Getting to know central and eastern European wines
While many central and eastern European and eastern Mediterranean countries have been making wine for aeons, their indigenous grape varieties don’t roll off the tongue for UK consumers, finds Lucy Britner
From Georgia’s Saperavi to Romania’s Feteasca Regala and Lebanon’s Obeideh, there are a lot of grapes to wrap your mouth around in those parts of the world.
But the consumer Venn diagram of experimentation, and the hunt for good value means we’re likely to see more offerings from less-familiar wine places. And as drinkers better understand the quality, these countries – and their grape varieties – will start to grow on them.
Kathryn Glass, buyer & wine educator at Kingsland Drinks, says Bulgaria is leading the way with “exceptional quality wines and offering impressive value for money”, adding: “The climate and soil are favourable for red grapes, and vines are grown in accordance with biodynamic agriculture, resulting in wines with character and unique style.”
As well as Bulgaria, Glass predicts that countries such as Romania and Moldova will lead the way in eastern European exploration. “We know the trade has been talking about these countries, but we really think over the next couple of years they will become much more widely available, and more frequently purchased,” she adds.
Cue Co-op, which added two Moldovan wines to its range in 2022. Tilting Tree Sauvignon Blanc and Tilting Tree Merlot (both £6), made by Asconi in the Puhoi region, will go to 1,866 stores. “The duo is expected to drive more awareness of the quality and value for money that can be found from countries like Moldova, with its approachable wine price points and familiar grapes,” Co-op says.
At Marks & Spencer, the Found range focuses on less-familiar grapes – and Romania’s Feteasca Regala is among the current line-up. Philip Cox, co-owner of the country’s Cramele Recas, supplies the wine to M&S, and praises its commitment.
“It has taken on the Feteasca Regala and also a rosé blend under the Vara label, featuring local varieties such as Feteasca Neagra and Babeasca Neagra, together with Merlot and Syrah,” he says. “It has gone very well, and I am sure that we will expand this type of product to other retailers and merchants. It is becoming emblematic for Romanian wine.”
In fact, Cox reveals that Cramele Recas has been working closely with Corney & Barrow senior wine buyer Rebecca Palmer to launch “Britain’s first premium Feteasca Regala”, the Fetele.
“Restriction of yield in the vineyards, short cuvaison in older, inert wine barrels, and careful handling on fine lees has produced a stunning wine of superior texture and complexity,” he says.
There is a thirst for experimentation when it comes to premium Lebanese wines, too, says Jad El Esta, chief executive at Ixsir winery. Despite the many challenges the country is facing, El Esta says volume exports to the UK are expected to rise by 25% this year.
The winery champions red blends with international varieties, including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but El Esta says Lebanese varieties Meksesse, Merwah and Obeideh are under experimentation, and some are making their way into blends, including the Altitude Ixsir White, which features Obeideh, Muscat and Viognier.
Chief winemaker Gabi Rivero’s focus is on “establishing great terroir” – and he says the company is looking at Mediterranean varieties, too, that will work well in the climate.
In Hungary, Royal Tokaji has been working to premiumise dry Furmint. Royal Tokaji managing director Charlie Mount says 10 years ago there was no awareness of Furmint as a grape variety and there were no listings in supermarkets or multiple specialists. But today, “most supermarkets and retailers have at least one dry Furmint on their shelves”.
Mount says: “Royal Tokaji has learnt that the Furmint grape yields a lean, minerally, fresh white wine which may be softened and given greater complexity with up to six months maturation in Hungarian oak casks. The classed growth vineyards, famed for their great Aszú wines, yield exhilaratingly fresh whites which, after cask maturation, benefit from bottle ageing. Now that Furmint is a more familiar and widely available grape variety, consumers are willing to try single vineyard Furmint wines.”
Mount admits that language can be a barrier when it comes to getting consumers to pick up a bottle of Hungarian wine. But he adds: “These wines offer customers better value for money than their price equivalents made in other countries, so greatly benefit from prominent shelf positioning and in-store tastings.”
Tastings are also important for Georgian wines, where the Saperavi grape variety is the star. “I’ve always thought it’s an incredible grape, potentially very fine, and always versatile,” says Sarah Abbott MW, of Swirl Wine Group, which runs the UK campaign for the National Wine Agency of Georgia.
“It can have the vibrant appeal of a Malbec and is so easy to enjoy. Fresh and unoaked versions work really well as an introduction to Georgia for consumers, and for sampling by the glass.”
Abbott says Georgia has experienced sustained growth over the past five years, with around 50 Georgian brands now present in the UK.
“The inclusion of Georgian wine in the portfolios of several major national distributors has meant that Georgian wine has been able to break out of the ‘ethnic’ restaurant bubble,” she says.
“This has powered the penetration of Georgian wine into national coverage, predominantly via the indies.”
There are some important points to note when it comes to reaching new consumers. Co-op’s Moldovan wines, for example, are familiar grape varieties from a less familiar place. The Romanian M&S Found wine is marketed as a discovery – and many producers are finding success with blending indigenous varieties with more familiar names.
These are all valuable tools to get consumers interested in places that can offer quality, value and intrigue – even if the pronunciation takes a bit of work.