Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Emerging Wine Country Poland --- The Early Days of a Climate Change Gainer?

Picture: Chateau Lomnica in Silesia, Poland

I visited Poland in the summer with my wife, including Krakow and Wrozlaw. We stayed for a couple of days at the charming Schloss Lomnitz in Silesia. But unfortunately, we did not find and taste any Polish wines, though there is a rapidly growing wine industry. But it is still in the early days, although, 3 years ago, when EU accession was negotiated, Poland asked that 100.000 hectares of to land be approved for wine growing. If one day all this land is planted with grape vines, this would exceed Germany’s current wine growing area.

A bit of history. Present-day Poland traces its origins back to the year 966, when Mieszko I accepted Christianity from the South. What followed was a tumultuous history. Between 1795 and 1918, Poland even disappeared from Europe's maps, only to re-emerge once more at the end of World War I. After World War II, Poland was shifted to the West. It lost a large part of its territory to Ukraine in the East and gained territory in the West that had been under German influence for several centuries.

Throughout history, Poland has never been an important producer of wine. But the Polish aristocracy always had a taste for good wine and the European producers always had an eye on the Polish market. In terms of production, the small vineyards around Zielona Gora and in Podolia were the exception, the former been developed during the period when this region belonged to Germany.

With regard to consumption, the Polish market was always an important element for the European and in particular, the French chateaus. Although the aristocracy liked French wine, it drank much more wine from neighboring Hungary than from France.

The situation today in Poland in terms of consumption is not encouraging. As in many other Eastern European countries, beer and vodka are the preferred beverages of the Polish people. During the Socialist period, the only available wine was bulk wine from other countries in the socialist block, mainly sparkling wine from the Ukraine and still wine from Bulgaria. Better quality wine only started to appear in the market after 1989. And change is evident, with the growing middle class showing some interest in wine. However, as I have seen in other East European countries, consumers tend to turn to imported wine first, before developing an interest for locally produced wine. This is very clear in Serbia now.

At the same time, things are improving in terms of production, although starting from a very low level. Polish wine is one of those that are in Stuart Pigott's words "Wein weit weg" -- "wine far away", where the wine industry used to be dormant or non existent, but is now (re-) emerging due to global warming and or political reforms. In Poland, an additional factor was the EU accession a few years ago. Currently, however, the areas were wine is grown do not add up to more than 500 hectares, although, as noted above, the target is much higher.

Poland lies at the northern limit for wine growing. But in Poland and elsewhere in this situation, this line is moving upwards, as I have recently also observed in the UK. Wine growing is now viable in a large part of Poland, although vineyards are still concentrated in the South. The main problem that the climate is cool is still there, but slowly loosing its relevance. The ripening season still remains short, although it is expanding.

There are about 500 winemakers now. Most are boutique wineries with less than 1 hectare of land. Most of the plantings took place in the last 20 years, after the fall of the iron curtain. Wine makers are experimenting with a wide array of grape varieties. Red grapes include Dornfelder, Zweigelt, Pinot Noir, and even Cabernet Sauvignon, while among white varieties we have Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc and Grüner Veltliner. But the wine growers are also experimenting with grapes not well known in the international market.

Apart from the difficult, though improving, climate, the wine industry still suffers from lack of expertise and experience. In Belgrade, when I was there earlier this year, I could find local wines anywhere and some of them were pretty good. In Poland, the situation was different. It appears that there are only few, if any wine makers that can produce wine that would meet the requirements of the international market and could be exported. Often, local wines that are sold on the market suffer from a variety of problems, including unripeness of the grapes at harvest, and/or excessive chaptalisation, excessive sulphuring, and oxidation in the cellar during fermentation.

In other northern parts of Europe and the World ,however, winemakers have experienced quite similar problems with frosts and ripeness, and have learned how to solve them. I have recently visited Long Island in New York State, US and I was impressed by the boom in the wine industry there. It also seems to me that Poland could be a place were wine makers could have a comparative advantage in producing ice wine. They could learn, for example, from the wine makers in Canada. In my view it is likely that in the not too distant future we will see Polish wine not only sold locally, but also exported, just as Slovenian, Bulgarian or Hungarian wine is.

Prime Minister Putin said some time ago, that global warming is good for Russia. Global warming is also good for Poland's wine industry.

I have benefited a lot from from reading Wojcieck Bonkowski's wine blog and I would like to express my gratitude to him. Also, in my communications with him, it turned out that he does no see the future for Poland wine makers as bright as I have described it in the last paragraph.


  1. A bit old, but still interesting as far as the trade channels in Poland are concerned.

  2. It's nice to see interest in Polish wines from a foreign author but how many have you actually tasted?
    Had you tasted any I think your optimism in saying that Polish wines could be exported like those from Hungary or Bulgaria would be much diminished.

    You are also not precise in your article saying that wines sold on the local market suffer from technical problems. So far only 2 wineries are authorised to sell their produce. The rest is still experimental and not available for purchase. And your article is confusing in citing vinifera grapes such as Dornfelder, Riesling etc. while entirely omitting Franco-American hybrids which make up over 90% of our plantings. This is a fact of crucial importance for wine quality, and should be emphasised.

    Comparing Poland to Hungary or Bulgaria in terms of export is a complete misunderstanding. Hungary has 75K ha of vineyards, is producing 315m liters (2007), consuming about 15% less (part of which is imported wine). Export is a necessity for a large industry and has 500+ years of tradition. Poland is consuming 150m liters per year and producing (optimistically) 3m so it can increase its production 40 times and still have no need or reason to export.

    Your comparison to Canada or NY state is more relevant, but again suffers from a lack of familiarity with the context. While technically Poland could produce successful ice wine, it is a product both difficult and expensive to make that requires a receptive market ready to pay premium prices in order to be viable. It is precisely what is lacking in Poland which is showing no interest whatsoever in quality sweet wines.

  3. Nerval,

    thank you very much for the useful clarifications.

    I am of the view that global warming will drastically change the wine landscape and Poland is one of those countries that will benefit from it.

    I just came back from Long Island and are blogging on my trip. It is amazing what has happened there in the space of a couple of decades. Why not in Poland? The wine produced there is all consumed locally.

    I have also posted something about Dr. Konstantin Frank from Odessa/Ukraine and the vitis vinifera revolution in the Finger Lakes, which dramatically changed the wine industry there. Why couldn't the same happen in Poland?

    Thanks again very much

    Christian G.E. Schiller

  4. The difference between Poland and Long Island is major in terms of available investment and infrastructure. Other than that, yes, Polish viticulture could ressemble that of Long Island in the long term, if global warming continues.
    And the sales will be similar too - all on the local market.
    But in your first post your wrote, "we will see Polish wine... exported just as Slovenia, Bulgarian or Hungarian wine is". We will not. Polish wine will not be competitive. How can you compare the Polish wine industry with that of Bulgaria which exports 80% of its production?