Although grape-growing has been done in Finland for more than 100 years, wine production is virtually nonexistent. So when Finland joined the E.U. in 1995, it did not receive the status of a wine-producing country. Finland lost that title in what was probably a sweaty David and Goliath-like arm wrestling match between a minuscule grape-grower group and a significant farming industry looking for hefty cold climate farming subsidies. Hence, any wine produced in Finland cannot be called wine but an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grapes. Therefore wine itself is still a fairly new and exotic drink for most Finns. On top of that, what Finland drinks and what Helsinki drinks are two entirely different matters.
Finland, like its other Nordic neighbors, has an alcohol monopoly and it’s called Alko. If you are visiting Finland and looking to grab a wine bottle to go you need to head to one of the 366 Alko shops scattered across the country. On Sunday, though, you are in for a disappointment, because Alko’s shops are closed. Unless you are looking for a low-alcohol wine of less than 5.5% alcohol by volume — which, of course, you are not — then your only remaining option is to head to a restaurant. Most of which are also closed on Sundays.
But other days are open
Helsinki is small in size compared to other capital cities. In 15 minutes, you can walk pretty much everywhere, which makes it pretty convenient to go wine bar hopping. Finnish wine enthusiasts sometimes tend to take an engineering approach to wine. Knowing the pH, residual sugar, and other vinous components by heart is flex-worthy information in a wine tasting. If you have been on a vacation near that particular winery, vineyard, or wine region there is no way on God’s green earth you wouldn’t just casually drop that in the conversation with a sommelier.
Finland is not an island in the Maldives. It’s cold here. Finns change their wine drinking habits fluidly throughout the year and it’s as predictable as the four seasons.
“Finns are open-minded and love to hear recommendations from the wine list, but they also know what they like,” says Ninni Björs, a restaurateur at Grape Wine Bar. “We had a wonderful summer in Finland so everybody was ordering rosé wine, but now that the summer is over and we have had a few cold nights, our customers immediately start looking for full-bodied red wines.”
“Because of COVID, instead of going out two or three times a week, people go out less frequently, but they are ready to invest more in what they are drinking.”
What the Finns drink
The Finnish palate is built on decades of tasting and drinking the wines available in Alko. Full-bodied, easy to approach, and fruit-forward red wines from countries like Chile and South Africa, and aromatic white wines, like Sauvignon Blanc, are the norm.
There are two types of Finnish wine consumers, explains Alice Järvinen, a sommelier at BasBas Kulma. “The first type is a sort of traditionalist. Usually, acidity is something Finns look for in white wines. The higher the acidity, the more enjoyable it is. Fruit doesn’t even come to play. They just want this acid bomb when it comes to whites or a really big tannic red where you just feel everything.” New World red wines are popular. “The other type of Finnish wine drinker just wants to experiment. Especially after the coronavirus, they just go for it, because they don’t get to travel. So they travel by the glass.”
When COVID came along, the Finnish government decided to play the blame game and restaurants were the perfect scapegoat. Lockdown and post-lockdown restrictions on restaurant alcohol serving and opening times were at the epicenter of Finland’s fight against COVID. Now that life is getting slowly back on track, wine lovers are out in force.
“People seem to be looking for more classics,” says Oscar Borges, restaurant manager and sommelier at Vin-Vin. He says that instead of going for the previously popular appassimento-style wines, which are red wines made from grapes that are naturally somewhat dehydrated, making them concentrated and sweet, people are now “asking for proper Nebbiolo, for example. Also, Champagne is moving surprisingly well considering the circumstances,” he goes on. “Because of COVID, instead of going out two or three times a week, people go out less frequently, but they are ready to invest more on what they are drinking.”
Pandemic or not, Finns are a thirsty bunch. Not just for the wine itself, but also for learning more about it. Where cheap lager once filled the taps of this subarctic northern periphery, and where the local spirit viina was once the drink, Finland is slowly becoming a wine country after all.
5 wine bars to visit in Helsinki:
The ever so trendy Vin-Vin is hardly 10 years old and already it is known as the oldest wine bar in town. Not only does that speak for the difficulty of opening and maintaining a strict wine bar in Helsinki, but it also speaks volumes about the talent behind the bar. Restaurant manager and sommelier, Oscar Borges, likes to focus mainly on organic small producers and offers a respectable list of wines by the glass. Also, older vintages of Barolo and Rioja, for example, are often available by the glass. Vin-Vin is a perfect spot for an apéritif before a big night out.
Muru Wine Bar may be a relatively new wine bar in Helsinki, but as the vinous sidekick of well-known wine bistro, Muru, the wine bar feels like it has been around forever. Burgundy, Bordeaux, Loire; you come here for the classics. Muru’s Champagne selection is often referred to as the best Champagne list in Finland, or even in the entire Nordic region. With Samuil Angelov, one of Finland’s most prominent sommeliers, at the helm, the wine list is as solid as they come, and while you’re at it, you must try Muru’s famous risotto.
This small and intimate wine bar is the latest addition to Helsinki’s wine scene. The vibe here is chill, so dress accordingly. Unlike most of the wine bars in Helsinki, this place is located a bit further away from downtown, on the edge of the Puu-Vallila wooden house district. Klein is the little brother of popular restaurants Wino and Plein, of which the latter is located directly opposite Klein. This is a wine bar pure and simple, so there’s no food, but if you get hungry while sipping on Klein’s natural wines, you can just hop across the street to Plein.
An offspring of a beloved neighborhood restaurant, BasBas Kulma is a cozy corner wine bar/restaurant. Located in an old factory building a short walk away from the city center, BasBas Kulma leans heavily on the moody industrial vibe and holds a wine list that is all about high-quality organic and biodynamic wine producers. Here, you can sip a cheeky Lambrusco or kick back with a glass of Frank Cornelissen.
Opening a wine bar in the middle of the COVID pandemic was no easy feat, but the Grape Wine Bar pulled it off with style. The wine list is an eclectic mix of European wines ranging from Austrian Federspiel to bold Spanish Bobal. At Grape Wine Bar, you come for the wine but stay for the charcuterie and tasty bar food dished out from the tiny kitchen. Walk-ins only, as per usual, except on Slow Sundays.