Sweden, from geographical necessity and by tradition, has been a part of Europe's so-called "vodka belt" - those countries that, for want of a wine culture, instead have satisfied their need for alcohol with beer and spirits.
 
  The Vikings had their mead, a fermented beverage made from honey and flavoured with spices, hops and malt, a precursor of today's beer, of which we purchased 179 million litres (starköl, strong beer, above 3.5% alcohol by volume) at state-run Systembolaget liquor stores in 2005, and probably brought home significantly more privately from trips primarily to Denmark and Germany.

 But the Viking naturally came in contact with wine on their journeys around the Mediterranean, and a few tuns undoubtedly found their way into the ballast on the trip home. (The name of Vinland, discovered by Leif Eriksson in present-day Newfoundland in the year 1000, does not refer to wine, but means roughly "swampy meadowland" in Old Norse. Our trade contacts with Germany have always been lively, particularly during the Hanseatic period (from the 13th to the 17th century), and German wine was imported early on to Sweden. But it was an expensive beverage that rarely reached beyond the circles of the court and the aristocracy. Poor folks had to make do with watery beer.
 The origins of vodka are a pet bone of contention that has enlivened many a drinking party, especially in the company of Russians and Poles. Those Scandinavians, Finns and Balts who would have something to say in the matter have been brusquely repudiated. For this is largely an issue between Poles and Russians. The word is the same in both languages -vodka, a diminutive form of the word for water. Thus, "little water". But where did it come from?

THE ART OF DESTILLATION

It all basically boils down to a question of where the art of distillation originated, and this is where the Spanish-born French alchemist Arnaud de Villeneuve gets involved. He lived between 1250 and 1314 and is usually attributed with being the first to produce spirits in the form of the distillate of wine. Not because he was first, though, but mostly because left behind written testimony of the deed.
"It deserves to be called eau-de-vie", he wrote, "as it is truly the elixir of immortality - it lengthens life, dispels ill humour, strengthens the heart and keeps one young."

Eau-de-vie, the "water of life" in Latin, acquired its direct linguistic equivalents both in "vodka" and "whisky", which was distilled from beer by monks in Ireland, perhaps as early as the 6th century. They had learned the secret art from the Orient, and the good Villeneuve had probably picked up his ideas from the Moors of Spain, where he spent the first part of his life. And even earlier, both the Egyptians, Persians, Indians and Chinese were familiar with the art of distillation. The latter also invented gunpowder, the production of which requires alcohol.

A kind of "vodka" probably found its way to the shores of the Baltic around the 11th century. Far before the times of Villeneuve, monks, apothecaries and alchemists in Poland dabbled in distillation, but their methods were primitive and, using wine as the raw material, a weak liquor resulted, whose unpleasant flavour one attempted to disguise with the admixture of herbs, berries and spices. Such additives - which make the vodka "flavoured" - are still very common in Poland and Russia, partly by tradition, partly to hide the taste of fusel oil.

Brännvin, brandywine or schnapps, was brought to Scandinavia by German merchants in the 15th century, but, in the beginning, it was only used medicinally and in the production of gunpowder. A court record from 1494 testifies to the fact that other qualities and effects of spirits were soon discovered - all distillation and sales of schnapps except for the production of gunpowder was penalised. But it would only be another four years until the first serving license was granted in Stockholm.

During the 16th century, most brännvin was distilled from wine, as the name suggests, and it was therefore too expensive for the common run of people. The stills got busier and more widespread in the 17th century, when people learned to use cheaper grain as a raw material. Swedish soldiers also brought home both manufacturing methods and drinking customs from their ravages in the southern and eastern Baltic.

It was thus in the 17th century that brännvin, flavoured or unflavoured, became Sweden's national beverage. Developments in Denmark were more or less along the same lines, although there was a greater predilection for the flavoured kind there. In 1746, the Swedish countess Eva de la Gardie developed a method for making schnapps from potatoes, but it wouldn't be until the next century that the new raw material made its breakthrough. In the 1830's, there were some twenty major stills, and it is estimated that over 100 million litres of brännvin were produced annually in Sweden - which numbered 3 million inhabitants at the time.
THE MAJOR SWEDISH SPIRIT PRODUCTS

The major Swedish spirit products are of course unflavoured schnapps, flavoured vodka and flavoured schnapps, and, of Systembolaget's regular assortment, all of 54 of the 73 articles listed are Swedish. In order to be called akvavit, the schnapps must be chiefly flavoured with dill and/or cumin, but schnapps flavoured with elderberry, bog myrtle and wormwood, Melissa, St. John's wort, ginger, wild rose and even carrot bears ample witness to imaginativeness.

SWEDISH SPECIALTIES 


But there are yet another few Swedish specialties, foremost of which is Swedish punch, which is a sweet, 26% abv liqueur made from a base of arrack. Glögg (Glühwein or mulled wine) also has a strongly Swedish profile. It does exist in some other countries, but it is nowhere as popular as in Sweden, and in December it easily tops wine sales statistics.

Both rum, from sugar beets, and whisky are produced in Sweden, but the most Swedish of all beverages must surely be the wines produced from berries and fruit throughout the country. Here, everything from cloudberries and rhubarb in the north to juniper berries, blueberries, raspberries, sea buckthorn and lingonberries farther south. A sparkling wine made from white currants has been available since 1897, and domestic sparkling wine made from imported grape must is popular.

WINE MADE IN SWEDEN 

For proper wine is made in Sweden, too, albeit mostly from hardy hybrid varieties. Wine grapes are being cultivated and planted here as never before, on the island of Öland, in the provinces of Blekinge and Bohuslän and Lord knows where else. The list of participants in the Scandinavian Wine & Spirits Competition in Paris, held for the third time in February, 2006, included 30 wine and spirits producers: 3 Finnish, 7 Norwegian, 7 Danish and 13 Swedish. Most carry on their operations abroad, but vineyards in Gotland, Skåne and Södermanland were also represented, the largest of which have all of 7 hectares of hybrid grapes.

Apple spirits, a Swedish calvados, ought to be worth a try in our long, relatively cold land otherwise, as a record-breaking cold winter can put paid to the hardiest of grape plants. It was the great good fortune of the Swedish wine makers that we had two record warm summers (2003-2003), but will the sun continue to shine on our budding wine industry?
If climate forecasts are to be believed, the future of viticulture in Sweden does however look promising. Weather patterns are shifting slowly toward the north in Europe, and, in a not too distant future, Sweden may enjoy the same conditions for viticulture as the Moselle Valley and the Rheingau do today.

GROWING DEMAND FOR WINE 


Meanwhile, Swedes continue to satisfy their steadily growing demand for wine in the global market. In 2005, Systembolaget sold 143 million litres of wine, up 3.1% from the previous year and the highest figure in the company's history. And the countries that provided us with all of this wine ranked in 2005 as follows:
(The first figure in parentheses indicates the 2004 rank. The first percentage figure is the market share for 2005. The second figure in parentheses is the corresponding share for 2004.)

1. (1) Spain 17.3% (18.0)
2. (2) Italy 16.3% (17.3)
3. (3) South Africa 14.3% (11.4)
4. (5) Australia 10.7% (10.3)
5. (4) France 10.1% (11.3)
6. (6) Chile 8% (9.4)
7. (7) U.S.A. 6.8% (6.2)
8. (8) Germany 4.6% (4.9)
9. (9) Hungary 4.1% (4.3)
10. (10) Portugal 2.4% (2.3)
11. (13) Argentina 1.6% (0.9)
12. (12) Bulgaria 1.6% (1.1)
and 13. (11) Sweden 1.2% (1.3)

Worthy of note here are that South Africa has strengthened its 3rd place by almost 3 percentage points, that Argentina has risen two places in the list and that France continues to lose ground. For white wines alone, South Africa leads the list, while Spain is still our biggest supplier of red wines.

A COUNTRY OF WINE DRINKERS

The figures also show the almost total transformation of Sweden from a "spirits country" to a country of wine drinkers. According to statistics from Vin- & Spritcentralen, the state-owned producer and distributor of alcoholic beverages, we drank 600,000 litres of wine in 1920, over half of which was from Bordeaux, 2.6 million litres of fortified wine, most of which came from Madeira, 300,000 litres of champagne - and all of 40 million litres of spirits, mostly unflavoured schnapps of the kind also known today as vodka. In  2005, sales of spirits had diminished to 18.8 million litres, while imports of wine set, as mentioned, a new record with 143 million litres.

Curiosity about new wine countries and wine regions, as well as for new flavours and new wines, made from rediscovered grape varieties or new blends of grapes, is great in Sweden, and per capita consumption, now approaching 20 litres per year, will doubtless continue to increase. Seven of ten Swedes drink wine more or less regularly. Sweden was the first country to "discover" Australia as a wine country and became its biggest customer at the end of the 1980's. The same situation seems to be developing now with South Africa. There is no doubt that Sweden has been a driving force in the development of the bag-in-box, and the question is whether we will not pioneer the use of the screwcap as well. In any case, many important wine producers today regard Sweden as a trend-setter among wine-drinking countries and are happy to test new products on us.
And the day may not be too distant when southern European wine producers, driven by climate change, invest in wine-growing land in Sweden...

©oenoforos. By Jan Samuelson.