To be a wine lover in Sweden is both easy and complicated. The shelves of Systembolaget make it appear a world of wine is available — but maybe it’s not always true.
The monopoly market is complex.
The assortment is based on previous sales and, while Systembolaget has a “fixed assortment” of 2,500 products, they are not available in every store. The range increases in places where sales are higher — a single store, located in a remote place, may have a very limited range, consisting of a variety of national bestsellers. Then there is the order-assortment, consisting of around 13,000 products, which customers can order online.
Before Covid-19, Swedish consumers were reluctant to order from Systembolaget. While that has changed, not everything is available — there is a big difference in availability for residents living in small towns such as Ånge, who may have limited options, versus residents of Stockholm.
There is also the question of whether private individuals can import alcohol from elsewhere in Europe, for personal use. In 2007, the European Court of Justice passed a judgement called the Rosengrendomen, which said barring them from doing so constituted a trade restriction. While this opened the door for individuals to buy from elsewhere in the EU, it also allowed foreign direct marketing companies to sell to Swedish citizens. The question of whether this is legal is about to come up in court at the time of publication.
Regardless, importers with a permit can bring in wines and sell them to both Systembolaget and to on-trade businesses with a permit to serve alcohol.
All questions and decisions concerning the retail monopoly are handled by the Social Committee, consisting of 17 politically appointed members. Their recommendations are handed over to the Riksdag, Sweden’s legislative body. A recent decision gave Systembolaget the task of enabling home deliveries across Sweden.
For some years now, there has been intensive lobbying to allow farm door sales of alcohol, as well as from garage wineries, craft beer and micro brewers. Unfortunately for associations such as Svenska Viner (the Swedish Wine Association) and Svenska Bryggerier (Swedish Breweries), committee members have not reached an agreement on how this could be done, out of fear that Systembolaget would lose its monopoly. The Social Democrats, the Swedish Green Party and the Left Party are against the proposals.
Thanks to the speed of climate change, wineries in the southern part of the country are thriving. Who would have thought, just a decade ago, that Sweden could produce quality wines? There are as many as 35 important producers, including Vingården i Klagshamn, situated almost on the shore of Öresund, south of the city Malmö. It produces wines using grapes such as Solaris and Rondo, some of which are listed in the monopoly. Another producer of note is Göran Amnegård, a veteran of the Swedish wine scene from the farm Blaxsta, close to the small town of Flen, situated a two-hour drive south-east of Stockholm. He produces wines from the Vidal grape — ice wines of international standard — along with Vitis vinifera wines such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay.
Fruit and berry beverages, made across the country, are also booming. The producer Kiviks Musteri focuses on apples and is trying to raise awareness of origin and its impact on taste. There is also Idunn close to Umeå in the far north, notable for its berry wines.
Systembolaget AB is 100 percent owned by the Swedish state and has 446 stores, plus an additional 490 agents where consumers can pick up online orders. These agents are often found in remote places, since a lot of people in Sweden live far from a shop.
Home deliveries are only possible in some parts of the country and, elsewhere, orders must be collected in store. Unfortunately, Systembolaget has seen an enormous increase in online ordering during the pandemic, for which it was not prepared. A major problem has been the inability to distribute new, unique releases to consumers across the country; at the time of writing, consumers can only buy “temporary listings” at a very few assigned shops.
Magdalena Gerger, CEO at Systembolaget, said publicly earlier this year that Systembolaget is developing its online shop, to make it possible for customers to order from the entire assortment and pick up their order at a store of their choice.
Systembolaget has 1,200 listed suppliers, many of whom are small businesses, some of which represent only one wine and not the whole of a producer’s portfolio. There are about 50 importers of significant size.
Finland’s Altia, a beverage and brand company operating in the wine and spirits markets in the Nordic and Baltic countries, is a major player; in 2019 it had net sales of €359.6m ($420.63m). Founded in1999, Altia was originally part of Alko, the Finnish monopoly. In 2010, it bought the well-known Swedish brands, Blossa glögg, Explorer Vodka, O.P. Anderson Aquavit and Skåne Akvavit from Pernod Ricard.
The Viva Group has a significant market share at Systembolaget: its affiliates include Chris Wine & Spirits, Giertz Vinimport, The Wine Team, Winemarket, Iconic Wines and The Wine Collection (renamed after the acquisition of the established company Tryffelsvinet). Viva Wine Group, the biggest importer in Sweden, is also present in Finland, Norway and the UK as well as in China and Germany. In Germany, it owns the online store wine-in-black.de
Another significant company is the Oenoforos Group, which owns the Nordic Sea Winery situated in Simrishamn, in the southern part of Sweden. Built in 2009, this ultramodern winery receives wine in bulk from all over the world. Many of the most popular brands in Sweden are packaged on the premises. The owner, Takis Soldatos, says he understands the “Swedish palate”, and that “it makes sense to bring the wine closer to its final destination, for quality but also because of environmental reasons.”
Wines are shipped not only to Sweden, but also to the other Nordic monopolies, as well as the UK, Germany and Canada.
Overseas online retailers
Once Swedes were able to order wine from outside Sweden for their own use, online stores sprang up to cater for them. The first to market with a fine wine focus was Winefinder, headquartered in Denmark, which opened in 2007. It has a wide portfolio of established names, along with up-and-coming wineries, plus a range of older vintages. CEO Magnus Ericsson, a former wine journalist from Sweden, says the company has been working hard since last year to exceed the expectations of their customers. “Our work has paid off,” he says, noting how timely the efforts are. “During the past month, sales have increased and, as well, new customers have joined.”
The Swedish company Vinoteket has its stock in Denmark but has a personal approach and a focus on European producers, as does Germany’s The Wine Company, which operates from Hamburg and is a part of the The Hawesko Group, both of which are successful online retailers.
Popular app Vivino has temporarily called a halt to its entry into Sweden after losing its case against Systembolaget in the Patent and Market Court in February 2020.
Email marketing is a popular and power tool in Sweden, as is Facebook advertising. Easygoing wines sell well, particularly if they come packaged in a wooden box.
Swedish alcohol laws are very strict; even a picture of a bottle and a wine glass on a red-and-white tablecloth are forbidden. This explains why quotes from journalists appear so often in ads.
Per Styregård, writer for Dagens Industri, the largest business newspaper in Scandinavia, covers quality wines, as well as restaurants — and he has a taste for new styles, like orange wines. Gunilla Hultgren Karell’s writing appears across Sweden, in Expressen, Allt om Mat, Tigningen Land and Allas, is widely quoted, as is Marie Oskarsson, based on the west coast, who is a wine columnist for Göteborgs Posten. There is also lots of activity from both wine writers and sommeliers on Vinbanken.se, which reaches 1.2m unique readers a year.
Wine writers are still significant in Sweden, but not as much as in the past, as the newspapers continue to lose readers. Swedish wine lovers increasingly turn to the internet and international press, along with Munskänkarna, a non-profit wine club that has 30,000 members across Sweden who are very active on social media. It also organises tastings.
Influencers and sommeliers
Social media influencers are widely appreciated by some importers and marketers, though they tend to rise and fall with regularity. Sommeliers active on social media are also influential, such as Béatrice Becher, president of the Swedish Sommelier Association, and Jonas Sandberg, who own the award-winning bar Folii. Some of the sommeliers you can find in wine bars like Savant Bar, where Markus Welin is the owner and sommelier, with a green and funky wine list.
Elke Jung is the owner of Vinbanken.se