Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Frank Dietrich
Eastern and Central Europe is a fascinating region. A large part of it was long hidden for us in the West behind the Iron Curtain, including the outstanding wines these countries potentially produce.
I was lucky to work shortly after the Berlin Wall came down for 2 years on Bulgaria (including frequent visits there) and to live in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, for 2 years. During the past 20 years, I made frequent business trips to Azerbaijan, Hungary and Bosnia/Herzegovina. My son went to medical school in Belgrade for 2 years recently, where I visited him regularly. My most recent trips to the region were in 2009 to Poland and Serbia and in 2010 to the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Generally, Eastern European countries like Croatia and Serbia have a history of winemaking that is as long – if not longer – than that of France, Spain or Italy. Yet, to find fine wines from these countries outside their borders is not easy. This is due to a combination of factors. These countries were behind the Iron Curtain until 20 years ago and are only now emerging on the world market. During the communist period, the wine industry suffered and fell behind, while the rest of the world was moving ahead rapidly. They are now trying to catch up and are doing this with uneven success. Some countries are advancing rapidly, such as Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, others are moving at a slower pace. Anyway, these are all highly interesting wine countries and I am glad to see their wines entering the world market.
In the US, Blue Danube Wine Company, owned by the husband and wife team Frank Dietrich and Zsuzsanna Molnar, is one of the drivers of this process. I have been in contact with Frank Dietrich for a while and was happy to meet him in person and have dinner with him in Washington DC. "Central Europea has a story to tell, and can tell it well - the history, varietals, techniques, and the fresh start post Communism and war make these kind of wines a lens to see a wine world still largely unknown in the US" says Frank.
Blue Danube Wine Company
The Blue Danube Wine Company was founded in 2002 to import fine Eastern and Central European wines to the U.S. market. The company focuses on wines that are fairly rare in the U.S. Blue Danube Wine Company distributes wines as a wholesaler to wine retailers, supermarkets, and better restaurants within California. Simultaneously, it continues to build a nation-wide network of distributors. The company is based in Los Altos, California 94023, USA.
The Danube River and its Wines
The Danube is Europe's second longest river after the Volga. The river originates in Germany in the Black Forest in the little town of Donaueschingen. The Danube then flows southeastward for a distance of some 2850 km (1771 miles), passing through four Central and Eastern European capitals, before emptying into the Black Sea via the Danube Delta in Romania and Ukraine. The river flows through or acts as part of the borders of ten countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania.
The Danube countries are quite diverse, with Germany and Austria being well established Old World wine producers, and Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania being among the emerging wine countries. In addition, there are a number of countries in the vicinity of the Danube valley where wine is made: Poland, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Georgia, Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Frank Dietrich and Zsuzsanna Molnar
Before founding the company, Frank Dietrich and Zsuzsanna Molnar, worked for many years as executives in American computer and networking companies with responsibilities for developing the Central/Eastern European market. Born in Europe, speaking the languages, and understanding the business customs have provided them with tremendous assets to bring the these unique wines and the people who make them to a broader market.
Central and Eastern European Wine Countries
“We started out with Austrian wine” Frank told me when I had dinner with him, “and then slowly moved into more unknown territory. My wife Zsuzsanna Molnar’s roots are in Hungary and it was kind of natural to also branch out there”.
I compared the Danube river valley and the countries in the Danube area with the countries that are currently covered by the Blue Danube Wine Company and I was impressed by the breadth and depth of its coverage. Many of the serious emerging Eastern European wine countries are well represented in the wine portfolio of the Blue Danube Wine Company, like Hungary and Croatia, others are not, or not yet (as Frank said), like Romania and Bulgaria.
In the following, I provide some views on all Central and Eastern European Danube wine countries, with a listing of the winemakers that are available in the US through the Blue Danube Wine Company.
Armenia is a former Soviet Union country in the vicinity of the Danube valley. Wine making in the Soviet Union was concentrated in the South, reflecting the climating conditions there: Crimea in the Ukraine and Russia, the valley of Ararat in Armenia, as well as the Republics of Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Armenia has a long wine making tradition, with the world's earliest known wine-making facility being discovered in Armenia recently, dating from about 6,000 years ago. Armenia used to be specialized in the production of dessert wine and brandies. Little, if anything, is exported to Western Europe and the US today.
During the communist period, up to 20.000 hectares of land were under vine in this small Muslim country on the Adriatic Sea that has a long history of winemaking. The vineyard area is now down to 6.000 hectares, but rapidly increasing. Export of wine is increasing, but still very limited.
An old world wine country, Austria has about 50.000 hectares of vineyard, equivalent to about half of Germany’s total vineyard area and one fifth of France’s vineyard area. About 70 % of the production is white wine and 30% red wine. About 75 percent of Austria’s production is consumed in Austria and 25 percent is exported. Austria is a well established Old World wine country and its wines are widely available in the US.
"The Blue Danube Wine Company has a very nice selection of first class Austrian wine makers, but our USB is not here; it is more with the emerging European wine countries" said Frank.
Blue Danube Wine Company producers:
Geyerhof - www.geyerhof.at
J. Heinrich - www.weingut-heinrich.at
JURIS - www.juris.at
Rosenhof - www.rosenhof.cc
Schmelz - www.schmelzweine.at
Sommer - www.weingut-sommer.at
Weinrieder - www.weinrieder.at
Azerbaijan is like Armenia a dessert wine and brandy country. The vineyards are along the Caspian Sea. Little, if anything reaches Western Europe or the US. But I have had good table wines from Matrasa and Sadilly in the restaurants of Baku.
Formerly part of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country with a long tradition of wine making - like all former countries of Yugoslavia. Before its disintegration in 1991, Yugoslavia was a well established producer of wines of often exciting qualities. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still struggling for its stability, as the country is home to three ethnic groups, Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. The main wine growing area is in Herzegovina, at the border with Croatia.
Blue Danube Wine Company producer:
Brkić - www.brkic.ba
Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Frank Dietrich in Washington DC at the Hungarian Embassy
Bulgaria is one of the largest wine producers of the world, about at the same level as Germany in terms of acreage (100.000 hectares). I used to travel a lot to Bulgaria in the 1990s and I was impressed by the high quality of their inexpensive wines. Until the 1990s, the wine industry in Bulgaria was state-owned. After the fall of communism, Bulgaria went through a period of privatization - a stop and go process - during which a lot of foreign capital and know-how was brought into the country. The potential for wine making in Bulgaria is enormous. More than 80 percent of the country's production is exported, mainly to Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Germany, the Agricultural Minister recently said.
Croatia is a very promising emerging wine country. I used to live in Zagreb in the mid-1990s, immediately after the Dayton Agreement that brought peace to the Croats following a long battle for independence from Serbia. Croatia’s vineyard area comprises roughly 35.000 hectares – or 1/3 of that of Bulgaria.
Croatia's wine country is divided into two broad regions, inland and coastal. The inland region, stretching from northwest to southeast along the Drava and Sava rivers, has a warmer Continental climate. The coastal wine region runs along the Adriatic coast and includes Istria in the north and Dalmatia to the south. A multitude of islands and hillside slopes produce an endless array of microclimates dotted with small winegrowing estates. Istria emphasizes Bordeaux reds like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, while Dalmatia is home to a stunning array of indigenous grape varieties. The first flurry of attention in the US came in the mid-1990s, when prominent California winemaker Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, a Croatian native, announced his intention to launch an ambitious, upscale wine project back on his native soil.
Blue Danube Wine Company producers:
Bibich - http://bit.ly/by15WN
Bura - http://www.mokalo.hr/
Enjingi - http://www.enjingi.hr/
Kozlović - http://www.kozlovic.hr/
Matošević - http://www.matosevic.com/
Miloš - http://www.milos.hr/
PZ Svirče - http://www.pz-svirce.hr/
Zlatan Plenković - http://www.zlatanotok.hr/
Coronica - Dingač Vinarija - - PZ Čara
Skaramuca - Šipun - Toljanić - Toreta
The Czech Republic is a small wine producing country, with about 19.000 hectares of vineyards. More than 90 percent of the wine production is accounted for by the southern part of Moravia, particularly around the Danube tributaries Dyje, Svraka and Morava. The Moravian wine region is largely concentrated on the border with Austria. In Bohemia, north of Prague, vines are planted along the river Labe (Elbe) and its tributaries, totaling 400 hectares of vineyards only.
About three quarters of Czech wine production consists of white varietals. The primary varieties are Muller-Thurgau, Pinot Blanc (Czech: Rulandské bílé), Gewürztraminer (Czech: Tramín červený) and Grüner Veltliner (Czech: Veltínské zelené). Typically, Czech white wines are dry, aromatic, and light wines. There are also red varietals such as Frankovka (Blaufrankisch), Modrý Portugal (Blue Portugal, named after the grape, not the country), or Svatovavřinecké (Saint Lawrence).
It was a lot of fun to go through the wines of the Czech Republic at Vinograf Winebar in Prague. See here and here. But they are hard to come by outside of the country.
Georgia is said to be the oldest wine producing region of the world. When it was part of the Soviet Union, it used to provide – with Moldova and Ukraine - most of the wines for the whole nation. Most of its exports go to Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, although they are now increasingly found in stores in Western Europe and the US and they are definitely worth investigating. Georgia is an emerging wine country to watch closely.
I once spent 3 weeks with a former Finance Minister of Georgia in Kyrgyz Republic. At dinner, we always had Georgian wines and they had quite an impressive selection of them in the restaurants of Bishkek. I learned quite a bit about Georgian wines from Minister Unoproshvili.
For the time being, the Blue Danube Wine Company does not carry any German wines in its portfolio, although the Danube originates in the South of Germany, in the wine region Baden, which is known for its Burgundy style red and white wines.
Wine was introduced to Hungary by the Romans. During the Turkish occupation beginning in the early 16th century, displaced Serbs brought the red Kadarka grape to Eger, which was the basis for the red wine blend that later became known as Bull's Blood. It was also during the Turkish occupation that the Tokaji region became known for dessert wines, harvested late to encourage noble rot. After the Ottoman Empire ceded Hungary to the Austrians in 1699, the Germanic influence was felt with the introduction of grape varieties such as Blauer Portugieser. Under Communism, quality was neglected in favor of overcropping and industrial production. Since 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, there has been an impressive rebound.
Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller, Frank Dietrich and Erhard Heumann, Heumann Wines in Hungary
Hungary has 22 designated wine regions, in all 4 corners of the country. Some people consider the red wines from Szekszárd and Villány in southern Hungary, where the Heumann wines come from, to be the cream of the crop. Around Lake Balaton, you will find the Balatonfelvidék, Balatonfüred-Csopak, Balatonboglár, and Badacsony regions. Further to the North, the Somló hills and Sopron region also offer fine wine. I have reported about the wines of Franz Reinhard Weninger in Balf here. The vineyards of the Tokaji region were classified long before Bordeaux, already in the 1700s, with vineyards grouped into 3 categories depending on the soil, sun exposure and potential to develop noble rot. Noble-sweet Tokaji has been Hungary’s crowning glory for hundreds of years. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, noble-sweet Tokaji was a cherished wine enjoyed by the European Courts. Winemakers in Tokaji are struggling now to adjust to new market conditions. See here.
For a good place to taste Hungarian wine in Budapest - Winebar by Bazilika - see here.
Blue Danube Wine Company producers:
Attila Gere - http://www.gere.hu/
Bott - http://www.bottpince.hu/
Eszterbauer - http://www.eszterbauer-bor.hu/
Hilltop - http://www.hilltop.hu/
Patricius - http://www.patricius.hu/
Pfneiszl - http://www.pfneiszl-vineyards.com/
Szoke - http://www.szokematyas.hu/
Vylyan - http://www.vylyan.hu/en
Kosovo is a brand new country – after gaining independence from Serbia - and certainly no stranger to making wine, having been in the business of it for more than 2,000 years with its good climate conditions. I remember in Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, the “Amselfelder” (reds from Kosovo Polje) wines were popular because they were so incredibly inexpensive.
Macedonia is still struggling with Greece about its proper name, as there is a region in Greece that is called Macedonia. Officially, therefore the name of the country is the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedoni. As the other countries of former Yugoslavia, Macedonia has a long tradition of producing wines. However, it has only been in recent years that Macedonia’s potential to produce high quality wines has begun to be realized and progress has been very slow. Nevertheless, Macedonia’s mountainous geography, good climate and rich fertile soil make for good conditions for viniculture. Wine has always been an important part of Macedonian daily life and culture.
This former Soviet Republic is sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. Moldova has a vineyard area of 150.000 hectares, equivalent to Germany and Austria combined. 85% of its output is exported. Its two state-run wineries have almost 100 miles of underground winemaking and storage facilities in old limestone mines. Historically, Moldova sold 80% of its output to Russians, who like sweet-style wines. Now, wineries are seeking to diversify their exports and have started to produce lighter and drier wines.
Another smaller former Yugoslav Republic at the Adriatic Coast, with a large potential. It has been most famous for the Vranac, a red grape which gives intense, deeply colored variety wine capable of being aged.
Blue Danube Wine Company producer:
Plantaže - http://www.plantaze.co.me/
I visited Poland in the summer of 2009. See here. 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, 4 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.
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.
Romania is one of the world's largest wine producers. In recent years, Romania has attracted many European business people and wine buyers, due to the affordable prices of both vineyards and wines compared to other wine producing nations. I have never been to Romania, but I have heard that Romania might have the greatest potential for premium wines. One reason cited is the natural affinity for the culture of France in Romania. I know that Frank is looking into getting some good Romanian wines over to the US and I wish him all the best.
Russian wine is made at the Black Sea, but has never had any significance – neither during the Soviet Union nor now. After the break down of the Soviet Union, many important wine growing areas became foreign for Russia. The wine growing areas of Russia are located between the Caspian and Black Seas.
Before the Bolsheviks takeover hundred years ago, at the Russian Court - as at the various other European Courts and among the aristocrats, Champagne from France was very popular and the Russians started to produce their own sparkler. See more about Russian Champagne here and, more generally, about the emerging wine country Russia here.
Serbia is the former state of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that had to wait the longest time to find stability. It has arrived only now after the conflicts with Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Wine is being made all over the country, for hundreds of years, but overall the quality remains low. It is not yet easy to find Serbian wines that are up to international standards in these days, due to 50 years of Yugoslavian-style socialism and 15 years of war and political repression and unrest, although things are changing rapidly in this lovely country in the Eastern part of Europe. Serbia has a long wine making tradition and quality wine making is gaining momentum. There are now about 70,000 hectares of vineyards in Serbia.
When my son lived in Belgrade and I visited him,I wrote about Serbian wine here and here.
Blue Danuber Wine Company producers:
Čoka - http://www.vinarijacoka.co.rs
Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller and Frank Dietrich in Washington DC
Lying along the northern and eastern borders of such countries as Austria and Hungary, it would be strange if Slovakia did not make good wine too. To find out how good it is, you probably have to go there as very little is exported to Western Europe and the US. In terms of acreage, it is about double size as its brother the Czech Republic. Most of it is made west of the Austrian Carnuntum region and north of the Hungarian Tokaji region.
Slovenia is the most advanced wine producer of the former Yugoslav Republic States, because it always had an open door to neighboring Italy and Austria. It was also the first of the former Yugoslav Republic States to emerge as an independent country and find stability. Slovenia is wedged between Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia with a tiny, 40km of it touching the Adriatic Sea in the southwest corner. People have been growing wine in the region since Roman times. Slovenia has two main wine producing regions – like Croatia – with about 25.000 hectares of vineyard area.
When I lived in Zagreb, traveling from Zagreb to Graz in Austria or Trieste in Italy – through Slovenia – was always like climbing up the quality latter. At that time, Slovenian wines – but not only wines - were clearly ahead of the Croatian wines, but still far away from the qualities you would encounter in Graz or Trieste.
Blue Danube Wine Country producers:
Batič - http://www.batic.si/
Črnko - http://www.crnko.net/
Guerila - http://www.guerila.si/
Kabaj - http://www.kabajmorel.si/
Kogl - http://www.kogl.net/
Wine existed in today's Ukraine already in the 4th century BC on the Crimean Peninsula. During Soviet times Ukraine was the third largest supplier of the wines, after Moldova and Georgia. The Crimean Peninsula, with its relatively mild climate, is the main region of viniculture. At some point during the Soviet era there were 250 000 hectares of vineyards, but Gorbachev’s anti alcohol consumption policies in 1990’s as well as the break up of the Soviet Union diminished vineyards acreage considerably. The Crimean Pensinsula has about 60.000 hectares of vineyards today, but there are also other wine producing region in Ukraine. Much of the wine produced today is still being exported to Russia, in addition to other countries of the former Soviet Union.
When I used to work on Ukraine, I do not recall to have had any fine Ukrainian wine in the restaurants of Kiev. The Cyrillic labels were already a major problem, as in other Eastern European countries.
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