In vino veritas, part XXXV: Eastern European wines

When you picture vineyards, your first thoughts are probably going to be along the lines of bucolic, sun-baked hills in a lush Mediterranean climate. Even though it was in these lands where grapes were first domesticated and where most of the world’s produce still originates, let’s not discount the ingenuity occurring in small pockets across the globe that is allowing for some rather tasty bottles to emerge.

While some people may consider Austria and Greece part of Eastern Europe, I’ve already covered those two nations in previous posts. This entry concerns Hungry, Romania, Bulgaria and, to a certain extent, the Balkans, all with quintessentially continental climates. That’s quite a bit of territory to cover, but as your guests are concerned, you only need a cursory knowledge base of the region, largely because many of the names are unusual and thus intimidating to the average Western consumer.

Up until a few years ago, if you were to ask me about wines from this region, I’d be drawing a big white blank. But where there’s lack of knowledge, there’s also the opportunity for learning, especially given the fact that Eastern European wines are in vogue right now. And so I educated myself, which in turn meant lots of drinking.

Full confession: I was highly skeptical when I first heard about this latest trend. I reasoned that the impetus for all this hubbub was the pursuit of cheap liquor that doesn’t immediately call to mind skunk vinegar. What convinced me, though, was a sturdy reminder that the entirety of this region below the Danube was once Roman land, and the imperialists were quick to import their viticultural traditions. (Romanian is, after all, a Romance language, with many of its words derived from Latin.)

Not only do Eastern European wines still boast many of the same growing practices and vine lineages as their ancient Greek and Italian trading partners, but, ever since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, capitalistic enterprises have also flourished, resulting in vastly increased production and better tasting products overall. So, let’s brush over a few highlights from the region so you can better sell these exotic and relatively inexpensive bottles.

Romania’s three name wine regions are Murfatlar adjacent to the Black Sea, and Dealu Mare and Tarnave on the southern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, all of which have widespread penetration of international grapes. In this sense, you might consider stocking a familiar varietal from a strange land to ease guests into the purchase. But higher-quality indigenous varietals like Feteasca Neagra, Feteasca Alba, Negru de Dragasani and Tamaioasa Romaneasca are emerging as niche exports (easy names to remember, as neagra and alba denote black and white, respectively, while the third has the country’s name in it).

The best way to sell Romanian wine is to appeal to a patron’s sense of heritage; Romanian winemakers have been perfecting their craft for thousands of years. The region has now almost fully recovered from the cultivation hiccup that was the latter half of the 20th century, but the prices have yet to keep pace relative to quality. This vending notion also extends to the wines of most other European Eastern nations like Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and even Russia, where jug-wine producers are slowly upgrading their practices for a better-tiered selection.

Next on the highlight reel is Hungary, and this mainly involves whites, sparkling wines and dessert wines from the renowned Tokaj region, which is a volcanic-soiled plateau in the northeast with a well-shielded microclimate resulting from its location within the concavity of the crescent-shaped Carpathian Mountains. The only other prestigious contributor worth mentioning at a glance is the Bull’s Blood of Eger — Egri Bikavér in the local tongue — as a bold red blend of Germanic and French varietals.

Although dry Tokaji are beginning to make an impression on the marketplace, when these Hungarian wines are mentioned it is more or less assumed the discussion will pertain to the nectar-sweet bottles made from Furmint, Muscat and Harslevelu grapes, often harvested around November and nobly rotted for enhanced sugar concentration. In addition to their popular namesake, many Tokaji have a topaz or stark amber coloration, which can be used as an additional selling point as they offer a visual demarcation from other whites and thus the heightened perception of a differentiated drinking experience.

Tokaj wines’ stellar reputation isn’t built on mere hype; they taste fantastic! Of all the nomenclature thrown around in this post, if you had to choose just one cellar addition, I would recommend a Tokaji. They’re consistent, and they have the most recognizable name. A caveat before you stock up: these wines are incredibly sweet. In fact, much like French champagnes, they are graded on a sweetness scale. Be sure to test out your comfort zone (as well as that of your guests) on this scale before purchasing en masse.

Moving along the Balkan Peninsula, we arrive in Bulgaria. Even though Bulgaria’s reputation as a producer has slid in the past few decades, we must not forget that their winemaking traditions were incubated by Greek colonists many centuries before the Romans arrived. Much like the effects of the Carpathians, the Balkan Mountain Range, which horizontally bifurcates the nation, also acts as a barrier from the cold continental winds sweeping off the Russian steppe. Aside from a heavy penetration of international varietals, the foremost hero worth stocking comes via Mavrud grapes. Originating from the Greek word for black (and in fact there’s an outstanding Greek wine with a similar name called Xinomavro), Mavrud bottles are both highly tannic and quite spicy.

I hope this is enough to entice you to consider perusing Eastern European wines for your guests when your cellar starts running low. There are quite a few hidden gems for bargain prices, and the quality will only continue to improve as modern practices take root.