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When I first started my career in wine, some 19 years ago, the realisation that a Central or Eastern European wines could potentially become a respectable, premium commodity would almost seem a joke! Apart from the classic Hungarian Tokai or Bulls Blood, if you could find them, there really wasn’t a great deal to shout about.
In my formative years I worked for Bottoms Up in Teddington, South West London. Now, when I take my mind back to those early days and think of our range, my recollection of Eastern European wines is of cheap, entry level, non-descript pulp.
The Bulgarian stocked was a red and white, simply labelled as ‘Country Red’ and ‘Country White’; both initially in litre bottles I might add. No varietals were listed on the packaging but the customers who bought them did so purely because they were cheap and, like I said, in litres.
These particular customers weren’t too fussed about the overall quality of the wines as, the perception was “this is just what Eastern European wines did” and to a point they would be correct!
Eastern Europe wasn’t a region noted by our more affluent customers as an area worth pursuing, unless you wanted wine for a party, if you had the money you would stick with what was widely recognised as the countries of choice; France, Spain, Italy and (back then) the ever more popular New World countries.
If we shift ourselves briefly into Central Europe the only wine of note sold was a generic Greek Retsina, to which I was reliably informed by a Retsina connoisseur that not even the Greeks would drink this particular brand!
During my 19 years I have seen a decline in our shops of those cheaply produced Eastern European wines, maybe with the exception of bulk Romanian Pinot Grigio, offering a counterweight to the commercial Italian style we see all too often; as Bob Dylan would say though, the times they are a changing!
Time to move to the present!
Over the last few years both central and Eastern European wine regions have been stirred from hibernation; countries that, by in large, have a long history in wine and yet fall from the minds of the everyday wine consumer.
The Balkan states have played their part in this redevelopment with Croatia taking a firm lead. The days of mass producing bulk table wine for exportation would appear to have been pushed by the wayside. Provenance and history are the key words, showcasing indigenous varietals, terroir and understanding. In 2011 the online UK retailer, Croatian Fine Wines LTD was set up, their mission statement “To share the pleasure and experience of drinking fine wines from Croatia.” Marks & Spencer too have shown their support of Croatia, along with other less familiar wine territories; Georgia, Israel, Lebanon and Macedonia.
Last year Signature Global set up a new wine division, Signature Wines UK, to their expanding portfolio. The company was tasked with launching a new, premium Macedonian wine to the UK market with Stobi Wine. Again provenance was key in aiding in the development of the brand, highlighting varieties such as the regions pride, Vranec. Created in 2009 Stobi owner, Minco Jordanov, invested €20 million in building a new state of the art winery. The quality of the wine has proved positive within the trade itself with highly supportive comments coming from Oz Clarke and Olly Smith; meanwhile the Stobi Vranec will soon be hitting the shelves at High St wine outlet, Wine Rack (RRP £9.99).
Not to be left out of the renaissance equation leads me back to Hungary and Bulgaria with The Wine Society. The Current Wine Society listing offers eight reds and eleven whites from around Eastern Europe, including Hungary’s Hilltop Corvinus Red (RRP £6.50), the wonderfully new Gamza Black Pack Borovitza from Bulgaria (RRP £11.95).
As with other regions around Eastern Europe there are a lot of unknown grapes out there to be tapped into. The wines already noted have done just that with the Balkans Vranec and Bulgaria’s Gamza, (A.K.A Hungary’s Kadarka) both big rich red varieties with the potential to break Cabernet Sauvignon, and other international grapes, hold on the market.
Since those days where cheap glugging slosh was served up as everyday, acceptable, drinking wine the East and Central European wine industry has begun to take itself very, very seriously. The developments have been, or are being, put in place. Masters of Wine are being sent on advisory missions to assist, Signature Wines UK currently has three on their books. Meanwhile good major wine retailers are now given these areas a second glance, finding the next best interesting thing that can deliver a premium wine at a fraction of a premiums cost.
There are a lot of hidden gems yet to be discovered and I myself can’t wait to find what is lurking around the next corner…..watch this space!
Story by me!
Featured in Harpers.co.uk Opinion & Columnists