For much of the 20th century it was unpatriotic and illegal to drink beer. When full prohibition became law over a century ago, it was primarily for political reasons, but alcohol consumption in general was also frowned upon. History notwithstanding, today we boast a renewed appreciation for wine, a spurt in microbreweries and production of local spirits. Can we start bragging about having the most wine bars per capita? Perhaps so.
The world’s most expensive country for alcohol has seen a quiet transformation and, despite the challenges of taxation, the wine revolution is firmly afoot on this windy little island. It looks like Reykjavik is poised to be a bustling hub for oenophiles.
How far we’ve come
When asked about wine drinking over time, Ólafur Örn Steinunnar Ólafsson admits he is old enough to remember far back, “all the way to the 80s even, and that is well before any sort of wine culture in this country,” he chuckles. “Back then, people were drinking vodka-Coke with their meals,” he recalls, “and wine was mostly a means to get a buzz on, much like the vodka-Coke.”
Ólafur is a serial restaurateur and one of the owners behind restaurant Brút and wine bar Vínstúkan. He says that with the growing number of restaurants and the introduction of affordable new world wines the perception of both wine and drinking itself has slowly changed. “Now we hardly ever get the vodka-Cokers, ” he laughs.
That change has been particularly accelerated in the past 20 years. “New world wines are hundreds of years old, Old World wines are thousands of years old. 20 years in the scope of wine,” Alba Hough clarifies sagely, “is a blip on the radar.” Alba is a lauded sommelier, the Star Wine List ambassador for Iceland and oversees production at Himbrimi Gin.
“Back then, people were drinking vodka-Coke with their meals and wine was mostly a means to get a buzz on.”
Both Alba and Ólafur agree that travel has been a great driver for advancement in how palates and preferences have grown. Beyond the Icelandic penchant for “chasing Vitamin D” in sunny Benidorm and Tenerife, the two note that the trend more recently has been the “frequency of travel destinations beyond Spain, formal education, an exposure to different cultures and globalisation.”
While tasting menus are commonplace now, Alba laughs as she remembers her first time in early 2007 introducing a shocked diner to the preposterous concept of serving five to six different wines for each course! What has also changed is the mentality of choosing wine bottles by alcohol percentage — a habit that developed in response to the state’s taxation system. It is a thing of the past, though it may exist in some pockets, Alba admits.
“In the 80s and 90s there was a preference for Spanish wines, Bordeaux in particular with French wines, Italian yes, a little bit of new world from Australia started to show,” she says, adding that “anything else was seen like a fringe to the idea of wine, anything else was a bit of a gamble.” She notes that the New Nordic manifesto in the early 2000’s marked a shift in consumption with a focus towards sustainability and conversations around what’s local became more prevalent.
“The Icelander is not afraid to try new things, but we are also not afraid to tell you if it is shit,” Alba is candid, “This pragmatism — of knowing what we like and what we don’t like, is of equal importance,” she stresses. It’s helped the wine scene grow substantially in her view and the evolution has been fairly fast.
On the other hand, the country’s fraught history with alcohol does seem to influence inclinations still. When Spain threatened to stop importing salted cod if Iceland didn’t buy Spanish wine in return, it prompted politicians to bow to pressure and legalise importing reds and rosés from Portugal and Spain in 1921.
César Garduño, head sommelier at Credo, Norway and in the recent past at Dill and Pujol, observes a similarity between Icelandic and Mexican diners, “Back in the day, most wine drunk in Mexico and Iceland was Spanish; in Mexico because of colonisation, in Iceland because of the fish. So in terms of wine palate, they like a medium to full body profile,” he explains.
No longer the fringe
I’ve often said that food trends come to die in Iceland. When the world fell in love with cupcakes and gastropubs, we did too — albeit 15 years too late. When it came to natural wines however, we were right there along with the rest of the trendsetters. In a market otherwise controlled by state-owned Vínbuðin, chefs and restaurants led the charge, steering a fairly conservative market that still had choices made for them by showcasing natural wines front and centre on their menus.
“The Icelander is not afraid to try new things, but we are also not afraid to tell you if it is shit.”
Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason of green Michelin starred Dill was one of the first to embrace the funky, sometimes divisive brew at his restaurant. “Many natural wines are quite unusual in their expression and behaviour, making them all the more interesting and delicious to better complement our menu,” he shares. “In addition, they tend to be quite multi-faceted, making them even more fascinating to pair with our food in order to further enhance our guests’ experience.”
As Gunnar puts it, people have been making fermented grape juice without additives for thousands of years (although there are accounts of sulfites being used to preserve wine as far back as the 8th century BC). “People think it is a fad or a trend,” he says, “but it’s the traditional way to make wine.”
Wine bars and more
There has been a noticeable increase in the number of wine bars in Reykjavík. Where one long had to suffer a ‘house wine’ in a bar, today’s wine bars centre wines from worlds old, new and in-between. Most of them, unsurprisingly, are concentrated in the heart of downtown Reykjavík, but menus across the country are starting to see a smattering of natural wines, jostling for space with conventional wines.
Still, this sea change is being driven by individuals and establishments who very often are satisfying a craving for choice that has until now been lacking. Ben Boorman and Halldór Halldórsson aka Dori DNA are behind Mikki Refur, an all day wine bar that is a cafe at 11 a.m. and a slick wine bar come 11 p.m. “We did want to monetise the building we were renting,” Ben is honest, “so a daytime offering seemed a logical way to go about that. So a mix of concept and pragmatism,” he offers, going on to add that Mikki is the way it is because, “the worlds of coffee and wine are inextricably linked as pleasures of the senses, with the added bonus that both make you feel some kind of way.”
Ólafur expresses this same desire for a space that was nice, informal, and no nonsense in which to drink. Which is what he did with heading-towards-institution Vínstukan that he runs with Bragi Skaftasson and chef Ragnar Eiriksson. As he bluntly puts it, “we sell what we like, and we don’t drink crap. We focus on interesting wines, mostly natural, but don’t discriminate against more conventional wines, as long as they are not from corporate wineries and only European. Quality for price is what we focus on.”
It is interesting to note that almost every wine bar has its own independent import company. Ben and Dori are behind Berjamór, the couple behind Apéro Vínbar, Marie-Odile Désy and Garðar Víðir Gunnarsson import their own stock, and Gísli Grimsson and Björn Steinar are behind importer Rætur og Vín.
As Gísli, owner of Saltverk and Skál puts it, “it didn’t make sense for a small restaurant to be buying wines in whole pallets so we decided to start Rætur og Vín as an import company. Mostly because of the view that we believed that natural wines were amazing and they opened up a whole new world for us. The ideology of nothing added in the process resonated with the universe that we were already deeply involved in.”
Earlier this year and in a first for Iceland, Manuel Schembri, head sommelier and head waiter at Brút restaurant was a semi-finalist at the ASI Best Sommelier of the World 2023 competition. Held once every three years by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale, the gruelling competition is spread over multiple days and battle-tests the best sommeliers of each participating country to exacting standards. Manuel was also recognised as the 14th best sommelier in the world.
“We are at one of those points where, in the future, we could look back and say, ´that was when the scene really changed in Iceland!’”
Last year at the Star Wine List Awards, Dill took home silver for both Sustainable Wine List of the Year and the Best Short List of the year, while Brút bagged silver in three categories – Sparkling Wine List (appropriate, of course), Austrian Wine List and the Medium-sized Wine List. Add to this mix Michelin Star recognitions for Dill and Ox, and a 50 Best Discovery spotlight on cocktail bar Jungle, and you’ll soon recognise the country’s potential as a global dining destination.
We will continue to see more wine bars and more restaurants offering interesting wine lists, all those I spoke with agreed. Even if “they are popping up everywhere like daisies!” exclaims Alba enthusiastically. “Wine should be fun and delicious,” Gunnar says and Gísli agrees, “natural wines today are always getting better with every year and Iceland is catching on that wines don’t have to be super serious to be super fun to drink.
It has to be said that this little revolution is also being led by sommeliers young and experienced who tell a story and lead you by hand, appealing to a whole new generation of wine drinkers otherwise excluded by the stiff formality. Drinking wine shouldn’t be like going to church where the sommelier, in place of a priest, stands between you and a good time. This rejection of jargon and bow ties in favour of enjoyment and preference unique to each diner plays a pivotal role in this changing landscape.
Whether we will see homegrown potato wine, a la Peru’s Manuel Choqque Bravo’s famed tuber wine served at Central, Kjoll and Mil remains to be seen. But for now, as Ben sums it up, “we are at one of those points where, in the future, we could look back and say, ´that was when the scene really changed in Iceland!’”
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