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A wine industry in startup mode
[SKAERSOGAARD, Denmark] On a mild autumn morning, Sven Moesgaard climbed a sunbathed hill and inspected an undulating expanse of neatly planted vines. A picking crew was harvesting tons of hardy Solaris grapes that he would soon turn into thousands of bottles of crisp white and sparkling Danish wine.
A decade ago, winemaking was regarded as a losing proposition in these notoriously cool climes. But as global temperatures rise, a fledgling wine industry is growing from once-unlikely fields across Scandinavia, as entrepreneurs seek to turn a warming climate to their advantage.
"We're looking for the opportunities in climate change," said Mr Moesgaard, founder of Skaersogaard Vin, cradling a cluster of golden grapes. "In the coming decades, we'll be growing more wine in Scandinavia while countries that have traditionally dominated the industry produce less."
Nordic vintners are betting that they can develop what were once mainly hobbyist ventures into thriving commercial operations. The dream is to transform Scandinavia into an essential global producer of white wines, which are beginning to flourish along Europe's northern rim.
The growth has been rapid: Denmark now boasts 90 commercial vineyards, up from just two 15 years ago, and around 40 have sprung up in Sweden. Nearly a dozen vineyards are operating as far north as Norway.
But many are in the startup stage and are tiny compared with established wineries in Europe, which has 10 million acres of vineyards — enough to cover almost all of Denmark. Producers in France, Italy and Spain own three-quarters of that land, dominating the European industry. By contrast, Denmark and Sweden have European Union approval to grow less than 1,000 acres of vineyards, and questions persist about quality and price.
"We're still a drop in the bucket," said Hans Münter, head of the Danish Wine Association. "Right now, we don't have the volume to evaluate if this is a good business or just a business."
Yet in 50 years, Scandinavia's climate is forecast to be more like northern France's, as regional temperatures climb as much as 6 degrees Celsius. In the last decade alone, warming has produced milder winters, a longer growing season — and a small but rising number of award-winning wines.
"You're seeing a natural progression of pioneers looking for cool climate limits for viticulture, and we will likely see more development," said Gregory Jones, a climatologist who is the director of the Evenstad Center for Wine Education in Oregon. "Whether a strong vibrant industry will emerge, time will tell."
Nordic vintners are emboldened to invest as they watch Southern European wine producers struggle with a more volatile climate. Grapes, including sensitive varieties used for white wine, burned on the vine this summer in parts of France, Spain and Italy as temperatures topped 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
Climatologists say the global wine map could be transformed by 2050. Dominant producing countries in Europe and Latin America, along with parts of California and Australia, may become too hot to grow grapes, while areas not traditionally known for winemaking — including China — take off.
Winemakers in France are experimenting with grapes from warmer countries like Tunisia to see if they can retain the blockbuster tastes and yields that generate billions of euros in worldwide sales. Spanish and Italian winemakers are planting higher on mountainsides or on shaded north-facing slopes to keep wine flavors recognizable.
But half a century from now, those regions may no longer be a safe haven, while the climate for growing in Denmark and neighboring countries may improve. Already, winemakers here are credited with creating white wines with crisp, structured flavors that are fading in southern climes where heat is reducing grape acidity.
"We're trying to define the Nordic style of wine," said Tom Christensen, who founded Dyrehoj Vingaard, Denmark's largest winery, a decade ago with his sister, Betina Newberry. That includes investing in grape varieties with an acidic, fresh quality and an organic production without pesticides and sprays.
"People expect Nordic products to be cleaner," he said.
The winery, on the lush Rosnaes peninsula, produces 50,000 bottles of premium white and sparkling wines, and he plans to expand. "If I had a Spanish vineyard, I'd hedge my bets by buying land here," Christensen said. "In 20 years, you'd have a leading business in Europe.
The hurdles are steep. Rising temperatures have improved growth conditions but are increasingly volatile, bringing acute heat one year and excess rain the next. That makes for uneven harvests. The amount of wine produced is still small, and most is consumed domestically, leaving little for export. Revenue from wine in Denmark, Norway and Sweden was an estimated 14 million euros ($15.4 million) this year, compared with 28 billion euros in France.
More wine will have to be produced for an industry to be sustainable, said Odd Wollberg, a winemaker in Norway. Mr Wollberg, a former mechanic, and his wife took over the Lerkekasa Vingard winery, once considered Europe's northernmost vineyard, in December from owners who planted vines a decade ago. Nearly a dozen other vineyards were established nearby in recent years.
So far, Mr Wollberg has squeezed just 350 liters of wine from riesling and other cool-weather grapes, and he is losing money. But volumes could surge with an improving climate, he said.
"If it gets warmer, we can produce more, and more wineries will open when people see that others have succeeded," he said.
To capture consumers, though, the price must drop. Nordic wines average 30 euros to 40 euros (S$44 to $59) a bottle because of labor costs that are triple those in France, Italy and Spain. Southern winemakers also get billions in European Union subsidies, which help them improve pricing and dominate the market. Denmark won European Union approval for winemaking only by promising to forgo subsidies.
Some experts say that the quality does not yet justify the cost and that investments in grapes that will produce superior tastes in the Nordic climate are needed. At Fiskebaren, a bustling seafood restaurant in Copenhagen, only two out of nearly 300 wines offered are Danish.
"They're improving, but they still have a ways to go," said Frederik Kordt Lassen, the chief sommelier.
In Sweden, winemakers are looking to build business by refining the wine. "People now are just happy they can produce something drinkable," said Sveneric Svensson, head of the Swedish Wine Association. Businesses are "focusing on optimizing the quality" by advancing vine management and winemaking techniques, he said.
Nordic vintners point to southern England, where a world-class sparkling wine industry has emerged around a warming climate. Companies including Taittinger of France have invested in land in Britain to hedge against the effect of temperature spikes in Champagne.
Mr Moesgaard, who produces 20,000 bottles a year — including 6,000 bottles of bubbly — is betting that foreign wine houses will one day do the same in Denmark. His Don's label, named after the Dons region where his vines are planted, won high ratings from wine critic Robert Parker and at festivals in France and Germany — proof, he said, that quality is there.
Last year, the European Union approved 1,200 acres near his property to be labeled authentic terroir for producing distinctive wines. He purchased 185 acres of that land, which will allow him to double output, and is hoping that daring wine pioneers will cultivate the rest.
"It's an investment in the future," he said, eyeing a tract of rolling green hills quilted with vines.
The hills sloped toward a majestic fjord, where cows grazed on a grassy meadow and fishermen caught trout under gold-leafed birch trees. The land near the fjord was damp and muddy. But on the hills where his vines are planted, the soil was sandy with stones and no clay — good for growing grapes.
"We are going to produce wine where it was not possible before," Mr Moesgaard said. "No one can say they are happy about climate change," he added. "But we should take advantage of the opportunities it brings."