Expanding the Vinous Map – Exciting Wines from Eastern Europe and the Middle East
Nowadays we face an unprecedented amount of good and great wines to choose from. Not only from well established and popular wine regions, but from lesser known appellations in traditional winemaking countries and also, from other areas that, while maybe veterans in vinous elaboration, haven’t got their moment under the spotlight. Yet.
Today we’re travelling further, to discover the wonderful options that Eastern and Central European countries as well as some parts of the Middle East have to offer…
The map of Europe looked radically different a hundred years ago. Capitals Vienna and Budapest of Austria and Hungary respectively shared the river Danube and also an Empire that covered much of the river’s journey through mainland Europe. No stranger to invasions herself, Hungary has always proven to be adept at adapting to her changing circumstances. This was never so true than with her wines.
Following the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was filleted and reduced massively as Europe was carved up. During the latest invasion by the Soviet Union after the Second World War, under the communist regime, wine quality was neglected as the focus was on industrial scale production. After the demise of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, new international investment poured into the wineries in the nineties.
Because of her long historical connection with Austria, Hungary’s natural inclination to face westwards meant she was the first of the former Eastern Block countries to capitalise on the new European markets that opened up. Quality once again filled the vacuum that was sucked out by mediocrity.
Hungary’s principal grape for white wine is Furmint. The name is taken from the word “froment” which describes the wheat-gold colour of the wine it can produce. Traditionally, Furmint was used in the blend of Tokaji Aszu sweet wines because of its magnificent counter-balancing acidity levels.
Although the demand for dry wines grew in the nineties, it took a decade until the noughties before Furmint’s potential to produce fire and brimstone dry whites was realised. The Tokaj region was created in 1757 by Royal decree and was the first wine appellation ever to be created. The volcanic subsoil gives a great minerally backbone character to the wines.
Meanwhile, on the red front, Hungarian red wines have earned some respect. Even back in the seventies, many students will recall Bull’s Blood of Eger. The wine earned its name from an attack on the fortress defence town of Eger in 1552. The attacking Turks attributed the valour and courage of the men on the battlements to the red liquid they drank, believing it to be the blood of bulls. No one thought to correct them.
Slovenia (Slovenija) has a necklace of countries on its hilly borders clockwise north-eastern Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia before opening to the Adriatic Sea opposite Venice.
Smaller than Ireland, Slovenia is a mere three hours’ drive east to west and less north to south. Slovenia’s wine tradition is unusual in Europe because its two-and-a-half thousand year winemaking culture by early Celtic tribes pre-dates the Romans whose expanding Empire later planted vines in France and beyond.
The Christian Church’s monasteries controlled most of the vineyards in the Middle Ages. With the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War and the establishment of the Yugoslav republics after the WWII, cooperatives took over and quality slumped. Slovenia was more known for simple bulk wines e.g. Ljutomar Laski Rizling, shipped in tankers to England for bottling as a light-bodied and fruity white wine.
Slovenia was the first of the Yugoslav republics to gain independence in 1991 and its strong links with the west helped to rejuvenate its quality. Most of the wine made is dry white from a medley of different grape varieties, both famous and unfamiliar.
In Croatia, opposite Italy’s east coast across the crystalline waters of the Adriatic Sea, lies Istria (Istre), the most northern of the coastal regions and home to some of the country’s best wines that reflect the region’s easygoing and food focused lifestyle.
The reds are made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Teran (known in Italy as Refosco). The most prized white is Malvasia Istriana, a particularly aromatic variety of Malvasia. The other coastal vineyards of the Pelješac peninsula are home to the black grape, Plavac Mali. It will come as no surprise that these wines are intense, powerful and perfumed because Plavac Mali is related to Crljenak Kaštelanski (aka Zinfandel).
The Greek island of Crete is an island full of contradictions and unexpected delights. The fifth largest island in the Mediterranean and Greece’s second largest wine region, Crete defies the expectations of a hot climate wine style because most of its vineyards are in the high altitude interior around 600 m – 800 m where winter snow is common. Over two thirds of the wine is white and in a crisp, subtle and light-bodied style 12%-13% ABV.
Phylloxera’s underground assault on Europe’s vines’ roots in the 1880s arrived in Crete nearly a century later in the 1970s, protected by the sea. The sap-sucking louse forced a major replanting of Crete’s vineyards but with the then trendy international varieties. Coupled with Greece’s challenged economy for the past decade causing a drop in domestic wine consumption – encouraged a greater appreciation and USP of local varieties for export.
Most of the Lebanon’s eight million bottles of wine come from its high altitude Bekaa Valley. Even the valley floor is 1000 m above sea level and its protective mountains crest 3,000 m. Cool summer nights prevent too rapid a sugar ripening that would otherwise require premature harvesting before the aromatics and flavours had fully developed in the grapes.
The French influence is strong. Vines associated with Bordeaux and the Rhône are the most widely planted: Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc with Merlot marry well in blends with Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan. In fact, blends are the most successful wines. Several wineries take the name Chateau in their title with Chateau Musar pioneering the reputation for premium quality wines and Chateau Ksara producing nearly 40% of the Bekaa Valley’s wines.
Tokaji T Furmint 2016, Pajzos, Tokaj, Hungary
€17.25 – Available at Sweeney’s, Glasnevin and The Corkscrew, Chatham Street and jnwine.com
White pepper and lemon peel aromas. Delicious ripe apple and citrus flavours with the lemony acidity well-integrated and interwoven seamlessly.
Light bodied and a long mineral finish.
Food friend: Partner with smoked fish in a creamy onion sauce and celeriac mash.
Chardonnay & Rebula 2016, Gasper, Slovenia
€17.99 – Available in Dublin at Blackrock Cellar; Drink Store; McHugh’s and Sweeney’s. O’Brien’s nationwide; JJ O’Driscoll, Cork; Manning’s Emporium, Ballylickey; Red Nose Wine, Clonmel and Wineonline.ie
Ripe orchard fruit aromas. A lively palate with crisp acidity, white pepper spice and a salty finish.
The Rebula (aka Ribolla Gialla in Italy’s Friuli) giving a citrusy accent.
Food friend: Grilled seatrout studded with ginger root and a little soy sauce.
Graševina 2016, Golden Valley, Slavonija region, Croatia
€14.80 – Available at Marks & Spencer nationwide (Vegan friendly)
Exotic fragrance of ripe peach, melon, musk and freesia.
Delicious, dry and aromatic flavours with a finish of lychees. Light and refreshing.
Food friend: Roasted chicken or pork or grill a round of brie or Camembert for an instant fondue.
Dafni 2016 Lyrarakis Family, Crete
€15.00 – Available at Marks & Spencer nationwide (Vegan friendly)
Highly aromatic with pure bay leaf and a hint of pine scents. Made with a local white grape variety, saved from extinction by a couple of winery families. Dafni also means bay laurel tree and the aromatic similarities are striking. A very distinctive and tasty palate of bay leaf tea, very fresh and light bodied.
Food friend: Spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese parcels) or pasta with a creamy pea and ham sauce.
MediTERANeo 2015 Vina Laguna, Istre, Hrvatska/ Croatia
€14.95 at Mitchell and Sons, including Avoca Stores
Teran, (Refosco in Italy) has aromas of fresh berry fruits and sappy vegetal notes.
Flavours of crunchy red and blue berry fruits, lifted by crisp acidity and moderate tannins. In a Beaujolais style of light-bodied refreshing lunch-time wine.
Food friend: A plate of charcuterie with pickles.
Clos St. Alphonse 2015 Chateau Ksara, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
€15.50 at Marks & Spencer nationwide
A blend of French classic varietals Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. An attractive savoury bouquet delivered by the meaty Syrah.
Seductive flavours of black berry fruits, pepper from aging in French oak barrels and refreshing acidity follow.
Food friend: Loves lamb and meaty herby casseroles.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.
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