the unsung wines of central europe
Winemaking is shaped by politics, culture, and the market, as well as by nature. I’ve recently been tasting wines from central European countries whose wine industries are still recovering from communist rule. The neglect and lack of investment hurt the wine industries of these countries; at the same time, the wines retain traditional winemaking practices and local grape varieties, making them feel authentic and distinctive. This is an ideal moment to explore these wines and the history behind them.
Hungary is most famous for Tokaji and its world-class sweet wine. In the twentieth century, such a prized, expensive wine was effectively abandoned under communist rule. Thankfully, those sweet wines are back with a vengeance, in part due to international investment.
But Hungarian producers are also making great dry wine, both white and red, and these are increasingly available internationally. The range of wines has opened up attention to Hungary’s other lesser-known wine regions. blackpoolmatt’s wine club features a wine from the country’s smallest region, Nagy-Somló—a couple of decades ago these wines would have been barely available domestically let alone internationally.
The producer is Somlói Vandor and the wine is made from Hárslevelű, an aromatic variety used for Tokaji but planted across the country. It demonstrates the diversity of Hungary’s wine regions, while retaining the consistent aromatic style of its white wines. The dry white wines of Hungary are some of the most exciting in Europe, as this fruity, floral expression testifies.
International trends mean that a lot of wine tastes the same, made from a select number of grape varieties—these are wines that reflect much more local traditions.
After the Second World War, Yugoslavia was distinct from other communist countries in that it maintained a degree of independence from Moscow, but it was still isolated from western Europe. In the 1990s, the fragile structure of Yugoslavia fell apart in an horrific civil war. But now that there is more stability, the identity of each country—such as Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Slovenia—draws on centuries of winemaking tradition.
In Slovenia, the region of Goriška Brda shares a great deal in common with neighboring Friuli across the border in north-east Italy. In fact, border changes after the Second World War meant that growers in Slovenia owned vineyards in Italy which they could only access at night when they sneaked across closed border controls.
The war for Slovenian independence was the first to break out in Yugoslavia and was thankfully brief, at just six days. This has perhaps allowed a more open and developed relationship between Slovenian and Italian producers, with the two influencing each other.
The two regions have much in common, including grape varieties. “Ravan,” made by one of Slovenia’s top producers, Kabaj, is made from Friulano, as it’s known in Italy, or Sauvignonasse as it’s called in France. The traditional way of making white wine in Slovenia (and other central European countries) was to ferment the wine in contact with the skins. This helps prevent oxidation but also develops phenolic and tannic complexity. And it makes the wines ageworthy: “Ravan” is from 2015 but remarkably fresh to balance its dense, concentrated style.
Like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia was an artificially created country which spent the second half of the twentieth century under communist rule. Unlike Yugoslavia, the split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia was swift and peaceful.
Neither of these countries may be the first to come to mind when thinking about wine, but again there’s lots of history and tradition. In fact, Slovakia is the only country other than Hungary which is allowed to label wines as Tokaj, as there’s a region on the Hungarian border with the same name.
As with many of these countries, skin contact for white wine is a traditional practice. For "Rustical," made by proucer Pivnica Čajkov, that’s taken further, fitting into international trends for “orange” wine. It's also aged in oak barrels for twelve months, to complement the tannic style.
The grape is Pesecká Leanká, which is native to Romania where it’s the most planted variety and is called Feteaskă Regală. Its golden-colored skins make it ideal for orange wine, while maintaining fresh acidity and fruity aromatics. Little-known varieties such as these, although widely planted in central Europe, may make the wines a hard sell; but they also make them distinctive, especially when they're made in a traditional manner.
Despite so much history and distinctive identity, because of political difficulties in the twentieth century the winemaking traditions of these countries receive less attention than they deserve. But these wines are back and blackpoolmatt’s wine club is not afraid to give them that attention.