10 Central European Wines That Should Be On Your Radar
As wine grows more popular in Asia, the market has blossomed from highly conservative to increasingly adventurous. Even exotic regions like Georgia and Greece are gaining favour here. Yet some famous wine areas of central Europe still get scant attention.
For the sake of simplicity (and eschewing controversy), by central Europe, I mean most of what lies between France and the former USSR—Germany, certainly, as well as Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. That might also include the Balkans and possibly Switzerland. It’s a region with a difficult history: carved up, horse traded, fluid in identity, but rich with the syncretic potential that frequently arises in borderlands.
Let’s set Germany aside because it has arguably already wooed Asian markets with its riesling, either semi-sweet and quaffable, or ultra-luxurious and collectable like Keller’s pricey G-Max or the botrytis wines of Egon Müller and JJ Prüm. Austrian wine, by contrast, has conquered Europe and the US but never quite penetrated Asia. Hungary, home to the exquisite sweets of Tokaj, has suffered such cruel setbacks in reputation and, sadly, quality over the past centuries that it is only now beginning to reclaim its once-illustrious standing. Market awareness of any other central European wine plummets from there.
I grew familiar with central European wine through a project I embarked on several years ago with partners in Austria, including the Almásy noble family of The English Patient fame, called the Almásy Collection. Our idea was to source wines made from central Europe’s traditional grape varieties and unite them under a single brand. We felt the region’s combination of strengths (historical regions and a unique identity) and challenges (confusing geography and unpronounceable names) made it fertile ground.
Almásy wines aren’t yet widely available outside Burg Bernstein (the Almásy family home) but while sourcing we happily discovered that central Europe is already rich with pioneers revitalising their regions. Thanks to unique grapes like Bulgaria’s mavrud or Hungary’s hárslevelű, the wines deliver more nuance than another cabernet might. But they also symbolise a belief in redemption, the hope that with sufficient determination something thought long lost can be rescued from the edge of oblivion.
On the following pages is my abbreviated guide to each country (in light of ongoing travel limitations, I’ve tried to limit myself to wines available in Asia).
Austria is best known for grüner veltliner, its riposte to Germany’s riesling. This spicy, pungent grape is used for everything from the cheap and cheerful bottles enjoyed at vinous brewpubs called “Heuriger” to the resinous dry whites grown on stone terraces in the Danube-hugging Wachau. If you only try one Austrian wine, let it be a grüner veltliner.
Meanwhile the traditional red grapes of Austria, blaufränkisch and St Laurent, should be catnip to Burgundy lovers. Legend has it that the sturdier blaufränkisch, which made its way to Austria around the 10th century, arrived from France, while the ethereal St Laurent is a member of the pinot family and more likely Burgundian.
To my taste, blaufränkisch has a syrah-like peppery charm and assertively purple fruit; at its best it starts to resemble nebbiolo, with a heady zephyr of cabbage roses. St Laurent has the chimeric nature of pinot noir with an extra serving of base notes; it is by turns fruity, earthy, floral or fleshy, straddling the line between delectation and disgust. Both grapes benefit from being embraced by young winemakers whose ambitions are complemented by sensitive attunement to their grapes’ distinctiveness.
Weingut Prager Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Ried Achleiten 2016 (Wachau)
The Prager wines, from the philosophical Toni Bodenstein, are idiosyncratic and peerlessly complex. Though it can be reticent in youth, this smaragd (the highest ripeness level) is hitting its stride, delivering a hit of juicy pineapple, jasmine and herbal tonic upfront, retreating into cheese rind and straw and closing bright and radiant.
Bründlmayer Lamm Reserve Grüner Veltliner 2016 (Kamptal)
Ried (single vineyard) Lamm is an Erste Lage (first growth) and a rich, south-facing site that delivers an abundance of flavour and texture. Saline and chalky with pleasing palate density, this wine weaves together grapefruit rind, peaches, acacia blossoms and the creamy hazelnut of subtle oak use.
Groszer Wein Blaufränkisch Szapary 2017
Groszer Wein are my partners in the Almásy project; it was their blaufränkisch that convinced me to give the grape, which I’d often found overbearing, a second chance. The wines have soared in quality since, evolving from odd but intriguing (a mutual friend described an early effort as “like a bad love affair, in a good way”) to remarkably layered, elegant and polished. Nebbiolesque, in a word.
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Heinrich St Laurent 2014
The Heinrich St Laurent was one of the earliest available in Asia and remains a benchmark. Wisps of seductive berry fruit are quickly whisked away behind a wall of earth and furry musk, only to return again accompanied by bruised rose petals, brushy herbs and spices. Impossible to pin down, it’s a joy to contemplate throughout an evening.
Hungary is most famous for Tokaji, the lusciously sweet, botrytised (meaning affected with the noble rot) wine of Tokaj. The category has undergone a quality revolution since communist times when, local veterans inform me, the tea-brown wines spent the same number of years in dank barrels as the Puttonyos number on the label (a puttony is a basket of botrytis-infected grapes, but today Puttonyos—either five or six—is a rough indicator of sweetness). Today’s sweet Tokaji is honeyed and effusive, bursting with stone fruit, but still thankfully light in alcohol and razor sharp with acidity.
Meanwhile, the Tokaj grape varieties furmint and hárslevelű are finding new life as dry wines. The former has white Bordeaux contours: sumptuous, languid curves over an upright spine, supercharged by the grape’s naturally high acidity. The latter is perhaps an even greater sleeper hit, with the ability to evolve ginger flower and ambergris perfume over its sapid peachy fruit after years in bottle.
Patricius Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008
Patricius's architecture combines a renovated aristocratic press house with a modern gravity flow winery and the wines reflect those aesthetics: classically proportioned with measured doses of acidity and sweetness against expressive, modern apricot fruit and bright aromatics of sweet spice, blossoms and mandarin peel.
Szepsy Tokaji Furmint 2014
István Szepsy is known locally as “The Lord of Wine”, and not for nothing: his Tokaji Aszú wines are famously brilliant. However, a recent tasting of his dry wines reveals his talents extend beyond the sweet. Delicious wafts of perfectly ripe nectarine blend with an enticing hint of lanolin and drawn butter. On the palate, acid and body keep each other perfectly in check.
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Holdvölgy Tokaji Expression Hárslevelű 2017
Holdvölgy founder Pascal Demko’s ambitions in China and the winery’s slick approach to marketing (see the “Hold and Hollo” range with its vibrant silicone labels) can overshadow its sincere striving for quality. The hárslevelű outshines the more celebrated furmint, delivering concentrated peach and pear fruit, intoxicating lily and sandalwood notes and an almost luscious texture braced by fresh acidity.
Slovenia’s renown in the wine world, such as it is, derives primarily from its proximity to the northeastern Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Goriška Brda, like neighbouring Collio and Colli Orientali, is known principally for white wines powered by vivacious fruit and freshened with acid from cooling sea breezes. The rebula grape, called ribolla gialla in Italy, is an elusive character. It frequently wants extended skin contact to bring out its dewy pine forest, yellow plum and green berry notes, a practice that has been wholeheartedly embraced on either side of the border.
Movia Rebula 2017
Vinous seer Aleš Kristančič has taken his family’s 200-year-old estate and set it ablaze with experimentation. Compared with Lunar, his flagship rebula chardonnay orange wine, his varietal rebula delivers a gentler orange profile, vibrant with yellow cherries, cider apples, lush mosses, peppermint tea, spruce needles and juniper berries. The acidity is juicy, the tannins chalky and the finish as refreshingly bitter-salty as an umeboshi plum.
Throwing off its reputation as a font of cheap merlot for UK supermarkets, Bulgaria is embracing its native grape varieties to great effect. The ancient mavrud, with a name derived from the Greek word for “black”, is tannic and saucy, with a cloak of dark berry fruit concealing a wealth of ribald, lusty aromas beneath.
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Villa Yustina Monogram Mavrud-Rubin 2014
This bright, lovely red blends the aforementioned mavrud with rubin, a crossing of nebbiolo and syrah, and delivers everything you might expect from such a combination. Lithe body and crimson fruit are buttressed by angular tannins, with tobacco and leather providing aromatic intrigue.
Admittedly, Slovakia isn’t on the map for even the most dedicated wine trend-hunters, despite its claim to a sliver of northeastern Tokaj and the fact that vines have been cultivated here sporadically since Roman times. However, since the 2001 debut of a riesling at the historical Château Béla from Mosel auteur Egon Müller, some are starting to give the area a second look.
Château Béla by Egon Müller Štúrovo Riesling 2012
First tasted in 2016, when it was far subtler, this is now intensely honeyed and fragrant with candied lemon peel, succulent florals and dense resinous herb notes. On the palate, a warming sweetness spreads like marmalade.
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