- Wine Guide Europe Middle East & Africa
Wine Guide Europe Middle East & Africa – Wine Region Map[xyz-ihs snippet=”wine-guide-awards”]
This is a diverse geographical section, even a motley collection but one that sparkles here and there with real vibrancy. Our focus here naturally is to support the exciting, emerging regions and nations rather than waste space on those perenially under-achieving countries (those that continue to service the bulk and own-label market places rather than seek to establish any quality reputation of their own). Happily England finds a place as one the promsing band, where the greatest potential for fine wine continues to be of the sparkling variety. Luxembourg too does fizz and some good aromatic whites while Switzerland has established quality credentials, if not value. Elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe isolated viticultural outposts suggest scope for the future. However it is the sweet wine renaissance at Tokaji in Hungary that best illustrates just what investment, technology and a commitment to excellence can achieve. In a drier vein, the majority of the premium reds and whites come from Greece, Slovenia, Israel or Lebanon where top quality producers have made the most of the potential afforded by site and climate. Take a look too at what is emerging from Algeria and Morocco.
In England growers’ annual challenge of bringing in an adequate quality grape harvest has been eased by the hot summers of 2003, 2005 and 2006 as well as a precocious 2007, although later years have proved less propitious until a promising 2013. For several decades the industry has struggled with modest varieties and crossings of mostly German origin. The problem, at least until the recent escalation of the impact of global warming, was finding adequate ‘quality’ grape varieties that will ripen sufficiently in a generally cool and damp northerly climate. Bacchus, a crossing of German origins (whose parents include Riesling, Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau) with somewhat Sauvignon-like qualities, has arguably emerged as the leading white variety. Others include Reicheinsteiner, Ortega and Seyval Blanc. The latter has proved to work particularly well here but has faced opposition from EU regulators due to being a hybrid.
Others have gone further, planting the high quality Champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir now being the most widely planted grape varieties in England. The key to their success has been planting and sourcing fruit from vineyards on the southern English downland chalk soils (the same strata as in Champagne). The results are some first-class sparkling wines. Building on the success of the best vintages of the 90s, it is quite probable that the hot summers of 03, 05, 06 and 13 will produce wines of a quality unprecedented in England. The quality leader for the past decade has been Nyetimber Vineyard but Ridgeview, another sparkling specialist, and others such as Hush Heath Estate (for the new Balfour Brut Rosé made by Owen Elias) offer serious quality too. For production of dry whites (but also including sparkling wines) Denbies, Chapel Down, Three Choirs and Stanlake Park head the established quality leader board.
This small, pretty and well ordered country is increasingly a western European transport hub with travellers making haste to Germany, France, Belgium or perhaps catching a plane to London. Yet it is also a relaxed, civilised holiday destination. If your itinerary does include a night (or even a few hours) in the Grand Duchy then insist on drinking the local wines as the quality will surprise you. Luxembourg shares with England a northerly latitude, missing the latter’s maritime amelioration but compensating with continental summers.
If seemingly too far north in French terms, viticulture here is in fact on the upper reaches of the Moselle (Mosel) river where it forms the border with Germany before turning east and wrapping itself around those extraordinary sites in the Mosel- Saar-Ruwer. The river and its proximity to often steep and well-drained slopes is crucially important as have been the recent string of hot summers. From 1300 ha of vines along a 42 km stretch that extends north from Schengen (the reknown tri-cornered border with France and Germany), the best vineyards have been classified as Grands Premiers Crus (GPC). Parcels within some of these lieux-dits are the source of the most exciting wines but they must come from a top producer (see below).
In Hungary, apart from Tokaji, few wines of real quality have been produced. Again, investment has been centred on the bottom of the market. There is potential, particularly with the reds from the southern Villány-Siklós region. Tokaji, though, is a different matter. Investment aplenty has flooded into the region and some of the results are stunning.
All Tokaji is based on the Furmint grape, but usually including a smaller amount of Hárslevelú (the two varieties account for 90% of the vineyard area) and . The great sweet wines are Aszú wines, derived from dried (usually botrytised) grapes but only make up a very small percentage of the region’s production. Individual berries are made into a paste-like consistency which is soaked in the must before completing fermentation in casks. The level of puttonyos now reflects a minimum level of sugar and extract in the wine, ranging from 3 puttonyos to 6 puttonyos. The degree of oxidation that occurs with ageing has been much reduced by many of the new school of producers with the result that the wines are now altogether fresher, more intense and with some truly splendid botrytis character in the best examples. The top names are Disznókö, Oremus, Istvan Szepsy, Royal Tokaji and Tokaji Classic but Château Megyer, Château Pajzos and Crown Estates are also decent sources. Szepsy even makes a sweet example following more classic reductive winemaking practices (labelled Noble Late Harvest). Essencia (Eszencia) refers to wines of higher than 6 puttonyos and is made from the most concentrated juice that is characterized by its low alcohol and exceedingly high residual sugar levels. It also characterised by high acidity and potential longevity.
Good dry whites which are made and labelled varietally are also on the increase. Those from Furmint show the greatest promise. Also occasionally encountered is Szamorodni, a dry or off-dry style of higher alcohol and extract due to the inclusion of some botrytised fruit. Among the great recent years for the sweet wines to look out for are 2000, 99, 96, 95, 93 and 88. It’s a shame that the same technology has failed to reach that part of the appellation that lies across the border in Slovakia.
In Switzerland there is both quality and diversity, if at a price – this being the price the local market supports. Now producing slightly more red wine than white, well-established viticultural areas include the Vaud, Valais and Ticino but wine is also made around Geneva, in Neuchâtel and in the north-east. In fact it is the latter that has produced some of Switzerland finest wines. The Pinots from Daniel & Martha Gantenbein stand comparison with top German examples. Jean-René Germanier sets the standard for the mostly French-speaking Valais where the mountain valley viticulture is made possible by the presence of the Rhône. Here, hundreds of miles from its more famous associations in France, vines flank a roughly south-western stretch of the river before it turns and runs north-west towards Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). Successful local varieties include Fendant for firm dry whites, Humagne and the increasingly fashionable Cornalin for characterful reds. Dôle is from Gamay and Pinot Noir; the latter can be impressive varietally too.
In the Vaud, spectacular vineyards arc on steep terraces above Lac Léman in the region of Lavaux where Chasselas is king. The best from well-established ACs such as Dézaley, Saint-Saphorin and Epesses display minerality and tension. Most, however, are more humdrum. Other regions within the Vaud include Chablais, east of Lac Léman in the Rhône valley (Aigle and Yvorne are leading communes) and La Côte, running west of Lausanne towards Geneva. In French speaking Neuchâtel the vineyards, planted almost entirely to Chasselas and Pinot Noir, extend along the northern shore of Lac Neuchâtel as far as Lac Bienne. Ticino, the Italian bit of Switzerland, has focused almost exclusively on Merlot. They have a good local reputation but are plagued by variability both from grower to grower and year to year. Christian Zündel is the quality leader but several others (Daniele Huber, Luigi Zanini) have made ripe, lushly-textured examples that are true to the variety. The two Cabernets often contribute to blends and there are also very small amounts of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (Zanini’s is the stand-out white).
For such a relatively small country – it is abut the same size as Switzerland – Georgia has an extraordinarily diverse climate. Traditional wines, both red and white are made in Qvevri (or Kwevri) and they can be dauntingly tannic. The Qvevri is a clay vessel buried underground up to the neck in the marani (wine cellar) to create a simple form of temperature control. After fermentation (including skins, stalks and pulp) the wines can stay in the vessel for up to two years. Whites can have the glowing amber colour of maple syrup. Some fine Saperavi and wines from other native varieties are now being released.
Other Central & Eastern Europe
While Hungary’s Tokaji region doesn’t lack for history, investment and direction and Switzerland isn’t short of money or connoisseurship, other parts of Central Europe (other than a revitalised Austria – see separate section) continue to do less well. The Czech Republic and Slovakia both produce some decent dry whites. In the Czech Republic whites from the likes of Grüner Veltliner and Gewürztraminer are produced in Bohemia and Moravia and in Slovakia some well-made reds originate from the Nitra region, as well as good stylish whites from Pezinok just north of Bratislava. Perhaps most significant is the emergence of Château Bela, producing fine Rieslings in Stúrovo, just north of Hungary. Further east, nothing of real note has yet emerged from the Ukraine or Moldova despite there being some modern winemaking input in the latter. In Romania the best potential would appear to rest with the sweet botrytised wines of Cotnari and Murfatlar but some outside investment would be an immense advantage.
This is a country with real potential and an increasing number of stylish modern whites and rich plummy reds are now being made as well as a few established classics like the sweet Muscats from the island of Samos. Arguably nowhere has advanced the winemaking revolution here more than in the Peloponnese (Peloponessos), a cradle of ancient viticulture but until recently best known for a tradition of sweet wines (from Muscat and Mavrodaphne) under the Patras appellation. Independent producers are now exploiting more high-potential viticultural sites planted chiefly to Agiorgitiko for red. 100% of the variety is required to qualify for the leading red wine appellation Nemea while a minimum of 85% of the white Moschofilero is mandatory in the Mantinia appellation. The peninsula’s leader is Gaia Estate. Other good producers, including Skouras and Antonopoulos, addtionally promote international varieties. The same is true of the dynamic Evharis estate located east of isthmus of Corinth just outside Athens in the foothills of the Gerania mountains. Several new pockets of quality have also emerged in northern Greece. In the elevated lake district around Amydeon the Greek varieties of Xinomavro and Mavrodaphne are shown as much respect by Alpha Estate as imported Sauvignon, Syrah or Merlot. Further east, Gerovassiliou have put Thessaloniki firmly on the wine map with impressive varietals from French grapes but have also successfully revived the ancient Malagousia variety (as a varietal white) as well as indigenous black grapes (including Limnio) for a premium red blend. Further east is Biblia Chora on the slopes of Mount Pangeon (of Dionysus legend), succeeding as much with Agiorgitiko and Assyrtiko (the latter being combined with Sauvignon) as Cabernet or Chardonnay. A similar duality is echoed in the wines of Ktima Pavlidis, located north of here near Drama.
Another part of Greece that has made huge strides is the beautiful volcanic island of Santorini. The potential for outstanding mineral-imbued dry whites from Assyrtiko has already been realized by Hatzidakis, Gaia estate and Sigalas. The quality of Vinsanto from dried grapes shouldn’t be ignored either. Also in a sweet wine vein are the famous Muscats of Samos. Here the island co-op continues its long and consistent production that combines quality and value.
Quietly but assuredly wines of world class quality are emerging from this small, outwardly looking and progressive European star. Of three main wine regions, west is best. Known as Primorska it encompasses the wine producing areas of (Goriska) Brda, Kras, Istria and Vipava. Most impressive are the wines made in Brda, in the western hills that form the border with Italy. In fact the Collio hills of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, source of the Slow Food coined ‘super whites’ extends into Slovenia. And there’s no less potential here. There are growers with vineyards in Italy just as there are Italian producers with vineyards in Slovenia. The likes of Edi Simcic, Marjan Simcic, Batic and others deserve to be as familiar to wine drinkers as Italy’s Jermanns, Gravners, Vie di Romans and the like. In fact, Gravner and his radical non-interventionist winemaking philosophy is an inspiration for many. For some at least this equates to no temperature control or yeast addition, and often prolonged skin maceration or even vinification on the skins, for the white wines. Others follow a more conservative approach but the best all favour hard work in the vineyard for the best results. Winemaking is also undergoing significant changes in Slovenia’s more northerly and eastern regions. Podravje which is centred on the valley of the Drava river, in part close to the Austrian border makes significant quantities of mostly sweet and sparkling styles. To the south, Posavje extends along the Sava river, near Croatia.
Slovenia’s near neighbours have nothing at this level but Croatia produces a few gutsy reds. Bulgaria ought to produce much more in the way of quality than it does. That said, things might finally have taken a turn for the better with the arrival of Stéphan von Niepperg (owner of the brilliant Ch. La Mondotte in Saint-Emilion) whose investment is already bearing fruit in early releases of the Enira wines from the Bessa Valley winery.
The industry in Israel is still largely focused on the production of kosher wines, many from the Golan Heights, but an increasing number of very stylish reds and whites are being produced there as well. In fact, a technical revolution has occurred over the past few years in as much as new investment in planting noble varieties, state-of-the-art technology and better understanding of the terroir has put Israeli wines firmly on the international map. There are now over 200 wineries, some of which have grown into internationally established operations such as Barkan Wine Cellars with their Segal label and the Golan Heights Winery with their well-established Yarden label, whilst others have distinctly remained in the area of boutique wineries, producing premium wines, sometimes with prices to match.
In Lebanon, after decades of war and strife, new producers, fortified by outside investment and expertise have surpassed the emblematic and long established Chateau Musar in producing dense, powerful wines of heady character. The new kids on the block are Massaya, Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Ksara.
Fine reds are also emerging from Algeria and Morocco from old bush vines. If historically wines from North Africa were used to bolster many a well-known Rhône or Burgundy, there’s evident potential too, given enough expertise and care. The most significant wines to date have been those produced by the iconic French actor Gérard Depardieu at Domaine de Saint-Augustin (Algeria) and Lumière (Morocco).