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DWWA 2014: Central & Eastern Europe insights

Hear from our Central & Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia) Regional Chair Caroline Gilby MW and Angela Muir MW on which wines to buy, which wines to leave on the shelf and what to keep an eye on from this year's Decanter World Wine Awards....

Caroline Gilby MW

These are four very different countries and wine cultures, but all have dynamic and improving wine industries, with renewed focus on quality and individuality. Hungary led the way with two Trophies and seven Golds and more than 81% of its entries picking up an award. Predictably, two of the Golds and a Trophy went to superb Aszú wines from Tokaji, but Hungary has serious competition for the sweet crown. It was exciting to see a Gold for a stunning Riesling icewine from the Czech Republic, as well as a Trophy and three Golds for Slovenia for sweet wines as diverse as Sipon (aka Furmint) straw wine, rare Pikolit from Vipava Valley, Muscat icewine and a regular DWWA winner, Leonardo, made from passito Rebula.

What should we buy from here?

Apart from sweet wines, this part of Europe shows real strength in depth. The Czech Republic showed real improvement with a hit rate of more than 76% and lots of Silvers that just missed out on Gold, for grapes ranging from Hibernal to Palava via Sauvignon, Grüner Veltliner, Sylvaner, and Pinots Blanc and Gris. Last year, Slovenia’s eastern zone of Stajerska featured dry whites that were competent but boring, while I warned against reds from the region. This year proved to be a real treat to judge, with a stunningly elegant Pinot Noir winning a Trophy and some impressive ‘almost there’ Silvers for both Pinot Noir and Modra Frankinja (aka Blaufränkisch). It is also a wonderful terroir for vibrant, crisp mineral dry wines including truly world-class Sauvignon Blanc. Hungary’s reds proved strong this year with superb wines from both Villány and Szekszárd and some long-established names returning to form. Romania’s strength is in the more entry-level wines but there were four well-deserved red Silvers offering excellent value.

What should we leave on the shelf?

Encouragingly, we tasted very few bad wines. Many that didn’t get medals were correct but simply boring, and lacked the extra thrill factor that warrants a Commended at the very least. Sadly, there is still a tendency in some of the more premium wines to focus on power, alcohol and tannins, rather than balance and harmony. These macho wines may still have a following in their local markets but do not appeal in global terms.

What should we keep an eye on?

Eastern Europe’s top-class local grapes: Hungary grows more Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch) than Austria and is now showing what it can do, while underdogs Hárslevel˝u and Kabar show that Tokaj has more to offer than just Furmint.

Angela Muir MW

My fascination with the speed of progress throughout Central and Eastern Europe continues: Armenia, Albania, a much wider and rapidly showing general improvement from Slovakia and Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Then there’s Georgia, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine and poor Moldova, which made a welcome return with some excellent-value young white varietal wines, including a remarkably good Feteasca Alba, more usually known for ordinary, high-yield local wines. Overall, the cleanliness and freshness of the vast majority of these wines makes them a safe bet for an experimental purchase. Prices, too, seem to be more realistic: a high proportion have dropped into the £8-£15 category. However, we were looking for interest and excitement. Where did we find it?

What should we buy from here?

Armenia: the red Areni grape – probably being turned into wine more than 8,000 years ago – lends a charming lift of fresh, red cherry and raspberry fruit to both single varietals and blends with more internationally known grapes. Bosnia and Macedonia: the white Zilavka offered us a flight of crisp, bright pear- and apple-scented wines, and when blended with tiny amounts of Bena, the style ripened and rounded surprisingly. Georgia widened its varietal offerings: Alexandrouli offered plummier, rounder reds than the classic Saperavi; while Tsolikouri, the palest of whites, was bright with appetising herbal flavours. Russia surprised with two highly accomplished Viognier-based blends, but less of a surprise were the hugely individual and deep, ripe cranberry- and beetroot-driven Krasnostop reds.

What should we leave on the shelf?

We have to issue a warning about the red wines throughout the region. Common to all these countries is a commendable desire to produce ripe, concentrated, serious and ageworthy red wines, often from (or blended with) their own native grapes. Hot, dry, continental climates can produce high alcohol levels before the tannins are soft. The small-volume vintage of 2012 was especially difficult in this respect. A lot of oak was used to try to modify the huge tannin structures that can all too easily result. Medals went to those wines where there was enough fruit to conquer the tannins and alcohols rather than dry out the mouth.

What should we keep an eye on?

Watch for the dark damson, black olive and black cherry flavours of the Vranec/Vranac grape (even the name means ‘black stallion’) from Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro; the best of the tangy, wild bramble-driven Saperavis from Georgia; and Bordeaux blends – especially those with a blackcurrant lift from Cabernet Franc – from almost anywhere in the region but possibly at their best on this showing in Bulgaria and Serbia.

Written by Decanter

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