Wine sales in Sweden are regulated by the state monopoly Systembolaget. Buyer Matilda Dannetun tells us why the wineries included in the range have to meet the strictest sustainability standards in the world.
With 23.1 litres per capita per year (source: Statista 2022), Sweden ranks 13th in the world for wine consumption. Alcohol was strictly regulated there for a long time and has been distributed by the state-owned company Systembolaget since 1955, which has a monopoly on the sale of alcoholic beverages with more than 3.5 per cent volume. Distribution takes place through 450 company-owned outlets and is subject to strict regulations and high taxation. The background to the state monopoly was to curb alcoholism, which was once widespread in the country. In 2022, Systembolaget transferred about 32 million euros to the state treasury.
According to Matilda Dannetun, about 70 per cent of the total alcohol consumed in Sweden was bought from Systembolaget and drunk at home. Eleven per cent was sold in restaurants and eight per cent was officially imported by travelling, two per cent was ordered online from abroad. Restaurants are allowed to buy directly from importers and are obliged to pay high levies. I want to know if private imports are also subject to mandatory reporting. "They should be reported. Whether that always happens, we don't know. In monopoly countries, the state postal service is not allowed to transport alcohol, only private parcel services are allowed to. And understandably they don't report what they deliver, that's about data protection. And if traders ship from a warehouse abroad, there's a certain chance it will get past the state."
Matilda Dannetun's job is to buy the wines in her producing countries (Africa, Asia, Austria, Luxembourg and Switzerland) that are needed in the respective categories. There is a standard range as a basis, which is available in many of the 450 shops in Sweden. In addition, there are different categories for which individual managers are responsible. "It's a question of: how many of our shops do we want to supply with it? How much shelf space do we have? How many bottles of a wine can I get? That is analysed and determined based on data. For example, if a certain Riesling from Austria is selling very well, we have to see if we can get a similar product to meet the demand. If a wine is no longer doing so well, we will re-evaluate it and look for another style. At the moment I am already working on the range for autumn 2024. For example, my brief is: 'Look for an Austrian Riesling in a defined style, it must not cost more than this amount,'" Dannetun explains.
At the moment, there is a lot of talk in Central Europe about non-alcoholic wines and Piwi varieties. Alternative wine styles like Orange Wines are also getting a lot of attention. In Sweden, Orange Wines are definitely becoming more popular, but not across the board: "Sometimes it is just a local phenomenon, because in certain shops some employees are interested in it and talk to customers about it. Also, in bigger cities, customers may have come across Orange Wines in restaurants and therefore there is a higher demand for it, especially from Georgia and France." Piwi wines, on the other hand, are not a big issue: "Piwis are exotic, few Swedes know about them, although we are generally open to new things. But interest is low at the moment." In contrast, natural wines, especially Pet Nats, are in great demand: "They still sell very well."
How are the discussions about the often very small-scale origin of wines and their protection, which are intense elsewhere, perceived in Sweden? "The real wine nerds are interested - but they are a minority of our customers. It's more like they know: I like Grüner Veltliner. But not what DAC is and where the regions are. Rather: I like Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or Syrah from South Africa. People associate grape varieties or styles with countries. You most likely know Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, Riesling in Germany, the Wachau and Kamptal regions in Austria and red wines from Burgenland. How steep the vineyards are, what specifications they have: This is something for very few fans."
Much more important than new varieties and single vineyards in Sweden, he says, are aspects of sustainability - especially packaging such as cans, bag-in-box and lightweight bottles. "These account for most of our CO2 emissions, so that's where we start." The Nordic alcohol monopolies have unveiled an ambitious joint programme to combat climate change in 2022. Their goal: to reduce CO2 emissions to half the 2019 level by 2030. To achieve this, all phases of production, packaging and distribution will be analysed. Time and again, wineries complain that the monopolies demanded a lot from them but did not make any purchase commitments and left the financial burden to the bottlers. As a result, the criteria of many tenders ("tenders") could only be met by a few large bottlers.
Matilda Dannetun confirms that she hears this accusation more often. "It is said that we make it difficult for some producers to be included in our range. Today there are many more producers than 20 years ago who send us samples for tenders. But: sustainability is important to Swedish wine buyers. That is why we are putting more and more emphasis on these aspects. The business opportunities for wineries that opt for heavier glass bottles will be fewer in the future."
No one should underestimate how important environmental protection is for Sweden!
For sustainability standards and certificates, Systembolaget has introduced a combination of different criteria. "There are so many seals and the topic is so extensive," says Dannetun, explaining her approach: "It is not enough to just ask for a badge. A lighter bottle alone does not automatically mean less environmental impact - if it comes from China, for example, and we don't know under what conditions it was produced there. We would have to have intensive discussions with our suppliers to explore these details, which would obviously take a lot of time." For this, Systembolaget has its own department that investigates such certifications. The employees know exactly the country-specific differences. Which certificate a producer prefers doesn't matter: "We always look at the facts."
In addition, there are wineries that work sustainably but do not prioritise obtaining a certificate. "We motivate our suppliers to take this part very seriously and to document accurate traceability because a certificate is important for our customers. Many of our senior managers not only take this issue seriously, but personally. They make an effort to be present at meetings with producers themselves. No one should underestimate how important environmental protection is for Swedes."
This raises the question of how the still small but fast-growing wine industry in Sweden is developing. Matilda tells us that sales of the local wine range have grown in the last five years. The local wines also do not have to go through the same approval process as the products for the normal range. But new Swedish wines are also submitted through tenders and then reviewed and tasted before they go on sale. They are part of a range of local products that should be readily available to consumers, but often only in shops close to the winery so that producers can deliver directly. Going through the central warehouse might be too expensive for suppliers. Currently, Swedish winemakers are not yet allowed to sell directly "from the farm", but that could soon change. There are now hundreds of small producers of wine, fruit wines, beer and spirits. Until now, their products had to be ordered through Systembolaget. But since Sweden encourages its small producers to sell directly, and since origin is very important to Sweden, there is currently a discussion about whether people should soon be able to buy directly from the winemakers. That would be a political decision.
Unsurprisingly, environmental concerns are the biggest trend for Swedish consumers. Alternative packaging and local and environmentally friendly production are becoming more and more important. Swedes would also be willing to pay more for this. In addition, Systembolaget sees the search for grape varieties that are more drought-resistant or require less pesticides as a major topic for the future. Matilda Dannetun explains the Swedish approach to this: "Climate change has arrived in everyday life. We are much more concerned about the future and what we can contribute to it. Also and especially with wine. After all, wine is a product we have high expectations of."