When people typically think of Old World wines, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy spring to mind as they’re responsible for the grape varietals that we know and love. And while that may be true in some circles of influence, central and eastern European countries have long been where wine has been a vital part of their culture.
Since as early as 6000 BCE, countries in middle and eastern Europe have paved the way for winemaking on a global scale. In addition to growing prominent grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc, the countries below have begun adapting modern winemaking techniques that are keeping on par with the new world producers.
Here are five central and eastern European wine regions to add to your shopping, study, or travel list this year.
Back in the 1980s, Bulgaria was a world leader in wine production, but the fall of communism changed that rather quickly. However, over the last decade, Bulgaria has been regaining its identity on the world stage and is reintroducing itself to wine lovers at all levels.
Alex Schrecengost, founder and CEO of Culture With Us, says that Bulgaria has a long history of developing and perfecting innovative farming and winemaking techniques that many winemakers reference and utilize today. “Bulgaria’s natural environmental conditions and soil composition are excellent for growing a range of red and white grapes like Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, and the pink-skinned Pamid (which produces a locally and heavily enjoyed rosé), as well as a wealth of others not found anywhere else in the world,” she says.
One of the country’s most beloved varieties is Mavrud, an ancient grape from Western Thrace that produces phenomenally bold, tannic, spice-forward wines worthy of aging. “Think of a spicy Malbec,” Schrecengost says. “If that’s your style, I also recommend wines made with Rubin grapes, a variety developed in the 1950s that’s a cross between Nebbiolo and Syrah.”
Made of 1,100 tiny little islands and a neighbor of Slovenia, Croatia is an epicurean dream. Indigenous grape varieties Malvazija Istarska (red) and Pošip (white) are among the “what grows together, goes together” adage that beverage director Leigh Ervine has followed when curating the wine program at Rose Mary in Chicago’s West Loop.
The restaurant, whose cuisine has Italian and Croatian influences, has an array of by-the-glass and bottle selections that showcase familiar and indigenous grape varieties. “There’s a white wine currently on the list named Grasevina, which is very similar to Riesling,” Ervine says. “It grows in continental Croatia, really easy drinking, super aromatic, and food-friendly.”
Teran is a red grape variety that Ervine says mirrors the structure of Syrah, and while very popular on the menu, it has been a challenge to import over the last two years. “This grape is common in many dessert wines. It’s lower alcohol, but it’s got higher fruit content with lots of spice notes like vanilla and clove,” she says. “It’s a red wine that pairs well with fatty foods, such as duck breast or lamb shank, that we spotlight on the menu at Rose Mary.”
Noted as the oldest wine country in the world, Georgia has over 400 indigenous varieties, including Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, and Saperavi.
In the third edition of The Wine Bible, author Karen MacNeil recounts a time when she sampled wine from a group of monks that made wine in Kakheti, Georgia. In addition to the monks singing a traditional Georgian folk song before drinking the wine, MacNeil notes that this was the first time she had a wine made in qvevri. “Unlike their historic cousins, the amphorae, qvevri are not used for transportation of wine and are never moved,” MacNeil writes. “Instead, they are buried completely underground, where the stable, cool temperature is an asset to fermentation and maturation.”
The qvevri is the primary vessel for making orange wines, and it’s becoming more in demand as the interest in Georgian skin-contact wines continues to grow.
Georgia has five wine regions, with Kakheti being the main producer of the country’s grapes, covering over 120,000 acres across the country.
Home to more than 22 wine regions spanning almost 160,000 acres of vineyards, Hungary was once one of the most prominent wine-producing regions in all of Europe. In the 1880s, the region was unfortunately hit hard by phylloxera, and then years of war followed, ultimately devastating the wine industry. However, around the late 1980s, Hungary became a democratic republic and prioritized winemaking in the Aszú region of Tokaj. Home to Hungary’s crown jewel white dessert wine, Tokaji is made from the Furmint grape.
At Galit Restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, head chef Zach Engel has made it his mission to not only uplift Middle Eastern and Israeli cuisines but wines that hail from these regions as well. With wine list notes such as “OG Greek natty winery” and “have you ever had Grüner with hummus?” Engel aims to make wine a more approachable and conversational accompaniment to the meal. “Tokaji Sec, while traditionally known as a dessert wine, is a wine we offer by the bottle on our menu,” Engel says. “The sweetness and unctuousness, balanced with the high acidity, makes it the perfect food wine.”
Chef Engel explains that not many places put Hungarian wines on menus, allowing him and his staff to introduce guests to something new. “Hungarian winemakers are growing different kinds of grapes than everyone else, and they’re doing a lot of the natural winemaking,” he says. “It’s how they’ve been doing it for centuries, but with a new approach to traditional winemaking.”
The first accounts of winemaking in Slovenia date back to 500 BCE with the Celts and Illyrian tribes. For years thereafter, war and political conflict would stunt the quality of the country’s wine production. It wasn’t until June 1991 that Slovenia (and Croatia) decided to become independent of Soviet rule and reclaim their place as a renowned winemaking country.
Today, there are three primary wine regions, Primorska, Podravje, and Posavje, where almost 40,000 acres of the country’s grapes grow. “Slovenian wines are super hot for me at the moment,” says Ervine. “I’ve currently got close to 15 bottles on the menu, including one pet nat Riesling that’s flying out the bar,” Ervine adds that what makes Slovenian wines so special is their approachability and price point. “Slovenian winemakers are making pet nats, skin-contact wines, and using high-quality techniques and grape varieties that may don’t expect given the region. But once you taste the wine, you can tell it’s such a labor of love.”