Change is taking place in the wine world at a breathtaking pace, faster than at any time I can recall in my wine experience. Two questions I am often asked are “What’s new and exciting in the wine world?” and “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.
It is a long-held tenet that socialist countries could not make great wines. Meeting production quotas and adhering to five-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 ratcheting up dramatically.
Let’s take a look 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. Some of their wines are truly compelling.
Blessed with an ideal grape-growing climate, ancient Georgia was, in fact, the birthplace of grape cultivation and winemaking. Archaeologists have dated grape artifacts there back to 6000 BC. Traditionally, the wines were fermented in large earthenware vessels known as qvevri, buried in the ground and loosely covered. 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, not 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 wine writer Alice Feiring and the late vintner Joe Dressner, both of whom looked to Georgian wine as their inspiration.
These “natural” wines are very much a mixed bag. Some are technically flawed and undrinkable,
some can only be called interesting and some are actually quite good. The most widely imported brand of Georgian wine is artist John Wurdeman’s Pheasant’s Tears (www.pheasantstears.com). The dry Rkatsiteli has an intriguing orange, figgy character—it’s 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 is a bit too weird even for my eccentric tastes.
Slovenia was always one of the more progressive and modern states in Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia.
It has always had a very porous border with Friuli, in neighboring Italy, and many of the Friulian winemakers believe the best grapes being grown in the region are 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 sufur dioxide, 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, though 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 sulfir dioxixide 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 like cider.
The Movia wines of Ales Kristancic are some of the better Slovene wines that can be found here in New Mexico. 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, rather pricey at $60. But Kristancic’s basic Pinot Grigio, around $18, is made conventionally and is as fine a clean, crisp wine as you can find. Lovely drinking.
Hungary was one of the exceptions to the general inferiority of socialist countries’ wine quality. Its 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 Eger”), 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 backwater, has a unique claim to fame: it’s 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 desiccated 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 brethren. 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 somewhat resembles 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 (www.tikves.com.mk) showed up here in New Mexico. Tikves is the oldest winery operating in Macedonia, dating back to 1885. Its 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, which I had at Santa Fe’s Vinaigrette restaurant. Its refreshing character matched well with 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 unpronounceable 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 instead focused on the “classic” grapes: Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot. The wine world doesn’t really need yet another Merlot, even if it’s from Herzegovina.
There are a number countries that 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 Moldova, 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.
by Tom Hill