One of the questions I am often asked is "What's new and exciting in
the wine world? What new wines have you discovered of late?". I have little interest in
drinking yet another Napa Valley Cabernet...no matter how good it is. I am much more
challenged by some new region or variety. And there are a lot of new ones out there.
Change is taking place in the wine world at a breathtaking pace...faster than at any time
I can recall in my wine experience. In this article, we'll look at some of these regions,
some I'd never seen before, until the last few years, and some of those wines I find truly
It is a long-held tenet that Socialist countries could not make great wines.
Meeting production quotas and adhering to 5-year plans was the goal...quality was irrelevant.
However, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the transition to a free-market
economy, many of these countries are attracting outside investment capital and the quality of the
wines is racheting up dramatically.
This article takes a look-see at some of these new (actually, very old) wine producing regions
that are capturing my attention: Georgia, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, and Macedonia; an arc of
countries bordering the Black Sea.
Ancient Georgia is, in fact, the birthplace of grape cultivation and winemaking. Archaeologists
have dated grape artifacts there back to 6,000 BC. Traditionally, the wines were fermented in
large earthenware vessels known as qvevri; buried in the ground and loosely covered.
Blessed with an ideal grape-growing climate, the Georgian wines were favored in the former
Soviet Union. They typically were red, high in alcohol, and sweet; not in line with today's taste.
Modern winemaking techniques have slowly been making inroads, with a concomitant improvement
in quality. However; many Georgian wines still are being made
by ancient methods in qvervi.
There is, surprisingly, a small movement throughout the world to revert back to these ancient
winemaking techniques and rejecting modern technology. This "natural" wine movement,
regarded by some as a lunatic fringe, has its adherents...like Alice Feiring and Joe Dresner.
Georgian wine is looked to as their inspiration.
These "natural" wines are very much a mixed bag; some technically flawed and undrinkable,
some can only be called "interesting", and some are actually quite good.
The most widely imported brand of Georgian wines are those from artist John Wurdeman's
Pheasant's Tears (www.PheasantsTears.com). The dry Rkatsiteli has an intriguing orange figgy
character and a bit like a sherry with its slightly oxidized style. A bit more mainstream is the
Saperavi Black Wine; not too unlike a late harvest California Zin. The Mtsvane was...a bit too
weird even for my eccentric tastes.
Slovenia was always one of the more progressive and modern states in Marshall Tito's Yugoslavia.
It has always had a very porous border with Italy's neighboring Friuli. Many of the Friulian winemakers
regard the best grapes being grown in the region as coming from Slovenia.
In Friuli, some ten or more years ago, the winemakers Stanko Radikon and Josko Gravner, adopted
ancient Georgian winemaking techniques (clay amphorae, extended grape macerations, no SO2 additions, etc) in order to make "natural" wines. Because of the orange or bronze color these whites show, they are often referred to as "orange" wines. They are controversial...sometimes outright flawed. But they command high prices, a fact that's not gone unnoticed.
This retrograde winemaking has crept back across the border into Slovenia, in moderation. Some
winemakers make their whites with extended skin contact, just as is done with red wines. They feel
the skin tannins allow them to reduce the SO2 additions needed. This skin contact can sometimes
give the wines a tannic bite, oftentimes a bit of an orange tint, and a phenolic character somewhat
The Movia wines of Ales Kristancic are some of the better Slovene wines here in NM. The Sauvignon
and the Pinot Grigio are a particularly good introduction to orange wines. Recently, the Marjan
Simcic wines have arrived. The Chardonnay and Sauvignon are authentic orange wines, and rather pricey at $60. But his basic Pinot Grigio, around $18, is made conventionally and is as fine a clean, crispwine as you can find....lovely drinking.
Hungary was one of the exceptions of Socialist countries' inferior wine quality. Their Tokaji sweet dessert wine, made from botrytized Furmint grapes, has always been an iconic dessert wine and its quality did not appear to suffer greatly under the Commissars. Since Hungary transitioned to a free-market economy, there has been an expansion of producers making Tokaji dessert wines, primarily of the Aszu level. These wines are cleaner, brighter and even better than before; worth trying.
However, the market for dessert wines is limited. In the last ten years, there has been a strong move to make dry table wines in the Tokaj region, usually from the Furmint grape. They have a richness and minerality that resembles some of the Friulian whites. The Evolucio Tokaj Furmint, at $13.50, is a particularly attractive example of these new wines.
For reds, the Egri Bikaver ("Bulls Blood" of Egre), made from the Kadarka grape, was pretty much the only show in town. It was pretty miserable under Socialism. Again, there has been a proliferation of new producers, some of which are quite decent...and some really good. Probably, the best Hungarian red grape is Kekfrankos (know in Austria as Blaufrankish). The Weninger Kekfrankos, from the Sopron area, shows well the plummy, earthy, loamy character of that grape.
Croatia, long a winemaking backwash, has a unique claim to fame: The birthplace of California's
Zinfandel. It was identified by DNA typing some ten years ago as the indigenous variety known as
Crljenak Kastelanski (also known as Primitivo in Italy's Puglia). Using improved DNA typing on
a dessicated grape leaf in a Croatian herbarium, it was found to be identical to an ancient variety
known as Tribidrag.
Since that discovery, there have been a number of "Zinfandels" appearing from Croatia. They are
usually rather rustic versions of their California brethern. Plavac Mali, a descendent of Zinfandel,
is the most common variety along the Dalmatian coast and some are quite good.
Famed California winemaker, Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, has returned to his Croatian roots and is
now making wines there under his Grgich label. His Plavic Mali resembles somewhat the fine Zinfandels he's made at Grgich-Hills in the Napa Valley.
Macedonia has one of the oldest winemaking histories in the region, after Georgia. At one time,
it produced over two thirds of the wine for Yugoslavia; though very little was exported and the focus
was on bulk wine. Most of the wines are made from tongue-twisting native varieties, like Vranac,
Plavac, and Zilavka.
I had never before seen a Macedonian wine until a year ago when the wines from Tikves
Winery (http://tikves.com.mk) showed up here in New Mexico. Tikves is the oldest winery operating in
Macedonia, dating back to 1885. Their consulting winemaker is Philippe Cambie, one of the hot winemakers in France's Chateauneuf du Pape. My first Tikves was the aromatic, mineral-laden Rkaciteli that I had at Santa Fe's Vinaigrette restaurant.
Its refreshing character matched well the salads there. Since then, I've also tried the Vranac,
a dead-ringer for a very ripe California Zinfandel. No surprise there... as that grape is related to the
ancient Tribidrag (Zinfandel). Both wines are very reasonably priced, about $11.
Potential Breakout Regions
The area around the Black Sea, the birthplace of Vitis Vinifera and winemaking, has a countless
number of indigenous varieties with unpronouncable names that are found nowhere else in the world.
Some could potentially, in the hands of the right winemaker, make truly profound wines. It would be
an unmitigated tragedy if these areas would focus on the "classic" grapes: Cabernet, Chardonnay,
Merlot. The wine world doesn't really need yet another Merlot, even if from Herzegovina.
There are a number countries who continue to wallow in uninspired wine growing, for a variety of
reasons. Yet their growing conditions are good for making world-class wines, given the right circumstances.
I would suggest that Moldava, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Turkey, and Albania may very well be future
stars in the wine world. Try them when they show up in New Mexico.
It will be exciting to watch that unfold...if it does. I'll report back in a future article.