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A Toast to the Northern Lights and Wine. . .

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

Many sommeliers are storytellers. We gravitate to the rabbit-hole details because we love the anecdotal “why” behind what makes wines a certain way, why they can only be made here - but not there, and the story of their origin. Just a few weeks ago, a news story broke that most probably ignored – but it caught my sommelier's ears and didn’t let go. Finland is applying to become a wine-producing country within the EU. At surface level, I can understand why this wasn’t big news – but dig a little deeper, and there is a fascinating nugget of a tale. . .

Finland entered the EU in 1995 and became an “Arctic” country. Here is where a seemingly mundane story gets surprisingly fascinating - according to a Wine Enthusiast article from May of this year, Finland legally cannot label wine made from grapes as “wine” - they can only be labeled as “mild alcoholic beverage fermented from grapes.” Apparently, “Arctic” countries get energy subsidies from the EU, and if designated as an “Arctic” country, that country cannot make wine from grapes. Countries that make wine from grapes and label it as wine get subsidies for their wine industry. A country cannot do both – in related news, two prominent proponents of this arrangement have historically been Italy and France.

Why Finland? Good question. Vinifera has been in cultivation for a hundred years – often relying on cold-weather cultivars from Germany and Austria. According to Illka Sirén, a Finnish wine writer for Decanter and The Oxford Companion of Wine, grapes grown domestically are usually PIWI (an acronym for fungus-resistant varieties like Muscaris, Solaris, Cabernet Blanc, and Sauvignac that are German in origin). Grapes will also be brought from countries like Austria (Gruner Veltliner), with the wine being made in Finland. Production is admittedly tiny, and most commercial wine production has focused on fruit wine. Historically, the fruit wine has not garnered much praise. However, a particular winery named Ainoa is changing the public perception. They macerate the berry juice on the fruit skins to increase the color, structure, and flavors of the wine – a practice red winemakers use, but fruit winemakers do not. The results have been so successful that they are featured on lists at Michelin-starred European restaurants. Recently, their raspberry fruit wine was the first Nordic wine and fruit wine to win the top award given by the Oenologues of France.

With the success of Ainoa, why push for change now? In two words, climate change. The warming has vastly improved the grape growing conditions in other regions once considered too cold; take England, for example; they are now doing so well that French Champagne houses like Taittinger and Pommery have bought land there. Norway has vineyards; in fact, they have the most northern vineyard in the world, Lerkekåsa, and it is at the same latitude as Anchorage. Denmark became an official wine-producing country in 2000, Sweden has recognized wine regions, and Finland is right behind and eager to join. The trend towards the growth of the wine industry in northern Europe has not gone unnoticed – the most recent edition of the epic wine tome, The Oxford Companion to Wine, includes Finland (also, Latvia and Estonia). The kind Finnish writer who helped with some information for this piece, Illka Sirén, was the contributor for the entry on Finland.

As it looks now, Finland may be able to officially label their grape-based wine as “wine” starting in 2025. It remains unclear if this will result in giving up their rights to energy subsidies to heat their homes. Stay tuned, but as we have collectively witnessed the success of the English wine market, it will be fascinating to see this expansion and what liquid wonders we will get to explore and terroir that future sommeliers will need to study. In the meantime, I can neither confirm nor deny that I may be real estate shopping online to see what’s available in Finland.

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