When asked to host another online wine tasting as part of the forthcoming FT Weekend Digital Festival, I did not hesitate to choose a theme.
Last time, in September, I opted for new wave California wines because I wanted to showcase exciting wines that are off the beaten track. For next week’s spring edition I have chosen a less expensive theme: eastern Europe. There has been the most dramatic revolution in the vineyards and cellars here over the past 20 years and the results are just beginning to make an impression on wine buyers abroad.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign to impose sobriety on the Soviet Union in the late 1980s had a seismic effect on wine production. It was felt not just in Soviet wine-producing republics such as Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia but in countries that had previously shipped vast quantities of wine to the USSR — Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Cyprus, in particular. Collective wine farms lost their principal customer. State monopolies, which oversaw production and shipments to Soviet cities, fell apart. Vineyards all over eastern Europe were abandoned, often without any obvious owner.
Like so much else, the wine scene that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain was chaotic. Yet, as a new century dawned, EU membership beckoned alluringly and there was considerable and often well-considered investment in these newly independent countries that had been producing wine — usually much, much better wine than was shipped to the USSR — for millennia. The exciting results of those investments are now making their way west.
Of course, each country is different, with very distinctive terroir and traditions, so this article will try to cover a lot of varied ground. But if I can persuade a wine drinker in Coventry or Chicago not to turn their nose up at a wine from eastern Europe, then it will have done its job.
The first wine I chose for my online tasting was from the border of Europe and Asia, a haunting red blend of two local grapes from Armenia, a country that is currently sparring with its neighbour Georgia over which is the birthplace of winemaking. Last October, I included the Armenia Wine Company’s Yerevan Areni Noir/Karmrahyut 2016 in my recommended wines under £10. This led me to its importer, Shropshire family wine merchant Tanners. They have a more adventurous array of affordable eastern European wines than many, so we gave them the job of supplying wines for this FT tasting.
Following the progress of the latest shipment of this wine, Tanners’ private sales director Robert Boutflower admits he suffered palpitations. In early January he emailed the news that “The Armenians are on the way . . . but have been since November.” Two weeks later: “Yerevan is en route.” Early February: “The Armenian Yerevan is currently ‘changing vessel’ in Turkey. They say it will be two weeks from the Black Sea.” February 17: “It has now cleared Turkey and is due into Liverpool on March 5.” February 25: “After two more delays and a further stop for the Yerevan, the earliest we can get it now is March 15 — too late.” (All orders for my tasting had to be in by March 9 to allow time for delivery by next weekend.)
I am sad not to be able to share the very special qualities of Armenia’s signature grape Areni Noir with tasters but overleaf I recommend a more expensive yet inspiring clay-pot-aged example. It is made by Alberto Antonini, the Tuscan consultant winemaker to Armenian producer Zorah, who describes Areni as a cross between a Tuscan Sangiovese and a Burgundian Pinot Noir.
To fill the place of the errant Armenian, I have chosen a Pinot Noir from Hungary’s red wine hotspot Villány — a pure, fragrant 2018 from producers Csányi. Hungary suffered less from Gorbachev’s temperance movement than the other countries cited above because a much higher proportion of its vineyards had remained in private hands and were duly better cared for.
Bulgarian vineyards suffered terribly. British wine drinkers of a certain age will remember Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the great bargains of the early 1980s. But Gorbachev’s campaign left the country’s vineyards and distinctly industrial cellars in disarray.
Bulgaria is one of the eastern European countries whose wine industry has been transformed most by outside investment. Its current winemakers are also notably female — about 50 per cent, as compared with just 14 per cent in perhaps the most right-on wine region of all, California, according to research from Santa Clara University last year.
I have written previously about the vibrant wine scenes in Romania and neighbouring Moldova, and their wealth of indigenous grape varieties. One of the dry white wines in this tasting is a mature Feteasca Regala.
The other white I chose represented a different sort of revolution in eastern European wine: breeding new vine varieties that are suitable for local conditions. The vine nurseries of the Czech Republic and, especially, Slovakia have been particularly active in this respect. But post-Brexit transport problems struck yet again and, at the very last minute, I have substituted a white 2018 version of the Armenian Yerevan wine, made from two local grape varieties like the original red.
My other red wine next week is a complete contrast to the delicate Pinot Noir: a potent, spicy wine made from North Macedonia’s signature grape Vranec by the dominant wine producer Stobi. The price is a snip for a wine that will clearly continue to develop for many more years.
Slovenia and Croatia, missing from this tasting, are sources of brilliant white wines, although tourists and locals lap them up so enthusiastically that we see too few of them abroad. Georgia, which is also missing, has the world’s most powerful wine culture and, after several false starts, I hope to get there one of these days and write about it in the detail it deserves. Apologies that I have tasted so few Georgian wines recently.
I am deliberately excluding the riches of the eastern Mediterranean (Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Cyprus and Israel) here. And I am braced for complaints from Poland (which now, thanks to climate change, has a thriving wine industry), Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Ukraine and Russia that I have not mentioned the transformation of their wine industries — but I continue to be fascinated by them.
And only last week I received my first invitation to taste the wines of Azerbaijan.
More stockists from Wine-searcher.com. Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Jancis Robinson will be appearing at the FT Weekend Digital Festival, March 18-20. For more information and tickets visit ftweekendfestival.com
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