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Grapes from Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia are gaining a following
By Marko Puljić | Published  01/10/2010 | Croatian Cuisine , Culture And Arts | Unrated
The Lure of the Unpronounceable

Grapes from Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia are gaining a following


'Try the Pannonhalmi Tricollis," the bartender at Ardesia advised me. A wine bar in midtown Manhattan, it had only been open for a few months. Were they already trying to unload their unpronounceable—hence unsalable—wines? Or did I look like an easy mark, the sort who would fall for a wine that had as many consonants as it did vowels? On the other hand, it only cost $7 a glass.

The 2008 Apátsági Pannonhalmi Tricollis turned out to be a terrific find: a dry, minerally white Hungarian three-grape blend (Welschriesling, Riesling and Gewürztraminer). The estate was founded by the late Tibor Gál, a Hungarian who made the famed Super Tuscan, Ornellaia, but who returned to make wine in his native land. (Mr. Gál's assistant, Zsolt Liptai, is the current winemaker.)

A number of wine directors from New York to Los Angeles have become enamored recently of linguistic tongue twisters like Furmint, Kékfrankos, Juhfark and Pošip—grape varieties from Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, countries once better known for their political ineptitude than their viticultural excellence.

Whether or not the wines from these countries will become The Next Big Thing or merely The Latest Little Thing remains to be seen. In the meantime, French insurance companies as well as French, Spanish and Portuguese wine estates have all been putting money into Hungarian wineries and Slovenia has attracted winemaking consultants from nearby Italy and Austria. Croatia, slated to join the EU later this year, has enticed prominent American businessmen like Robert Benmosche, the CEO of AIG, and restaurateur Joe Bastianich, partner of Mario Batali. (Mr. Bastianich will debut his wines later this spring as part of a joint venture in Istria to produce Malvasia Istriana. Mr. Benmosche's wines may take a bit longer; he's still busy running AIG.)

The hero of this unlikely revolution might be Frank Dietrich, who founded Blue Danube, a Los Angeles-based company specializing in Croatian, Slovenian and Hungarian wines about seven years ago. Back then, by Mr. Dietrich's own account, his wines were dismissed as "East Bloc schlock" by most of his potential clients. Even Mr. Dietrich's warehouse manager referred to the bottles in his charge as "Croatian crap"—and still kept his job.

But Mr. Dietrich has made plenty of converts in the past several years, as wine professionals have become intrigued by a part of the world where centuries-old wine estates are finally being modernized. (In some cases, that may even mean replacing old oak barrels that date back to the Ottoman Empire.)

Some of the wines of these countries used to be among the most prized in the world. The sweet wines of the Tokaj region of Hungary, for example, were once considered equal to the greatest Sauternes. (Beethoven was said to have been a fan.) But wine quality declined precipitously under Communist control as wineries were issued production quotas and individual initiative was strongly discouraged. It wasn't until the early 1990s, after Communism ended, that private companies (many of them owned by foreigners) began investing in wineries and vineyards. Modern technology was introduced, vineyards were replanted and slowly the quality has risen to international standards.

"The Eastern bloc is like Austria 20 years ago," said Lou Amdur of Lou, a wine bar in Los Angeles. Mr. Amdur is one of the many, mostly young sommeliers who are seeking "wines of a place," indigenous varietals instead of the ubiquitous Cabernet or Merlot.

Mr. Amdur's epiphany occurred a few years ago with Kékfrankos, the star red grape of Hungary (known as the equally unpronounceable Blaufränkish in Austria and Germany). "It lights up a different part of your palate," Mr. Amdur explained. "The acidity is reminiscent of Burgundy but it's a little more brambly. It's a food-friendly wine with good acidity and not too much tannin—like many of the wines from this part of the world." Mr. Amdur added, however, that his customers could rarely recognize, let alone pronounce, these wines.

Mike Mraz, wine director of the North Fork Table and Inn in Southold, N.Y., solves the problem by offering his hard-to-pronounce wines, most of them from Hungary, by the glass or by pairing them with dishes on tasting menus. "That's the best way to introduce people to unfamiliar grapes," he said. Mr. Mraz is currently featuring the 2007 Irsai Olivier from Monarchia Cellars, a Hungarian white selling for $30 a bottle on his list. He compares the Irsai Olivier grape to Sauvignon Blanc in aroma and body and Muscat for its distinctly spicy note. He noted that it's easier for him to sell a "weird wine" like Irsai Olivier than a retailer because he is able to take the bottle to the table and explain it to a customer, who might otherwise be scared off by the name and the label.

Monarchia Cellar's erstwhile importer, Peter Matt, understood that particular challenge. He simply called the wine "Oliver" and gave it a bright green modern label that looked like it could have come from anywhere in the world (its Hungarian origin is noted in small type on the back). The packaging worked according to Mr. Matt, and so did the pricing, about $12 retail. Moderate prices are another one of the attractions of these wines, especially when compared to wines from neighboring countries like Austria and Italy.

Few wine directors confront their customers as fearlessly as Paul Grieco, co-owner of New York's Hearth restaurant and Terroir wine bar and a not-so- secret proselytizer of the obscure. I had my first Juhfark—a Hungarian white—at Hearth a year ago. Juhfark (pronounced Yoo-fark) is a dry, full-bodied wine whose name means "sheep's tail"—after the shape of the grape.

Mr. Grieco's current passion is Slovenia's Samling, also known in Germany as Scheurebe. (Eastern European grapes are like characters in Russian novels—they all have more than one name.) He is particularly fond of the Kogl Samling 88 Mea Culpa, a wine that is currently featured in a full-page ode to Scheurebe on Terroir's wine list. "This wine sings like a young Britney Spears, joined at the hip to a Wayne Gretzky on power-play mode," Mr. Grieco rhapsodizes about the Kogl. (Mr. Grieco is Canadian and a former hockey player.) "When Romania and Bulgaria join the EU I think they could be the Chile and Argentina of the next decade," he said.

For Mr. Dietrich, commercial success with wine retailers and restaurant sommeliers isn't his only triumph. His warehouse manager, John Snetsinger, has recently become a fan of Plavac Mali, a Croatian red grape descended from American Zinfandel. (The relationship between the two grapes was conclusively established by Dr. Carole Meredith at UC-Davis in 1988.) When Mr. Dietrich gave Mr. Snetsinger a bottle of Nico Bura Dingač, a Plavac Mali, for his Thanksgiving dinner, the warehouse manager came back a few days later and pronounced the Croatian red "the star of the show."

—Lettie Teague writes a wine column for Food & Wine magazine and is the author of "Educating Peter," an introductory guide to wine.


Formatted for CROWN by   Marko Puljić
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  • Comment #1 (Posted by Nenad Bach)


    1. Romania IS a member of the EU.
    2. At the bottom of the article it states - "Croatian red grape descended FROM American Zinfandel". The WSJ has got their FROMS crossed. Zinfandel originated from the coast of Dalmatia.

    While a DNA study showed Croatia’s plavac mali was not the parent of zinfandel, it revealed the workhorse grape is a kissing cousin. Former UC Davis researcher Carole Meredith — now a Mount Veeder vintner — said it best when she told Grgich, “We’re in the right church but the wrong pew.”
    A subsequent scouring of the Croatian countryside for vines similar to plavac mali turned up an ancient variety that had nearly died out, crljenak kastelanski (tsirl-YEN-nock kash-teh-LAHN-skee). Geneticists at Zagreb University were elated — their tests showed zinfandel and this ancient Croatian vine were indeed one and the same. Not only that, so was Italian primitivo. Meredith and fellow UC Davis scientists confirmed the find.

    And you-know-who in the Napa Valley was all smiles.

    Grgich’s Cheshire grin was even toothier last summer when a couple of scientists from Zagreb University came to the Napa Valley to report on experimental vineyards planted along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.

    Not only did they show photos of experimental vineyards where American zinfandel, Italian primitivo and Croatian crljenak kastelanski were planted side by side, they brought along wines from the first crush of fruit from these vines. Also included in this special tasting were wines made from the hardy plavac mali grape — a variety now certified a mutation from the ancient crljenak kastelanski.
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