Never mind the Balkans: Eastern EU wines

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

04 July 2017

Since they emerged from behind the Iron Curtain 25 years ago, Bulgaria, Hungary et al have undergone two decades of high-speed change – not least in their vineyards. Justin Keay investigates this anarchy in the EU to find out which wines are pretty and which ones are just vacant

Somehow it seems scarcely possible that it is nearly 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell and Russia’s post-war domination of Eastern Europe ended. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, much of it fast moving and some of it also, frankly, quite murky.

The region today is very different. It is more westward-looking and more prosperous, with EU and Euro membership a reality for many countries. However, at the same time, the region feels more fragmented and nuanced, in many ways unsure of what the future may bring.

Much the same can be said of the wine industry. Under communism, the priority was making sufficient quantities of average-to-middling quality wine to meet export quotas set under the COMECON treaty with Russia and the unexacting demands of the home market.

Today, post land reform, producers are more numerous and fragmented and looking to boost production and diversify ranges.

Many producers – especially those with an eye on exports – are moving away from dependable but predictable wines made from the noble grape varieties towards historic indigenous grapes, in search of a USP in an increasingly competitive global wine market.

It should be said that these are early days as far as penetration of the UK market goes. Gino Nardella, head sommelier at The Stafford in London, admits the only wine from the region that he lists is a Hungarian Tokaji, and his customers are still reluctant to be drawn.

It will, he points out, take a while for these countries – and their indigenous varieties – to become mainstream, but for restaurants at least there are real options here

‘The market is drowning in lakes of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon,’ he says. ‘Better vinified indigenous grapes are the way to go.’

Growth of the Boutique Producer…

For those of a certain age, Bulgaria in the early 1980s was the go-to place for cheap, good-quality wine. The pulling up of vines soon after – to satisfy president Gorbachev’s ill-starred anti-alcohol campaign – and the 1991 land reform which saw farms and vineyards handed back to the pre-1945 owners, mean the industry looks very different today.

Ivo Varbanov, owner of Varbanov Wines and head of the 32-strong Bulgarian Association of Independent Winegrowers, reckons there are currently some 300 wineries with around 10 new ones starting every year.

The industry has only started taking shape over the past 15 years. It’s been a steep learning curve’ Ivo Varbanov

‘The industry has only started taking shape over the past 15 years,’ he says. ‘It’s been a steep learning curve but with a quick journey to quality, supported by new wine-stock from French and Italian nurseries.’

The trend has been towards the new Greek model with lots of smaller boutique producers pushing the boundaries in terms of quality and ambition. Reds are the country’s strong suit, with varietals including Mavrud, Melnik, Gamza/Kadarka, Rubin and Bouquet (the last two are 1940s era crosses between Syrah/Nebbiolo and Mavrud/Pinot Noir respectively).

Whites are still finding their way, with Dimyat and Misket amongst the native varietals, though Viognier also does very well here, alongside well-established Chardonnay.

A re-zoning of wine regions is currently ongoing, with some 50 potential sub-regions to be identified, but at present there are four key regions: the Danube region, across from Romania, the Black Sea (best for whites), the Struma Valley (home to Bulgaria’s soft, aromatic Melnik grape) and Thrace, home to Mavrud, Bulgaria’s best-known indigenous variety, a sort of Balkan Malbec in style and weight.

Mavrud represents the country’s best chance for getting international recognition for its wines, yet at a major tasting I attended at the Bulgarian Embassy earlier this year it was curiously under-represented.
‘We want to put the focus on terroir rather than varietals,’ says Varbanov, whose wines are sold here alongside Borovitza through Berry Bros & Rudd. He argues that Bulgaria’s wines right now offer ‘good value for pleasure’ with £10-15 a sweet spot.

Best varieties: Mavrud, Melnik
Producers to look out for: Varbanov, Rossidi, Chateau Burgozone, Todoroff, Borovitza. Trastena’s remarkable raspberry wines, including a moreish raspberry/Merlot blend, are also well worth trying.

Any style you want…

Just over the Danube, Romania’s wine industry looks rather different. Whites dominate in this large producing country (almost 60% of the total), led by indigenous varietals Feteasca Regala and Feteasca Alba, but with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio gaining ground in the region.

The replanting of Hungarian varieties is still developing. Producers need to learn to market them with more confidence

Elizabeth Gabay MW

Romania’s leading red varietal by far is Feteasca Neagra, which at its best can produce medium-bodied, elegant, slightly floral wines, but Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are more widely planted, with inexpensive but expressive Pinot Noir emerging as a big contender in export markets.

Volume is king, with five producers making almost 70% of what is consumed at home and a fair chunk of what is exported too. Cramele Recas, located just outside Timisoara in the western region of Transylvania, is a market leader, making a daunting number of wines for everyone from Asda upwards. Founder-owner, Bristol-born Philip Cox, says Romania’s size gives it diversity and also the ability to service both the volume and quality markets.

‘In quality terms each region of Romania has its own strengths, for example our region in Western Romania is strong in Chardonnay, local varietals Feteasca Regala and Feteasca Neagra, but also Pinot Noir. South Romania is strong in bigger reds while the north eastern region, near Moldova, is stronger with white aromatic varietals such as Tamaioasa Romaneasca, Grasa and Muscat,’ he says, adding that the UK is very focused on Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir from Romania while Germany and the Netherlands are much more focused on Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Cox is also upbeat about Romania’s indigenous grapes.

‘Feteasca Regala is light, fruity and aromatic with floral and stone fruit notes and usually sold medium-dry. Feteasca Neagra is also quite light and a bit like a cross between Pinot Noir and Syrah, but with its own juicy red fruit characteristics making it very drinkable. I think these two have the best chance for success outside the country and they both come in a wide range of styles,’ he says.

Cox rejects the widespread perception that Romanian – and indeed his own – wine is more about quantity than quality, pointing out that 800,000 of the nearly 14 million bottles he produces are above eight euros – premium for Romania. Ranges available in the UK include Sole from Oddbins and Alamina from Alliance Wines.

As a non-euro EU member, Romania is set to continue boosting its exports, including to the UK, helped by the huge amount of support it is getting from international financial institutions and Brussels; some 30,000 hectares of vineyard are set to commence production soon, with some of the most modern facilities available, whilst over 100 new producers have started operating since 2012.

Varieties to look for: Feteasca Neagra, Pinot Noir
Producers to look out for: Cramele Recas, Prince Stirbey, Avincis.

Big regional variety

When the country of Yugoslavia finally fell apart in 1991, so too did its already chaotic and fragmented wine industry, but the wine produced by the successor states gets better every year. Least known here are Serbian and Montenegrin wines, though the Vranac grape works both here and in Macedonia.
Slovenia has built a strong position for its fresh white wines, not dissimilar in style from those made over the border in Friuli in Italy; varieties include Ribolla Gialla and amongst reds, Teran, an acidic ‘Marmite wine’.

But most recent buzz has been around Croatia. The distinctiveness of its four main producing regions Istria (which produces accessible, easier drinking wines), Danube/Slavonia (more mineral, medium body), the cooler Zagreb region (lightest of all) and Dalmatia and the Islands (the fullest bodied: home of Plavac Mali, Croatia’s signature grape, producing full-bodied reds with strengths of up to 16.7%) have all been driving interest.

According to Craig Duggan of Croatian Fine Wines, UK demand was fuelled at first by Brits returning from Split or Dubrovnik or Istria, wanting the wines they enjoyed whilst on holiday. But now British importers and distributors are selling Croatian wine encouraged by the increase in quality, a greater variety of styles, and interesting indigenous varieties.

‘Producers are learning from what they’ve seen abroad and in some cases their children are coming, armed with new ideas and techniques, to apply to the business; meanwhile flying winemakers are adding Croatia to their itineraries,’ he says.

Varieties to look for: Plavac Mali
Producers to look out for: Veralda, Matosevic and Vina Kozlović.

Versatile, vibrant, volcanic

Change has also been afoot in Hungary recently. The jewel in the crown, Tokaji, has been attracting healthy amounts of investment, both domestic and foreign. Meanwhile, the other leading wine regions – nearby Eger, and to the south, Szekszárd (home to Kadarka, one of Hungary’s signature grapes) and Villany – have all seen major new investments. Producers – particularly at the smaller boutique end – are making increasingly sophisticated wines.

Even old favourites like Egri Bikavér have had a makeover: St. Andrea Hangács, Cru Egri Bikavér Grand Superior 2013 (available from bears no resemblance to the cheap blends which made Bull’s Blood famous to a generation of wine drinkers in the 1970s and 1980s. This is a sophisticated, full-bodied and aromatic wine, including Kékfrankos, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Kadarka, illustrating how far the ambitions of Hungarian winemakers have come in recent years.
Hungary has been helped by its soil and climate – two-thirds of the country’s soil is volcanic whilst the south gets good heat in summer – and by an array of indigenous varieties which winemakers are not afraid to use, individually or in blends.

‘The replanting of these Hungarian grape varieties is still developing and producers need to learn to market them with a lot more confidence,’ says Elizabeth Gabay MW. She says the Furmint grape is a prime example of this, having had to break away from being just a variety used in sweet Tokaj to finally be regarded as a world-class grape variety in its own right.

Hárslevelü, an aromatic white grape variety, can also make very attractive wines, as does Irsai Olivér – a cross – the old variety Juhfark and red Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch), but much more work needs to be done to spread awareness of these varieties beyond Hungary.

‘Quality wine-making really only goes back 30 years. Vineyards needed restructuring, the terroir needed to be re-understood, new clones developed and where best to plant,’ points out Gabay. She says Hungary is now seeing the second post-communist generation making their mark, using knowledge of what they have seen abroad to bring out the best in the varieties.

‘Hungarian wines are outstanding quality and offer a real point of difference,’ says Lilla O’Connor, head of Wines of Hungary. ‘The future is looking really bright.’

Varieties to look for: Furmint, Hárslevelű, Irsai Olivér, Kékfrankos
Producers to look out for: St Andrea, Csanyi, Gere Attila Pincészete, Balla Géza, (in the former Hungarian territory of Transylvania, now within Romania).


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