It’s recently been announced that Laithwaite’s is going to put greater emphasis on its Eastern European wine selection after seeing sales double over the last 12 months.
Beth Willard, the wine merchants’ buyer for Spain and Eastern Europe, said:
“We have almost doubled sales and we currently have big plans to introduce new countries from Eastern Europe. We are going back to Bulgaria and looking at Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia. It’s a really exciting part of my portfolio.”
Willard says that Eastern Europe is still fairly unknown to most consumers, so what kinds of wine can you expect and what sort of quality?
It’s hardly surprising that Croatia can produce great wine. Situated just across the Adriatic from Italy, it has the perfect climate.
Many of the best examples come from near the coast. The Istrian region, next to Slovenia, produces quite a wide variety of reds from grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and also Teran. The last of those is only really found in Croatia and Slovenia and gives rise to a characterful wine of slightly higher acidity. However, it doesn’t age well and should ideally be consumed in the first year. This region is also increasingly known for its white wines, such as the aromatic Malvasia Istriana.
The Peljesac peninsula is also highly regarded for its wine. Plavac Mali is a cross between ancestral Zinfandel and Dobričić grapes. It is a deep, strong wine with complex aromas. Meanwhile, the nearby islands of Hvar and Korčula produce crisp whites using the Pošip grape which is indigenous to the area.
Lying to the east of the Black Sea, Europe doesn’t get much more eastern than Georgia, yet it is an area with a 6,000 year winemaking history. Up until 2006, 90 per cent of Georgian wine was exported to Russia, but a trade embargo has led to the sovereign state seeking out new markets.
The country’s dominant red wine grape is Saperavi, which is native to the area. It produces deep red wines which are well-suited to long term ageing. It is frequently blended with other grapes and effectively provides the backbone for the Georgian winemaking industry.
Georgia also produces a lot of Rkatsiteli, an adaptable white wine grape. Wines made using this in the Kakheti region tend to be sweet and similar to port. Sparkling wines are also produced using other traditional Georgian grapes such as Chinebuli, Mtsvane and Tsitska.
Georgia is also home to an interesting winemaking technique which makes use of ‘kvevri’ – huge earthenware vessels which are used for the fermentation process. They are often buried underground or set into wine cellar floors to ensure a cool, constant temperature. This results in slow oxygenation. Indeed, the kvevri might be left for as long as two years before bottling.
Hungary is best known for Tokaji Aszú, a sweet wine also known as Tokay. It is made with grapes which are affected by a particular type of fungus and is fermented for several years in loosely closed casks. However, dry wines are also widely produced.
The Furmint grape, for example, gives rise to some great whites. You will find good examples from the Tokaj-Hegyalja and Somló wine regions. There are also good Hungarian versions of Pinot Grigio available.
Hungary isn’t as well-known for its reds, but this may be slowly changing. Egri Bikavér is a blend of local and international grapes which has found great popularity while balanced, complex wines are available from a number of regions, such as Villány, Szekszárd and Sopron.
Romania is actually now the sixth-largest wine producer in the EU. Making use of high tech manufacturing techniques, the country produces consistently good wine in a range of styles.
Romanian varieties include Fetească Neagră, which is a sweet red and Sarba, which is a sharp, citrusy white. However, you will also find a lot of very well-known grapes such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay.
Situated between the Alps and the Mediterranean, Slovenia has a great climate for viticulture and with many wines being made by small producers, there is great diversity.
In Primorska in the west of the country, Rebula is a popular white grape, along with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, but elsewhere there is little sense of there being distinct regional styles. Instead, producers seem keen to experiment with both grape varieties and manufacturing techniques. However, if there is a theme, it is that about 75 per cent of Slovenia’s wine is white.