Heading East again

Early in the ’70s I ventured behind the Iron Curtain travelling – nervously – in a converted Russian bomber which still had perspex turrets … presumably so it could easily convert back for WW3. But the trip was worth it … because I got there first.

Bulgarian, Romanian and Hungarian wines, despite being, well, ‘nationalised’, were, I found, rather better than most cheap French or Italian wines of that time. Within a few months customers were lapping them up by the boat load. Staggeringly, in the late 1970’s well over half the wine we sold came from Eastern Europe because the prices were so very low due to the then obligatory ‘barter deals’ (in our case, swapping containers of a well-known Cola for lorries of lovely Cabernet Sauv). Crazy, but that’s how the world was back then! Too good to last, of course, and it didn’t. Quality – in Bulgaria particularly – seemed to dilute after every wine retailer in Britain climbed on what I had regarded as my personal bandwagon.

Then it got worse for the East; the competition ramped up. We found bigger, bolder wines from Australia and the rest of the New World. Our ‘Flying Winemakers’ came over as well and showed the cheaper French, Spanish and Italian wines how to improve. This new competition came at the same time as Communism collapsed and chaos came to the vineyards of the East. I confess I lost interest in Eastern Europe for a while.

But of course, chaos creates opportunities. Over the last 25 years, wine things over there have been well-sorted by certain dedicated and determined people. Today ‘Eastern Europe’ no longer means just ‘Cheap Wine’. Romania, Moldova, Hungary and Slovenia – which, for us, had been the northern (efficient) bit of Yugoslavia – in particular, are back to producing a serious number of really excellent, world-class wines … as they did for centuries before that bad old Curtain came down.

This week, I went back east for a drive around with Beth Willard (UKWBOTY*).

The trip

1st stop Moldova … the Mysterious. It was only just before I first went there that I learnt this country existed. It was heart-breakingly poor. But it is the most wine-dominated country in the world. A quarter of the population work in wine, and have for a long time. Well, there’s little else. Geese, maybe?

Moldova’s black soils used to supply thirsty great Russia with most of its wine needs. In Communist times it was big, heavy reds for big, heavy Reds. In return Russia supplied Moldova with most of its problems. Hence the country being very poor.

What we like best today are its whites. Our Albastrele wines: Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc have done well for years and will be outstanding this year (improved, winemaking and a surprisingly good vintage that far east). Looking forward, those big reds are capturing our interest. They are getting much better. Work in progress, early days, but looking good.



2nd stop, Romania, which makes masses of wine but exports relatively little. I like lots of it but I find my favourites are usually made from either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. This country does a superb Burgundy rip-off. You really can’t tell it’s not the real thing.

But I have another love. For the old, famous-for-centuries, real Romanian style, you just MUST try the Feteascas. ‘Fet – Asca’ as it is pronounced means ‘Maiden’. There’s a White Maiden grape; Feteasca Alba which makes crisp, dry whites you might think came from somewhere up the Loire. Dry as dry but with an original taste of honey, especially when from the high vineyards of Transylvania. Even more especially when made in new barrels, not of oak, but of acacia wood.

And then there is the Black Maiden Feteasca Negra which, in style, we place between Rioja’s Tempranillo and the Merlot of Bordeaux. Think purple fruits; blueberry, plums and such, but well-rounded and velvety. With some time in bottle it gets to taste very classy. Our ‘Burebista’ Shiraz Feteasca Negra is delicious. But just try sitting on it for a year or so. I really like Romania, particularly the unspoilt Transylvania; the last wilderness left in Europe. Prince Charles has restored several old houses there and visits regularly. It has 6000 bears, wolves too, but no vampires. That’s a myth.

3rd stop Hungary. In the ’70’s I listed this wine called ‘Badacsonyi Szuruebarat’. Excellent dry white from around Lake Balaton. Didn’t sell too well, unsurprisingly … nobody could pronounce it. I still can’t. But remarkably, that same wine has now become our No.1 seller white wine. The trick is, we now use the wine’s Italian name; Pinot Grigio. ‘Campanula’ PG, named for the little blue flowers that grow on the estate. One day I must go to Lake Balaton in the summer when they tell me the place is one big party. Because Balaton (very big), in landlocked Hungary, is its ‘seaside’. It’s always deserted when we visit in winter.

Further south the region around Vilan used to supply me with a Pinot Noir called Villanyi Burgundi. Try that name now and the French’d lock me up. We were too early to try the young Pinot Noir reds but Beth has lined stuff up for her next trip and is sure she’ll find a winner.

4th stop Slovenia. Hurtling on, we went down the motorway (a clever one where you don’t have to stop for tolls – you just put a sticker on the windscreen) into a wine-obsessed little country of only 2 million but which has 27,000 wine growers! Mostly for personal consumption. Clearly, Slovenians are clever people.

The country is sub-alpine with the eastern or ‘Julian’ Alps towering to the north. (Anyone remember that ‘Alpi Juliani’ wine we got the original Flying Winemaker, Martin Shaw of ‘Smith and Shaw’, to make for us here, early ’90’s?) So it’s Swiss-like: immaculate; no litter; well-trimmed fields; neat woods; tidy log piles; bright painted chalets; well-tended vegetable gardens and small, steep vineyards.

At the winery we saw a guy hoisted 30 feet up by forklift, scrubbing the concrete beams till they gleamed. Outside, a girl was taking apart and polishing the light fittings. Clean? It’s NASA-standard here. So, unsurprisingly the wines come out squeaky-clean, slim, mineral, delicate and delightful. Audrey Hepburn wines (as against the Sophia Lorens from just over the Italian border).

Adore them all; Sauvignon Blanc – but not as we know it, Pinot Gris rather than Grigio, Riesling, Traminer, Muscat – it’s sort of like Alsace but less French, more Swiss. And wines that hardly seem to age at all.

Very young Slovenian whites

Very young Slovenian wines

Nor do the vines. In Maribor I posed with the ‘world’s oldest’ (Guinness Book) vine which of course will invite rude captions – but I’m not quite 400 years old.

And I have returned rejuvenated and inspired from this little jaunt (well, as far as Stanstead and the M25 anyway). I predict an imminent surge in Wines from Eastern Europe, not because they are cheap but because they are brilliant and fascinatingly, subtly different.

This week, Beth and I will be marching around the office shouting “Noroc” “Egészégedre” and “Na Zdravje!” until everyone gets the message.

*Beth was recently voted ‘UK Wine Buyer of The Year!’


About Tony Laithwaite

Tony Laithwaite, founder of Laithwaite's, whose passion for wine is still going strong!