But where were these vine varieties thirty years ago? Where were these wines? Did they really disappear, or had they not even existed before?
We have to start with clarifying a couple of facts. First, in Central and Eastern Europe I mean the onetime Austro-Hungarian Empire and the states formed from its parts which together cover an area larger than the old Monarchy. These states are present-day Austria, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. A part of modern Ukraine also belonged to the Monarchy (its easternmost cities were Chernivtsi and Lviv), and the south part of Poland likewise, but today there is no noteworthy viticultural activity in these regions (no bottled wines in the global market). Second, yes, there are grapes and wines in these countries, and not just any grapes and wines. How come these wines were the equivalents of cheap and undrinkable swill for a long time, and even in the last decade they hardly ever found a place in the lowest shelves of wine shops?
A Short History Lesson
Believe it or not, until the end of the 19th century the wines of the Monarchy were no worse or less famous than the best French or Italian wines. (A little side note: the northern part of modern Italy also belonged to the Monarchy for a little while. According to the Polish writer Robert Makłowicz the old borders of the Empire can still be drawn on the base of gastronomy. If you visit Udine and take a seat in a café’s terrace, what dessert can you order? Crème caramel? No. Sacher cake, of course!) The vast inside market of the multilingual and multiethnic Empire consumed most of the produced wine, and only the best or most expensive types were exported.
The French and the Spanish mostly drank their own wines even back then, and the English had Bordeaux or port wine. Nonetheless, the most famous brand among the aristocracy from the 1600s was the Tokaji. Even the French royal court and the Russian tsar were big fans! We don’t know for sure what this wine was like, but we can be fairly certain (knowing the characteristics of the Tokaj Wine Region) that it was sweet, it had good acidity and a long shelf life. Other wine regions of the Monarchy were far less famous but it doesn’t mean they weren’t known at all. In the 20th century when state borders defined new markets people forgot that their traditional markets extended beyond these new borders.
By the way, borders. After it lost the First World War (1914-1918) the Monarchy was broken up. Before that the main market for the wines of Sopron (Hungary) and Malokarpatska (Slovakia) was Vienna, and for the wines of Syrmia (Serbia) and Minis (Romania) it was the city of Szeged. The Rieslings of Transylvania were well known even in Germany, and in Poland, which had a serious spending power at that time, the wines of the Monarchy were the most valued, even though French wines were also present. A couple of factors contributed to the change of this situation. First, there were the wars. Before the wines of Tokaj became more appreciated, the wine region of Syrmia (now in Serbia and Croatia) had been well known all over Europe, but the period of the Turkish occupation (and the 100 years of war prior to that) had wiped it off the face of the map. The wine regions of Moldova, Wallachia and Transylvania (now in Romania), Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and a large part of modern Hungary shared the same fate. At that time there was no Monarchy yet, but it was already evident that sooner or later the Habsburgs would rule Central Europe. The second factor is the inner division of the Monarchy: the lands of the Hungarian Crown were adversely affected by the Austrian custom regulations. This was the main reason behind Tokaj’s first decline. It was surrounded by the Monarchy’s lands, therefore it was nonsensically prevented from getting to its traditional Northern and Polish markets where it had been stored, matured and sold in huge trading depots for centuries. Troubles of customs were followed by the destruction of vine diseases introduced from America, such as the phylloxera. It affected all parts of Europe, and it did not spare Bordeaux or Burgundy either. By the time the wine regions could have recuperated from the devastation, the First World War begun, and the closing peace treaties created impenetrable borders on this side of the world. The wine regions lost their markets. It would have caused enough trouble in itself, but we are not finished yet. After the Second World War these countries were occupied by the Russian Army which stayed until 1989-90. The Russian market wanted one thing and thing only: alcohol. Quality was not an issue, quantity was. The famous (and steep) vineyards went into oblivion, because they could not be cultivated by tractors (!), and people started to plant vines at the feet of the mountains, where corn had used to grow. The icing of the cake was the elimination of private property; everything had collective ownership, which essentially meant that they took the land from everybody. It’ hard to think about how many world famous Grand Cru areas went to waste. It’s as if Burgundy’s all first and second class vineyards would be abandoned, vines would be planted on wheat fields, and in five years these new wines would be called (without yield limits!) Burgundy which could only be made by one huge and motorized mammoth cooperative. Startling thought, isn’t it?
In these countries that is exactly what happened. Then came the regime change, Russians went home (Austria was lucky, it got rid of them in 1955), and these little countries were left with large scale vineyards, weedy hill-sides, huge wine combines, long lost traditional and newly lost Russian markets. Thanks to the privatization the state lands were distributed again (the new owners not necessarily matching the old ones), but it did not make vines grow in the hill-sides. A new generation grew up without the knowledge of how to cultivate the old lands with the old methods. So, the last 25 years of Central and Eastern Europe’s wine history was the period of learning. These countries had to rediscover their vines, relearn the criteria of quality viticulture, and recreate their own reference wines while the global market has long forgotten about them. Nowadays an ordinary Western-European consumer knows about the wines of Chile or Argentina, but is surprised by the fact that Slovakia, Hungary or Croatia has vineyards. Besides, he is used to clear messages, country/vine variety or wine region/vine variety, but, apart from a couple of exceptions, this system does not work in these countries.
How to Break Out?
The question is important, but the answer is hard and complicated. Let’s take as an example an average CEE wine region, for convenience not a big name as Tokaj or a more successful region as Wachau (more about these later). So, we have a wine region where at least 30 vine varieties have been cultivated for at least 100 years and red and white wine, even Siller have been made (it’s a traditional wine, darker than rosé but lighter than red wine, often drank by vine-dressers during work). Phylloxera came and old vine varieties disappeared, but during replanting the variety selection was not rationalized and many grape varieties stayed with the addition of globally present types, like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Sauvignon Blanc. Then came the loss of market, the abandonment of the good vineyards and a drastic degree of deterioration. Nowadays we have a wine region with 20-30 committed winemaker doing quality work and good wines, BUT they have to work on lands of lesser quality or have to replant the old territories (with a huge amount of work and additional costs), but even there they can only work with global vine varieties. Who would care about a fantastic CEE Merlot? Does it make any sense? Yes, it does, but it’s not enough for the global market. So, we have these wine makers who try to find a way to make themselves known. They have already realized that a good wine in itself is not enough. They also know that it is easier to work together. Yes, but one of them has Cabernet Sauvignon, the other has Chardonnay, the third has Merlot and so on. They ask for the advice of an international wine marketing expert. The answer is to make a product that doesn’t exist elsewhere, to be the first in something. Well, the wine region has 12 hectares of Kadarka (the whole region is 4000 hectares), that could be a start. But how to proceed? Everyone should cut out all other types of vines? It is not easy to find a solution. In the aforementioned region of Wachau (Austria) they had the Grüner Veltliner on a relatively large piece of land, so they could build on that. Of course it would have meant nothing without strict regulations, the registered designation of origin and a quality policy. Tokaj also has the advantage (as opposed to what Paul Hobbs thought) of having very few other vine varieties besides the three main types (Furmint, Hárslevelű, Muscat Lunel, 60% of which is Furmint). The marvelous vineyards (Dingac, Postup) of the Peljesac-peninsula, Croatia could not be destroyed by the communist mass-production, since the whole place is so steep and dry that they could not plant vineyards elsewhere and besides the Plavac Mali no other vines could handle the extreme conditions.
Instead of a Summary
In view of the above, why are we still asking you to taste as many CEE wines as you can? The answer is simple: because of those diamonds in the rough you could discover. Today nowhere else in the world you could find more exquisite wines at a relatively low price than here. You can think about it as a treasure hunt, and you can be sitting back and relax with a glass of Kadarka, Blaufrankisch, Nitria, Plavac Mali, Feteasca Neagra (red grapes), Furmint, Malvazija, Devin, Juhfark, Feteasca Alba, Cserszegi Fűszeres, Grüner Veltliner, or Zilavka (white grapes), that you will find to be unique, exciting, and surprising even to your friends who grew up on the South-American phase of wine making. Just be sure to check out how to pronounce these strange and complicated names...