving through the hay fields of southern Sweden for about half an hour, I was beginning to wonder where the vines were when a wine barrel with the words Hallakra Vingard popped into view. Yup, this had to be it. Going up the winding road, I still didn’t see any vines but thought they had to be here somewhere and the taxi driver assured me that they did make wine there. At the top of the hill we arrived at what looked like a farmhouse and 2 other buildings in the middle of the fields. The driver dropped me off and then…nothing. Hmmm, as I wandered up the path, I entered the first big building on the right. Looking in, I spied a long table with the detritus of a wine tasting (half eaten cheese, empty bottles, used wine glasses) but absolutely no one about, not even a dog, the silence was a little bit eerie. I was beginning to feel like Wallander at a crime scene when suddenly a smiling blonde woman came rambling up the path. It was Hakan’s wife, who explained to me that Hakan was finishing up a vineyard tour with a group of Swedes and would be back shortly. Phew, glad I didn’t find any bodies….
Soon after Hakan arrived with his group and after waving them off with a cheerful goodbye, he asked me if I’d like to see the vineyard. I should add that there was a small field behind the tasting room building (where I had found the left over wine tasting) and had initially assumed that that was the vineyard but Hakan explained that it was an experimental field and the real vineyards were a short walk away.
I soon remembered that we were at the top of a hill and after taking a short walk to the bottom and then another short walk up another hill, we came to a gate and beyond that rows of grapes. Finally, some proper vines. In front of me were rows and rows of very healthy looking grapevines. Hakan has planted 4 hectares of grapes consisting of mostly cool climate hybrids – rondo with the remainder being the red varieties Leon Millot and regent as well as the white variety solaris. The rondo was planted in 2003 and the first vintage was in 2008. Hakan has planted some pinot noir but it’s still in the experimental stages.
I asked Hakan how he came to be a vigneron in Sweden. He explained to me that he’s had a lifelong interest in wine and in his former life as a international banker, he would often find himself in Europe on business trips which were often close by to the best wine regions in the world. So, rather than play golf with his colleagues on their day off, he would go and knock on the doors of the local vineyards and ask if he could help out around the vines. And that is how he was first introduced to the world of winemaking.
The second thing he had going for him was the farm where he planted his vines. Originally, the farm belonged to his father and was a productive and fertile farm, all except for this one stubborn hillside which had very poor soil, composed of sand, pebbles and clay. Hmmm, not so good for farming but great for grapes. An added advantage is that the hillside is sheltered from the wind due to it’s location. When Hakan hit 50, he decided to pack in the life of the international banker and become a vineyard owner, converting part of his family farm into vine land.
And that is how Hallakra Vingard came into being.
Hakan says it’s been a hard road, he and others like him have only been going at it for about 10 years and they are the pioneers of Swedish winemaking. In his opinion, the hardest part is finding the right terroir of Sweden. To that end, he and other Swedish winemakers (there are 25 vineyards around Malmo but so far only 3 have been certified by the Swedish government to sell wine) are collaborating with the University of Lund (the biggest university in Sweden) to develop a research and development program for wine in Sweden. They have visited the various wine regions in Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Europe to learn as much as they can and use those resources for their own program. They also have a winemaking program on the cards, all of which is scheduled to start in 2013. It’s exciting times in the nascent Swedish wine industry. Hakan is very enthusiastic about it all and sees his vineyard as an experiment from which the next generation can work and learn.
After the tour round the vines we had a look at the winery. It’s tiny with a small cellar room attached. Two things caught my eye while I was touring the winery. One were rows of tall, thin unlabeled bottles. The other were the small oak barrels that Hakan had in the cellar room next to the bigger French and American oak barrels. I asked him about the small 100 litre oak barrels and Hakan explained that they were made from Swedish oak, coming from the small island of Visingso which was in the middle of Lake Vattern in northern Sweden. The oak trees were planted in the 1800’s and are just now being used to make the barrels.
Those Swedish oak barrels brought me to my second curiousity, the tall thin bottles. Hakan proudly showed me the very first Swedish dessert wine, made from the rondo grape. Hakan had the idea to make a sweet wine for the Swedish palate because Swedes don’t like very sweet wines and so he decided to make one for the home market. It’s a fortified wine, he uses a locally made wheat based spirit and uses the Swedish oak barrels to age the wine. His first vintage used the grapes from the 2010 harvest (18% alcohol) and he plans to start selling the wine in December of 2012 but only for the domestic market. He’s only made 375 bottles so it’s very doubtful we’ll see any here in the UK. It’s labeled as rondo but has 20% Leon Millot and 20% regent in the blend, all the red wines of Hallakra are made with this blend.
He asked me if I would like to be the first outside person outside of himself and his Danish winemaker Peter Bo-Jorgensen to try it. I, of course, jumped at the chance. So how was this sweet rondo? It was a deep dark, almost pitch black appearance with a nose of prunes and spices, on the palate though it was not as rich as the nose, having good acidity and some astringency to it with sweet, ripe black fruits predominating alongside spice and nutty flavours. It was sweet but not as sweet as as LBV port wine. I quite liked it, a very fresh dessert wine. I think the Swedes are quite lucky to be able to snap this up come Christmas time.
I also sampled the 2009 and the 2010 rondo wines. These two are currently available only in Sweden through the government alcohol shops. Rondo in Sweden is very different from the rondo I’ve sampled in the UK. It has a much darker appearance, almost inky and much more than opaque. They are very fresh wines with high levels of acidity but smooth and round tannins. The wines spend about 5 and a half months in barrel but no longer as they want to preserve the fruit qualities of the wine. The wines also have red and black fruit on the palate with herby, savoury notes. I can say I’ve never quite tasted wines like these. To me, they were reminiscent of the Austrian red wine St. Laurent, a very interesting tasting.
I quite liked the wines and think that Hakan is on to something in the southern fields of Sweden. At the moment his wines are only available in Sweden due to their tiny production but Hakan has plans to plant 30,000 more vines in the next two years so it might not be too far into the future before Swedish wines begin to make an appearance on our shores.
Many thanks to Visit Sweden for arranging my visit to Hallakra Vineyard and to Hakan Hansson for both the tasting and the tour of his vineyard.