There’s much contemplation in wine circles about the next hot wine region (Is it Cyprus? Morocco? Uruguay? My back yard?) At times, though, it seems like a search for novelty and a display of one-upmanship. (“Yeah, I was just in Mordor. Amazing microclimates.”) I’m not particularly interested in the next place to be anointed by a New York sommelier, but it is fun to poke around lesser-known regions. The unfamiliarity brings attention to what you’re drinking and there’s the possibility of a surprise in every sip.
“But I’m not a wine nerd,” you say, “so what’s in it for me?” Well, these regions often offer value simply because they’re relatively obscure: Italian reds are an easy sell, but with a Georgian you have to start with the fact you’re talking about the country in Caucasia and not the fourth state to ratify the US Constitution.
There are also unique varieties and styles to explore—I’m not known for my intemperate statements, but I’d stretch to say some of these could just blow your mind. It makes for a fun way to get out of a wine rut—after all, traveling is supposed to broaden the mind, and in this case, you can globetrot sitting on your porch.
One region (well, half a continent, really) is Eastern Europe. I should probably focus on a single country, but there are so many good wines from the area that it’s useful to be on alert for anything from Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Turkey, and the aforementioned Georgia.
Though immensely diverse, these countries share commonalities: A long history of wine production (some would argue the longest history, as various regions here vie for the title of birthplace of viticulture); the last few decades have also seen the transformation of their wine industries, either through restructuring after shedding state control (the countries of the former USSR and Yugoslavia), or through the benefit of EU funding—sometimes both.
Many are rediscovering neglected traditions of winemaking (Georgian wines made in qvevri—egg-shaped amphora buried in the ground—are increasingly fashionable) and are carefully reviving indigenous grape varieties. The quality has improved dramatically, with smaller producers deserving much of the credit.
We’re lucky in Portland to have independent importers and distributors who make the effort to get hold of this stuff (seriously, try finding anything like our range of available wine in a city of similar size). There’s no clear way to navigate the complexity of places and grapes, so enlist the help of your local wine store.
Six to Try
The producer is listed first, the grape or style second.Chamlija, Papaskarasi 2014, Turkey
From Thrace in eastern Turkey, this is made from the rare indigenous red grape Papaskarasi. Bright acid, jammy but expressive, it’s the perfect Pinot substitute. $22 from Division Wines, 3564 SE Division
Piliota, Plavina 2014, Croatia
The reds from Croatia’s Dalmatian coast are often big and hearty—this is a lighter and earthier alternative, tasting of chocolate and dark berries, and would work slightly chilled as a refreshing summer sipper. $16 from Liner & Elsen, 2222 NW Quimby
Zlatan Otok, Cuvée 2015, Croatia
A blend of native white Croatian grapes, this one is for the more adventurous: Intense and punchy, with full aromas, it’s bright yet dense and full of minerality. $20 from 1856, 1465 NE Prescott
Bagrationi, Classic Brut NV, Georgia
Great value Georgian sparkler made from three local grapes. Fresh with bright citrus, there’s a hint of the type of biscuit notes found in Champagne. Perfect to take the edge off hot days. $12 from P’s & Q’s, 1301 NE Dekum
Fekete, Juhfark 2012, Hungary
Made from Juhfark grapes that are only grown on the slopes of Somló Mountain in western Hungary, this is full of character. Rich, with a creamy mouth texture, it’s a bit like a dry Riesling without the high acid and citrus. $24 from Thelonious, 516 NW 9th
Zajc, Cviek 2016, Slovenia
A little off-the-wall, this looks red but it’s more of a rosé, made from a field blend of five red and four white grapes (Cviek is the style). Low alcohol, high acid with lots of raspberry and tart cherry flavor, it cries out for a yacht and a party. $16 from 1856, 1465 NE Prescott