Wongraven: where Norwegian black metal meets fine wine
Sigurd Wongraven became famous as front man for Norwegian black metal band Satyricon, but has also developed his own wine brand that has taken off in Norway, and is now spreading further afield. But this isn’t another of those ‘celebrity’ wine ventures: he’s a proper wine geek with an intimate knowledge of the regions he’s working in, and these are very much his wines. Jamie Goode interviews him and tastes some of his wines.
Sigurd Wongraven has two parallel careers. Most people will know him for his role as singer and songwriter for black metal band Satyricon. But over the last 10 years he has also built up a unique wine production company, in addition to traveling the world with his band. Over this time, Wongraven Wines has become one of the most prominent brands in the Norwegian wine market. It’s one of the few wine companies that has been able to combine mainstream commercial success with trustworthiness in the wine geek community.
It’s not unusual for celebrities to get involved in wine projects, but Sigurd’s project is completely different to one of those ventures where someone well known just puts their name to a wine. Wongraven has an in-depth knowledge of wine, and is able to work on a peer-to-peer level with his winemaker partners. “When I started doing this ten years ago I never foresaw selling in excess of a million litres annually,” he says. “At the start I made 1500 bottles and I worried about what would happen if people didn’t like the wine: what would I do with 1500 bottles of wine? But it went well at the beginning and I have never looked back.”
He says that between 1997 and 2004 this latent interest grew, and touring with Satyrticon helped provide opportunities to explore wine further. “Satyricon were touring Europe in the beginning of 2003, and I remember getting more and more interested,” he recalls, giving a couple of specific examples. “We were in Porto and while we were waiting for a sound check we walked around Vila Nova de Gaia tasting things. What blew me away there we were able to taste some old white Port which I thought was complex and fascinating and unlike anything else I’d had before. It came to a point where I realized that to get to the next level, I’d have to start reading wine books and buying wine magazines.” He attended tastings, but the big public tastings weren’t enough: he realized he had to go to the hardcore events with just a dozen or so people, and top fine wines.
Before long Wongraven began writing wine articles for various Norwegian publications. Editors turned to him as a different, alternative voice. It got to the stage where he was offered a book contract. He turned it down. He was offered another, by a second publisher. Again, he said no. Finally, when he was offered a third book deal, his music friends persuaded him to accept, and he did. So Sigurd began visiting wineries in the regions that interested him, spending time with winemakers and getting to see behind the scenes. This is where the idea for Wongraven Wines was born. He never finished the book. Instead, he began creating wines.
“As I started digging into this, I became aware that often importers and product managers were heavily involved in developing wines tailor made for their market,” he says. “I’d visit a cellar and ask, what’s in that barrel? Oh, that’s just something we do for America. Why don’t you sell that in Norway? It’s something our US importer has been asking for.” The penny dropped: if product managers are able to specify their own blends, and create their own wines in a certain style, then he could, too. But there would be a difference. “I wanted to make my own portfolio of wines that are not made for the market, but in a style that I enjoy as a consumer,” he explains. “I don’t think there is a market demand for another traditional Barolo in the Norwegian market, but I know that I’m a huge admirer of this style. I am just as capable of developing a quality traditional Barolo with a winemaker as any product manager or importer would be, but where I differ from them is that they would do something that they think is commercially viable, but I am doing this for different reasons.”
The first Wongraven Wines were a Langhe Rosso and a Barolo, in partnership with a top producer making wine in a low-intervention style. Piemonte, with its amazing vineyard sites translated through the lens of the singular Nebbiolo grape variety is Sigurd’s great wine passion, so it was an obvious place to start. He also made a Champagne, buying the base wines (vins clairs) from top growers, blending them, and then getting a winery in Charly-Sur-Marne to bottle, mature, disgorge and label them. In Germany, he partnered with a winery in the Pfalz region, making classic Riesling but also a unique fine wine from a blend of top vineyards. Normally, the most sought-after category of dry Rieslings, the Grosses-Gewachs (GG), are made from a single vineyard (the top tier, called Grosse Lage). Sigurd had the crazy idea to blend across Grosse Lages, which no one did because then the wine loses the prestige of being bottled as a GG.
Wongraven makes all the blends himself. “If I’m working on a blend and I think to myself that I wouldn’t drink this myself, then it’s not right. The blend is only good enough if I drink the wine when no one is watching.” And there is a Wongraven style. “I want my wines to be fruit-driven, elegant, and to show finesse and depth as opposed to power and volume. I want them to be overwhelming but in a soft-spoken and sophisticated way.”
He emphasizes that his wines don’t succeed through being associated with famous wineries. “My projects, vision and ambitions in the world of wine do not live through the people I work with,” says Sigurd. “The main asset of Wongraven Wines is actually me.” The parallel here with his career with Satyricon is clear here also. “I’ve written all the songs on all the records that we have released for the last 25 years,” he says. “The guys that I work with play their instruments and then they leave the studio. I am the only guy who is there from the very first to the very last day. Satyricon is very much my baby, and through the last 25 years I have been working with some of the most accomplished record producers out there. They are highly confident, experienced people. In the same way that I ask them for their advice, input and guidance and never been afraid to argue or even fight with them, if that’s what it takes to get a song the way I want it to be. I don’t care who they work with or what they’ve done, I have the song as my best interest.”
Ten years on from founding his wine company, Sigurd is still busy as a musician. But he’s also firmly established Wongraven Wines as an important player on the Norwegian wine scene. As well as wine, he’s added a beer to the Wongraven portfolio. And now, he says, it is time to take Wongraven Wines international.
Brewed at Arendals brewery in Norway. Kjetil Jikiun, who co-founded the Nøgne Ø brewery is the consultant brewer. This has a beautifully aromatic nose of lychee, passionfruit, peach and citrus, with some incredible spiciness. In the mouth it is rich with some warmth from the alcohol, a nice fruitiness, notes of honey and toast and a bright spicy finish. Lovely freshness on the finish, with some tart acidity supporting the richer spicy flavours. 8/10
Wongraven Senza Compromesso Piemonte Rosato 2019 Italy
12% alcohol. This is 100% Nebbiolo from good sites. It’s a deep pink red in colour, and it’s a serious gastronomic rose with some lovely tannic structure framing the pure red cherry and cranberry fruit, with its delicate sappy notes adding a foil to the sweet fruitiness, and notes of rosehip syrup and rooibos tea. This inhabits the in-between ground that exists spanning traditional rosé and light red wine, and it could even be used with red meats. Don’t serve too cool, and use a big glass – the sort you might use for Barolo. This could even age for a few years. 92/100
Wongraven Barolo Monvigliero 2016 Piemonte, Italy
14% alcohol. Monvigliero is a special ‘grand cru’ located in the village of Verduno in the north-east of the appellation. It’s known for its elegant wines, a result of the cooler climate here moderated by the Tanaro river that runs through the commune. This wine has been aged for three years in large oak botti. Brooding, elegant and really fine with some subtle tarry, spicy framing to the sleek black cherry and berry fruits on the palate. This is all about the texture: the significant tannins melt into the still-vibrant fruit, and there are layers of aromas and flavours, including black tea, pepper, dried herbs, redcurrants and fresh cherries. There’s a long, tapering, spicy, quite tannic finish. You can drink this now – it has immediate elegance – but it is a 20 year wine. 95/100