With a crush of grapes, the perfect fermentation, bottled, corked and left to age (or not), a wine is born, and it seems that everyone wants to be an enologist (wine expert) these days. Whether you enjoy the occasional glass of wine every fourth Thursday at your book club or make weekly visits to the wine store in town or the wine rack in your dining room, or even daily ones to the wine cellar in your basement, you are a drinker of wine. And you know what you like.
As a wine drinker, you may be schooled in the four stages of wine tasting, from its visual appeal, to its nose, to the way it feels in your mouth to the finish. You may swirl and hold your wine up to the light, looking for its clarity, its viscosity, its color, its legs. You may have a collection of wine glasses for every occasion, taking up precious room in your kitchen cabinets, and requiring careful hand-washing after every social event. Or you might drink wine out of whatever small glass you have on hand, even those Tom & Jerry jam-glasses from the 70s, perfect for a backyard picnic when careful glass-setting-down is not on the agenda.
You like wine. And for true aficionados of wine, the upper crust of the wine-tasting world, who subscribe to magazines on the topic, know their favorite sommeliers by name and post on forums like winespectator, wineweb, winespot, letstalkwine, vinocellar and scads more, well, you know where to go. You know you’ll go on fabulous wine-tasting tours in Europe, with companies like DuVine and France in Your Glass, La Dolce Vita or one of a handful of others, or maybe you’ll map out your own tour through Tuscany with a designated driver and a detailed map with wineglasses superimposed over the names of tiny hamlets where wine is made in accordance with a family history that stretches back thousands of years.
Something a Little More Ordinary
But what about us mere mortals, who would prefer not to pay for a pricey European wine tour, and for whom perhaps the magic three of wine countries (France, Spain and Italy) are not on the table? Does that mean our dreams of wineries and steep cliffsides with rows of tidily-tied grape vines are smashed, like a poorly-packed wine bottle in your checked luggage? In a word, no.
Go Farther Afield
All over Europe countries are growing grapes, bottling wine and raising their glasses in salute to what is great about the elixir. A stop in Dubrovnik or Ljublana or Tirana does not mean no-wine-for-you. Wine grapes grow well in a band of 20-50 degrees both north and south latitude with a Mediterranean climate. The famous wine regions fit well within this band, from Napa to Bordeaux. But so too do a number of often-overlooked wine-producing countries that can provide you with a surprisingly good wine, often for a fraction of the price, and with the bonus of being able to tell your friends about it in the true spirit of camaraderie and one-upmanship.
Below are six often-overlooked European wine-producing countries where you can go to get a bit off the beaten path, enjoy the view and end up with a quality glass (or bottle, or two, or three) of wine.
Discovering the wines of Albania
Albania, just across the high heel of Italy’s boot produces mainly dry wines for national consumption and sweet wines for export. Though the nation claims one of the oldest viticulture histories in Europe, the wine industry has only recently been revived after the fall of communism in the early 90s. Wineries include the family-owned Boukas Winery in Gjirocaster, in the south of Albania near the Greek border, and the Çobo Winery nestled into the hills surrounding the city of Berat, and at the foot of Mt. Tomorri, near the city of Berat, which offers tours in English, Italian and Albanian.
Surprise Yourself With the Croatian-Californian Connection
Croatia is another neighbor to major wine player Italy, and has more than 300 geographically distinct wine-growing areas. California winemaker and Croatian Miljenko "Mike" Grgich brought international attention to Croatian wines, which have been produced since pre-Roman times. White sipping wines such as Graševina will taste familiar to lovers of Italian Riesling, as it’s the same grape. The winery Čara on the small Dalmation island of Korcula, believed to be the birthplace of world traveler Marco Polo produces a Pošip wine of the same name (no website). The Katunar winery in Vrbnik, in the northwest of the country offers several different types of tours and tastings, depending on your appetite and alcohol tolerance.
Don’t Miss Slovenia
The wine-producing region Istria joins Croatia and Slovenia, and also spills into Italy, though like Croatia’s wine production, Slovenia’s also predates Roman production. More than 75% of the nation’s wine production is focused on white wines, though the Primoska region, nestled against its Italian neighbor, produces some famous reds, and Slovenian Istria is also known as the land of Refosco, which as been mellowed in recent times for modern tastes. Slovenia has thousands of wine producers, many of which have won international awards, such as Vinakoper, with its gold-winning 2008 sweet Muscat (Vinalies Internationales, Paris). Here you can also find the winery Santomas, in Šmarje near Capodistria, which hosts wine tastings and workshops with wine and food pairings.
Hungary Does Not Disappoint
In Hungary a quick 30-minute ride to the east from Budapest takes you to to the foot of the Mátra mountain and Mátraalja wine region, home to the Szõke Winery in the town of Gyöngyöstarján. Hungary is mostly famous for its white wines, with varieties such as Italian Riesling being prevalent, though other white-wine grape varieties include Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. This winery’s slogan, “Ahol a nap és a hegy összeér” means “Where the day and the mountain overlap.”
If you have more time in Hungary, three hours northeast of Budapest, in the foothills of the Zemplén Mountains is also the famous Tokaj-Hegyalja wine region, known for being the birthplace of the botrytized (aszú) grapes which are used in the production of wine aged in a cellar whose humidity is regulated by layers of a black fungus. The wines from this region have been awarded high scores by several international wine magazines and the Royal Tokaji recommends that you come to tour their winery located in the town of Mád in May, June, September or October.
Ukraine, It’s Not Just for Vodka
The Ukraine may be better known in the English-speaking world for its vodka, but it also produces quality wines. Specifically, the Crimea region in the south of the country stands out for its long history of viticulture, though other growing regions also produce substantial quantities of wine, including Bessarabia, the Carpathian peninsula and three areas in southern Ukraine. The nation is known for whites, reds, and sparkling wines. The Institute of Wine-Making and Grape-Growing Magarach in Yalta in the Crimea offers tours and wine tasting of several prize-winning wines. A dizzying virtual tour is also available on the website. Visitors may also wish to visit the Shabo winery in Odessa, which produces, among others, a famous dessert red called Shabo Kagour.
Georgia on Your Mind
Georgia, which straddles the Caucasus range, shows archaeological evidence of grape cultivation dating back up to 7,000 years. Russia has banned Georgian wine imports, which is said to be due to its widespread imitation and the difficulty of authenticating its origin, but others guess the ban might be more political in nature.
There are five wine growing regions in Georgia, with the most famous being Kakheti in the eastern part of the country. Kakheti is home to the Orovela winery, which produces award-winning, export quality wines such as Oravela Saperavi, a dark red wine with tinges of crimson and blue, with hints of blackberry, mulberry and cherry whose 2004 vintage is exported within Europe. More than 500 varieties of grapes are grown in Georgia, and nearly 40 of them are used in official wine production. As is the custom with French wines, Georgian wines are named for their regions and tend to be blends.
And That’s Not All
This is not an exhaustive list of wine-producing countries in Europe. Many other countries have sought-after wines, including Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria and others. The tiny nation of Luxembourg produces wine, though exports of this are nearly unknown, and it would never appear on your wine store’s shelves. Even far-flung non-grape-growing countries in Europe have gotten in on the act, including recently-bankrupted Iceland, which proudly claims Kvöldsól , a “wine” made of crowberries, blueberries and rhubarb, produced in the fishing town of Húsavik.
While planning your travels, it is wise to remember that many countries, particularly those that enjoy similar weather and topography to the well-known wine countries produce wines that are worth a try. Wine tours are available in some regions, in others they are relatively unknown (or pricey) and you’ll want to build your own, mapping out wineries and figuring out transportation. Or just pack a corkscrew in your checked luggage and go to the local market for a hunk of cheese, a loaf of bread and a bottle of the local elixir. Oh, and bragging rights. Definitely bragging rights.
Read about author Eileen Smith and check out her other BootsnAll travel articles.