An Introduction to Central European Wine

14692074937_7d69b3d5ab_z

 

Central Europe doesn’t spring to mind for many people when they think of wine, nor do these countries make frequent appearances on many wine lists that you encounter. Perhaps a sweet Hungarian Tokaji as the adventurous choice on a dessert list, but that’s generally the extent to which this part of the world appears on people’s wine radar. That’s a shame. Wine has been produced throughout the Balkans and the rest of Central Europe since the ancient Greeks, and has birthed some of the most well-known grapes that grow across Europe and the Americas (not to mention hundreds of local varietals that rarely appear outside of the hills and valleys to which they are native). After the disastrous effects of collective farming practices under communist rule, bookended by a decade of war in the 1990’s as Yugoslavia disintegrated, Western wine drinkers are finally turning their gaze towards this part of the world in earnest. Suddenly it’s not uncommon to find interesting bottles from Croatia and Slovenia in wine shops and on restaurant lists, although Hungary remains largely relegated to the dessert wine category, and things from some of the smaller countries are still something of a rarity.

Central European wines are victim to a single, yet daunting hurdle: an aggressive amount of consonants. While French and Italian wines allow one have a go at sounding out the names on bottles without butchering things too badly, trying to wrestle a pronunciation out of such unfamiliar words as Črnko (pronounced “churn-ko”) can be enough to turn you right back to something more familiar. This is compounded by the presence of other non-Slavic languages in the region that can seem equally impenetrable to English speakers, like Hungarian and Romanian.

The grapes themselves don’t help too much either in this regard. Have you ever enjoyed a Bosnian Žilavka, or a Croatian Crljenak Kaštelanski? Probably not. But the old adage is correct, as looks can be deceiving. That Crljenak Kaštelanski you’re still trying to pronounce is actually what gave birth to the familiar Zinfandel, and a number of grapes that you’ll recognize make frequent appearances throughout a number of these countries.

So, where do you start? The only way to tackle such an enormous number of countries, grapes and terroirs is to choose a geographic point and then move in a constant direction. This is the first part in a series that will begin in Hungary and works its way through Slovenia, Croatia, and then focus on some of the smaller less well-known countries that are producing intensely interesting natural wines. You may not come across a lot of bottles from Montenegro or find people willing to entertain your observations about Bosnia’s wonderful biodynamic whites, but many of the wines are unique to their place of origin, and some of them are fantastic.

20163927400_28a0679f86_z

Hungary

The sweet Hungarian wines from the Tokaj-Hegyalja region have long been sought after by European royalty, and was infact the first classified wine region in the world. It’s not hard to understand the reasoning behind this if you’ve been lucky enough to uncork one of the small rotund bottles that this golden hued nectar frequently arrives in. A good Tokaji can be like taking a sip from the sun, sweet without being cloying, and with a fragrance that can range from summer flowers to honey. The wines from Tokaj can actually fall anywhere along the scale from dry to heavy and sweet, but it’s the wines classified as Aszú that are so well known as a post-meal drink.

Six grapes are allowed to be grown in the Tokaj wine region, but Furmint accounts for the majority of production. This is closely followed by Hárslevelű, which along with Muscat is blended with Furmint to produce Aszú wines. The final ingredients are a long, slow ripening process in the strong sun and the late-on appearance of Botrytis cinerea, a fungus otherwise known as “noble rot” for the effects it has on certain wine grapes. Botrytis acts by sucking water from the grapes, leaving behind a higher concentration of sugars and other solids in the final juicing that helps to concentrate flavor. This is the same fungus at work in Bordeaux that produces the much lauded Sauternes.

Thankfully, Hungary is not all sweet white wine (nor is Tokaj, it should be mentioned). There are 22 recognized wine regions throughout the country, with Somló the best known outside of Tokaj. Perched around an extinct volcano and exclusively planted with white grapes, these wines are unsurprisingly mineral driven, with the aforementioned Furmint once again playing a major role alongside Hárslevelű, Olaszrizling and Juhfark (now take a moment to catch your breath).

2999210664_381a730ac3_z

Now, to red. Hungary’s indigenous Kadarka grape is the dark and brooding cousin to the bright, mineraly whites from Somló, and is a key part of the country’s best known red, Egri Bikavér (bulls blood from Eger). Hailing from the Eger wine region in the North-East, this blend is required by law to include a mix of at least three of the 13 grapes permitted to grow in the region, which include a mix of local and international varietals. The name supposedly descends from the wine’s influence on a 16th century battle, in what you’ll find is surprisingly typical dark-romantic fashion for Central Europe, but we’ll leave this part to detectives of provenance.

So then, off to Slovenia. Until next time.

An Introduction to Catalan Wine

17939236444_bc6f6cb955_z

﹡Before beginning we should pause to observe the challenge imposed by the linguistic differences that separate Catalunya from Spain, as they tend to pop-up and add confusion when least expected. Catalan is a completely separate language from Spanish (or Castellano), so to keep things simple names will appear in Catalan, as this is what you’ll probably see on bottles and wine lists.

Wine has been produced in the region that encompasses modern day Catalunya for the past 2500 years, and was once quite popular in the ancient world. The Phoenicians introduced winemaking to the region between the 7th and 8th century B.C.E., and the Romans continued the practice in their first colony in the Iberian peninsula, Tarraco (modern day Tarragona). After succumbing to the vine killing aphid Phylloxera that destroyed large swathes of Europe’s vineyards at the end of the 19th century, the international role of Catalan wine briefly surged after significant replanting, before largely falling by the wayside during the Spanish Civil War and ensuing World War.

Today Catalunya is producing a great deal of unique, interesting natural wine that closely reflects the region’s varied climates. While the American market has long been inundated with cheap cava that exists solely to fill mimosa pitchers at brunch, the past few years have seen the emergence of a number of passionate natural winemakers, and just as importantly for us, importers willing to bring their wine to unfamiliar palates. To say that interesting, honestly made wine is a new arrival in Catalunya would be unfair, but it’s certainly new to the West Coast. Our September wine box is a great introduction to some of the best cava and natural wines coming out of Catalunya right now, but with ten different recognized regions, there’s an awful lot to taste.

Much like the French AOC classification system, Catalunya’s DO (Denominació d’Origen) categorizes wine by the specific region that it comes from, and dictates what types of grapes can be used. Despite having only ten DO’s, Catalunya’s vineyards manage to encompass an incredibly diverse array of landscapes and climates, covering coastal plains, mountains and river valleys. A good general rule is to divide the wine regions into two groups:

-The dry coastal plains and valleys, which see relatively little rain and higher temperatures

-The more humid mountains and high plains, which tend to see lower temperatures than the coast, with much more rain

4947638167_8ee57bb3b4_z

 

There are a number of grapes under cultivation in the region that are unique to Catalunya, as well as non-indigenous grapes that have taken on local names, like Garnatxa (Grenache). The French border is not terribly far from most parts of Catalunya, and the two regions share deep cultural and linguistic ties. It’s no surprise, then, that several french varietals make up a significant chunk of the local red wine production, among them Monastrell (Mourvèdre), the aforementioned Garnatxa, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Samsó (Carignan). White wine production is dominated by the three indigenous grapes commonly used for cava production, Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel·lo, although they are by no means restricted to the production of this sparkling wine.

One of the more recognizable DO’s is Penedès, from where 95% of Catalunya’s cava originates, including everything from mass-produced industrial brands to small production natural and biodynamic producers. At the other end of the scale is Priorat, known for powerful reds, and confusing labelled alternatively as DOQ (Denominació d’Origen Qualificada) or DOC (Denominación de Origen Calificada), depending on your use of Catalan or Spanish. This additional level of recognition is only afforded to two of Spain’s wine regions, Priorat and Rioja, and is a reflection of both the price these wines command and their general quality. Which of these two attributes is weighed more heavily is a matter of debate.

The best way to explore a region’s wines is to try as much as you can, red or white, from every type of soil you can. Given that this is a serious task for almost anyone interested in wine, casual or otherwise, a brief overview of the DO’s of Catalunya’s should be helpful. An excellent resource is the website of the governing body that oversees the DO designation for all of Catalunya:

http://www.do-catalunya.com/en/

Drinking wines from a lesser-known region can have its drawbacks, including being able to find a wide variety of producers. Luckily, we have the internet to help ensure that things that before would never have made their way into our glasses can be (relatively) accessible. As is often the case with areas that are mountainous and whose wines are not particularly popular outside of the region, there are numerous varietals that are planted in very small amounts or are simply dying out altogether in Catalunya (and may be extremely hard to find here in the U.S.). It’s a good start to simply get an idea of the common grapes associated with a wine growing region by tasting as much as you can, but don’t be intimidated by what’s unfamiliar! Becoming adventurous in your drinking can lead to interesting discoveries. Go open a nice cava from Penedès, or a dark and brooding Garnatxa from Priorat, and then start exploring.