Talking Swedish Wine With Sweden’s Winemaking Maestro

If you played a word association game it’s not often that you’d place the words ‘Swedish’ and ‘wine’ together, but that’s all about to change.

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

In recent years, Swedish wine has begun to attract global attention and Ästad Vingård, one of Sweden’s largest vineyards, increasingly crops up in the conversation.

Ästad’s chief winemaker Claes Bartoldsson has committed the last eleven years of his career to drinking up everything he can about the craft. It’s taken a number of years to reach where he is today, not unlike the aging process for the vineyard’s signature sparkling wine.

“This is the wine we grow for, and make all the decisions with the harvest for it. Everything we do in the winery is to make this wine as good as possible,” Claes says.

Made from the free-run juice - in other words, the juice that runs freely from the harvested grapes before they are pressed - in Claes’s opinion, Ästad Vingård’s sparkling wine has the potential to be a truly world-class wine. What’s paramount to the final product, he says, is the quality of the grapes.

“The key is to find the best grapes of the year, then we put around 700kg in the press. We don’t use the first 20-30 litres because it’s mostly dirt but the juice that comes out after that is almost clear - it’s light yellowish and very brilliant in colour. From 700kg, we might get 150 litres of this juice that is homogeneous throughout that press segment. It has a very low pH and is super sour with plenty of acidity.”

Claes explains that the juice is very low in aromatics because aroma compounds are present in the skin, and the juice they use is pressed from the pulp. Once pressed, the juice is pumped into its own tank and left to settle overnight before the fermentation begins. Around 25 percent of the juice is fermented in old oak barrels, 25 percent in new oak barrels, and the rest in steel.

“What that does is give the wine some structure and mouthfeel, it gives it more width. The grape juice itself from this segment is so delicate, so elegant, and so acidic. We give it just as little touch of wood during the fermentation, then we seal it and blend it. So it’s still dry and delicate with a touch of toasted flavour from the new oak, and some from the older oak. It’s very different if you ferment in steel or oak, even if it doesn’t give the flavour because it’s old oak, it still gives it a mouthfeel that’s a little bit more round and broad. It gives it more depth, and a bit of complexity, not just the fruit flavours you get if you ferment it in just steel.”

The wine is then left to rest for around nine months, just long enough for it to mature and develop a rounder flavour. Yeast, along with 24g of sugar, is added before the wine is bottled for a second time, as per the traditional Champagne method. The wine is then laid to rest for five to ten years.

“Everything happens in the bottle. We start with a very neutral and elegant juice. Wine is built with time and not much more. It’s time and yeast that makes the wine.”

Finding their footing

First planted in 2010, Ästad Vingård is a young but fast evolving winery run by a talented team of expert winemakers. Even so, a great wine isn’t made overnight and Claes admits that it took eight years for him to finally feel they had landed upon their signature style.

“To be honest, the first vintage where we really hit our style was the warm summer of 2018. Not so much because of the weather, but because of everything we’d learned up until then. Before that we did malolactic fermentation on all the wines, which weakens the acidity. We’re not doing that anymore because we think it takes away the electricity and gives the acidity a much flatter expression. It works fine in the beginning but it doesn’t give our wines the ability to age as well.”

Ceasing the malolactic fermentation helps Claes to retain the acidity that he particularly favours in the wine. There are some winemakers, he says, who are not as fond of acidity as he is; however, in his opinion it’s the backbone of Swedish winemaking.

“You can’t live in Sweden, in one of the world’s northernmost wine regions, and have a wine that’s not acidic. It would be wrong! For us, the style is to make minimalistic, very elegant wines that are still complex with great depth and acidity. That, for me, is Swedish wine.”

“Everything happens in the bottle. We start with a very neutral and elegant juice. Wine is built with time and not much more. It’s time and yeast that makes the wine.”

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.