Given a map of Central and Eastern Europe— once the heart of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War era—the average American wine consumer would struggle to pinpoint countries like Slovenia, Hungary, Romania or Georgia.
But in terms of global wine production, the region is actually a substantial contributor. As of 2010, Romania ranked sixth in the European Union for wine production, sandwiched between Germany and Greece. Hungary trails just after Greece in eighth place. Labeled with tongue-tying grape varieties like Hárslevelű and Busuioacă de Bohotin, or appellations like Hvar or Crişana-Maramureş, it’s not surprising that U.S. imports from these regions have been limited in volume.
According to sommeliers like Thomas Pastuszak, wine director of the NoMad hotel and restaurant in New York City, the region is a veritable treasure chest of wines, offering incredible diversity and a strong connection to land and history.
“I love to wow guests by introducing them to these unique wines,” he says, speaking about producers like Slovenia’s Movia, a darling in sommelier and wine-geek circles for its biodynamic, low-intervention winemaking and amphorae-aged offerings.
“Initial reactions to my recommendation are often those of skepticism,” he says, “…but when they taste the wine and enjoy a bottle over the course of their meal, they are always thankful to have been exposed to these beautiful, hidden gems of the wine world.”
Wines from Central and Eastern Europe are increasingly modern and consumer-friendly in style. Many offer an array of solidly crafted, international varietal wines—Merlot, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc—some at incredible bargain prices.
Stetson Robbins, a sales representative at Blue Danube Wine Company, specializes in imports of wines from Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia. According to Robbins, sales of wines from these regions are “…a little elusive, and it’s hard to predict where things will go.”
Robbins finds potential, however, in almost every corner of Central and Eastern Europe. “Croatia,” he says, “is the one that has the most glitter…because it’s so beautiful, and so close to Italy.”
For Robbins, “Hungary is like the new France. It’s developed conceptually and there’s a deeper understanding of their terroir, there’s an incredible diversity in grapes and wine styles, and a lot of the classic, archetypal sorts of wines.”
Slovenia, he adds, is lauded for its diversity of producers making idiosyncratic, complex wines.
Situated across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, and extending down the Dalmatian coast to Albania, Croatia is a unique meeting point between Western and Central Europe.
The coastal regions offer some of the nation’s best wines. Istria, adjacent to the Slovenian coast, offers a variety of quality red wines made from grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Teran (known in Italy as Refosco). White wines like Malvasia Istriana, a particularly aromatic variety of Malvasia, are promising, especially in the hands of one of the region’s best producers, Ivica Matošević.
The seaside vineyards of the Pelješac peninsula, including the lauded subregions, Dingač and Postup, yield Plavac Mali wines that are dense, powerful and perfumed with scents that range from meaty and earthy to floral and herbaceous.
The surrounding islands of Hvar and Korčula yield exceptionally crisp, aromatic white wines from the indigenous Pošip grape.
Winemaking runs deep in Croatian culture, and its expatriates have found much success abroad. Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, of Napa Valley fame, returned to Croatia to make wine in 1996. Kumeu, one of New Zealand’s renowned wine regions, was established by a handful of Croatian families who settled in Kumeu in the 1930s and developed wineries like Kumeu River, Matua Valley and Nobilo.
An eclectic mix of long-standing Croatian winemakers, businessmen, returnees and foreign investors are responsible for Croatia’s most successful wineries. Americans Lee and Penny Anderson founded Korta Katerina after they fell in love with Croatia during their travels. Ernest Tolj, a successful businessman and entrepreneur, started Saints Hills, hiring Bordeaux’s Michel Rolland as a consultant. Alen Bibic´ of Bibich is a Croatian who was able to reestablish his family’s winery only after clearing landmines from his ancestral vineyards.
Flanked by Russia to the north and Turkey and Armenia to the south, Georgia is where Eastern Europe meets Asia. Here, in the Southern Caucasus, evidence of winemaking, including grape presses and clay fermentation vats called qvevri, date back 6,000 years.
Until 2006, when Russia imposed a trade embargo on Georgian wines, 90% of Georgia’s wine production was exported there. Since then, Georgia has been on a mission to establish new markets, diversify its offerings and increase quality and competitiveness in the global market.
Saperavi, Georgia’s dominant red-wine grape, yields bold, deeply colored and often age-worthy wines, with substantial acid and alcohol levels. Its dominant white, Rkatsiteli, was once the most-planted grape in the Soviet Union and revered for its adaptability to an array of winemaking styles, both modern and ancient. Sparkling wines made using the méthode Champenoise process have been produced in Georgia since the late 1800s, and some of the best in Eastern Europe are blends of traditional Georgian grapes like Chinebuli, Mtsvane and Tsitska made by Bagrationi 1882.
Ironically, the most buzz-worthy Georgian wines today are the most ancient in style— wines that were “natural” and “low intervention” far before such concepts existed. In Italy, Friuli winemaker Josko Gravner makes his sought-after “orange” wines using ancient Georgian techniques: white grapes macerated for long periods with grape skins, seeds and stems in qvevri coated with beeswax and buried below ground. The low, constant temperature of these qvevris supports slow oxygenation of the wines, yielding deeply colored red- and orangehued white wines with powerful, complex flavors and intense tannins.
Some of the most ethereal qvevri wines are produced at places like the centuries-old Alaverdi Monastery. While limited in supply, the Alvaderi wines, along with other excellent Georgian qvevri offerings from producers like Telavi and Pheasant’s Tears, are increasingly available in the United States.
Described by Louis XV as “the king of wines and the wine of kings,” Tokaji Aszú, the unctuous, honeyed wine made from superconcentrated, botrytized grapes, has long been the archetypical Hungarian wine. Beloved by Thomas Jefferson and Russian czars alike, the ebulliently floral, lusciously fruity wines are traditionally a blend of Tokaji grapes: Furmint, Hárslevelű and varieties of Muscat. Excellent brands readily available in the U.S. include Royal Tokaji, Tokaj Classic, Patricius and Sauska.
In the past decade, recognizing a global change in preferences, Hungarian winemakers have shifted toward production of dry wines. The best dry whites, from producers like Királyudvar, Patricius, Chateau Dereszla and Sauska, are made from Furmint or blends of traditional Tokaji grapes. They exhibit all of the honeyed, floral exuberance and luscious, waxy mouthfeel of their sweet counterparts. Dry, refreshing Hungarian renditions of Pinot Grigio and Grüner Veltliner (Zöld Veltelini in Hungary), as well as local grape varieties like Irsai Olivér are also easily accessible to the American palate.
Although Hungary’s white wines receive much of the attention, its red wines are also notable. Egri Bikavér (“Bull’s Blood of Eger”), a potent, ruby-red blend of traditional and international grapes, is perhaps Hungary’s most famous— albeit often overproduced—red wine.
In recent years, varietal Kadarka, Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch), Kékoportó (Blauer Portugieser) and Pinot Noir from red wine regions like Villány, Szekszárd and Sopron show remarkable balance and complexity. Powerful Bordeaux-style red blends from producers like Szõke Mátyás, Gere Attila, Sauska and Vylyan are worth seeking out.
Despite its long, ancient winemaking history, post-communist Romania has taken to the international marketplace with a surprisingly entrepreneurial New World zeal.
The sixth-largest wine producer in the E.U., Romania has long held a quiet yet impressive presence within Central and Eastern Europe. In recent years, many of the nation’s top wineries, like Cramele Recaş, Murfatlar, Prahova Valley, Cramele Halewood and Senator, have made substantial investments in technology. An increased focus on grape growing and modern, hygienic winemaking has resulted in high-quality offerings with a significant degree of consistency.
Romania has always been host to an unusually large array of both international and native grape varieties. In recent years, alongside excellent Romanian varieties like Fetească Neagră (which yields structured red wines full of black fruit and herbaceous, floral tones) and Sarba (a crisp, refreshingly acidic white wine bearing stone fruit and citrus flavors), new plantings have focused on Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Since 2010, in cooperation with the international négociant, Cameron Hughes, Cramele Recaş—one of Romania’s most venerable wineries, with a history of continuous production since 1477—has brought its impeccably wellmade Frunza line of international-style wines to Sam’s Club stores throughout the U.S. for less than $7 per bottle.
Nestled within the crossroads of the Alps and the Mediterranean, Slovenia is home to some of the most exciting wines in Central Europe. Since the fall of communism, much of Slovenia’s wine production has returned to small, family-owned operations where individualism and experimentation have taken center stage.
Primorska, to the west, shares borders with Friuli in Italy. In this hilly terrain, political boundaries have shifted so frequently that single vineyards often amble across both countries, and winemaking styles are inseparably intermingled. Rebula is the predominant white grape (as in Friuli, where it’s known as Ribolla Gialla), but international varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are also common, yielding powerful, dry, aromatic wines.
Among the region’s best producers like Movia, Marjan Simčič, Edi Simčič, Sutor and Burja, it’s increasingly difficult to pinpoint adherence to any specific traditional or regional style. Rather, the developing trend seems to be a bold sense of experimentation and expression using a variety of grapes and winemaking styles. Varying degrees of sustainable, organic and biodynamic winemaking practices are often at play, as well as experimentation with ambient yeasts, Georgian qvevri, and a host of unusual barrelageing techniques.
Central and Eastern European Essentials
A mixed case of recommended wines from Central and Eastern Europe.
90 Korta Katarina 2007 Reuben’s Private Reserve Plavac Mali (Pelješac). Coarse tannins and tones of smoke, sun-dried hay and cocoa powder add a bold, brawny dimension to the fleshy, ripe plum and cherry flavors and elegant violet aromas that persist on the finish. Katherine’s Garden LLC.
abv: 15.4% Price: $57
88 Matošević 2009 Alba Malvasia (Istria). Notes of ripe melon and subtle white flower perfume this voluptuous Malvasia, which bursts with a sweet stone-fruit flavor and a pleasantly bitter almond note on the finish. New Riviera Imports.
abv: 13% Price: $20
87 Bagrationi 1882 2007 Reserve Brut (Georgia). Made in the méthode Champenoise style from a blend of traditional Georgian grapes, this is a delicately effervescent sparkler, with a delicious bouquet of brioche, white flower and sugar cookie. Pacific Wine Marketing Group.
abv: 13% Price: $20
87 Telavi 2009 Satrapezo 10 Qvevri Rkatsiteli (Kakheti). This traditionally made wine features rose and waxy flower notes that mingle with accents of savory nuts and nut skins. The concentrated palate of tangerine and stone flavors bears a bristle of grape-skin astringency. Corus LLC.
abv: 13% Price: $30
92 Royal Tokaji 2007 Red Label Aszú 5 Puttonyos (Tokaji). Ebulliently floral on the nose, this decadently creamy Tokaji bursts with characteristic honey, peach preserve and dried fig sweetness and a streak of citrusy acidity that adds balance. Wilson Daniels Ltd.
abv: 11.5% Price: $43
90 Gere Attila 2007 Kopar Cuvée (Villány). Luscious but pristinely ripe black-fruit and sweet spice notes are gorgeous on the nose and palate of this bold, penetrating, yet impeccably structured wine. Blue Danube Wine Co.
abv: 15% Price: $60
89 Szőke Matyás 2011 Zo˝ld Veltelini Grüner Veltliner (Mátra). A note of white, waxy flower and a wisp of smoke on the nose introduce intense flavors of tangerine and lime, with peppery, leafy notes. Blue Danube Wine Co. Best Buy.
abv: 13% Price: $13
89 Cramele Halewood 2009 Kronos Limited Edition Pinot Noir (Dealu Mare). Delicate yet beguiling, with aromas of violet, pomegranate and granite, this is full of crisp red-cherry and plum flavors, but keenly balanced by brisk acidity and finely grained tannins. Terra Firma USA Inc.
abv: 13.5% Price: $20
88 Senator 2011 Monser Sarba (Dealurile Husilor). Ebullient on the nose and palate with notes of spring blossoms, ripe peaches and yellow cherries, this is a concentrated, quaffable white wine, bearing striking acidity and glistening wet-stone minerality. Danax International. Best Buy.
abv: 13% Price: $10
91 Edi Simčič 2006 Duet Lex (Goriška Brda). Lifted blackberry and cherry aromas meld into flavors of ripe black fruit, violet and black pepper on this bold, concentrated wine that has vibrant acidity and lush, furry tannins. August Wine Group. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 15% Price: $75
90 Kabaj 2006 Amfora (Goriška Brda). Delightfully curious, this luscious, multifaceted wine is penetrating with flavors of dried fruit, tea leaf, honey and smoke, and bristling tannins that linger long on the finish. Blue Danube Wine Co.
abv: 12.7% Price: $90
88 Kayra 2008 Vintage Single Vineyard Collectible Series #5 Öküzgözü (Elâzığ). Exotic spice and savory meat tones add dimension to sultry black-fruit and fig flavors on this lovely Turkish red. Maritime Wine Trading Collective. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14% Price: $20
Filling in the Rest of the Map
The classic Old World winemaking regions, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Piedmont, are all located between 40˚ and 50˚ latitude, where climates are generally favorable for fine wine production. Much of Central and Eastern Europe falls within the same zones. With winemaking histories that began prior to those of France, Italy or Spain, the region as a whole could be considered the original “Old World” of wine.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Concentrated in the Herzegovina side of the country, winemaking here is heavily influenced by its Austro-Hungarian history. The nation’s most promising wines are made from indigenous grapes like Blatina, which produces a ruby-red wine with bold alcohol and acidity, and Žilavka, which yields dry, fullbodied and aromatic white wines.
Bulgaria: Once a formidable global exporter of mass-produced, bargain-priced Cabernet Sauvignon, Bulgarian wine exports slowed dramatically through the 1980s and ’90s. With a new influx of foreign capital and modern technology, Bulgaria is reintroducing a wide range of value wines from both native and international varieties, and quality is increasing.
Moldova: Though little known in the U.S., Moldova was once one of the largest suppliers of fine wine to the former Soviet Union. In recent years, this small, land-locked country has intensified its investments in winemaking technology and is aggressively courting markets to the West and in Asia. The majority of its vines are international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but some of its most famous wines are made from the Georgian Saperavi.
Turkey: Turkey has the fourth-largest vineyard acreage in the world, but only 2% of its grapes are vinified. Promising native grapes include Kalecik Karası and Öküzgözü for fruity red wines with bold acidity; and Emir, a delicate, minerally white. International varieties like Syrah and Muscat are on the rise.
Ukraine: Like Moldova, Ukraine was one of the top suppliers of wine to the former Soviet Union. Since the millennium, Ukraine has aggressively pursued new Western and Asian markets. Massandra, its most famous producer, was built by czars in the late 1800s in coastal Crimea and is renowned for high-quality fortified and dessert wines with borrowed monikers like Port and Yquem.