Be honest. When offered the choice between an unknown indigenous varietal wine whose name you’ve never heard spoken aloud, and something more recognizable like, say, a Pinot Noir, how many of us take a walk on the wild side? And how many stick to what we know? (Given the sales and production data, smart money’s on the latter.)
Indigenous grapes are special, though. Vines grown in the very soils and microclimates where they’ve evolved produce grapes that are endlessly expressive — often much more so than international transplants would be in the same location.
Wines made from the indigenous grapes of the former Communist nations in Central and Eastern Europe are increasingly gaining worldwide recognition. Historically and sociopolitically, it’s a major development.
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Before the rise of Communism, countries like Romania, Moldova, Georgia, Slovenia, and Croatia produced fine wine. Under Soviet mandate, however, their prestigious wineries were disbanded and replaced by low-quality, bulk-producing cooperatives. After the fall of Communism, each nation emerged determined to reclaim its fine-wine-producing identity.
Efforts are now bearing fruit — ‘scuse the pun — but it hasn’t been easy. Difficulties involving post-Soviet Russia have hampered progress, and wines from these countries are only just becoming accessible worldwide.
In the spirit of global community, VinePair sampled a selection of these wines and compiled this, the complete guide to Central and Eastern European native grape varieties.
MOLDOVA & ROMANIA
To be clear, Moldova and Romania are two distinct countries with separate cultures and history. We’re linking them here because they share many indigenous varieties. Though not as well known as other European winemaking nations, Romania actually has the fifth-largest total planted vineyard area in the EU, and Moldova is emerging as a high-quality producer.
White variety Feteasca Alba has naturally high sugar levels. Its wines are intensely aromatic, with candied apricot and honeyed notes that smell deceptively sweet. But dry and off-dry styles are common, with apricot flavors on the nose and palate.
The second of three Feteasca varieties found in these two nations is Feteasca Regala. It offers fresher aromas of green apple and tart, tropical fruits. Tannins from the grapes’ skins provides a complex texture, with Chenin-esque oiliness and a waxy, honeyed finish.
Feteasca Neagră is the third of the Feteasca trio. The late-ripening, thick-skinned red variety produces fruit-driven wines with spicy and smoky notes. Best described as a mix between Gamay and Loire Valley Cab Franc (Bourgueil), the wines are medium-bodied, with dusty tannins that round everything off nicely.
Another native red variety is Rara Neagră. Showing a host of smoky bacon as well as agricultural notes on the nose — imagine walking through a working farmyard on a warm summer’s eve — this variety is akin to Austrian Pinot Noir, Spätburgunder, and, as one taster put it, “dirty, old-school northern Rhone Syrah.” Attractive violet aromas permeate the smoked meat and earthy notes, as does a tropical fruit scent not commonly found in red wines.
Located in the South Caucasus on the border of Eastern Europe and Asia, Georgia is home to some 500 native varieties, around 80 of which are still commonly grown. Central to the country’s extensive winemaking history are qvevri: large, egg-shaped earthenware vessels used to ferment and store wine.
When buying Georgian wines, it’s vital to know if the wine was fermented in qvevri because the process has a marked impact on its flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel. Both red and white qvevri wines are produced.
Rkatsiteli is Georgia’s most popular white variety. Wines made using modern techniques — such as stainless-steel fermentation — are most similar in character to Petit Chablis, with a green character, and occasional added creaminess where malolactic fermentation has taken place.
Qvevri-made Rkatsiteli wines are a complete departure. Tasted blind, they can easily be mistaken for reds, with aromas of wild spices and dried herbs and just a flicker of ripe fruits. Unlike modern, “natural” orange wines, there are few funky notes and no petillance. Instead, these wines have well-incorporated tannins and intense beeswax and oxidized fruit flavors.
Saperavi is the Georgian word for “dye” and is also the nation’s primary red variety. Unsurprisingly, its wines are intensely colored and are even used, in small percentages, to boost the color of other blends.
High-quality Saperavi that undergoes oak aging is increasingly common. The best examples of this style are reminiscent of Brunello di Montalcino: elegant yet wild; fruit-driven, with earthy and meaty notes; and textured with a mix of grape-skin and oak tannic structure.
Red qvevri wines are much more savory than fruity — imagine the sweetness of cured meats, with a side of fruit compote. Because red wines are commonly fermented on their skins, the influence of qvevri is less noticeable than with whites, yet an unmistakable funky character remains.
The Central European nation Slovenia shares its western border with Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, and many grape varieties grown here are found in both countries. The small, picturesque country is famed for its white wine production.
Rebula is the most common white grape. (Sound familiar? It’s known in Italy as Ribolla Gialla, and in Greece as Robola.) Wines are made in still and sparkling form, and still wines are green- and citrus-fruit-driven, with floral honeysuckle notes. Well-balanced and refreshingly acidic, Rebula is an easy-drinking white, ideal for chilled summer sipping.
If you’re a fan of Prosecco, sparkling Rebula is for you. Like Prosecco, secondary fermentation takes place in pressurized tanks before wine is transferred to bottles, a process that is otherwise known as the charmat method. With vibrant acidity, well-incorporated fizz, and the faintest hint of residual sugar, sparkling Rebula displays all the merits of this efficient winemaking technique.
Another commonly grown Slovenian white is Sauvignonasse, which is also known in other countries as Friulano, or Sauvignon Vert. Predominantly displaying citrus and stone fruit aromas, like Rebula, these are refreshing whites with some minerality in the highest-quality examples.
Located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, Croatian winemaking is split between coastal and island regions in the west and landlocked continental areas in the northeast. In addition to its wine production, Croatia is known for its Slavonian forests, a prime source of the oak casks in which some of the finest Italian wines are aged.
Pošip is one of Croatia’s primary indigenous white grapes. Wines are crisp and aromatic, with green-fruit flavors and a hint of vanilla spice and almond. The grape is indigenous to the island of Korčula but is now grown extensively on the Dalmatian coast.
The most popular red variety is Plavac Mali and, like Pošip, grapes are grown mainly along the Dalmatian coast. Wines are big hitting: full of blackberry and dark cherry flavors and high in alcohol and tannins. Premium examples fetch high prices, but are capable of aging.
Wines to Try
When carrying out the research for this guide, VinePair tasted a wide range of wines made from all the varieties listed. Compiling an extensive sampling selection presented some difficulties, given that this continues to be an emerging category of wines in the U.S.
Listed below are some of our favorite wines, based on quality, value for money, and availability.
- Autograf: Moldova, Feteasca Regala. $20
- Cramele Recas La Putere: Romania, Feteasca Neagra. $11
- Purcari ‘Chateau Purcari’ 1827: Moldova, Rara Neagra. $20
- Chateau Mukhrani: Georgia, Rkatsiteli. $17
- Orgo Rkatsiteli: Georgia, Rkatsiteli $24
- Lukasi: Georgia, Saperavi $45
- Dilao: Georgia, Saperavi $16
- Colliano Ribolla Gialla: Slovenia, Rebula $15
- Peneca Brut: Slovenia, Rebula $16
- Zlatan Otok Makarska: Croatia, Posip. $19
- Grgic Vina: Croatia, Plavac Mali. $39