Posted on | June 28, 2012
Written by | Jack Robertiello
When two Feteasca Neagra varietal wines from Romania received high marks and recommendations in the 2012 Ultimate Wine Challenge in New York recently, not much notice was taken. But for winemakers and reps from former Soviet Bloc countries, the respectable showing is another small step in their effort to increase awareness and interest in the wines coming from a vast area of Eastern Europe.
Not many wine buyers, sellers and sommeliers have shown much interest in the indigenous and international-style wines coming from the region, but a recent willingness by producers to market and promote their wares has started to erase the image of pre-1990 Eastern Europe as a source of indifferent bulk wine.
“There’s no lack of interest, that’s for sure, in the last year or two. People are looking for new and exciting things, wines that are novelties but especially the authenticity you can find,” says Cliff Rames, a sommelier who represents Wines of Croatia in the U.S.
A combination of trends has spurred a slow increase in awareness of these wines: the growing importance of the U.S. as a wine export market; the evolution of the wine business in the post-Soviet nations; in some cases the entrance into the Euro zone and its accompanying financial and trade support; and the overall investment and improvement in modern techniques.
As nations including Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and the new states of the former Yugoslavia—Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro—shook off the shackles of a command economy, many winemakers rejected over-cropping, bulk production and sloppy techniques, says Frank Dietrich, owner with his wife Zsuzsanna Molnar of Eastern European import specialist Blue Danube Wine Company. Along the way, improved wines and traditional varietals have been encountered by an influx of Western tourists who, just as in Italy in the 1980s, have embraced these nation’s culture and history and returned with a taste for what they drank there.
“These are countries that have an enormous history far more meaningful than 50 years of Communism, including with wine,” Dietrich points out. He notes a steady improvement in the wines he samples and in customer interest, and sees promise in the evolution in wines made from Furmint, Plavac Mali and Feteasca Regala, among other varietals.
Sitting in a broad swath southeast of Austria and east of Italy on the same latitude as Bordeaux, this region has been producing wine since the time of ancient Greece. Ironically, Rames cites the recent Greek efforts in U.S. promotion and marketing as an example of what’s needed to expand U.S. interest.
Still, few retailers have taken large positions on these wines. Neb Mrvaljevic, a Montenegro native who co-owns the wine bar House Red Vinoteca in Chicago and partners in the importing company Vino and Spiritus, carries a handful of Croatian, Serbian and Istrian wines, which he says are becoming easier to sell. “New technology and greater investments have really improved these wines quite a bit, and that will only continue,” he says. Additionally, he says, in markets like Chicago, younger consumers and buyers are more interested in taking risks and are less likely to prejudge wines based on origin; the hegemony of France/Italy/California doesn’t automatically interest them.
The number of returning tourists has helped considerably, says Ann Stephens, Eastern European wine buyer for Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Orange County, CA, mainly to make sense of geography and what’s made there. “There are a increasing number of people who have traveled to the former Yugoslavia and come back looking for wines from Croatia and Slovenia, but it still takes a lot of hand-selling and introducing people to the concept,” she says. Stephens especially looks to take on crisp and minerally white wines with little or no oak aging from the region, but is interested as well in the range of styles available from indigenous grapes.
PRICE & DISTRIBUTION HURDLES
Confronting the lingering prejudices about the region takes concerted efforts, says Gillett Johnson of International Vines, who is aiding Select Wines of Europe in its quest to strengthen Romanian wines in the U.S. Many of these wineries are unfamiliar with the idea of steady marketing support, clear and descriptive labels explaining the region and varietals, and the complexity of the U.S. market. Importation and distribution issues are a mystery to many, and interested consumers often have trouble locating the wines at retail. Some countries—notably Croatia—have programs in place to inform the trade. But then there’s price.
“People always somehow think that all wine should be cheap,” says Rames. “Ten dollars for some of
better wines from some of these countries, including Croatia, is an unreasonable expectation.”
But as Stephens of Hi-Time notes, “Some of the delicious, simple wines I can retail for around $12, but others need to sell at $24 and customers rebel.” If the regions and varietals are mostly unknown, they remain difficult to move.
GRAPES & REGIONS
While many wineries in the enormous Eastern European region produce international-style wines, mostly Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons, U.S. advisers seem convinced that developing the reputation of their indigenous varietals will be key to success here. Here is a quick guide to the major producing countries and the
• Romania, the largest producer in Eastern Europe, has increased its U.S. presence through efforts like Great Wines of Romania, a consortium of six major producers. The consortium includes Murfatlar, which has more than 8,200 acres under vine. Another, Senator, produces Monser Feteasca Neagra 2009 Dobrogea, one of the two wines given a strong recommendation at the recent Ultimate Wine Challenge. From Romania, look for wines made from Feteasca Negra, Feteasca Alba, Feteasca Regala and Babeasca Neagra among the leading varietals.
• Slovenia has more than 28,000 wineries making between 80 and 90 million liters annually. More than 75% of the country’s production is white wine, and almost all is consumed domestically. Slovenia’s winemaking tradition has been influenced by Austria to the north and Italy to the west. Most of Slovene grapes are familiar varieties, especially from the part of the country close to Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Italy; look for Pinela, Rebula, Refosco, Welschriesling and others.
• More than 17,000 registered wine producers in Croatia produce 61 million liters, with 60 indigenous varietals. DNA testing has now demonstrated that Plavac Mali is genetically linked to Zinfandel. The majority (67%) of wine produced is white and from the interior of the country, and major local varietals include Grasevina and Malvazija Istarska.
• Hungary, which still holds a place in international consciousness for its sweet Tokaji wines, has attracted increasing attention for the dry versions of the varietal base of Tokaji: Furmint. Some producers are trying to reclaim the reputation of Egri Bikaver, the hearty red blend from the north.
• Homer in The Odyssey cited the wines of Thrace, now part of Bulgaria and Macedonia, as among the best. In addition to many international varietals, Dimyat, Muscat Ottonel, Pamid, Gamza and Red Misket are widely grown there today.