The collapse of communism in 1989 revived the idea of Mittel-Europa. But is there such thing as a central-European wine identity, too? Justin Keay reports
Thirty years after the collapse of communism, old traditions seem to be coming back to life in the former constituent parts of the Hapsburg Empire, whose borders transgressed today’s nation states. While enjoying the coffee house culture, visitors to Vienna, Prague, Bratislava and Budapest might also recognise the architectural, social and other similarities uniting Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, but also parts of Slovenia, Croatia and even Italy's Alto Adige.
Are we now seeing the emergence of a central-European wine identity, too? Some indeed believe that central-European wine-making traditions – effectively suspended for 45 years after WW2 – are reasserting themselves.
Grapes without borders
Kathi Moser of Austria’s Sepp Moser winery, points out that Vienna’s Klosterneuburg viticultural school helped foster production across the Austro-Hungarian Empire, adapting varieties to soil types and local climates.
'They did and still do a lot of research and also had a vine nursery from where the young grape vines spread through the empire,' she says, adding that with the interruption of communism behind them, winemakers are returning to the local indigenous varieties grown by their forefathers. These include central Europe’s 'blue grape' (Blaufränkisch aka Frankovka aka Kékfrankos aka Lemberger aka Borgonja), Welschriesling (Olaszrizling), Riesling (Rhine Riesling) and in Hungary and Slovakia, Furmint.
Some winemakers are operating, in essence, as if the Austro-Hungarian Empire never ended, ignoring the national borders that sprang up after 1918
Some winemakers are operating, in essence, as if the Austro-Hungarian Empire never ended, ignoring the national borders that sprang up after 1918. Weingut Moric makes a range of Blaufränkisch wines in vineyards across Austria and Hungary. The two Austrian Pfneiszl sisters opted to start their vineyard in the Hapsburg-era city of Sopron, in western Hungary, making a range of low-intervention wines from indigenous varieties. And at least two major producers in Romania’s Transylvania – Balla Géza (Miniș) and Nachbil (Beltriug) – have Hungarian ancestry. So do many producers in Slovakia, where Furmint is widely grown (the Tokaj region straddles Hungary and Slovakia).
Zdenek Vykoukal, owner of the eponymous winery in the Czech Republic, sees definite signs of convergence even amongst producers who stick within modern borders.
The Pannonian job
'For a long period these countries coexisted in the same state and that's why winemaking shares principles. Also the climate, soils and varieties are similar because most of the vineyards are in what was ancient Pannonia,' he says, adding that Austria is most developed, followed by the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with Hungary catching up fast.
Jiří Šebela, owner of Moravia's Dva Duby winery, echoes this, seeing Austria as most advanced because of its strict wine regulations and strong export performance over the past 20 years, but reckons that 'the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are waiting to be discovered as the new big thing in the wine world'.
The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are waiting to be discovered as the new big thing in the wine world
Increasingly, producers are not only committing to the same indigenous varieties, but also wine style (emphasising freshness, accessibility and minerality) and approach (minimal intervention, often organic and, increasingly, natural). Oak is often eschewed and the focus tends to be more on varietals rather than blends.
'Wine drinkers are looking for more elegance so winemakers are tending to use old oak (no double oak or heavy toasting anymore) for more freshness and more handcrafted, low-intervention wines,' says Moser.
UK consumers in particular seem to have responded positively. Last year the UK trade enjoyed the first tasting dedicated to the 'blue grape' with winemakers from Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia in attendance. It showed that after years of still ongoing post-Communist investment, producers are increasingly committed to making wines that reflect central-European terroir.
Zsuzsa Torony of Wines of Hungary UK, which organised the event, says its success echoed other initiatives, as wine fairs and tastings highlight central Europe’s varieties and increasingly distinctive style. 'We’re seeing a growing consumer trend towards central Europe. And it’s great to see more of these delicious wines coming to the market here.'
12 great central-European wines
Ota Ševčík Frankovka 2018, Czech Republic
Big opulent, red and dark berry fruit but sustained with good acidity.
£16.50, Basket Press Wines, basketpresswines.com
Magula Frankovka 2015, Slovakia
Lovely biting acidity gives way to richness, with herbs and black fruit supporting the palate. Organic.
£18.00, Basket Press Wines, basketpresswines.com
Kovács Nimród Monopole Blues Kékfrankos 2016, Hungary
Full on style, 22 months in oak, silky dark rich fruit, complex and appealing.
£11.15, Boutinot, boutinot.com
Nachbil Blaufränkisch 2017, Romania
Natural wine, unfiltered, edgy but rich, full-flavoured fruit. A different take.
£14.20, Boutinot, boutinot.com
Nachbil Grandpa 2018, Romania
Ok, only 35% is Welschriesling – 60% is Fetească Regală, 5% Baras – but its supporting role is key to this unfiltered, natural wine with rich structure and crunchy acidity. Spontaneous fermentation, wild yeast, a true original.
£15.80, Boutinot, boutinot.com
Zsirai Nagy-Somlói Olaszrizling 2015, Hungary
Spritzy fresh and rounded, peach and apricot flavours abound, with subtle hints of pepper and vanilla.
£13.78, Jascots, jascots.co.uk
(Only Hungarian examples available in UK)
Sanzon Rany Furmint Tokaji 2018, Hungary
Delicious, apricot and apple charged single vineyard wine. Six months on lees, great expression, rounded with lingering acidity.
POA, Novel Wines, novelwines.co.uk
Gizella Furmint/Harslevelu Tokaji 2019, Hungary
Wonderfully fresh cuvee (65% Furmint, 35% Harslevelu) with aromas of peach and linden (Harslevel aka Lindenblatrigger in Austria). Dry, fruit filled palate.
POA, Novel Wines, novelwines.co.uk
Dobogó Tokaji Furmint 2016, Hungary
Lean, mineral with stone fruit flavours coming through firm acidity. A food wine.
POA, Liberty Wines, libertywines.co.uk
Kovács Nimród Sky 2016, Hungary
From Nagy Eged, the highest vineyard in Tokaji, this flagship barrel-and lees aged wine is wonderfully rich and fragrant, with herbal notes and stone fruit supported by good acidity.
POA, Boutinot, boutinot.com
Sepp Moser Ried Gebling 2017, Austria
Although Riesling is grown across central Europe, few examples make it to the UK – except from Austria. This is a delicious bio-dynamic example from this famous estate in Kremstal, rich, honeyed and spicy.
POA, Boutinot, boutinot.com
Château Belá Riesling 2017, Slovakia
Saarland’s famous Egon Muller together with Miroslav Petrach produce this delicious, mineral, tropical fruit and petrol-noted wine. From Sturovo, Slovakia’s southern most region near the Danube and the Hungarian border.
£15.64, Top Selection, topselection.co.uk