‘People think Swedish wine is a gimmick’

Eleven years ago, Claes Bartoldsson swapped woodwork for winemaking. Today, he steers the team at Ästad Vingård, one of the world’s northernmost wineries.

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

If there’s one fact even total wine novices know, it’s that most wine is made from grapes. The vines on which wine grapes grow typically thrive in temperate climates, allowing long periods for the vines to flower, fruit set, and ripen. While a period of winter dormancy plays an important role in the grapevine growth cycle, grape horticulture isn’t traditionally suited to long, frigid winters.

With that in mind, you wouldn’t expect Sweden to be an up-and-coming viniculture hotspot. You’d be mistaken. No longer just a curiosity, Swedish wine is attracting worldwide attention with full-production vineyards - such as Ästad Vingård in Halland - blossoming across the lower half of the country.

“People are becoming more aware of Swedish wine,” believes Ästad’s chief winemaker Claes Bartoldsson. “We’ve seen a change in just the last three years or so, but there’s still a long way to go. Those of us in the Swedish wine industry need to educate people and the wine itself needs to be more easily attainable.”

While elsewhere in the world, in countries from Georgia to China, wine production has been in full swing for upwards of 8000 years, winemaking in Sweden is still very much in its infancy. It was only in the late 1990s that wine began to be commercially produced from grapes grown in Sweden. And so needless to say it was a bold move when, in 2010, Daniel Carlsson - one of three siblings who inherited Ästad Vingård - set out to rejuvenate what was then an organic-milk-farm-cum-conference-hotel by transforming it into a winery.

At the time, Claes was working at the farm as a carpenter and he and Daniel often carpooled to work together. They would spend the journey discussing the future of the farm and brainstorming ways to breathe new life into the business. A distillery was one possibility they considered, as more and more artisanal spirit producers were cropping up across the country. Keen to separate themselves from the crowd - and recalling a segment he’d seen on television about growing grapes in Sweden - Daniel decided they’d try their hands at winemaking.

Recognising Claes’ potential, Daniel brought him on in a new capacity and together they set out to learn everything they could about wine production. They reached out to contacts in the Swedish wine industry - which in 2010 was less of an industry and more of a small but passionate community - and the following spring they planted 15,000 vines on four hectares of land.

“I said ‘If you give me a chance, I’ll do it’,” recalls Claes. “I’ve been a winemaker at Ästad ever since. We’ve gathered a lot of expertise over the years and worked for three years with a German oenologist just to learn how to make wine. Most people in the industry want to travel and do harvests at different vineyards. No-one stays for a long time — but we decided to get that knowledge in-house and keep it here. So I’m the one who gets loaded with all the information.”

Picking the perfect grape

Naturally, the first major challenge was finding a grape that would not just survive but thrive in Sweden’s cool climate. Making wine is not that hard, says Claes, but growing grapes in one of the world’s northernmost vineyards is, inevitably, quite tricky. Spring frost is not uncommon and even June can see chilly days and nights, conditions which are not desirable for growing what is essentially a Mediterranean plant.

The solution was solaris, a hybrid white wine variety adapted for northern latitudes and grown mainly in Germany where it was developed in 1975. While not immune to fungal diseases, it is resistant and so doesn’t require pesticides which can damage the soil. Solaris produces high must weights (the amount of sugar in grape juice) and ripens earlier than almost any other wine grape, an attractive combination for growers looking to ensure an abundant harvest.

“We looked into quite a lot of grapes and were very close to planting four different varieties. We’re so happy we didn’t. We’re on the edge of where we can mature solaris and get the quantity we need more or less every other year. The growing season is shorter than the classic varietals but it also produces good quality wine. We can make different sorts of wine from it, all the way from sweet wines to what we make: sparkling, very elegant, very linear wine.”

If anything, Claes says, the local climate has proved optimal for growing solaris. On his travels to other regions where the grape is commonly grown, he’s noticed a different quality to the wine stemming from issues with the grape’s acidity and its short season — factors which have proved surprisingly advantageous for Claes and the team at Ästad.

“The grapes always have a nice acidity which we can play around with to make very fresh, elegant wines with a grape that tends to be more aromatic and have problems with acidity if you place it anywhere else in the world. So the grape together with the place is a good match.”

‘People are very pleasantly surprised’

Made according to the Champagne method, it takes between 3-10 years from the harvest for Ästad’s sparkling wines to be ready. At present, Claes and his team of winemakers are making three different sparkling wines and one still white to serve exclusively at tastings and in the two on-site restaurants.

The quality is always great, says Claes, but one thing you can’t control is the yield. Depending on the weather, any given year the same number of vines could produce anything from 500 to 12,500 bottles. With the amount currently planted across the winery’s two vineyards (the second of which is a coastal vineyard the company purchased in 2018), they could end up with between 25,000-30,000 bottles.

It’s still very much a boutique-sized winery, but as awareness of Swedish wine grows so do the bookings. People are pleasantly surprised when they taste the wines, Claes says, often having started out with low expectations.

“We try to be very specific when we do the wine tastings, and to teach people how to make wine and what the difference is between different kinds of wine. A lot of the time, guests come out of the tasting and think our wine is the best, which surprised them as they thought it would be a gimmick!”

The team at Ästad Vingård continue to prove their wine is anything but a gimmick - but their journey is far from over. Claes continuously seeks knowledge; he is considering undertaking a degree in oenology and twice a year meets with a consultant oenologist. Over the past decade, the knowledgeable in-house team - with Claes ever present at the helm - has refined an impressive technical base but there’s more to winemaking than going through the motions, he says. To make a truly great wine, creative flair and big picture thinking is essential.

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

“You need to be knowledgeable, but you have to be creative. There are 100 way to do each step, and you need to see the whole picture. Not in a technical way, but in terms of how the wine will taste. If you make a product that’s too technical, that’s the difference between a bulk wine and a great wine.”