Eastern Promises: Wines of Ancient Europe

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Good value and food-friendly wines from Eastern Europe are a welcome arrival on American menus.

Open a bottle of plavac mali, pour a glass of rdecˇa zlahtnina or sip a crisp rkatsiteli. Never heard of those varietals? You soon will. Those are just a few of the important if hard-to-pronounce indigenous grapes from the wine regions of Eastern Europe; in this case from Croatia, Slovenia and Georgia, respectively.

There are a few challenges with marketing wines that consumers aren’t familiar with, of course. But the sommeliers and bar directors we spoke to are sold on these regions and are now selling them to their guests. They are pouring wines from these obscure regions, thanks to their overall good price-value, food friendliness and compelling stories for marketing them to guests.

Geography and History Lessons

Many Americans would be hard-pressed to point out these East European wine regions on a global map; indeed, opinions vary as to which countries constitute Eastern (or Central) Europe.

“If you look on a map, it’s east of Germany and Austria and north of Greece; most of the countries that constitute Eastern Europe are the former Eastern bloc,” explains Arthur Hon, wine director for the Michelin-starred Sepia restaurant in Chicago. The sommelier cites Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia; other wine-producing countries usually considered part of Eastern Europe are the Republic of Georgia and Moldova.

“The most well-known country for wine is Hungary because of tokaji,” says Hon, referring to that country’s world-famous botrytised sweet wines. And in the Chicago market, wines from Slovenia and Croatia are also more available these days, he notes.

agriculture outdoor: grapevines

The rdecˇa zlahtnina varietal from Slovenia.

The history of wine in Eastern Europe has ancient roots. This region is considered by experts to be the cradle of wine, with archeological evidence of winemaking dating back at least 7,000 years. Many of those ancient indigenous grapes are still grown and vinified today.

“These are very established wine regions, with generations and generations of winemaking tradition and extensive knowledge about the land and the grapes,” says Mario Nocifera, co-owner of Lower48 Kitchen, a contemporary American restaurant in Denver.

If that’s the case, why aren’t these countries and their wines better known? Under the iron hand of Soviet rule, agriculture was nationalized. Small commercial and family wineries were consolidated into cooperatives.

The Communist Party emphasized quantity over quality, and individual efforts were discouraged. When the Iron Curtain fell some 25 years ago and the Soviet Union dissolved, the former Eastern Bloc countries began the slow process of recovering their wine industries.

“For those of us in the wine business, it’s exciting, because we are seeing the rebirth of an ancient wine-producing region that had fallen out of any practical production,” says Dan Davis. He leads the wine programs at the Commander’s Family of Restaurant properties, including Commander’s Palace, SoBou and Café Adelaide in New Orleans. “In the Soviet era, wine was just about bulk and egalitarianism; prestige and quality suffered. Those wines are just now coming back into the U.S. market.”

Politics is a key reason these wines are finding their way to America. The former Eastern bloc countries had continued to export the bulk of their wines—80% to 90%—to Russia. But the turmoil in the Ukraine and resulting trade bans have left winemakers scrambling to find new export markets. And many have set their sights on the U.S.

Good Value Wines

One key attraction for somms and consumers is the tremendous price/value equation. “Most Eastern European wines are very moderately priced,” says Nicolas Giraud, wine director for the Minneapolis-based restaurant group that includes Brasserie Zentral, Meritage and the Foreign Legion. About 75% of Eastern European wines on Brasserie Zentral’s list are priced at $60 and under.

Zentral1

Brasserie Zentral in Minneapolis offers several Eastern European wines on its list; about 75% are priced at $60 and under.

“Right now those wines are very good values,” Giraud explains. “The land in those regions is much more affordable, so ultimately the wine doesn’t cost as much.”

For the average consumer, these are obscure regions or obscure grapes, “but there is a ton of value,” says Brent Kroll, wine director for the Alexandria, VA-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group. The collection of 16 concepts includes Rustico, Churchkey and Birch & Barley.

Kroll features a Vino Budimer Rhine riesling “Margus Margi” Zupa from Serbia for $55 at The Partisan. The 2009 vintage spends three years in Serbian oak, notes the somm. “It shows petrol notes and developed fruit with some bottle age, which is a really good value—$12 frontline.”

In the Chicago market, wholesale prices for quality wines from Eastern Europe start at $12, according to Hon. On Sepia’s list, those wines range from $50 to $120, “which is still not overly pricy,” he says.

Grape & Vine in New York’s Jade Hotel carries a 2012 Chateau Burgozone viognier from Bulgaria’s Danube Plain, priced at $12 a glass, $46 a bottle. (For more on Bulgarian wine, see “Bulgarian Rhapsody,” January/February 2015.)

The Geek Factor

The relative obscurity of these wine regions and the tongue-twisting indigenous varietals can be a plus. As consumers become more knowledgeable about wine, they are often thirsty for new discoveries. Offering these unfamiliar wines can help set restaurants apart.

Plavac mali, a Georgian varietal.

Plavac mali, a Croatian varietal.

“Eastern European wine is uber geeky,” notes Davis. Commander’s Palace has 18,000 bottles in the cellar, with 2,700 selections on the wine list. It currently carries just five Hungarian tokaji—rare selections listing at more than $1,000 for a 500-ml. bottle—and an equal number of Croatian wines. These range from a 2011 Zlatan Otoc Pošip Bast-Makarska for $42 to a 2009 Bura Dingač Plavac Mali Postup for $125.

Brasserie Zentral has a multinational concept that centers on Central Europe, with wines from Germany and Austria as well as Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia.

“Guests don’t come in specifically for these wines, but they will look at the list, and say, ‘Wow, I never tasted a wine from Croatia.’ People come here because they are already open-minded, ready to try something new and unique,” says Giraud.

“Carrying these wines is unique in Denver and Colorado,” says Nocifera at Lower48. He’s referring to two current selections: a 2012 Evolucio (dry) furmint tokaji from Hungary ($8.50 a glass, $34 a bottle) and a Rojac 2013 malvasia istra from Slovenia ($12/$48). “I don’t know of any other restaurant around here that is carrying these kinds of wines,” he says.

For Neighborhood Restaurant Group, “It’s kind of a geeky program,” concedes Kroll. “Customers come in looking for weird and out-there wines.” An orange wine from Croatia went over pretty well with the curious crowd. The 2008 Roxanich “Ines” ($85) from the Istria region was made from seven varietals and spent five years in oak. “It’s one of the best orange wines I’ve ever tasted,” Kroll says.

Food-Friendly Finds

Mere curiosities are not enough to fuel an effective restaurant wine program, however. They must also work well with food. And these wines deliver, say operators.

“As with any region, the criteria is, are the wines well-made, balanced, and do they work with the restaurant’s cuisine,” says Hon. A number of Eastern European wines fit that criteria, he says.

“I adore the malvasia coming out of Croatia; it’s aromatic, with good body and bright acid. It goes well with Sepia’s food.”

Brasserie Zentral’s cuisine is influenced by the chef’s Austria-Hungarian heritage, and wines from the region are a good match, says Giraud.

“The wines complement the food, and vice versa,” he notes. “We believe that if it grows together, it goes together.”

At Lower48, the dry furmint from Hungary is the top-selling wine by the glass, says Nocifera, who adds that the Slovenian malvasia is a personal favorite. “For me those wines go best with the chef’s cuisine because of their richness with balanced acidity.”

Tongue Twisters

Marketing these wines to American consumers can be difficult because of the Slavic vocabulary, with all those consonants and crazy diacritical accent marks. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, of course; it just takes some work on the part of staff and consumers.

“Americans have just figured out how to say ‘sauvignon;’ I’m not sure they are ready yet for pošip and rkatsiteli,” laughs Davis. “That’s something somms have to work on.”

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Rkatsiteli grapes, from Georgia.

Pronunciation can be a problem, “and there aren’t the familiar international varietals,” says Hon. “So that makes it harder for a regular wine consumer to get into the category.”

Brasserie Zentral offers an easy fix: “Customers don’t want to try to pronounce the names, so we use bin numbers to make ordering easy,” Giraud says.

Sourcing Situation

“One of the challenges is that not a lot of these wines are being imported into the U.S. yet,” says Hon in Chicago. The wine director says he would be interested in Georgian wines, if he could get distribution.

“The distribution channels are not yet in place,” echoes Davis. “Those countries don’t have the shipping infrastructure that France, Italy and Spain have, which creates logistical challenges.”

The few Eastern European wines that do make it to the New Orleans market are through small, boutique distributors. “There are some up-and-coming stars in those regions; we just aren’t seeing them here,” Davis says.

In the D.C. area, Kroll sources all his Eastern European wines from just one company right now. “It’s not like other wine regions of the world where you can compare importers,” he points out.

Giraud reports that there are several great distributors in Minnesota. “Plus, with the internet, I can travel anywhere in the world and if I find a wine I want to serve at the restaurant, it is not hard to get it within a few weeks or maybe within a couple months.”

Stories Sell

As with most lesser-known regions and wines, hand-selling is the best way to move bottles. And there are some great tales to spin. Properly handled, Eastern European wines can be an interesting addition to any restaurant wine menu.

“These wines are definitely a hand-sell, but they are easy hand-sells for me because of the value. They are entry-level price points,” points out Kroll.

“The story of the Eastern European countries coming out of the ashes of a civil war and reinventing themselves in a very competitive wine market is intriguing,” says Hon. “That’s good for hand-selling wines. You want that story, and with Eastern Europe, there are a lot of stories to tell.”

Sepia carries a red from the Dalmatian coast; the varietal is similar to the more familiar zinfandel. That connection helps the wine sell well.

Wine Guy Dan Davis_in Commander's Palace Wine Room

Dan Davis, who leads the wine programs at the Commander’s Family of Restaurants in New Orleans, says that the East European producers are exciting for wine professionals “because we are seeing the rebirth of an ancient wine-producing region that had fallen out of any practical production.”

“I have these wines on my list because I want to support them, and because I think they are really good wines,” says Davis. “They give the somms on my staff something exciting to talk about when they are hand-selling.”

There is a money-back guarantee policy at Brasserie Zentral. If a customer doesn’t like a bottle of wine, Giraud will take it back. He knows he can sell the bottle by the glass.

Every Wednesday, Giraud also uncorks a few special bottles to offer by the glass at the Foreign Legion, a wine and cheese bar. This allows guests to try two or three more exotic wines at a set price of $15 without committing to a full bottle. The promotion is well attended, with a number of adventurous regulars.

Says Nocifera at Lower48, “In the end, Eastern European wines are a great value and a great glass of wine, and that’s what’s I’m looking for: to enhance the guests’ experience. I think these wines help do that.”

Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance beverage writer who has tasted many of the wines of Bulgaria, Moldova and Croatia, as well as those of Georgia.

Where in The World Are These Places?

Bulgaria

Where: Southeast part of the region; north of Greece and Turkey, south of Romania

Key red varietals:  Melnik, mavrud, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, rubin, pamid

Key white varietals: misket, traminer, dimyat, keratsuda

Fun fact: The country was the second-largest producer of wine in the world in the 1980s.

Croatia

Where: Western part of region; located just across the Adriatic Sea from northern Italy

Key red varietals: plavac mali, teran, babic, tribidrag

Key white varietals: malvasia istriana, posip, grasevina

Fun fact: DNA testing has shown that zinfandel grape likely originated in Croatia.

Georgia

Where: Far southeast; north of Turkey and Armenia, south of Russia

Key red varietals: saperavi, ojaleshi alexandrouli,

Key white varietals: rkatsiteli, mtsvane, khikhvi, chinuri

Fun fact: “Cradle of wine,” with archeological evidence of winemaking dating back 7,000 years; clay qvevri vessels are still used in Georgia today.

Hungary

Where: Central part of the region; directly below Slovakia, above Croatia and Serbia

Key red varietals: kadarka, kekfrankos, zweigelt, pinot noir

Key white varietals: furmint, harslevelu, muscat (used in tokaji)

Fun fact: World famous for the botrytized sweet white wine tokaji aszu, and the red egri bikaver, aka “Bulls Blood.”

Moldova

Where: Eastern part of the region; northeast of Romania, below the Ukraine

Key red varietals: feteasca neagra, rara neagra, cabernet sauvignon

Key white varietals:  Feteasca alba, feteasca regala

Fun fact: The country is shaped like a bunch of grapes.

Slovenia

Where: Northwestern part of the region; south of Austria, east of Northern Italy

Key red varietals: merlot, cabernet, refosco

Key white varietals: chardonnay, malvasia, pinot gris, friulano

Fun fact: Celtic tribes first made wine here in the 4th century BC; a key wine region borders Italy’s.

 

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