Central European Countries on the Rise | Commentary / by Hillary Zio

Hillary Zio explains, why now?

I’ve always wondered while looking at the extensive map of wine producing regions, why Central European countries weren’t always included in big wine shops and extensive restaurant lists throughout New York City and beyond. After studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers and The Wine and Spirit Education Trust, I was pressed to find more than a half a page of info in a textbook or more than 2 test questions on Croatia, Hungary or Slovenia. All I knew for years is that each of these countries has been making wine a very long time. Didn’t that experience, paired with some more-than-ideal growing locations, mean that the wine had to be good? Like anywhere in the winemaking world, that’s not an easy question to answer. Regardless, I was starting to see and hear about wine from these three countries and wondered, why now?  

Marjan Simcic Vineyards | Photo Credit: Chris Boiling

Marjan Simcic Vineyards | Photo Credit: Chris Boiling

In an effort to understand the many changes that the Central European wine industry has seen, I focused on three specific countries.  The wines of Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia have not only seen a recent spike in exportation, but regional styles have become quite popular among wine enthusiasts. Perhaps this is due to the long history of winemaking, leading to curiosity about soil types, vine age, and indigenous varietals. Another reason for a recent spike in popularity among young Sommeliers is that the prices are relatively very low. While these ancient regions have been looked over for decades, more wine enthusiasts are starting to explore the complex wines of Central Europe.

Croatia

With over 1,000 islands, Croatia has remained a common tourist destination. However, the wine was regularly classified as either “Coastal” or “Continental.” In 2012, however, a group of winemakers and wine scholars created a new system. This divided the country into 12 sub regions with 66 appellations. As you can presume, this gave the curious an opportunity to taste and understand the many wines that Croatia has to offer. Delving into and differentiating a wine by place is what wine education is all about.  

Croatian wine prices are relatively low in comparison to Italy. This can be fascinating at first, as Croatia has a longer history of winemaking. While both countries have several similarities in climate, being along the Adriatic Coast, Italy’s long standing classification system could be attributed to the world-wide popularity.  Now 30th in terms of wine production, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a massive jump in Croatian wine exportation, especially since the recent implementation of their appellation system.

As Croatia was originally inherited from the ancient Greeks and Romans, you can expect to see some similarities when visiting the country. Wine and cuisine are clearly significant in the everyday lives of the locals. At the wineries, you will undoubtedly experience the ancient wisdom of clay amphora customs, along with views of seemingly endless vineyards atop the peninsula’s steep hills. One of the most popular wine tours in the country is a day trip to Hvar Island. Among the few ancient and breathtaking estates, you may encounter Andro Tomic at his Batsjana Winery, one that has seen recent praise by connoisseurs all over the world.

Hungary

Hungary’s recent success, however, can be linked to a recent shift in consumer preferences. After years of producing sweet, botrytized wines like Tokaj Aszu, top producers began to notice local customers drinking the dry wines of neighboring country, Austria. They took note of this newfound partiality and added several, dry white and red styles to their annual production. Some of these dry wines include the common Gruner Veltliner and Pinot Grigio. Not only did Hungary begin to experiment with dry styles and blends, they were also pressured to increase quality, in an attempt to remain competitive. The common and traditional table wines were lacking complexity and in-turn weren’t being exported.

One producer with quality at the forefront is Meszaros Winery in the Szekszard region. The family’s winery goes back 250 years and they produce several styles, never using oak, in an effort to focus on the freshness and fruitiness of grapes like Merlot and Kadarka. When visiting the Szekszard region, near Budapest, you will likely come across several small, family–run estates producing spicy red wines. These wines taste even spicier and perhaps too much so, when aged in barrel. For this reason, Meszaros Winery and others, have decided to ferment and age in stainless steel alone. I predict that Hungary will continue their recent success with dry and steel fermented wines, as following consumer preferences is now more vital than ever.

Slovenia

Slovenia, sandwiched between Italy, Austria, and Croatia, has seen recent triumph due to their experimental practices. They have been known to place great importance on natural, organic, and biodynamic winemaking. Unlike several Eastern and Central European countries, Slovenia is not one to stick with tradition. In terms of blending indigenous varietals and even some peculiar aging techniques, they aren’t shamed for trying new things.

Hisa Stare Slovenia Maribor Pohorje Bogdan Zelnik | Photo Credit: Chris Boiling

Hisa Stare Slovenia Maribor Pohorje Bogdan Zelnik | Photo Credit: Chris Boiling

One great producer of note is Movia, from the Western region of Brda. They produce several original blends and have introduced several new winemaking practices. Many agree that Movia has paved the way for not only other Slovenian producers, but wineries all over the world. For instance, they use ambient yeasts and experiment with small French barrels, among other aging processes. With such remarkable new producers that lead by example with natural vinification, the rise and popularity of Slovenian wine is much anticipated.

Central Europe’s recent exportation feat was long anticipated. Travelling is idyllic when understanding any wine region, but as a Sommelier in New York City, I am enthusiastic to finally be able to taste all of what Central Europe has to offer.