Friday, February 9, 2018

East European Wines [4]: Slovenia & Croatia

Emerging from decades of communist atrophy followed by the horrors of the late 20th century Bosnian wars, Slovenia is now home to some of the most exciting wines in Central Europe. Following the deadening effect of State-owned co-operatives, much of Slovenia’s wine production has returned to small, family-owned operations where individualism and experimentation have taken center stage. Long recognized for its oak trees, which make some of the world’s finest wine barrels, Slovenia is increasingly being recognized for its wines.

I hitch-hiked down the Dalmatian Coast through Croatia during the 1960’s when it was still part of communist Yugoslavia and fell in love with its wines. On the dramatic and beautiful Adriatic coast, facing Italy, Croatia has been producing wines since even before the Romans arrived. I was a young man in the 60’s but I still vividly recall the heady taste of freshly-grilled goat-meat washed down with generous glasses of the local Crljenak Kaštelanski (Zinfandel ) sitting on a moonlight beach beside the wine-dark-sea. 

Croatian emigres in the 20th century were very influential in the development of the Californian, Australian and New Zealand wine industries and now, following the end of the Bosnian conflict, they are returning home and promise to make Croatian wine a major player once again on the world stage.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

East European Wines [3] Georgia & Romania

GEORGIA: As discussed elsewhere in my Booklovers' Guide to Wine, Georgia’s border with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan is the site of the world’s oldest wine making activity. This is where wine has been made and drunk longer than anywhere else in history. Even today, the Neolithic wine-making techniques dating back to Noah are still in use. The vast, underground amphorae called kvevri are still being used to produce wine in the traditional manner. 

Through most of the twentieth century, almost all of Georgian wine was exported to the Soviet Union where quality was not a priority and individual wine makers were not incentivized to excel. Switching to the competitive international markets after the 2006 break with President Putin’s Russia, Georgian wine makers are now starting to focus on quality. With 9,000 years of tradition behind it, Georgian wine is ready for a come-back.

ROMANIA: Proud of its Roman wine-producing past, Romania is now the sixth largest wine producer in the European Union. If not yet famous for its quality wines, it is already a best-seller in America’s Sam’s Club with a wide selection of red and white wines at less than $7:00 per bottle.

Thursday, February 1, 2018


 Described by Louis XIV as “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum” (the king of wines and the wine of kings) Tokaji Aszú, the unctuous, honeyed wine made from super-concentrated, botrytized grapes, has long been the archetypical Hungarian wine since it was first documented in 1571. 

Beloved by Thomas Jefferson and Russian czars alike, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria (who was also King of Hungary) had a tradition of sending Queen Victoria Tokaji wine, as a gift, every year on her birthday, one bottle for every month she had lived, twelve for each year. On her eighty-first and final birthday (1900), this totaled an enviable 972 bottles. 

As sought-after and expensive in the 21st century as it was in the 18th, these ebulliently floral, lusciously fruity wines are traditionally a blend of local grapes including varieties of Muscat, the world’s oldest varietal. Even under Ottoman and then under Soviet rule, Hungary still managed to somehow produce Tokaji wines which have never lost their international appeal. 

Following the collapse of the Hungarian Communist regime in 1989, Hugh Johnson, the great English wine writer founded a winery to revive the fortunes of this ‘Vinum Regum’ which he called Royal Tokaji. This sweet golden wine, tasting of ripe peaches, apricots, pears and mandarin oranges is made from three local varietals, Furmint, Hárslevelű and Muscat de Lunel.

The other famous wine from Hungary is Egri Bikavér - Bull’s Blood – which although weakened under Soviet rule is now once more being made in the traditional manner – dark, strong and powerful.