Winegrowers in Central and South-Eastern Europe have made amazing efforts - and are now extremely competitive
The two brothers Mihaly (33) and Janos Figula (30) in Balatonfüred on Lake Balaton are a good example of the dynamic momentum we can expect to see among winegrowers in Central and South-Eastern Europe today. Their father, Hungary’s “Winegrower of the Year” in 2000, died at an early age in 2008, and when the two sons inherited the estate, they gradually expanded the business – now 30 hectares – and invested plenty of money in state-of-the-art technology. Moreover, they increased the quality of their products to the highest international standards. A new visitors’ centre with a wine tasting room and a reception area is currently being built for the steadily growing number of Figula wine enthusiasts. The two brothers specialise in powerful, full-bodied Welschrieslings and white Cuvées. Their Szileniusz already has a certain cult status in Hungary, with only one potential competitor: a Welschriesling called Olasz from the Arácsi Hills, with its 80 to 100-year-old grapes. “We want to bring back our indigenous wine culture,” says Janos, who is both a winegrower and a concert musician. “Sadly, so much has been lost after 40 years of socialism.” It is no mean achievement that a fifth of all Figula wines are already being exported to other countries, mainly to the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The two brothers from Balatonfüred are not the only positive examples. Quite a few others can be found elsewhere in Hungary which is gradually beginning to wake up from its long, deep slumber. 31-year-old Bence Laposa owns a vineyard in Badacsony, in the south-western corner of Lake Balaton – a gleaming business that produces white wines with an extremely high mineral content. His wines are made from indigenous grapes such as Juhfark, Keknyelü and Hárslevelü, though also from Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) grapes. The basalt soil in Badacsony adds a special, distinctive note to these wines. Bence Laposa learned his craft in Langenlois in the Kamp Valley in Austria – and you can tell straightaway.
150 km further east, in the red wine town of Szekszárd, a real quality revolution has been in progress for 10 years now. Influenced greatly by the German Danube-Swabian tradition, this little town can even boast two Hungarian “Winegrowers of the Year” – Ferenc Takler (2004) and Peter Vida (2011). Year after year this title is awarded to an outstanding winegrower by the Hungarian Wine Academy. Like in the renowned wine-growing region of Villány near the Croatian border in southern Hungary, the Szekszárd region mainly specialises in red wines, mostly fiery, full-bodied and quite often with an alcohol content of at least 14%. “It goes nicely with our spicy cuisine,” says Peter Vida. Until recently the high-class Cuvées wines from the Szekszárd region – mainly Cabernet, Merlot, Kékfrankos and Kadarka grapes – have been selling more or less without any problems on the domestic market, despite their upscale price range. However, the current economic crisis is now presenting new challenges to winegrowers wanting to export their products. This is the first time, says Zoltan Heimann, chairman of the Szekszárd Winegrowers’ Association, that several joint presentations will be held in Germany, supported by professional media work: “We just need to become more widely known.” Stage two may therefore include a presentation at ProWein.
Like most countries behind the former Iron Curtain, Hungary has lost quite a lot of its vineyard space since the fall of Communism. It currently has about 72,000 hectares, while Romania has 182,000 (and is therefore clearly in the lead), Bulgaria has 69,000, Slovakia 18,000, the Czech Republic 17,000 and Slovenia 16,000. Croatia, due to join the EU in summer 2013, has approx. 60,000 hectares. Neighbouring Serbia, Russia and Ukraine each have a similar amount of vineyard space, although exact figures are difficult to obtain.
Georgia and Moldova
It is particularly hard for a country if it suddenly and abruptly loses a large portion of its traditional market. This was the unfortunate experience of Georgia and Moldova in 2006, when Russian President Putin put their wines under an embargo for political reasons. During the Soviet era the small Republic of Moldova supplied about half of all wine consumed within the giant Communist empire, and Georgian wine was always considered to be the very best in the USSR. Since then Moldova’s original vineyard space of far above 100,000 hectares has dwindled to 70,000, and Georgia only has about 45,000. Both countries responded positively to the crisis that was threatening their existence and have invested in state-of-the-art technology and quality improvements, while also setting up export promotion organisations to tap new markets. The Georgian Wine Association experienced a record level of participation at ProWein this year, as 16 enterprises were represented and attracted considerable attention, including quite a few tongue twisters: Rkatsiteli, Kisi, Mtsvane, Kikhvi, Tsitska, Tsolikauri, Saperavi, Mujuretuli and Khvanchkara. Another long-standing feature in Düsseldorf is the stand of the Moldova Wine Guild, which represents the country’s six biggest wine producers.
In most countries in Central and South Eastern Europe the winegrowing scene is dominated by big and indeed very big enterprises as a consequence of those countries’ former Communist structures, even though privatisation has by now largely been concluded. Bulgaria, which only comes 24th in Germany’s wine import statistics (2011), is dominated by Domaine Boyar, a giant both on the domestic market and in Bulgaria’s worldwide wine exports, with 120 different products from several different vineyards. Quite a few wine-growing businesses have been helped by foreign investment. They include, for instance, the Bessa Valley Vineyard which was co-founded by Count Stephan von Neipperg in 2001, and the futuristic Wine Cellar, set up in 2002 by the Italian textile entrepreneur Edoardo Miroglio in Elenovo, south of the city of Nova Zagora, complete with guest rooms and an exquisite restaurant. Only a small part of Bulgaria’s total production of over 6 million hectolitres currently accounts for wines from protected areas, and its total number of 211 vineyards is equally manageable. However, vigorous interest from foreign investors shows how much potential is lying dormant in Bulgaria’s soil. In recent years, therefore, Bulgarian red wine has become increasingly successful in international competitions.
The situation is similar in neighbouring Romania where 70 per cent of domestic sales is shared between five big players: Murfatlar, Jidvei, Cotnari, Vincon and Tohani. The Romanian Association of Wine Producers and Exporters (APEV) has 22 members who are responsible for 80 per cent of their country’s wine exports. APEV has been a familiar feature at ProWein for many years now. The main Romanian export target is Germany, followed by China, the United Kingdom, Italy and the United States. However, a significant share of exports is covered by bulk wines. In fact, Romania produces just as much white wine as it does red wine. Nevertheless, despite its many indigenous grapes – above all white grapes – the country has so far not succeeded in pushing ahead into the topmost ranks on the international scene. Yet there is still so much to discover in this country which is one of the most attractive tourist destinations in Europe.
Another country that has put wine tourism on its agenda is Macedonia. This ex-Yugoslavian republic has some dramatic mountains and three wine-growing areas, totalling about 23,000 hectares of vineyard space. Like in neighbouring Serbia and Montenegro, much of the country’s red wine is made from an indigenous grape called Vranec. About 60 businesses have their own bottling facilities. More than half of all production is handled by two giants: Tikvesh and Skovin. However, there is now an increasing number of smaller producers, such as Popova Kula where wine tourists from all ends of the earth have come to value an exquisite cuisine, comfortable accommodation, theatre performances and activity holidays as well as discovering new wines such as Stanushina, Temjanika and Prokupec. Wine tourism in Macedonia even has its own Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/#!/winetourism.macedonia), and a Wine Guide has been published for this small country. To become more widely known on an international scale, Macedonian winegrowers are planning to run their first joint stand at ProWein 2013.
Hall 6 will also feature Slovenian, Czech and Slovak winegrowers, with opportunities to taste their products. All three countries have made substantial quality improvements over the last few years, especially in their white wines. The name Croatia stands for a stylish red wine from the Dalmatian coast as well as for a powerful white wine from the Slavic hinterland and both red and white from Istria, a region that is developing more and more into an Eldorado for foodies. Winegrowers such as Giorgio Claj, Gianfranco Kozlovic, Bruno Trapan, Ivica Matošević and Mladen Rožanić have long had cult status. Whether it’s Malvazija Istarska, Muskat Momjan, Teran or Barrique blends: the quality is very high.
To conclude, we can safely say that wines from eastern climes no longer put a wan smile on people’s faces. Those times are firmly in the past. All former Eastern Bloc countries have invested considerable funds in state-of-the-art technology and know-how. And more and more producers are using ProWein with its highly professional international visitors as a gateway to the world’s markets.