We Swedes are often the butt of well-intended humor — from Hagar the Horrible to Garrison Keillor to a horde of Ole and Lina jokes. But not long ago, I was joshed by a friend about Swedish wine. He was joking, and he was surprised to learn that there is such a thing.
I have been in Sweden a couple dozen times in the past twenty years, but Swedish wine only recently came to my attention, about four years ago in Gothenburg where I had gone for a new Volvo. It was fall, but the weather was summer-time hot. My Volvo contact at the factory said such heat had become the norm. When he was a boy, he told me, he used to walk on the ice floes in the harbor during the winter but that there had not been any ice floes in recent years. “Climate change,” he said.
I heard a similar report in one of my favorite Gothenburg restaurants along the Gote River. The owner, respecting my interest in wine, offered me a glass of Swedish wine. It was a Chasselas, made from that insipid little white wine grape spurned by most vintners but put to good use in harsh vineyards in the Rhine Valley and Switzerland. Pleasant enough but not so memorable that I can’t remember anything about it, including its name.
Just in the past few weeks, however, I have seen Swedish wine referenced and learned that some specialty retailers in Malmo (where my grandparents were born) are actually stocking it. Malmo and Gothenburg are experiencing summers a month or so longer than in the past and those who dared plant vineyards as a hobby are now able to produce marketable wines because the grapes can really ripen before the frosts arrive.
Even so, when I got the invitation not so long ago to come to Malmo to lead a wine seminar, I was asked also to bring a selection of German and French wines for the tastings. Skoal!
Whenever I walk past the stacked cases of Three Wishes or Two Buck Chuck in Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, my thoughts go back to a day in Strasbourg when Olivier Humbrecht had come to a class I had been teaching about wine appreciation. After talking about the usual things — tasting, sniffing, remembering and the differences between Riesling and Chardonnay, a student asked him how much it costs to produce a bottle of wine.
His face lit up and a stream-of-consciousness recitation started about the significance of the question. He said the public generally doesn’t know much about the business side of wine making, beginning with the capital costs of property, machinery, equipment, and real estate. That done, he said he had to know the cost of a bottle, of a cork, of labels. He and his staff keep track of costs related to storage, shipping, taxes, and labor. Grapes are a cost factor as are the costs of spraying, pruning, and harvesting. There are utility bills, shipping costs, and recognition of the profit levels expected of wholesalers and retailers.
Finally he was ale to throw out a price for a single bottle. I really don’t remember what it was, but he went on to explain that the production costs of one of his reserve vintages were not much different from those of his other wines, that a chateau wine in Bordeaux costs about the same to produce as a commodity wine by a large distributor. He admitted that a producer’s name also has worth and must also be considered.
In other words, when you get to the bottom line, you may be able to produce a bottle of wine for, let’s say, seven dollars and then consider the add-ons to reach a final price. He conceded that if a retail wine price is about $10, you should expect the quality to be less than that of a wine costing $20. However, the final price is determined, we consumers should be ever mindful of the work, labor, and cost involved in getting wine from the vineyard to our dinner table.
It’s probably unfair to say that German wines are making a comeback on American retail shelves, partly because there are those who claim they never left and partly because there are those who claim they were never widely stocked anyway.There is truth to both claims.
As one who cut his wine teeth in Germany’s Main Valley in the early 1950s and made a point of visiting German wine regions throughout the 1960s and 70s, I have a very soft place in my heart for German wines. But I admit to largely giving up on them in the 1980s even though I was still living in the Rhine Valley — partly because by then I had also (like many post-war Germans) learned a great deal about French, Italian, and Spanish wines and partly because the 1970s wine legislation in Germany had caused many producers to break with traditional grapes to produce faster ripening hybrids and because wines from region to region were starting to taste alike. German producers were telling me they had become chemists rather than wine makers. It’s also true that German producers in those days had departed from the dry styles of the early twentieth century when their estate bottlings fetched prices comparable to the great growths of Bordeaux and turned to off-dry, even sweeter styles.
In the last ten years I have driven five times throughout Germany — from north to south, east to west, — discovering a trend back to very food-friendly wines and a greater variety on restaurant wine lists. There has been a marked improvement in the German red wines from Baden over those I remembered from my days in Karlsruhe and Heidelberg. (Alas, Baden wines still are not generally available in America.) In the Rheingau I was pleased to see that Riesling is still king, still steely dry, still crisp and fruity. But, again, I am not seeing Rheingaus in our stores.
I am, however, seeing wines from the Palatinate, wines along the entire sweet-dry levels, taking their place near the Mosels, those elegant, pleasantly sweetish northerly wines that never seemed to fall out of favor with importers, and I have been bringing home some delightful Rieslings from the estate of Dr. Bassermann-Jordan which re-connect my palate with the Rheinland.
Historically, Germans en masse preferred beer to wine with their meals and used wine mostly between or around meals or at bed time. And except for those in wine regions, they turned to France when wanting a dinner wine. No more — and this domestic surge in consuming wines of their own country seems to be stimulating importers to take notice. Few consumers will deny that Riesling is one of the food friendliest of all wines.
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