Our panel of pundits put Eastern European wines to the taste test
Wines from Eastern Europe used to leave a bad taste, but our panel of pundits finds that is no longer true
Eastern European wines long had a reputation for being of inferior quality, often poorly made using antiquated equipment. However, heavy investment in the winemaking industries of several countries over the past 20 years has had a dramatic impact, and many wines are now of sufficient quality to be exported around the world, including Hong Kong.
At a recent Post blind tasting of wines from the region, our panel discovered that although a few wines were below par, many were of a far higher standard, if not yet world class.
Watch: Which Eastern European country has the best wine?
Wine production in these former communist countries generally had been about quantity over quality. Pruning vines to improve quality, for example, was unthinkable as co-operatives were paid, handsomely in some cases, to produce purely by the numbers.
"After world war two, the wine industry in most of Yugoslavia was focused on producing volume," says Robert Gorjak of Dveri-Pax winery.
"Food was precious, and the practice of cutting the grapes to concentrate flavour and improve quality would have been unthinkable for my grandfather.
"Co-ops were paid rather well for the tonnes of unripe grapes they produced, grapes that by today's standards would be considered unusable," he says.
Since the fall of communism, wine production in Eastern Europe has improved significantly, with regular awards at international wine competitions. Praise is coming from the big names of the wine world - Jancis Robinson featured a Slovenian wine as her wine of the week this month on her website. Hugh Johnson writes in his 2013 Pocket Wine Book that Slovenia was gaining a global recognition for thrilling wines and fantastic terroir. He also describes the country as "the class act of the Balkans".
In Slovenia, it wasn't until the 1990s, after independence from Yugoslavia, that there was an explosion of private producers. Romanian and Bulgarian winemakers could only match their ambitions with investment after joining the European Union (EU) in 2007. Investment in new equipment has come in the form of EU development funds and from private concerns taking stakes in wineries and re-equipping them to modern standards.
Romania's LacertA winery is a case in point - an €8 million (HK$85 million) investment from the EU and an Austrian winemaker has enabled it to buy state-of-the-art winemaking equipment.
These new Old World winemakers - viticulture dates back thousands of years in Eastern Europe - are now exploring the possibilities of their terroir, which has given rise to new takes on international varieties, as well as native ones.
But Eastern European wines are still relatively hard to find, and Hungarian cabernet franc or Bulgarian mavrud, furmint or the interestingly named bastardo are all unlikely to be at your nearest corner shop.
For our tasting, we selected 34 Eastern European wines - sparkling, whites, rosés and reds - that are available in Hong Kong (or in the case of Dveri-Pax from Slovenia, will be here by the end of the year if things go to plan) and invited industry experts and a Post food and wine editor to give their opinions.
There were only three sparkling wines, two of which came from Hungary and the third from Crimea. Argentinean-born sommelier Andrès Torres scored all three sparkling wines well, with the Crimean French Boulevard Special Edition Rose brut coming out on top. Torres found it dry, with cherry and strawberry notes on the palate.
Wine school owner Jennie Mack rated them a bit lower, but still respectably. La Cabane a Vin sommelier Alison Christ preferred the first two to the last one, but the Post's Mischa Moselle's meaner ranking for the Crimean sparkling rose brought its average score down to a still respectable 77.25 points.
The whites outperformed the reds and some received very high marks. The Hungarian Tokaji Furmint Uragya 2011 came out on top, with only Mack dissenting from the high scores, and Moselle and Christ giving it some of their highest.
While Mack thought the wine would make a good aperitif, with grapefruit, grassy and citrus notes, Christ liked the green apple and pineapple rind flavours, and thought the wine would make a good match with chicken, pork and seafood.
The only other white to get over 85 points was another Hungarian, the Ikon Balatoni Rhine Riesling (Rajnai Rizling) 2012, which received an average of 86.6. This was praised for good acidity by Mack and clean, floral aroma by wine expert Nellie Ming Lee.
Slovenia's scuek rebula received high marks from Christ, who liked the acidity and wondered if the wine came from Provence. The New Yorker was even more generous with the Romanian Trei Hectare-Chardonnay, with its golden colour and flavours of nuts, lemon, pear and apple.
Lee was generous with the Crimean Chardonnay Inkerman Wine Masters Selection 2011 - although she found it sherry-like in some respects, she also noted its dried fruit, prune and cherry flavours. Only four of the 15 whites scored below 80 points.
The rosés fared less well, with three out of the five scoring below the 80 point threshold that was our tasters' benchmark for a good wine. The winner, by a nose, was the Romanian Rai de Murfatlar which received 84.4 points, edging out the Bulgarian Pamidovo Rose Mavrud NV (technically a white wine infused with rose oil), which had an average of 83.
The latter wine proved somewhat divisive, with Moselle and Christ both liking it. Christ described it as very weird, but not in a bad way, and guessed it had rose water in it (it did, along with rose oil). Moselle suggested it would go well with baklava.
The reds were Eastern Europe's Achilles heel. Only six of the 13 scored over 80 points, and the winner was, once again, a Hungarian: the Bock Villanyi Cabernet Franc Feketehegy Selection. This was a close run thing with three Slovenian wines - Santomas Sergasi  Santomas MF  and Benedict Red  - close behind.
The panel commented on the Hungarian wine's aromas and flavours of leather, tobacco, oak, eucalyptus and red fruits.
The Romanian Neptunus Shiraz 2011 didn't fare too well overall, but Lee was a little more generous than the other panellists, and this brought its average up and put it within touching distance of being an average wine.
As is always going to be the case with a blind tasting, several wines scored average overall, but individual taster's opinions varied widely.
The Principele Feteasca Neagra 2009 divided the judges with Christ and Lee putting it near the top of the range. Contrarily, Moselle gave it one of his lowest scores.
Lee noted the aromas of ripe red fruits and dense berries, while Christ commented on the wine's flavours of herbs, vanilla, spices and red fruit.
Many wines scored in the 80s and high 70s, which, admittedly, is not high enough to worry the world's top producers. But the surprise was how many were found to be respectable, everyday drinking wines.
Perhaps the Chileans and Argentineans should be looking over their shoulders.
Top three based on the average score
Szepsy Tokaji Furmint Uragya 2011: 90.6, Hungary
Ikon Balatoni Rhine Riesling (Rajnai Rizling) 2012: 86.6, Hungary
Steyer traminec 2012: 84.75, Slovenia
The scoring system
95-100 - Outstanding
90-95 - Very good
80-89 - Good
70-79 - Standard
60-69 - Below average
Christ is a New Yorker and a sommelier who moved to Hong Kong about two years ago. She works at natural wine bar La Cabane a Vin.
Mack is a wine educator with 20 years of experience. Her school - AWSEC - has just been awarded the prize of world's best wine school by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust in London.
Nellie Ming Lee
Lee is a wine writer, educator and sommelier who is studying for the prestigious Master Sommelier qualification.
Torres grew up in Uruguay, where he discovered his passion for wine. He graduated with honours from Escuela Internacional de Sommeliers in Punta del Este, Uruguay. He now works at Quemo in Wan Chai.
Moselle is a food and wine editor at the South China Morning Post. He has been writing about wine for some 10 years.
The full wine list
Torley Chardonnay Brut
Hungaria Extra Dry
French Boulevard Special Edition Rose brut
Scurek Stara Brajda
Dveri-Pax Renski rizling
Dveri-Pax Furmint Ilovci
Scurta Vineyard, Tamaioasa
Rhea, Viognier 2011
Lacrima Lui Ovidiu 5
Ikon Balatoni Rhine Riesling (Rajnai Rizling) 2012
Szepsy Tokaji Furmint Uragya 2011
Black Sea Gold Villa Ponte Chardonnay & Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Chardonnay Inkerman Wine Masters Selection 2011
Pamidovo Rose Mavrud NV
Tiffan Villanyi Rosé Cuvee 2010
Trei Hectare Cab. Sau. Rose
Rai de Murfatlar Rose
Rose Inkerman Wine Masters Selection 2011
Santomas Mezzo Forte
Dveri-Pax Benedict red
Old Crimea Bastardo 2011
Lovico Gamza Reserve 2009
Hyperion, Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Hyperion, Feteasca Neagra 2010
Trei Hectare-Feteasca Neagra
Neptunus, Shiraz 2011
Principele, Feteasca Neagra 2009
Bock Villanyi Cabernet Franc Feketehegy Selection
Takler Szekszardi Kekfrankos Reserve 2007
Where to buy the wines
There are over 100 Hungarian wines at Wine & Glass, Wiseville International's store in Wan Chai. They also have a tasting room at their premises in Tsuen Wan.
Wine & Glass Shop UG1, UG/F.,
302-8 Hennessy Road, Wanchai
Tel: 2411 2006 Fax: 2411 3116
Wiseville International Ltd.
Unit 3401, 34/F., Cable TV Tower,
9 Hoi Shing Road, Tsuen Wan, N.T.
Tel: 2411 2006 Fax: 2411 3116
Romanian wines will be available from Heritagewines.com.hk as of July and are currently available from Q Club on Peel Street in Central and its sister stores in Sai Kung and Tai Po, as well as Marcato & Friends.
Marcato & Friends
2/F Overseas Building,
417-421 Hennessy Road,
Tel: 3568 4696.
Rhyton Ltd imports wine from 12 Bulgarian vineyards. Inquiries and orders can currently be placed through their Facebook page. Customers will soon be able to order via their website. They can also organise tastings and Bulgarian private dinners. There are also two restaurants that stock Bulgarian wines from Rhyton: Very good seafood restaurant and Oyster Express, both of which are in Tsim Sha Tsui.
There are several outlets where Ukrainian wines can be found.
Island Wines shop
Shop G11, G/F, Silver Plaza,
8 Chung Shing street, Mui Wo, Lantau
Shop Floor, Goodluck Mansion,
41 Po Tuck Street,
Shek Tong Tsui
Ivan the Kozak
G/F 46-48 Cochrane st.
Shop 105B, 1/F, D'Deck, DB Plaza,
Discovery Bay, Lantau
Sun Fine Food Delicacies Shop
Shop 2, Fook Chi Bldg., 59-61 Nam Kok Road, Kowloon City
Currently Slovenian wines are available in several restaurants in Hong Kong, notably Restaurant Petrus in Island Shangri-La. Wineries such as Dveri Pax are working to make their wines widely available in Hong Kong.