Two Swedes living in Paris, Britt and Per Karlsson are a power couple in wine communication. They have co-authored books together, frequently publish articles and photography internationally, and offer wine education through specialist wine tours. This month their wine tour business took them to South America, where Amanda Barnes interviewed them over a glass of bubbles in Mendoza city. They have been members of the Circle since 2003.
How did you both get into wine? I read on your website that you started at 11, Per…
Per: It’s a very strange story and not sure why it happened that way but when I was 11, I read an article in a newspaper about a priest who made wine at home and I thought it sounded fun, so I started to make wine when I was 11. My grandfather had a demijohn and my mother took me to a supermarket sale after Christmas and we bought figs and I made wine from figs. I made wine from figs, gooseberries, apples but never from grapes. I made it for four of five years. I didn’t drink it, I should add. I wasn’t interested in drinking it, so it just piled up in the cellar at my parent’s house.
Britt: I actually tasted some wine he made, many years later, and it was actually pretty good.
When did you make the transition over to enjoying grape wine?
Per: I guess I was between 15 and 18 when I started to get interested in real wine. I started reading about it and even though I was too young, I tasted a bit of wine. I spent a summer in the US, in California, when I was 17 and 10 months of age [18 being the legal age back then]. My birthday is in September and California had strict regulations at that time, and of course the US still has. The family I stayed with wouldn’t let me taste wine at the several wineries we went to visit. I was very annoyed.
And how did you get into wine, Britt?
Britt: Well, I was a little bit older than Per. I started with the slightly sweet German wines like Liebfraumilch. A lot of people start out like that and I did too. It then became a little more serious, when I was around 25 or 26 and I started a wine club with a few friends. Then I joined another wine club and took some courses and discovered that it was quite fun. Then I met Per and he was so passionate about wine.
How have you managed to develop a wine business together and what have been the greatest challenges?
Britt: When we started out, we moved to Paris.
Per: That was because of my job in a totally different business.
Britt: But that was the first step. We lived in Stockholm and we were both doing a lot of wine tastings at the time, in the 80s. I joined Per in Paris and I started working with wine but on a small scale.
Per: You started giving courses, doing tastings, writing and worked as a consultant for a Swedish wine merchant.
Britt: I did some serious work and I learnt a lot, and then Per changed jobs a few times, we lived in Amsterdam for a few years, then went back to Paris and finally Per had some problems with his job.
Per: This was in 2003 when I was working in the technology industry in business development for a very big internet-related company, which did very well during the dotcom boom but not so well when it ended. The company essentially disappeared.
Britt: [By then] we had already started doing wine tours on a smaller scale, with Per helping me out despite his other job. We then started about trying to make a living out of wine tours.
Per: It wasn’t really intentional. At that time there were no jobs in my industry, so instead of just getting disappointed all the time by looking for jobs that weren’t there, I went on some of the wine tours and helped carrying bags. Then having done that for about a year, I thought I either need to do some serious job searching or that we make something out of the tours. That’s how we started the business that we’re doing now, which consists of writing, photography and the wine tours.
Britt: The wine tours are the most important financially, but everything else we do is also very good for marketing purposes.
Per: It’s very organic and holistic. We travel a lot because of the wine tours and we visit a lot of wineries and we travel to wine regions for about 100 days a year, all over the world. This gives us a lot of information and a lot of contacts. We meet 200 wineries a year and people who really know what they’re talking about tell us how they make wine, so this gives us a lot of content that we can make into articles and books.
We’re meeting here in Mendoza. What are some of your favourite wine regions to visit? Do you have a favourite region to return to?
Britt: It’s difficult [to say]. I really love to go to Chile, Argentina and South Africa, but that’s not fair on Europe. It’s a bit more exotic to go to the wine regions outside of Europe. I also have some favourite wine regions in Europe and one is the Rhône Valley and the other is Burgundy.
Per: It is a very difficult question as almost all wine regions are fantastic and very interesting to go to. Long distance wine tours are really very nice and exciting, like South Africa and South America. The Douro Valley is spectacular as a wine region and there’s so much happening there. If you want to have really good food, you go to Bordeaux. I think what is really exciting is the next new place, but it’s a bit like wine – I don’t have a favourite wine. If I have to say one favourite, then it’s probably the Languedoc, which our first book was on. You have a lot of exciting wines there that are hardly known. It’s beautiful with a wonderful climate and really talented winemakers.
Are there any regions that really surprise your tour guests when they go there?
Britt: The Douro Valley, for example. They can’t really imagine that the slopes are so steep and that the wines are so good, and for the beauty of the landscape.
Per: One country we haven’t mentioned so far is Italy, which is also a fantastic wine country, but it also surprises a lot of people who don’t know very much about Italy, especially southern Italy, Sicily, where they think of powerful and heavy wines which you can find, but they also have excellent white and red wines. Puglia also has very nice wines if you know where to look and it’s so beautiful.
Tell us about your experience of Paris, where you’ve lived for over 20 years. Do you enjoy drinking only French wines there or do you find it to be a hub of international wine?
Britt: It’s mostly French [for us], even if Paris is the place in France if you want to look for non-French wines.
Per: That’s because there’s so much of it and it’s so good!
Britt: We don’t really miss [foreign wine]. We’re Swedish and when we lived in Sweden, we were used to finding wines from different countries, but it’s normal in a non-producing country to find wines from all around the world, like in Britain. However, in France we don’t really miss [foreign wine] and we do discover all the French regions. We drink non-French wines when we go to other countries.
Per: In fairness, if you want to have foreign wine, you can find it. This has changed very much in the few years that we’ve been there.
How have you seen the Scandinavian market change over the last 20 years or so?
Britt: It’s changed a lot because people now drink more wine and they drink better wine. When we lived there, you couldn’t really find many good restaurants. Over the last 15-20 years, Sweden, Denmark and Norway have started to discover wine and gastronomy. Now there are a lot of high quality restaurants and a lot of sommeliers and sommelier schools. It’s totally different. I would say that Scandinavians are good wine tasters and you’ll find a lot of connoisseurs.
Per: Many people are very interested in wine. The market is still restrained due to the fact it is still monopolised, so you have a very limited range of wines available on the market, but it’s a pretty decent range and people are enthusiastic in learning about [wine].
Britt: And you have a lot of wine clubs, so people taste a lot of wine together with other people. That’s good for us as these people come on our wine tours.
Per: And read our books [laughs].
Can you see any trends for 2018 in Scandinavia?
Per: Less Italian wine as Italy is by far the biggest supplier. At the upper end of the scale, it’s been focussed on Amarone, so very powerful, heavy and solid wines – Swedish people are crazy for Amarone. I think that this is changing a little and people are moving away from it.
Britt: They’re moving a little bit towards French wine. France is now number two for white wine. France is making a comeback. It used to be the number one in Sweden but that was a number of years ago. I think people are looking more for elegance and less heavy wine, but it’s difficult to say. I do a lot of tastings in Sweden and I meet a lot of consumers who often like heavy, oaked wines. It’s not obvious where this trend will lead to.
Watch the video interview online:
Interview by Amanda Barnes
Transcribed and edited by Robert Smyth
Find out more about Britt and Per on BKWine.