Eastern Europe: a new life for fine wine
The Communist regime managed to compromise the wine civilization on its very birth grounds, on Dionysos’ hills and fields in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, on the ancient Thracian territories. After 1989, European and local government funding contributed to major technology upgrades in cellars, but also imposed more-than-average production in vineyards – some 500 tons of wine per year had to be guaranteed in order to have a winning project. The side-effect was a relative standardization of taste, given the adoption of modern wine making techniques.
During a second stage, many of the direct producing hybrid grapes, as well as some of the old vines – particularly those used for higher quantities, instead of quality – were replaced. Scientific analysis helped to identify the best fit between varieties and terroir, best clones were chosen and traditional varieties were preferred to international ones. Those betting on quality seem now destined for success, regardless of how developed the market is in each state.
Unfortunately, all of the above apply only to Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, other Central and Eastern Europe states producing wine in both low quantity and low quality. A promising evolution was noted in Moldova, but things are still far from what they should be.
In a rather short period of time, small winemakers with quality wines gained a lot of popularity, their brands raising almost as much awareness as old-time, industrial-level producers. Turning towards quality was noted not only among small vineyards (under 50 hectares), but also among medium-size companies, with enough financial strength to support the production of finer wines at affordable prices.
The average price for top quality wine (under the existing circumstances, with most vines still under 10-years old) is around 25 Euros in Bulgaria, 30 Euros in Romania and over 50 Euros in Hungary. The average income of the targeted consumers is between 750 and 1.250 Euros per month.
The sales of local quality wine are rising each year and some of the producers even manage to sell their wine before even the grapes are picked. The wine market finds an important support in luxury restaurants and the nationalism of many customers helps selling local wines, despite the fact that many imported wines offer a better price / quality ratio.
An important aspect is that the wine consumer was educated faster and gained more knowledge than the luxury consumer in other areas of the market – such as jewels, clothing or travel. Given this knowledge, local production has an edge over imports, given the fact that no one is willing to pay 350 Euros for a 100 Euros champagne. In all three countries, consumers tend to sanction the high prices in specialized stores and fine dining locations. Since locally produced wines bear lower additions, their prices cover lower transport fees and long-term storage may be handled by producers themselves, there is a generally higher appetite for local wines in all CEE states.
The 20-30 Euros segment is opened for quite some competition in Romania, the best producers of such wines being DAVINO, Cramele Rotenberg, Cramele Recas, Vinarte, Agricola Stirbey, Crama Oprisor, Domeniul Coroanei Segarcea and, with only a couple of wines, Cramele Halewood.
DAVINO, the first Romanian producer to withdraw its wine from the shelves of all general retail stores, focusing on specialized stores and top restaurants, mixes traditional and modern wine-making methods, with an emphasis on two Romanian varieties – Feteasca alba and Feteasca Neagra (Black Maiden / White Maiden). Both wines were a success, imposing new production standards for other companies.
Cramele Rotenberg (“Rotenberg’s Vineyards”) produces one of the very few wines in this side of the world without any kind of technology involved. Mikhail Rotenberg, a former wizard of the wireless Internet evolution and a Rotschild award for innovation winner, refuses any modern winemaking temptations and adopts traditional, Bordeaux-like methods. His Merlot was voted as the best Romanian Merlot in its very first year of existence on the market.
Formerly known as the Romanian branch of the German giant Carl Reh Winery, Crama Oprisor went through a long and fruitful rebranding process. In the end, several higher-end wines were released, most of them bearing labels of major contemporary artists – such as Erotikon (Ciprian Paleologu), Fragmentarium (Sorin Ilfoveanu) and Nenumitul (“The Un-named”, also by Ciprian Paleologu), along with special, limited editions like Passarowitz, Dragaica Rosie and Rusalca Alba. Most of these wines are “intellectual” blends of the best varieties, with some French influence.
Recas (a major exporter for the UK market) rapidly won an audience with its “Sole” line (classy and classic Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc), along with a superb red blend, Cuvee Uberland.
Vinarte continues to be “in the green”, ten years after first launching its Prince Mircea and Prince Matei Merlots. Noble descendants of the former Romanian aristocracy at Agricola Stirbey help bringing back two rare Romanian varieties: Novac and Negru de Dragasani, as well as reinventing a popular grape, Feteasca Regala.
The top of the most expensive wines is dominated by Passarowitz and the Cupola Sanctis line (St. George, St. Anne and St. Dmirti) all around 50 Euros for magnum (1.5 liter) bottles, followed by DAVINO Flamboyant and Hyperion Feteasca Neagra made by Cramele Halewood (some 40 Euros).
Following the same trends as the ones found in Romania, Bulgaria also invested in preserving its traditional varieties – such as Mavrud, Rubin, Melnik, Pamid, Gamza, Otel, Keratsouda or Misket.
The market is also divided between industrial-size, low-quality and small, higher-quality producers. Still, the highest prices for Bulgarian wines are well above the prices of Romanian wines. Bessa Valley are exported to France for 50-75 Euros per bottle (BV and Syrah), the 2007 Ice-wine from the Peller Family Estates, made of Cabernet Franc (a rarity on a global level) sells for some 50 Euros, the 2006 Terra Tangra Exclusive Selection Roto is 81 Euros on the shelves and the 2006 Solitaire Merlot Elenovo may even reach some 90 Euros.
An exception in the former Communist block, Hungary managed to keep all its national varieties intact, except maybe for the Kadarka, now revived via Cadarca imports from Romania. More than this, Hungarian Tokaji wines gained international recognition, being one of the major competitors of Sauternes wines.
After the fall of the Communist regime, the Hungarian market proved to be impenetrable for most import wine, this consumption habit being an argument in favor of the development expectations of local small producers interested rather in quality, than in quantity. In other words, the Hungarian market reached its second development stage about a decade earlier than Romania. One of the first names to become a classic was Gere Attila, with a high-class Cabernet Sauvignon, now sold for almost 100 Euros per bottle (the 2007 vintage). Top Tokaji wines, like Oremus 6 Puttonyos Aszú 2002 and Demeter Zoltán 6 Puttonyos Aszú 2002 still sell for 65-85 Euros per bottle.
Although its vineyards cover a surface mach lower than those in Romania or Bulgaria, the amount of fine wine produced in Hungary surpassed both “competing” countries, even put together: in the 20-30 Euros segment, Hungary has hundreds of wines, while Romania and Bulgaria hardly count 60-70 labels.
The renaissance of the traditional winemaking methods also brings along longer life-cycles for the wines, the latter vintages having an aging expectation of 30-40 years, mainly in the Tokaji sweet wines segment.