Waking up to the appeal of Central European wine

Winemakers in Central Europe are honing in on the varieties that grow best and where, creating a common, distinct style in the process. Justin Keay has the story on the resurgent appeal of the region's wines

Words by Justin Keay

Prague's dining scene has increasingly embraced Czech wines as their quality has improved

When I was a correspondent in Prague in the 1990s, Czech wine was an embarrassment – even to Czechs. I recall asking a waiter in a posh restaurant near the Charles Bridge whether I should choose Frankovka (aka Blaufränkisch) or Svätovavrinecké (St Laurent) and being firmly advised to stick to beer.

This summer, however, the Czech Embassy in London commemorated 30 years of independence following the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993 with a major celebration of Czech wines hosted by leading Czech sommelier Klára Kollárová. ‘The industry has come on a lot, with producers increasingly confident in making wines that appeal to an international audience,’ she says, presiding over a range of Ryzlink Rynsky (Riesling), Veltlinske Zelene (Grüner Veltliner), local cross Pálava (of Gewürztraminer and Müller-Thurgau) Ryzlink Vlassky (Welschriesling) and Rulandské Modré (Pinot Noir).

The cultural and diplomatic reawakening of this region over the past few years is now being accompanied by a viticultural one

Others agree, including Bath-based Alzbeta Sutera who has established Bohemia Wine to sell Czech wine into the UK market. Bestsellers include a fruity Frankovka and a nuanced, spicy Svätovavrinecké from producer Horak and a full-bodied local Czech cross (of St Laurent, Alibernet and Modrý Portugal) called Neronet from Cech. But it is the whites – accounting for 72% of the country’s 18,000 vineyard hectares – that most impress, especially the moreish Pálava 2021 and the racy, spritzy Rulandske Bile 2020 (Pinot Blanc) by Zámecké Vinařství Bzenec, a producer who has won the best Czech winery award every year since 2017. ‘Czech whites are very distinctive with spicy flavours and beautiful aromas caused by warm days and cold nights. Reds are typically light to medium body, with a fruit-forward style that consumers love,’ she says.

Alzbeta Sutera established Bohemia Wine to sell Czech wine into the UK market

Sutera is following the lead of award-winning importers Novel Wines and Basket Press Wines, who see the renaissance of Czech wines as part of a wider story. Winemaking across Central Europe has come into its own. It’s the now familiar influence of climate change, which is helping transform this once cool-climate region while at the same time putting more southern nations at a disadvantage, plus the investment and transformation in ownership that followed the end of communism. The latter is still ongoing as producers and importers wake up to Central Europe’s appeal.

The cultural and diplomatic reawakening of this region over the past few years – augmented by the common stand these countries have taken in support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion – is now being accompanied by a viticultural one. Winemakers are discovering what varieties grow best and where, and are defining a style distinct from say, southern Europe or the New World.

Two distinctive and widely grown varieties are increasingly defining the region: white Welschriesling and red Blaufränkisch

‘Central European wine is now a distinctive category rather than just being found on wine lists under a generic “Rest Of Europe” section,’ says Jiri Majerik of Basket Press Wines, who sees it comprising the countries of the former Hapsburg Empire including Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia, as well as Croatia and Romania.

‘Winemaking here still shares many links in terms of shared grape varieties, winemaking techniques and styles. Wines typically show a great balance of fruit, aromatics and juicy acidity,’ he says.

Jiri Majerik with Zainab, his wife and business partner at Basket Press Wines

Is it possible to talk of a commonality of style? Increasingly yes, with most producers emphasising freshness, accessibility and minerality, alongside minimal intervention with wines often organic and, increasingly, natural, with Pet Nats currently all the rage. Oak is often eschewed and the focus tends to be more on varietals rather than blends.

As regards varieties, each country can boast a few key indigenous ones, like Grüner Veltliner in Austria, Furmint, Hárslevelű and Kadarka in Hungary, Pošip and Plavac Mali in Croatia, Fetească Neagră, Albă and Regală in Romania and the aforementioned crosses in Czechia and Slovakia.

However, two distinctive and widely grown varieties are increasingly defining the region: white Welschriesling (aka Olaszriesling in Hungary and Graševina in Croatia, where it accounts for 25% of all plantings) and red Blaufränkisch (aka Kékfrankos in Hungary, Frankovka in Czechia and Slovakia and Modra Frankinja in Croatia and Slovenia).

Vineyards dot the shores of Hungary's Lake Balaton

‘I used to really not be a fan of Olaszriesling [which was often used mainly in sweet wines and blends] but now I am because when made well it can have a broad and generous palate, and transmit a real sense of place,’ says Canadian-Hungarian winemaker Robert Gilvesy, who grows the variety at his eponymous winery near Lake Balaton.

He isn’t alone. This summer in Croatia saw the first annual GROW conference comprising a group of central European winemakers focused on Graševina/Olasz/Welschriesling.

Oak is often eschewed and the focus tends to be more on varietals rather than blends

Meanwhile, Wines of Hungary UK have held several ‘Blue of the Danube’ events devoted to Blaufränkisch, Central Europe’s blue grape. Unsurprisingly perhaps, for a grape with so many names, it can show very different characteristics, with typically red cherry fruit flavours coming through in Austrian clones and more nuanced, mineral, darker fruit flavours when made over the border with Hungarian clones. When it’s made in other places? Well, take your pick, although the best examples should have fine rather than aggressive tannins and ideally – though obviously this is a matter of preference – be unoaked and unshowy.

This summer also saw the launch of a new annual Wine Lovers Wine Awards in Budapest to highlight producers and varieties from across the region. So watch this space: it may be early days but a renaissance for Central European wine has clearly begun.