Spotlight: Stockholm

I have only ever visited Sweden in the winter. This was not intentional, but I’m thankful for it because, in retrospect, I feel as though I glimpsed the country’s true and naked form. Stockholm is a majestic city of waterways, bridges, grand stone buildings, and cobblestone streets. Though any number of European capitals might fit that description, Stockholm stands apart, both for the austerity of its surroundings and the severity of its climate. Located roughly one-third of the way up Sweden’s eastern coast, Stockholm occupies an archipelago between a stark Scandinavian landscape and the expansive Baltic Sea. It is the most populous Nordic city, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that in winter. The long dark nights and bitter wind keep residents off the streets. They shuffle rapidly between work, home, and play but rarely linger long out of doors. In this way, the avenues and edifices take on the appearance of a boneyard, all the blood and the heat confined to the marrow.

On such a day, entering one of Stockholm’s popular restaurants or wine bars feels like accessing an artery. Suddenly, you are surrounded by an excess of pulsing life, raging in delirious defiance of the dark and the cold outside. The Swedes are notorious carousers. While that can be a problem from a national health standpoint, it often makes for an excellent party. Beer and schnapps have long been the national beverages of choice, but wine is becoming increasingly important. On hand to guide a population new to the delights of the fermented grape is a rising class of extremely enthusiastic and capable sommeliers. I checked in with a few of them to discuss the development and maturation of the Swedish wine and restaurant scene.

, GuildSomm Senior Staff Writer

Featured here are Klas Ljungquist, Proprietor of AG and Rolfs Kök; Erin Stockton, Importer/Sommelier at The Flying Elk (originally from the California Bay Area); Totte Steneby, Sommelier at Portal; Anna Rönngren, Head Sommelier at Frantzén and Guest Lecturer at the Restaurangakademien, Manager/Wine Director of Oaxen Krog; and , Owner of Pompette Imports.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Compiled by Kelli White.

How does the Stockholm restaurant scene compare to other big cities, in both Scandinavia and the world?

Klas: Traditionally, Stockholm has been a Friday-and-Saturday kind of city. But in the last 10 to 15 years, things have really shifted toward a more continental way of eating. Right now, I’d say that Stockholm would measure up quality-wise against just about any other city in the world.

Stockholm still has a lot of focus on traditional wine regions: the USA, Australia, and South Africa—but mainly [wines] from rather big producers and from well-known areas. Italy and Spain are dominating the lower price ranges, and France is still where we tend to look for the high-end wines. The so-called natural wines are moving in on the restaurant scene, but more in the way that some restaurants have a fully “natural” list. This makes Stockholm fall somewhere between Copenhagen (very natural) and Oslo (very Old World classical).

Erin: A huge percentage of people have just begun to incorporate wines into their lives. There is, of course, a very small percentage of Stockholmers who have been drinking the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux for most of their lives. There are pretty high taxes on alcohol, so wine is expensive. There is a certain willingness to pay for fine wine on one hand, but on the other hand, the Monopoly has its highest sales in boxed wine.

Anna: I really think that the restaurant scene in Stockholm is one of the best. There are so many different types of restaurants that serve amazing food and give much care to the beverage selections. I could eat out any day of the week and choose from a wide range of starred restaurants, cozy wine bars, and easy-going bistros.

Fredrik: The restaurant scene in Sweden is very alive and constantly changing. Swedes are a very close people, and they always want to learn and develop themselves. Many restaurants work with local produce and modern techniques. Many restaurants are investing heavily in their wine programs, and there always seem to be new wine bars.

Robert: In the last 10 years, a lot has happened in Stockholm, and we now have a strong restaurant scene compared to the rest of the world. In Scandinavia, Copenhagen is still number one in the north, but I think we [are] slowly starting to come close.

Explain the Monopoly system. Does it restrict your buying? Are there any advantages to it?

Klas: The sole purpose is to restrict the alcohol consumption in Sweden. You can’t buy anything cold, no off hours, and it’s closed on Sundays. There is one big advantage for restaurants: there’s no trading in Sweden with current release wines. One importer has the whole Swedish market for his producers. The world’s most exclusive wines are cheap in Sweden, if they are represented. Systembolaget doesn’t allow big markups; they will add 19% to the importer’s price. La Tache 2014 would be approximately $1,200 (USD), and Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet 2014 is $480 (USD), for example. Since there are no wine shops, you either buy from the importer or you don’t.

Erin: The Monopoly puts feelers out for specific wines that people are looking for, and they add all the details it should contain. As an example: if they were looking for a Rioja, they might say that it must be exactly a certain alcohol percent; it must exhibit notes of coconut, dill, and tamarind fruit. Then, all the importers submit their possible wines to a blind tasting where the judges will blindly select the most similar wine for the description. For the wine enthusiasts, the problem then becomes that they have no exposure to the new projects happening in Rioja that are, maybe, striving for more elegance. Small producers are usually not compatible with the Swedish market because they can’t supply quantity at low prices.

They do release wines on “Small Sortiment." This is when they buy usually a smaller amount of wine to just highlight online or in a couple of the stores that are in more wine-interested areas. And you can find great wines on those shelves for great prices. Something many sommeliers forget is that the Monopoly has the highest approval ratings out of any governmental organization, so even though the wine geeks tend to distain it, there is merit.

Totte: The Monopoly is a retail monopoly only. They don’t do any import of their own but buy from importers in Sweden, just like any restaurant.

Anna: The Monopoly means that private consumers can only buy wine through the retail store Systembolaget and at restaurants. For me as a sommelier, it means that I can only buy wine through Swedish importers. It does restrict my buying in the sense that all the wines in the world are not available in Sweden, and hence I can’t buy them. For the private consumer, there is the advantage that even if you live in a small town, you have the same assortment of wines as we have in the bigger cities, since Systembolaget offers the same beverage selection in all of Sweden.

Robert: Systembolaget is a Monopoly on alcohol in the private market, and its purpose is to ensure that we don’t drink too much. That was a big problem in our history! For the restaurant market, it’s different, as we buy wine from importers, and they don’t have to go through the Monopoly. So, it’s two totally different markets!

There are not any advantages with the Monopoly, and the range of wines is sad, with a lot of bag-in-boxes, cheaply designed wine, etc. You can find really good value on some smaller exclusive releases at the Monopoly, but good “everyday” wine is hard to find.

What are the advantages and disadvantages to running a beverage program in Stockholm?

Klas: Sweden’s taxation on alcohol is very challenging for any beverage program. An advantage is that we get rather healthy allocations per interested restaurant. There’s still not that many extensive wine programs in Sweden, compared to the total number of restaurants.

Erin: Wine is expensive, as is the cost of running a business. It’s expensive to employ people, but at least we have better working conditions. Everyone is entitled to five weeks of vacation. That is unheard of in San Francisco [where I used to work], and it is so important for us in the service industry.

There is a very special opportunity for lists in the city to represent fine, unique, artisanal wine because it is so difficult to buy through the Monopoly. It is illegal to bring wine to a restaurant for corkage as well, which offers another huge advantage for beverage programs.

Totte: The average guest is spending more, and [guests] are more interested in what they’re drinking. Despite being the fastest growing capital in [the] EU, with a really strong economy, we don’t see the same type of splurging you do in NY, London, or Paris. The thrill of scarcity is often overruled by the thrill of bargains.

Anna: The disadvantage is that buying alcohol is heavily regulated by the state, and I’m only allowed to source wine through Swedish importers, which of course limits my possibilities. The advantage is that there are so many lovely importers that give me the opportunity to buy wines from all over the world, in any style possible. We have over 800 importers in Sweden.

Fredrik: We Swedish are very curious and want to constantly find new, interesting wines. The downside is that we are a small country and are often displaced when it comes to big allocations.

Robert: The advantage is that Sweden is not a wine-producing country (yes, we are making some wine, but nothing to talk about) and that we can just pick what we think is the best from around the world.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Stockholm restaurant and wine scene?

Klas: We need to get more of our customers bitten by the wine bug. Swedes are generally a bit careful with what they don’t master. We don’t want anything too fancy, since we are not sure that we would appreciate or even recognize the difference in quality. Too many restaurants are playing it a bit too safe. They don’t develop their beverage programs to the full extent, because they don’t think there’s the demand. That is only partially true. Rolfs Kök used to be a restaurant that sold more beer then wine. But sending employees to sommelier school and actively working with the wine list has over the years changed that to 90/10 in favor of wine.

Erin: I think we can do better [with mentorship] in Sweden. Those of us that have been in the business for some years now have the obligation to encourage those with budding interests in wine. The education systems in place are wonderful, but only by being open and connected will we create more confidence in the younger community.

Totte: Strengths are the broad variety of wines available and different types of venues to consume them in. Weaknesses, I think, are the sommeliers. We could have a much greater sommelier community than what we have, and being a good sommelier hasn’t really paid off at the restaurants that employ sommeliers. There are very few benefits for a sommelier that has the ambition to rise above the rest.

Anna: Since we are not a wine-producing country, we are not bound by tradition. We are open and interested in always trying new things and new regions, which is a fun position for a sommelier. The disadvantage are the price points—it’s fairly expensive to wine and dine in Stockholm.

Robert: One weakness is that too few restaurants focus on buying wine to keep in the cellar, so it’s hard to find mature wines that are not super expensive. I hope that will change and restaurant owners will start to realize that it’s always good to buy “too much” wine.

What are the most exciting beverage trends hitting Stockholm now?

Erin: I think that classic wines will always be loved in Stockholm. Natural wine started maybe five years ago, which received a lot of attention and planted the wine bug in a lot of young people. But the pendulum is swinging back. People are asking for clean but artisanal wines. California wines have been a huge hit here, which I personally find very exciting. Traditional wine regions that never were considered classics are also picking up speed. Places like Tokaj, Galicia, Campania, [and] Greece are finding their way onto lists and blogger recommendations.

Of course, Burgundy will always be at the top and will always be trending.

Anna: Wines from the Jura and natural wines from Australia seem very hot right now. Before that, it was Beaujolais and Loire. I love the fact that each wine region gets the attention they deserve, and you can find pretty much every small and obscure region represented somewhere in the city.

Fredrik: The latest trend in Sweden has been so-called natural wines, but this is now beginning to disappear and more traditional wines are starting to take over the market again. There has also been a trend of micro-breweries of beer that have now been established. Another trend is that many sommeliers are starting to work with their own imports to supply the market with good wines.

Robert: We see a lot of orange wine, Eastern European wine, “new” appellations in classic wines countries, and more elegant wines from the New World.

What is the wine industry community like in Stockholm?

Klas: The sommelier community in Stockholm is a rather small world. There are fewer than 10 restaurants in Sweden with an actual on-the-floor sommelier position; your typical sommelier will likely have some sort of managing position as well. The camaraderie is really good. It’s open, and you are more likely to find sommeliers sharing knowledge than withholding it. 

Erin: It’s a small scene and full of incredible people. I remember when I first moved to town and started working at Gaston wine bar, sommeliers would just drop by to say hi and welcome me to town. I know many expats that are not so lucky. Sometimes, it’s a bit too competitive. And I think we all have to work together a bit more. But that goes for most professions all over the world.

Totte: Both yes and no. There are no obvious platform to meet, discuss, taste, and talk. But there seems to be a big camaraderie amongst the young generation. Those of us who’s worked long in the industry all know each other. If there was a way for us to spread our knowledge and experiences to the younger sommelier community, we would, but I feel today, we’re a bit separated.

Robert: I will say there is more camaraderie than interaction in the sommelier community. We should be better at starting tasting groups and be willing to learn from each other, but we will get there.

Which restaurants and beverage programs inspire you the most?

Klas: What PM & Vänner in Växjö has done is nothing short of amazing. Over the last 15 years or so, they have built a wine list that can compete with just any in the world. They have a wonderful selection, with a lot of back vintages. They also have won Sweden’s first Wine Spectator Grand Award. [In Stockholm,] Babette [is] working wonders with their lesser means and lack of storage. Other really good wine lists are Djuret, Agnes, and Sturehof.

Erin: I love programs that have very small, well-curated lists like the Bodega and Folii. Anna Rönngren and Lars Trogen have also put something really special together for Franztén. They highlighted some special producers, then went in-depth with them. So instead of having many producers from Piemonte, they have a few with big verticals and many vineyard options.

Totte: Oaxen for their relentless buying and serious wine list building. Eriks Vinbar for their amazing prices. Djuret for their amazing wine list and pricing.

Anna: I love what they are doing at the different wine bars in the city—great wines by the glass and often back vintage lists. Every time you go there you’ll find something new, and the quality of the wines [is] always outstanding. My favorites are Gaston, Dryck, Folii, Nook, Hornstulls Bodega, and Babette, just to name a few.

What’s the most popular category of wine on your list?

Klas: Red wines from Piedmont, Napa, and Rhône. We don’t mind tannins here since we serve a lot of red meat.

Totte: Most guests at Portal seems to favor elegant wines over sweet and rich, so Burgundy has a big role in our program as well as Piedmont and Champagne.

Anna: White wine from Burgundy. Second most popular are reds from the Rhône and Burgundy.

Fredrik: Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy.

Robert: When the price levels of Bordeaux and Burgundy are crazy, our guests start to drink much more Beaujolais, Loire, Jura, Galicia.

What is the value of certification in your market today?

Erin: Most people go through WSET. One of the local wine education programs has just started [working with the] Court of Master [Sommeliers]. I expect that this will be gaining quite a lot of attention in the next few years. Sommeliers in Stockholm are also quite fond of competitions. [They] are studious and can compete on the global level.

Totte: Very low. There’s only me and two more Advanced CMS Sommeliers in Sweden and a handful of Certified [Sommeliers], so the CMS has minor impact here. Restaurants don’t pay a premium to hire qualified sommeliers, which leads to an overall weakening of the sommelier profession here.

Fredrik: It is increasing all the time. There are a few in Sweden who take the CMS together, and this keeps the level of knowledge constantly increasing.

Robert: CMS is so far not that big in Sweden, but there are some serious guys that are going for it. WSET is bigger, but it’s mostly people that are importers.

How has the food and wine scene in Stockholm changed over the last 5 to 10 years?

Klas: The wine bars are finally here. Well, you are still not allowed to open bars without food, so it’s more wine restaurants. Small places with ever-changing and interesting wine lists that serve unpretentious, well-cooked food.

The predominant trend is sort of non-concept restaurants: more Scandinavian-based cuisine with south European influences serving snacks, mid-sized portions, and sharing plates. Everything is served in a relaxed way and with a wine list that’s not very pricey but very safe, with a little bit of everything. Before, restaurants were a lot more conceptual, such as only serving true Piedmontese food with a wine list that has only no-new-oak Nebbiolos.

Erin: I have been in Stockholm for three years, so maybe I am not the best person to answer. But everyone says 15 years ago, it was a wine wasteland. In the time I have been here, dozens of new import projects have developed and loads of new wine from around the world is now available.

Anna: Things have changed a lot since I moved to Stockholm seven years ago. There are new and exciting restaurants opening almost weekly, which is such a good thing since that means that all restaurants have to keep improving in order to stay “in.” When I moved here we had [maybe] one wine bar—now there are more than 15, and they all help to lift and broaden the quality of the wines served around the city.

Fredrik: It has developed enormously, Sweden is a young country when it comes to gastronomy at the highest level. But in the past five years, there has been a huge development.

Robert: The food scene has changed only the last couple of years, and fine dining restaurants have changed to more casual restaurants. The wine scene has been more fun thanks to smaller importers that are looking for wine with quality, not quantities for the Monopoly.

What would you like to see happen in the Stockholm dining scene in the next few years?

Klas: Most of all? A fine dining restaurant that would serve à la carte. It doesn’t exist right now. I would love to go and have a three-course meal of my choosing. Otherwise, I think that we are on to something—if we can get even more young and ambitious men and women to devote themselves to this business, even greater things will come.

Erin: I want to see young sommeliers encouraged and challenged. I want our group to develop the confidence it takes to not go with the rest of the pack. There is space for all of us to develop strong and unique wine programs.

Totte: I hope Italy will come to the fore. There are only a couple (no more than two) good Italian restaurants. If one would open that also has a serious wine program, I’d probably dine there once a week.

Fredrik: That restaurants work more locally and take care of the Swedish traditions.

Robert: I hope that more personal, casual restaurants will open up that make everything a little more simple but still delicious, with a killer wine list, of course. And hopefully a really good traditional Swedish restaurant with a serious wine list and not only beer and schnapps.

How does Stockholm’s extreme climate affect your business?

Klas: Yes, we do have four beautiful seasons—it’s just that one of them is six months long. When it’s dark and cold, we see more red wine drinkers. The game season is quite big in Sweden, and elk and reindeer tend to go well with sturdier and more powerful wines, and since we love to add a bit of sweetness (preserved lingonberries or a jelly made from black currants or rowan berries, for instance), big wines from Napa or Tuscany work wonders. As soon as you get that first warmish evening sometime late in May, everyone wants to be on a patio, preferably close to the water, and all they drink is rosé.

Erin: Weather has a big effect on business. If it’s cold and stormy, people want to stay in or close to home. Once it’s been cold and dark for a while, there’s an extra drive to be social and drink. In the spring, when the sun starts to set later and later, there’s a ferocity to go out and enjoy, even if it’s still cold.

Totte: Same way as New York, I think. No one likes to get out in a blizzard, but everyone enjoys the sun, so during both of those weathers we see a drop in sales. You either stay home or go somewhere you can eat in the sun. Rosé in summertime is almost ridiculously popular, while sales are virtually zero the other parts of the year.

Anna: I think it works to our benefit. What’s better than to have a nice glass of wine when it’s cold outside? And you should come visit Stockholm in the spring when you can sit outside again after a long winter—Swedes are never happier than in the spring. In my opinion, Stockholm is an astonishingly beautiful city all year round with its different changes in the seasons.

What pairs best with lutefisk?

Totte: Lutefisk is a pretty mild dish with a slight spicy edge, so any full and rich white would overpower it. Pair with a slightly oxidized Jura or perhaps a Grüner Federspiel.

Anna: Swedish dark lager beer, of course!

Fredrik: Beer and aquavit.

Robert: We only eat it at Christmas, so I guess beer and aquavit. If I drink some wine, I will go for a dry Riesling with sharp acidity that will break through the fat, such as a richer body wine from the Pfalz, Rheinhessen, or Alsace.

Clockwise from top left: Fredrik Horn, Klas Ljungquist, Robert Andersson, Totte Steneby, Erin Stockton, and Anna Rönngren.

  • Met Fredrik when doing my Certified. Sharp fellow that was hard not to respect in terms of knowledge and ability.

    I think one of the most interesting bits in this is the comment on the swing away from "natural" wine. We're seeing it in Spain as well given that too many sommeliers are tired of the fail rate on the wines and the selling point for normal consumers just isn't there. I realize that people will point to the two or three natbars in Barcelona as specious proof of a larger trend but overall, it's very, very niche and the focus on quality artisan producers is much more important.