The Balkans, or Balkan peninsula, consists of a number of countries in south-eastern Europe. It is variously defined but is generally said to include the countries of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Kosovo, Slovenia, and parts of Greece and Turkey.

For the purposes of our tasting on Thursday evening, it also includes Moldova (mainly because I thought it was a Balkan state when I was sourcing the wine). In fact, I’ve learnt a lot about the countries and geography of south-eastern Europe in my preparation for this tasting, including about the (currently very topical) dispute over the name ‘Macedonia’. Anyway, I won’t go into this now; maybe we can discuss it over our (Greek) Macedonian wine on Thursday evening!

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So, on Thursday night we’ll be trying a couple of Croatian wines as well as one wine each from Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and the Northern Greek region of Macedonia. Hence, these are the countries I’ll attempt to give a bit of background on in this blog…

To start with though, a bit of an overview. What do all of these countries have in common? Well, one thing is an extremely long history of wine making, dating back at least 3,000 years in each case. The Croatian island of Hvar lays claim to having the world’s oldest continuously cultivated viticultural site, dating back to the 4th century BC. The beginnings of viticulture in Romania are claimed to date back 4,000 years and there is archaeological evidence that the vine was widely grown in the area now known as Moldova millions of years ago.

Another similarity is the recent improvement in the standard of wine coming out of these countries, as the focus has shifted from producing quantity to a greater focus on quality. In many cases this has come about following the end of the Eastern Bloc and the more recent accession of these countries to the EU, with its funds becoming available to modernise and improve wine making practices.

So, lets look at these wine producing countries individually in a little more detail…

Croatia

Croatia’s wine industry has seen much success since the country gained independence from the former Yugoslavia. Quite a bit of this success is probably down to the fact that it has become a hugely popular tourist destination with visitors vastly outnumbering residents and creating a big market for the country’s wine.

Croatia lies between 46 and 42° N and has a wide range of climatic influences. There are two very different climates for grape growing in the country: the inland continental climate and coastal Mediterranean climate.

The country grows around 200 different grape varieties, 60 of which are indigenous. Their most widely grown grape is the white Graševina (Welschriesling) which accounts for about 23% of the total vineyard area of Croatia.

On Thursday we will be tasting a red and a white, both from the coastal region of Istria and both varietal wines made from indigenous grape varieties.

istria

Romania

In terms of quantity, Romania is the region’s most important wine producer. For a long time it was the fifth largest producer in Europe, but like many other countries in the Balkans, it has more recently sacrificed quantity for a greater focus on quality.

Romania is mountainous and has a climate suited to viticulture. It lies mainly on the same latitude as France but is more continental. Summers are warm but temperatures aren’t often excessive and winter temperatures are moderated by the Black Sea.

The Romanians themselves are big wine drinkers. They import more than they export and statistics show that they were consuming 6.8 gallons per capita in 2012. This figure does not include vast amounts of black-market wine which is sold in markets and at roadsides, and which is estimated to account for about 50% of all wine consumed.

Just under 60% of Romanian wine is white. Traditionally this was made in a semi-dry or semi-sweet style, but there is now more movement towards drier styles. The two white grapes, Fetească Alba and Fetească Regala, are the country’s most planted, followed by Welschriesling. Merlot is the most widely planted red variety followed by Cabernet Sauvignon. Fetească Neagră is gaining vineyard area and Romanian Pinot Noir is popular in some export markets. The Romanian wine we’ll be tasting on Thursday is an off-dry white, made from an indigenous variety. But we will be tasting a Fetească Neagră blend from neighbouring Moldova and there will also be a Romanian Pinot Noir up for grabs for the quiz winner at the end of the night!

Moldova

Moldova shares many similarities with neighbouring Romania, including a good thirst for wine. Domestic consumption of homemade wines is estimated at 10 gallons per capita, with many households owning their own small vineyards and cellars.

It has an ideal climate and landscape for viticulture and has the biggest density of vineyards in the world, covering 3.8 per cent of its territory and 7 per cent of its arable land, according to official statistics. The industry is very important for the country’s economy, accounting for a significant percentage of GDP, exports and agricultural output.

Moldova has hundreds of vineyards that host wine festivals, including the big estates. These estates, such as Cricova, Purcari and Chateau Vartely, are also known for their extensive wine cellars. More like an underground town, the streets of the famous ‘Cricova’ wine cellar, which are named after grape varieties, exceed 100km in combined length.

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Bulgaria

Bulgaria has a continental climate with temperature extremes in the summer and winter despite its proximity to the Black Sea.

In the early 1980s, Bulgaria was the fourth biggest exporter of bottled wines worldwide, and a lot of it came to Britain. This export success was largely built on its Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Bulgarian wine industry went through a slump from the mid-1980s onwards following Gorbachev’s campaign to curb alcohol consumption in the Soviet Union, which involved uprooting large areas of Bulgarian vineyard. This was followed by the end of communism and free market reforms which had further adverse consequences for the industry. It is only recently, with Bulgaria’s entry to the EU and access to EU funding that things are beginning to turn around.

Bulgaria’s officially declared wine production in 2013 was 1.8 million hl, but as with some of its other Balkan neighbours, there is also a significant black market. In 2013, 35% of Bulgarian wine was sold within Bulgaria. Russia is still the leading export market, followed by Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania.

Red varieties account for about 63% of plantings. Whereas Bulgaria was once famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot has now overtaken it to become the country’s most planted variety. Mavrud, Melnik, Pamid and Rubin are all local red varieties used to produce wines of varying quality. In addition to some crosses, which Bulgarian researchers have developed, recent plantings also include Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Franc.

Bulgaria grows an interesting mix of white grapes including lots of varieties indigenous to the Balkan region. The most widely grown white grape is the Bulgarian pink-skinned Misket Cherven, or Red Misket. Chardonnay is the most popular international variety. We’ll be trying an indigenous white varietal from Bulgaria on Thursday.

Macedonia (Northern Greece)

The Macedonia region of Northern Greece is mostly noted for red wine, particularly from the native Xinomavro grape. Macedonia’s vineyards are the coolest in Greece and its three appellations, Naoussa, Amynteon and Goumenissa are considered to be among the country’s best. Macedonia has a continental climate, but also has the moderating effects of altitude and proximity to the sea. It is a mountainous region with elevations of up to 650m. Summer temperatures do not generally reach the extremes associated with Greece and there is sufficient rainfall for successful viticulture. Many of the vines here have reached very old age in the sandy, phylloxera-free soil and produce some of Greece’s most admired wines. We’ll be tasting a single vineyard varietal Xinomavro from Amynteon on Thursday; let’s hope it lives up to expectation.

See you there,

Brigitte. x

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