The usual beyond-means holiday spending, compounded by a year marked by inflation, might suggest a call for some wallet-friendly wines. As we face a couple of more cold winter months, I’d like to warm you up to two compelling red wines of excellent value.
Rewind a few years and not a second glance would fix upon an Eastern European wine label. Regime siphoning-off had played an enormous part in consistent low quality, rendering such wines non-entities on store shelves. But when taking into consideration that 40-year menacing backdrop of communism, whereby state possession of wineries meant that volume over quality presided, we may gain a clearer understanding for the ‘cheap’ image.
Eastern European wines emerging on scene
Thanks largely to foreign private investment and in some cases, European Union (EU) funding, some of those countries have begun to emerge onto the scene as more resources pour out, allowing private hands to individuate their craft. Critics are now chirping about wines from Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Georgia. Even Moldova, Serbia, and the Czech Republic are quickly gaining recognition.
Often reflective of lower labour costs, the humble prices of these wines are a plus, but the interest I’ve developed in Eastern Europe wine extends beyond just that. Unlike newcomer wine regions aiming to make a name for themselves, Eastern European countries don’t just mark a space on the wine map – they occupy a position: their very foundational “ownership” of it. Long before Europe’s West ever squeezed a grape, its Eastern side was a well-established winemaking mecca.
And with ideal weather conditions being latitudinal equals to the classic regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy – only with warmer and drier summers to boot – Eastern Europe could never exaggerate ‘wine’ as its rightful milieu. Nor could it ever feign timelessness: hundreds of native grapes belong to each country therein, a point of difference now satisfying many a wine enthusiast.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘dark horse’, the Cambridge dictionary roughly defines it as someone or something with a secret skill, or one who unexpectedly wins or succeeds in a certain area or competition. And that’s what suddenly came to mind when I tasted the Plantaže Monte Cheval Vranac 2018, $10.75 LCBO
At $10.75 a bottle I was impressed at how well-made and unique the wine was – and from Montenegro? I’d never tasted Vranac before either.
It’s the distinctness of the fruit flavours – as if real, ripe black cherries jumped out of the glass, a precision of flavour signalling superior quality. Completely dry, there’s also a lingering creamy aroma reminiscent of ‘cherry bordeaux’ ice cream, along with subtle spicy notes – all supported by firm almost smoky tannins and nice acidity which gently slides into an uplifting bitterness on the finish, adding to the wine’s overall appeal.
Related to the more familiar Zinfandel grape, Vranac is indigenous to the tiny, very warm country of Montenegro. Plantaže is the country’s largest winery with an immense production and international market, and remarkably, all of their wines are estate-bottled.
Even at the entry-level, Plantaže has earned seals of approval in the past by UK-based Decanter, the world’s leading wine media. And for the recent 2022 Decanter Awards, judges were confounded once more by some of the higher-end cuvées, confirming the skill that lies there – as well as the potential for Vranac as a heat-tolerant grape amid a warming climate but that can also produce wines which could possibly age becomingly in a cellar.
This deeply-coloured red is dry, plush and complex, displaying ripe raspberry and blueberry, and both sweet and peppery spice notes. The acidity is vivid, the tannins loose and granular, and a year spent in oak has leant hints of cocoa and vanilla. An almost palpable minerality and a soft mouthfeel, is complemented by subtle leather, charcoal and leafy notes, adding a tone of seriousness with each sip.
And it’s that seriousness, to a certain extent, that’s tellingly Old World: a restraint, a minerality perhaps, sometimes a bitterness, not classically exuded by New World wines.
And not unlike those countries such as Chile or Australia, Eastern Europe’s have advanced as well with their fair share of international grapes such as Pinot Grigio and Merlot. Proving a competitive converse, however, are their ancient native grapes – only some are downright unpronounceable.
Fetească regală anyone?
Rising consumer demand for white wine in general has prompted a surge of dry whites, of which Hungary and Romania are notably excelling.
The traditional Eastern European style, however – white and medium-dry (sweet on the attack-dry on the finish) – is yet commonly exported, and when acidity and sweetness are well balanced, they can be very refreshing on their own, or make excellent pairings for piquant foods such as Pad Thai or hot chicken wings.
In fact, they can be quite irresistible. Royalty thought so too from the 1600’s onwards up until the onset of Soviet rule – an honour which sadly never renewed even after the collapse.
The Fall of Communism was a huge anti-climax. Although land had been returned to its owners, many lacked the means to maintain their holding nor the younger generations the viticultural know-how, and many ended up selling to larger entities or resorted to joining cooperatives. Fortunately, given the existing vast amount of vineyard acreage, those nations certainly have the volumes to compete on a global scale.
While quality may yet be hit or miss (the same could be said for any wine region), there’s substantive belief that Eastern Europe’s present second-generation industry’s “glory…will be greater than of the former” as a more remedial and market savvy mindset affords the launching of more premium bottles.
A new dawn
Greater awareness will bring greater availability in stores as well as on restaurant wine lists. Just remember, when ordering, it’s pronounced ‘Vranatz’, not ‘Vranak’.
Ironically, after having deemed this, to me, promising grape as the new dark horse, my research revealed that Vranac actually means ‘black horse’.
Picturing a large mysterious figure emerging from the fog, no longer robbed of its rightful charge, might just parallel these countries picking up the pieces, readying to “shake the nations”.
You might say that sounds dark and foreboding; I say bright and adventurous. For Eastern Europe, it’s a new dawn.