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Eastern Promise

Caroline Gilby

The pace of change, distinct cultural differences and rise of exciting new producers in post-communist Eastern Europe continues to fascinate Master of Wine and wine writer Caroline Gilby. More and more of these wines are making it onto our List, so we asked her to tell us about the countries which produce them

There's often a sense of mystery and intrigue about the word 'eastern', though still it sometimes conjures up images of communist collectivism, if attached to the word 'bloc'. From my own experience, I feel the last two decades have seen Eastern Europe evolve from one to the other and today it is a truly fascinating mosaic of different cultures, people, food and, of course, wine.

Slovenia

Slovenia is a real vinous jewel. It's a small but stunning country with mountains, forests, wild flowers, dramatic caves and some truly superb wines. Slovenia gained her freedom from Yugoslavia early, after a short ten-day war, and quickly became a modern European country. There are broadly two distinct viticultural zones: the Mediterranean west is influenced by Italy with vineyards straddling the Collio border (Slovenia got the best hillside sites), making rich reds and powerful full-bodied whites, though often rather pricey. The east is influenced by Austria, much more continental in climate with seriously steep hillsides that produce wines with beautiful mineral elegance and precision. Dveri Pax is a great example of a winery where ancient meets modern, with an immaculate 'state of the art' cellar next to an ancient Benedictine monastery cellar dating back to the 14th century.

Some readers may have memories of Yugoslavia's famous Ljutomer Laški Rizling, which virtually all came from huge state cellars in Eastern Slovenia. Today laški rizling, the grape responsible, has a new face when produced with care and restricted yields in the hands of a sympathetic winemaker such as at Dveri Pax.

View all Slovenia Wines

Just over the border lies Hungary, the most famous wine producer in Eastern Europe, particularly for its gorgeous sweet Tokaji, famously tagged 'king of wines and wine of kings.' There's something very special about this north-eastern corner of the country. It feels like stepping into Tolkien country with its famous Tisza and Bodrog rivers, and hillsides dotted with small tunnel cellars, carved deep into the volcanic bedrock.

Royal Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2008

Foggy mornings and long sunny autumn afternoons provide ideal conditions for noble rot, but drying breezes mean grapes get so shrivelled that pressing alone cannot extract the juice and hence the unique Aszú method. This involves soaking the shrivelled Aszú berries in fermenting juice to extract sugar and flavour. Hungary's dry wines are less well known but have made enormous progress in recent years.

Hungary is arguably stealing a march on Italy in making pinot grigio with actual flavour, but more exciting are some of the distinctive local grapes such as gently spicy fresh cserszegi fûszeres or grapy muskotály.

Hilltop Estates Cserszegi, 2012

On the red side, kékfrankos is worth a taste for its vivid cherry-ish intensity and bright food-friendly flavours, and while cabernet franc is not exactly native, it deserves a mention, as it appears to have found its spiritual home in southern Hungary, especially in Villány. This is one of the few wine regions where cabernet franc outshines its offspring cabernet sauvignon. There's a real love story behind Heumann wines too – Swiss-German owners Erhard and Evelyne fell in love back in 1973 after meeting on a greyhound bus in USA. Evelyne's father first went to Villány in the early 1990s to buy parts for industrial chimneys and came home with a vineyard instead. Family trips there gradually won over the hearts of Erhard and Evelyne who now make wine full-time, focusing on handcrafted quality but at a fair price.

Kékfrankos Reserve 2009 (Villanyi)

Cabernet Franc, Villanyi, Heumann 2008

View all Hungary Wines

Harvesting in Romania

Further east lies Romania. It's a much more Latin culture with a language that shares roots with Italian and wine is very much the national drink (unlike, say, neighbouring Bulgaria where the culture is more Slavic and local spirit rakia rules). Like other countries in the Eastern Bloc, wine production in the past was all about volume, never mind the quality, then the privatization of vineyards meant considerable fragmentation into tiny plots. With the help of EU funding, and a new focus on quality, this picture has changed enormously. British company Halewood was one of the first foreign investors and today has its own vineyards across Romania. Lorena Deaconu, the young woman in charge of winemaking, has a refined and delicate touch, especially evident in the sleek La Catina Pinot Noir, and the delicious viognier blended with just a hint of local tãmâioasã.

Jakob Kripp and his wife Ileana of Prince Ştirbey

Romania has also seen the appearance of proper small wine estates (rare in the east, even though the norm in western Europe). Prince Ştirbey in Drãgãşani is among the best, with its focus on expressing the place through local grape varieties – especially the delightful rose-scented dry and appetising tãmâioasã and inviting feteascã regalã. There's a love story here too. Jakob Kripp was an Austrian lawyer who fell in love with his wife Ileana and promised to help recover her grandmother Princess Maria Ştirbey's wine estates in Romania, succeeding in 2001. It's not often you get lunch cooked by a Baroness herself, but Ileana's food is as good as the wine.

Scurta Vineyard Viognier Tamâioasa, 2012

Prince Stirbey Tamâioasa Româneasca Sec, 2012

Prince Stirbey Feteasca Regala, 2011

View all Romania Wines

These three countries are just a snapshot of the thrills (and to be honest still occasionally spills) to be experienced in Eastern Europe. I can only touch on the rugged scenery and dramatic coastline and lakes of Montenegro with its signature dark, robust and flavoursome vranac (aptly the grape name means 'black stallion'). And on the extreme eastern edge of Europe, Turkey has a truly ancient wine history, with increasing evidence that wild grapevines were first tamed here, near the headwaters of the river Tigris. Turkey is not a major wine producing country with its largely Muslim population, and though officially secular, this brings a whole different raft of cultural challenges. However, the last couple of years have seen some genuinely exciting wines emerging from its unique local grapes. Grapes like bogazkere (meaning 'throat burner' for its strong tannins) or the gentler öküzgözü and kalecik karasi may be impossible to pronounce, but once tasted they are easy to love.

Vranac, 2010 (Plantaze)

Kalecik Karasi, 2011 (Vinkara)

Cheers, and here's hoping I've whetted your appetites to find out more.

Caroline Gilby is a Master of Wine and wine writer with a passion for the wines of Central and Eastern Europe, ever since her first job as a junior wine buyer took her there in the early 1990s. She contributes to several wine books, magazines and websites.

Members' Comments (6)

"It's good to read a few words about Slovenian wines on the website, but could we add some of them to the list of wines that can be bought? I have just returned from two weeks in Slovenia and was most impressed with the quality and range. In particular, I would recommend the wines produced by Marjan Simcic, whose vineyards straddle the Slovenian/Italian border and who produces stunning vintages."

Mr Simon Everson (12-Aug-2014)

"I’ve never visited Simcic, but he has an excellent reputation and like the best growers in Friuli over the border their wines come at quite high price, I believe. We are just about to ship two prize-winning Slovenian sauvignons, called Pullus, from Ptuska Klet, which are great value, to complement the wines we already buy from Dveri Pax. We cannot buy everything!"

Sebastian Payne - The Wine Society (20-Aug-2014)

"My wife and I are in the middle of a two week holiday in Croatia and we we have been amazed to discover the extent of Croatian wine-making history, the fact that some of New Zealand’s great wine makers are Croatian, that Zinfandel is descended from a traditional Croatian grape, and how good the overall quality of many of their wines has turned out to be. Why doesn't the Wine Society stock any? Michael Dods"

Mr Michael H Dods (19-Sep-2014)

"The Croatian island of Krk has a wine making tradition growing the Zlahtina grape. On holiday we visited the renowned Nada restaurant, in the clifftop town of Vrbnik, and tried their own white Zlahtina, it was superb and would make a great addition to the Society's list. Geoff Bayley"

Mr Geoff Bayley (23-Sep-2014)

"I've just looked at the promotion leaflet for the Eastern Europe offer and immediately recognized the view of the World Heritage Site on the front cover., which is also prominent on the website promotion. Are you planning to use a photo of Stonehenge, say, for your next Chilean offer? Is it now Society policy to decorate leaflets with views of places in countries which are not covered by the offer and whose wines the Society doesn't normally... Read more > stock? This particular view might be better on a Californian wine promotion - it is at least connected with Sta Barbara. It made me wonder whether the picturesque landscape view in the new Spanish leaflet is in fact of Argentina or Chile, and whether the buyers are running a competition to see how many leaflets can carry an irrelevant photo before any members notice."

Dr Christopher Currie (12-Nov-2014)

"Thank you for your comments about the cover of the Eastern Europe offer and the landing page on our website. We are sorry that you consider the image to be inappropriate particularly as we have already had several calls from other members saying how much they like it. The image was chosen because we felt it to be both striking and evocative of the landscape and ambience of the expansive geographical region covered in the offer. We purposely did... Read more > not specify its location because we were not including wines from the Czech Republic in the offer. Rest assured we go to great lengths to include imagery in our offers which reflect the wines and regions mentioned but made an exception in this case."

The Wine Society (13-Nov-2014)

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