The Altona in Norway is possibly the oldest wine bar in the Nordic region and has a wonderful collection of fine wine. For publication in week starting 28 August 2017.
The Altona in Bergen has the largest selection of any wine bar in Norway – about 1,300 labels – and the second largest wine collection in the country, beaten only by the Park Hotel in Voss. The Park Hotel, about 110 kilometres inland in Hordaland among Norway’s fjords, says it has about 8,000 wines on its list.
Bergen is the second largest city in Norway after the capital, Oslo, and is located on the west coast. The Altona has been voted Bergen’s best wine bar several times, and has possibly the finest selection of any wine bar among the Nordic nations.
Wine Spectator magazine has awarded Altona its exclusive wine bar “Award of Excellence” or “two-glass rating” every year since 2009. It is the only wine bar in the city to receive this prestigious award. The Altona is housed inside the Augustin Hotel and below street level.
During World War 2 an explosion in a ship in a nearby harbour destroyed many of the buildings close to the harbour, but the Altona survived because it is underground. The Augustin is Bergen’s oldest family-run hotel and has been owned by the same family for four generations. Kjetil Smørås runs the family business.
Anyone taller than 150 cm – just under five feet in imperial measurements – risks banging their head as they enter the restaurant associated with the Altona. The size of the doorways suggests that people were much shorter four centuries ago when the wine bar opened in 1614. The Altona is Norway’s oldest wine bar and possibly the oldest in the Nordic nations.
The restaurant serves seasonal local food and is highly rated on the Taste of Norway circuit. All of the rooms in the associated restaurant are underground and all doorways are similarly small. The full wine list, in a hand-tooled leather case, weighs as much as a large telephone directory and provides extensive notes on more than 1,300 wines. Access to the cellar is via a narrow winding staircase and wines adorn the walls like trophies on a hunter’s wall.
The cellar bulges with fascinating wines from around the globe and wine list is legendary in terms of quality. The focus in recent years has been on red and white Burgundy, Champagne and the Piedmont region. Former sommelier Simon Valland said the wine list was an expression of the tastes of current and former sommeliers. “[When I was there] I had a big affection for Piedmont and Champagne,” he said. “The wine manager before me was a huge Burgundy geek.”
A visit to the cellar is mandatory for any wine aficionado. It is deep under the building, cut into the rock of the Altona’s foundations, and lit by dim lights. Ove Svendsen, a trainee sommelier, said the Altona was perfect for people looking for a wine bar with a large and classic wine list. “The cellar is a must visit. It’s historic.” Valland described the cellar as a “living, breathing thing”. “While wine manager I had the privilege to nurture it for a period of time.” Valland trained at the Norwegian Sommelier School in Oslo and when he graduated at the age of 22 in 2013 he was the youngest sommelier in Norway.
Wines are also offered for per-glass tasting. These sell for about 100 to 120 NOK (USD 11 to USD 13), vary each day, and are not on the main wine list. Each time I visited the sommeliers were happy to let people sample wines before they purchased.
Norway’s citizens mostly buy wines through the national wine monopoly, Vinmonopolet, which promotes a policy of removing the “private profit motive” from wine sales by being wholly owned by the state. But taxes are high and typically people pay high prices for wine in restaurants. A small glass of wine from a recent vintage will cost about 110 to 130 NOK, and a bottle of ordinary wine from 2016 will set you back anywhere between 700 and 1100 NOK in a restaurant.
Prices at Altona are very reasonable given the quality of the wine. The wine bar uses a fixed mark-up rather than adding a percentage of the original cost; the latter is typical at most Norwegian restaurants where wines cost four to five times the ex-cellar price. “You will find better wines at far more affordable prices [here] than at other restaurants and wine-bars in Bergen,” former sommelier Beatrice Lie-Gjeseth Bendixen said last time we met at Altona. Her expertise is German wines. “Wine to and for the people,” Valland added at the time.
Quite simply the Altona is a bargain in terms of the prices it charges. During visits in recent years I drank a 1999 Tyrrellʼs Vat 1 Semillon from Australia which sold for 650 NOK, a 2007 Domaines Denis Dubourdieu Bordeaux white for 650 NOK, and a 2007 Robert Weil Riesling from Germany for 600 NOK. All were well cellared and their corks moist and yielding. The wines were sublime, which explains why I always head to the Altona when in Bergen.
The wine bar’s entrance greets visitors with an array of brightly coloured artistic displays by Kjetil Berge, a well-known Norwegian artist. Local artists made many of the wine bar’s fittings, such as the table lamps created by Katrine Berg that resemble hovering airships. Most rooms have whitewashed walls and wooden beams, and are lit by candles, giving them a sense of romance and history. Just make sure you don’t bang your head on those small doorways.
Footnote: Bergen has an excellent group of good restaurants with fine wine lists. One of the best new arrivals, which opened about three months ago, is Bare, the feature restaurant at Borgen Bors hotel in central Bergen. They offer tasting menus of five or 10 courses, with an associated wine for each course. Highly recommended.