It is safe to say that Duck Holiday has a far broader knowledge of beer than of wine, but the DH team are nothing if not resourceful and have made every effort to bring their experience up to a suitable level when it comes to grape produce.
In the west of Europe, our acquaintance with old world wines rarely runs beyond France, Spain, Italy and Portugal with a brief encounter with Germany thrown in. Wine from the east of the continent is rarely seen on these shores, which is a great pity, because much of it is very good.
Perhaps the most familiar country to westerners in terms of wine production is Hungary. Of the various wine regions, Tokaj is the most famous. This area, the the north east of the country, is noted for its very sweet wines, with the golden Aszú being the most notable.
The area north of Lake Balaton is especially productive. The region closest to the lake, Balatonfured, is characterised by its volcanic red soil, and it is this that gives the wines a distinctive flavour. A high-quality Pinot Gris is produced in this region.
The most famous wine of Hungary, however, is Bull’s Blood. As vigorous as its name suggests, this fruity Bordeaux-style wine is made in Eger, just west of the Tokaj area. The name, incidentally, emanates from a story surrounding the Turkish siege of Eger in 1552. The defenders fortified their nerves with the local wine and it was said that the blood of bulls had been added to give the besieged soldiers strength. Happily for both vegetarians and bulls, the story is purely mythical.
Slovakia also produces a number of wines of a similar style to Hungary. Indeed, most of the country’s vineyards are centred around Bratislava and towards the Hungarian border. Not surprisingly, the Tokaj style is common, as the region crosses the boundary. It is known in Slovakia as Tokajsky.
Neighbouring Croatia produces vast quantities of wine, though little is exported. Kabola Muškat is an aromatic and very fruity white from Istria and is a civilised 12%. Istria is also home to the Franc Arman vineyard, which produces a deep red Cabernet that has a hint of spiciness.
Good wine can be unearthed throughout the Balkans. Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia, predominantly Muslim countries, may sound unpromising, but this would be an incorrect assumption. All have goodly numbers of vineyards and there is some excellent, and very cheap, wine to enjoy.
Kosovo’s most noted winery is StoneCastle in Rahovec, about 80 kilometres from Pristina. Much is for the local market, though exports of Kosovar wine, particularly to Germany, are increasing. One of the exports is Amphora, a subtle red made from a blend of the many local grape varieties. A gentle 12%, it is highly quaffable.
Žilavka is a grape variety particular to the Mostar region in Bosnia. Stobi Žilavka is a light, but spicy white with a lemon zing. The most common red grape variety is Blatina, which is also grown in neighbouring Montenegro.
Romania – and this may come as a surprise – has more vineyards than any other country in eastern Europe. Sadly, there is a lack of investment and its potential is largely unfulfilled. It might take you some time to say La Catina Viognier Tamaioasa Romaneasca, but the effort is worthwhile. This is an intensely fruity, medium dry white that has such a delightful aroma that you could happily sit and sniff it for a while.
While Romanian wine can be a bit hit and miss, its smaller neighbour Moldova has a deserved reputation for good wine. In contrast to many wine-producing countries in eastern Europe, it has a sizeable export market. The Asconi winery produces the splendid-named Merry Mole range, which includes a Merlot that excludes dark fruit notes with hints of coffee and chocolate. There is also a delicious Sauvignon Blanc, a greenish gold affair with a touch of gooseberry and guava. For something novel, try to find a bottle of Stradivari Rubin. This deep red is a bit on the lusty side at 16%, but the bottle itself, in the shape of a violin, is worth collecting.
Further east, Georgian wine is of a good quality and for those visiting Russia and not wanting to pay a fortune for western wine, a very sensible (and sound economic) choice. Wine-making in Georgia is believe to date back some 7,000 years and the country has an astonishing 500 grape varieties and 18 viticulture areas.
Khvanchkara, from the Tbilvino Winery, was reputedly the favourite tipple of Josef Stalin, but don’t let that put you off. It is made from local grapes and has a strawberry sweetness counterbalanced by spiciness.
Despite its name, Saperavi Black Wine is, in fact, another red. As the name suggests, it is a very dark wine and is produced in large stone jars lined with beeswax. Pheasant’s Tears is a very easy-drinking red (12.5%) with blackcurrant notes.
A good and inexpensive white is Mtsvane, from the Telavi Wine Cellar. Its name means ‘green’, which gives a clue to its appearance. Slightly strong for its type at 13.5%, it has a lovely dry finish and like many Georgian wine, offers a hint of honey to the taste.
Quevris Rkatsiteli is a Tbilvino white, a new wine, but produced using an ancient technique. A quevri is a large clay jar in which grapes are fermented with both skins and stems intact. This is said to give the wine a complexity lacking in other white wines. The result is a fruity delight, giving the drinker a bewildering array of fruit flavours.
While few of these wines are likely to appear on the shelves of your local supermarket or corner shop any day soon, the boom in internet shopping means that it’s possible to buy just about any of them from the comfort of your sofa. There are also a number of wine societies that not only promote their countries’ produce, but sell it as well. Drinking Georgian or Croatian wine in your living room may not be as exotic as hanging out in a bar in Tbilisi or Zagreb, but it’s the next best thing.