Of the four Nordic nations, Norway has the smallest area under vine but also one of the world’s most unique vineyards. For publication in the week starting 29 August 2016.
Some of Norway’s handful of vineyards operate as hobbies or destinations for wine tourism, but Lerkekåsa Vineyard near Gvarv has become successful through a combination of innovation, a unique site and good wines. Lerkekåsa is the most northerly commercial vineyard in the world if we focus on sites that do not greenhouse or bury vines in winter to protect them.
In recent years winter temperatures at Lerkekåsa have reached as low as minus 29 Celsius. It sits at 59 degrees north, similar to Alaska in the United States. Similar problems with freezing conditions are found in China. There workers bury vines in winter, a labour-intensive process.
Lerkekåsa is about a two-hour drive southwest of the capital Oslo, and makes wine from grapes and fruit. It has a restaurant and offers unique accommodation: People sleep in three wine barrels nestled among the vines. The concept is the idea of Wenche Hvattum and Dr Joar Saettem. Hvattum trained as a sommelier but tends to concentrate on food because her husband Saettem, the winemaker, “is a much better winemaker than he is a cook,” she says with a smile.
The largest of the three barrels, with a capacity of 7,600 litres, came from Germany. The other two — each has a capacity of 6,500 litres — were used by the Norwegian wine company Vinmonopol to import wines in bulk decades ago. Two people can sleep comfortably, if somewhat snugly, in each barrel. Hvattum says people tend to find Lerkekåsa through the YouWish.no web site, where people book unusual holidays. One guest named Henning was celebrating his birthday when I visited. He and friends were sleeping in the house on the vineyard because when his girlfriend booked several months earlier she discovered the barrels had been reserved for more than a year ahead.
Grapes were first planted in 2009. Joar Saettem has experimented with 20 varieties to find those that best suit the climate. Lerkekåsa sits in a beautiful valley near Lake Norsjo, protected by hills and mountains, which creates a meso-climate. The accompanying video shows the clear blue skies and tall hills. Day temperatures during my visit in August 2016 were in the mid 20s Celsius.
Of the 20 varieties Rondo, Leon Millot and Solaris (all originally from Germany or France) appear to do well in local conditions. Dr Saettem also likes Hasansky Sladki, a black grape originally from Russia, though he concedes that getting fruit to ripen consistently will always be an issue. Dr Saettem started his project believing that changing climatic conditions would mean higher temperatures, and to a degree has has been vindicated. The English sparkling wine industry has benefitted from changing climate conditions in the past two decades.
Lerkekåsa’s best white comes from the Solaris grape, and this zingy creation will improve as the vines age. Saettem also makes a range of wines from local fruit. Gvarv has long been known as a fruit-growing region and has more than 80 different varieties of apples. Many now-famous wine regions around the world such as Central Otago in New Zealand and Elgin Valley in South Africa were originally orchards.
Norwegian wine laws require fruit wines to be made from local produce and Dr Saettem creates wines from the white version of blackcurrants along with blackberries, raspberries, plums, apples and a range of berries I’ve not previously encountered such as crowberry, rogneberry and mossberry. Some of the wines are labelled Mormors Hage, which translates as “grandma’s garden”, and they sing of the kind of fruit aromas Saettem remembers as a child. He points out the connection between memory and flavour to the people who stay overnight during his pre-dinner tasting, after a tour of the vineyard.
In Norway the state-run Vinmonopol controls wine, beer and spirits sales to domestic consumers. It is not possible to buy Norwegian wine at any of the country’s Vinmonopol shops. A new law that came into effect in June this year allows vineyards to sell up to 15,000 litres of wine a year from the cellar door. Norway is a big country with a relatively small number of vineyards so for people in the major cities it requires a drive into the country.
The 2015 Lerkekåsa Mormors Hage and the 2015 Horst — the latter translates as “autumn” — are delightfully zingy wines. Horst is a combination of blackberries, crowberries and mossberries. It looks and tastes like a young Burgundy with soft tannins. The red Mormors Hage is made from raspberries and delivers magnificent aromas of ripe fruit. Dr Saettem gets a touch of tannin by fermenting the raspberries with their seeds. The delicious and tangy white Mormors Hage is made from whitecurrants and has firm texture and aromas of white flowers.
Dessert was accompanied by a 2010 wine from local plums. These plums came from a neighbour’s tree. “She does not know the variety of plum,” Dr Saettem said, “because the tree is so old.” The wine, which looked like a pale rose, tasted dry yet sweet. A 2013 made from Rognebaer berries had a pleasant umami appeal like a dry sherry. Both show that fruit wine can age well.
Norway-based wine writer Ann Samuelson, also a student in the prestigious Master of Wine program, points out that Denmark, Sweden and Finland all grow more grapes than Norway. In Norway a handful of vineyards are planted in the south of the country, around Ålesund and Lyngdal. “Egge Gård makes sparkling wine from the Solaris grape, and Klaus-Peter Keller from Rheinessen has also planted Riesling grapes in Kristiansand in southern Norway,” Samuelson said. British winemaker Stephen Skelton MW acts as a consultant for some of the vineyards.
Kvelland Vineyard in Lyngdal was planted in 1999 and has experimented with more than 40 varieties to find ideal grapes. Like Lerkekåsa, Kvelland focuses on providing gourmet food from local produce. The menu includes salmon plus lamb, deer and elk from the Kvelland district.
Both vineyards have outdoor terraces overlooking the vines. Can anything be more enjoyable than drinking pleasant wine as the sun sets on a beautiful summer-blue sky after a day of sunshine? The accompanying video has images of the evening tasting at Lerkekåsa.