Arguably one of the most dynamic and exciting trends happening in the global wine market is the emergence, or the re-emergence, of indigenous varieties from traditional winemaking regions and countries. It is a trend the International Wine & Spirit Competition wants to promote by holding specific tastings and panels for wines from these countries. Here we share some of the highlights from the judging carried out just looking at wines from Eastern Europe.
Indigenous grape varieties are increasingly want both trade buyers and consumers are looking for. Which is why the IWSC now holds specific panels to celebrate and explore what different countries are doing. Here are the highlights from its East European judging panel.
A quick search on Google reveals that there are more than 10,000 varieties of wine grapes in the world. Italy alone has documented more than 350 varieties and Croatia has its fair share too with 130 indigenous grapes. In 2012 Jancis Robinson MW published the most comprehensive guide to grape varieties ‘Wine Grapes’, writing 1 million words on 1,368 grape varieties. However, at a guess we probably buy, smell, swirl, slurp and digest around 1% of them and what is more alarming, probably always the same grape varieties.
[António Graça, research director at Sogrape, speaking at last week’s MUST Fermenting Ideas conference said: “There are around 5,000 recognised varieties in the world of which we are cultivating around 25%. Only 1% – 33 varieties – represent 50% of the global vineyard surface.”]
Shining the light
Earlier this year the IWSC held a specific tasting where our experts reviewed and tasted over 300 wines from Eastern Europe, including a vast range of indigenous varieties, which revealed some delicious treasures. There was a time when Eastern Europe was associated primarily with cheap plonk and bulk wines, but there’s been a remarkable shift since the end of the communist period.
Now we are seeing the rise of what may be called the New Europe, as exciting new and revitalised producers look to reclaim the region’s reputation for producing serious wine. What is already striking is the sheer diversity of styles on offer, and at accessible prices.
To my mind it is in these relatively obscure and unknown varieties that the most exciting potential lies for countries like Georgia, Croatia, Moldova, Romania etc. No doubt they produce some great Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons, but what makes them really exciting is the local heritage of grapes like MalvazijaIstarska, Pošip, Plavac Mali, Xynisteri, Saperavi, Saperavi,Babić to name a few.
While they may remain niche on the retailer scene, some people are championing those esoteric discoveries. Oddbins buyer Anna Sapungiu MW has been introducing less familiar categories to their range. Freddy Bulmer, wine buyer at The Wine Society, has enlisted a selection of native unheard grape varieties from Eastern Europe. More recently, Waitrose has just launched an ‘experimental’ range of wine claiming to be from lesser-known grape varieties.
So now you have no excuse not to explore and loose yourself in the unknown. They may be impossible to pronounce and to remember – try Tămâioasă Românească or Babească Neagră – but my theory is that the harder they are to pronounce, the better value you will get. Next time you are looking at a wine on a restaurant list or at your local store, be adventurous and try something different. It will give you real reward. And while you are at it, grab a copy of the Wine Grapes bible by Jancis Robinson.
Here we have hand-picked a selection of the very best wines tasted as part of the IWSC from obscure grape varieties. Many of them unfortunately haven’t got a home in the UK yet, but hopefully they will find one soon. The wines were tasted blind by panels of four experts, led by our panel chairs, including: Eric Zwiebel MW, cellar master at Summer Lodge Country Hotel in Dorset; Ana Sapungiu MW, Oddbins’ head wine buyer; Igor Sotric, head sommelier at China Tang at the Dorchester; and Dominique Vrigneau, buying director at Watermill Wines. The panels are also overseen by members of our Wine Judging Committee, John Hoskins MW and Dawn Davies MW.
Each wine was tasted individually then discussed by the panelists, with wines scoring 90 and above re-tasted by the Wine Judging Committee for final endorsement, and to ensure consistency across the panels.
Selection of white wines
Opg Pilato, Malvazija sur lie, Istra 2015 Croatia 95
Made from the oldest and most well-known grape variety in Croatia, Malvazija is the country’s second most planted variety. Bright colour, with green tints. Beautiful fresh nose, with citrus fruit and tangerine characters. This is evolving and opening in the glass all the time. The lovely minerality and beautiful texture carry the big but elegant palate to a grand finale. 14% abv. Not available in the UK.
Teliani Valley, Glekhuri Rkatsiteli Qvevri, Kakheti 2017 Georgia 93
Made from one of the oldest grape varieties in Georgia, Rkatsiteli is by far the most widely planted in its home country. This is made in a traditional style and vinified in clay Qvevri, a large lemon-shaped terracotta pot buried up to the neck in the ground. Fleshy summer stone and tropical fruits flavours on the nose. Full and fresh, with a good medium to long finish. 13% abv. RRP: £20 Only available in Russia via Wine Shopper.
Kamanterena winery, Limassol 2018 Cyprus 91
Indigenous to the island of Cyprus, Xynisteri variety was first mentioned in 1881 and was placed as one of the better-quality grapes from the island. Watery pale lemon. Red apple, lime, melon and nectarine aromas. Tangy palate, lovely textured fruity/spicy/mineral palate. Refreshing, crisp medium-length finish. 11.7% abv. Not available in the UK.
Korta Katarina, Pošip, Dalmacija 2017 Croatia 90
Made from Pošip, arguably the most important white grape variety in Croatia for producing top notch quality wine, this example comes from Dalmacija, like many of the best ones. Bright yellow. Expressive nose of rich and citrus fruits. Greengages and quince combine beautifully with peach and lemon notes. A touch of white pepper adds to the complex finish. 14% abv. RRP: £20. Only available in Croatia via Wine & More
Semeli Estate, Mantinia, Peloponnese 2018 Greece 90
An aromatic grape mainly found in Peloponnese and especially in the region of Mantinia where this wine is from. Moschofilero is seeing an increase of popularity in the last 20 years and it is often rated as one of the finest and most interesting Greek white grapes. Two styles can be found, the light and low alcohol or the richer and more concentrated style. This is the latter style. Pale watery colour, with the merest blink of pink. Wonderful varietal typicity, with scents of yellow flowers, orange blossom, sweet herbs and citrus fruits. The palate is lovely – lashings of citrus and melon fruits, white peaches and minerals. Delightful palate, very complete and satisfying. 12.4% abv. RRP: £10.95: The Wine Society
Suvorov, Viorica 2018 Moldova 90
The Viorica grape does not even make it into the bible, Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, but according to the Moldova wine association, it’s only been recently included in the list of European grape varieties. It’s a very aromatic grape and unlike this dry offering used mostly in the production of off-dry wines. Viorica is also the name of Romania newly elected prime minister, Viorica Dăncilă, the first woman to hold the office. The nose is reminiscent of notes from Gewürztraminer and Muscat grapes, with stone fruit, floral aromas and a bit of citrus. It is light, crisp and aromatic on the palate, with some melons and tropical fruit on the finish. 13% abv. Not available in the UK.
Selection of red wines
Fautor, Negre, FeteascăNeagră & RarăNeagră, ValulluiTraian 2017 Moldova 93
This is a blend of Fetească Neagră – meaning literally ‘black young girl’ –and Rară Neagră – meaning ‘grandmother’s black’ and better known as Babească Neagră. Fetească Neagră is an indigenous grape to what is known now the republic of Moldova while Rară Neagră is a very old Romanian grape. They do complement each other nicely, as one tends to produce full-bodied spicy red while the other produces a high acid fruity red. Youthful first impression of dark fruit on the nose, with aromatic spices and herbs. Concentrated palate with a savoury edge. The powerful dark cherry and damson fruit is supported by a generous amount of firm but well-controlled tannins. 14.5% abv. Not available in the UK.
Marani, Saperavi Bio, Kakheti 2017 Georgia 91
From the most widely planted red grape variety in Georgia, Saperavi – meaning ‘dye’ after the deep black skin colour – produces a very savoury and ageworthy style of reds like this example. Deep red colour; a fruity, spicy, quite meaty example with good, opulent blackberry fruit and firm tannins that tighten on the finish. 13.5% abv. Not available in the UK.
Semeli Estate, Nemea Reserve, Peloponnese 2016 Greece 91
Most widely planted red grape in Greece but also the most versatile in style. Agiorgitiko can produce everything from fresh and fruity wines to concentrated and tannic age-worthy reds, depending on the location and how the yields are controlled. This is definitely the latter style. Dark inky core colour. Lots of crushed red berry and stone fruit. A dash of cassis and spice. This is in a concentrated style, with firm oak and noticeable alcohol. Acidity is fresh; well balanced and very drinkable. 14.2% abv. RRP: £13.99 (2013); Novel Wines.
Wine Atlas, Fetească Neagră 2018 Romania 91
Asda launched the Wine Atlas wine range four years ago to appeal to those consumers looking to discover new wine styles. Philippa Carr MW was the brains behind the launch of the range with the ‘Great Gatsby’ packaging look. This is made exclusively for Asda from the native Moldavian variety, Fetească Neagră, and by the giant producer, Cramele Recas. It’s juicy, fruit driven nose and palate with plenty of blackcurrants, blueberries, raspberries and sweet wood spices. Luscious and crisp at the same time with vibrant fruit and velvety soft tannins. 13.5% abv. RRP: £5.25: Asda
Domaine Porto Carras, LimNeon, Macedonia2017 Greece 90
According to Wine Grapes, Limnio grape is one of the most ancient varieties still cultivated in Greece. Grown mostly in the island of Límmos but more recently it is also found in the region of Macedonia where it produces a finer style of wine. A very distinctive nose: crushed fresh herbs with summer red berries and bay leaf. Crunchy fruit in the mouth, with a slightly warm finish. 13.5% abv. Not available in the UK.
Korta Katarina,Plavac Mali, Primorska Hrvatska 2012 Croatia 90
First mentioned in 1841 as a typical Dalmatian coast grape variety but probably much older, Plavac Mali is an ancient and most widely planted red grape variety. This is not for the light-hearted as it makes big and powerful tannic style of wine. Ruby red; complex nose of red berry fruits and garrigue, with floral overtones. Smooth and silky on the palate, with lots of complexity and a layered quality to the fruit. 14.5% abv. RRP: £20. Only available in Croatia via Wine & More
Usadba Divnomorskoe,Marselan, Black Sea Coast2015 Russia 90
This is the exception to the list as its origin is not from Russia but from France. It’s a French crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache and found mainly in South of France. However it is spreading and can be found in Spain, California, Brazil, China and now Russia. Lifted nose of deep dark damson fruit and black cherries, and a touch of olive tapenade. Big robust tannins at the end, with a spicy mocha finish. Powerful and pronounced. 14.4% abv. RRP £25: Only available in Russia via Wine Shopper.
Chateau Porto Carras,Macedonia2010 Greece 95
In 1963 a shipowner Giannis Carras fell in love with the region and purchased the land. He planted 27 hectares in 1967 and today Chateau Porto Carras has 4,500 hectares of wines and it is the largest organic vineyard in Greece. With the advice of famous oenologist the late Emile Peynaud, the white grape varieties were planted closed to the sea while the red grapes were planted at higher altitude and today, they have more than 25 different grape varieties planted. This is made from the local Limnio grape, one of the most ancient varieties still cultivated in Greece. Grown mostly in the island of Límmos, but more recently it is also found in the region of Macedonia where it produces a finer style of wine. Garnet red shading to brick. Complex aromas: roasting herb, bayleaf, garrigue, cedar, with lashings of cherry, redcurrant and kirsch fruits. This is a real lesson in integration: the wine is perfectly balanced, with fruit, acidity, tannins and lovely development, making a harmonious whole. Superb extended finish; beautiful wine. 13.5% abv. Not available in the UK.
Wine Atlas, Fetească Neagră 2018 Romania 91
Another from the Wine Atlas range by Cramele Recas for Asda. This is a bargain. It’s juicy, fruit driven nose and palate with plenty of blackcurrants, blueberries, raspberries and sweet wood spices. Luscious and crisp at the same time with vibrant fruit and velvety soft tannins. 13.5% abv. RRP: £5.25: Asda.
- You can see all of the IWSC medal winners and wines tasted at its main website.