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Eastern Europe Wines & Dining
By: Scott A. Bailey, I.M. ©
Prior to traveling, I engaged in pre-requisite wine reading for familiarization with the Eastern European grapes, which were largely unknown to me. Jancis Robinson’s & Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine, 6th edition, (published by Mitchell Beazley of London) provided a vast array of information, by country, which was used in the research and following writing. In addition, certain country reports from JancisRobinson.com were also of value in the research. Acknowledgement / attribution of both sources is hereby made. Many readers will no doubt recall my appreciation for Ms. Robinson’s palate and her witty, cut-to-the-chase writing style.
My research finds that many of the grapes listed below have country-specific names; however, they originate in other areas and have migrated to various locales. This is not surprising, in that the total area in which we traveled on this trip was at one time a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Vineyard plantings go back to the times of the Holy Crusades, only to then be repressed / torn out by the onslaught of the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim aversion to alcohol. Fortunately, not everything was lost, so that there was at least a modicum of plantings in existence, to which the Austro-Hungarians added to the cultivations.
Post-World War II, with the onslaught of socialism / collectivism, the Soviets did their best to stamp out individual initiative by forcing all lands into collective agricultural areas. Grapes with specific characteristics were replaced by one or two types that were easy to maintain, grew prolifically and produced copious quantities of fruit (at the expense of quality). All of the production was destined to a few giant co-operative wineries producing output to Soviet specifics and tastes.
Initially after the collapse of the Soviet empire, there was little incentive and scarcely any money for individual growers to start anew. Further, the only market they knew for almost 50 years – the Soviets – had no money for trade to purchase wine. In time, individuals re-asserted their ownership claims to their land, re-planted better grapes and began re-establishing estate-bottled wines. Even today, the outputs range the gamut from poorly-made, tasteless bulk wines to very good estate-bottlings proudly bearing the proprietors’ names / brands.
While AUSTRIA is not considered as Eastern European (in fact, it is Central), I note it here for three specific purposes:
BUDAPEST / HUNGARY
I am opening this segment with a discussion of Hungary’s probably most famous (and frequently misunderstood) wine for many centuries – Tokaji Aszu – affectionately known as ‘the Yquem of Eastern Europe’. The ‘gold rush’ to stake claims to ownership and revitalization of this northern wine making region occurred shortly after the collapse of the USSR. Western capital poured into the Tokaji region – AXA purchased Disznoko; a syndicate led by the U.K.’s Hugh Johnson created Royal Tokaji; Spain’s fabled Vega Sicilia purchased Oremus, etc – followed shortly thereafter by the ‘internationally recognized, fly-in wine consultants’ to assist in the revitalization of these jewels.
Tokaji is made in an unique two step process. There are three grapes involved:
At harvest in October, both the botrytis-affected, shriveled grapes (‘aszu’) and the unaffected grapes are harvested at the same time, but kept separated. The unaffected grapes are pressed and vinified to make various styles of dry (‘szaraz’) or fairly sweet (‘edes’) wine, including the base wine for the final product. All of these wines are considered ‘Szamorodni’ (literally ‘as it comes’).
Meanwhile, over at the piles of aszu grapes, gravity is coaxing forth the fabulously sweet, free-run ‘syrup’ from those grapes, which becomes the stratospherically-expensive Eszencia (if they can get it to ferment – it contains so much sugar).
The resulting crushed aszu grapes are then added to fresh must or base wine for 16 – 36 hours of maceration. The measure of sweetness is still expressed as the number of 20 kilo puttonyos (or vineyard hods or baskets) of crushed aszu added to one barrel (137 liters) of base wine. The lower end of the scale is 3 ‘putts’ (roughly equivalent to the sweetness of a German Auslese, approx 60 grams/liter of sugar); 4 or 5 ‘putts’ is roughly equivalent to a Beerenauslese; 6 ‘putts’ must have at least 150 g/l sugar; and Aszu Eszencia is effectively 7 puttonyos of phenomenal intensity.
In the Socialist era, the Russians preferred their wines with an oxidized taste, so aging casks were never filled full, may have been open tops and affected by aging cellar molds. Today, the world’s fashion is for fresher flavors, but some say complexity is therefore sacrificed. Minimum age for aszu wines is three years; two in cask and one in bottle.
Previously, your writer was privileged to participate in a side-by-side tasting of socialist-era Tokaji aszu compared to the current fashion of fresher wines. I can report that both styles have their pros and cons; however, in my final analysis, fresher is better made and tastier.
Because of our prior experiences with Tokaji aszu, we opted this time to see what else was happening in the wines of Tokaj (the name of the village). We thoroughly enjoyed the following variations on the theme:
We tasted eleven different Hungarian wines on three specific occasions, two of which were at pre-cruise dinners in Budapest. The third encounter (with the Bull’s Blood) was aboard ship.
For purposes of organization of these tasting notes, I have grouped the wines first as whites, followed by the reds, and lastly the sweet. [Later in this section, I will comment on the restaurant meals and mention the specific wine poured with a particular course, so that the in-depth reader may cross-reference the tasting notes.]
As is our usual ‘to Europe’ custom, on arrival at our destination, we find that taking an immediate nap helps to adapt us to European time by the second morning. Our first night’s dining is scheduled for earlier than usual (7pm or so), in order to retire earlier and ’hit the ground, running’ first a.m. on the second day. For our introduction to Budapest and Hungary, we reasoned that we should try upscale, but traditional Hungarian cuisine. We thoroughly enjoyed REZKAKAS Bistro, on Sas utca (street), about a ten minute walk from the hotel. We had made email reservations well in advance with Szilvia Latjal, the Manager, who greeted us warmly upon arrival. Ms. Sylvia pointed out that our early arrival (most of her patrons arrive between 8 and 9pm) on this Saturday evening allowed us to select our table and establish a working relationship with our Captain and waiters, especially since we wanted to try several Hungarian wines throughout our evening.
The bistro has outdoor seating, a large bar area and tables in the front of the space and a smaller, but less bustling and quieter dining section behind the bar. We opted for a corner table in the back, which worked out to be an excellent location. The restaurant has a three piece, string ensemble (violin, bass violin and cymbala, a Hungarian stringed instrument that looks like the string bed of a piano, except that it is played by striking the strings with two cloth-tipped batons) for lovely background music ranging from the classics to gypsy music. The musicians were great performers and gave the evening a special ‘welcome to Hungary’ atmosphere.
Rezkakas has a moderate by-the-glass wine list, from which our Captain and waiters put forth a delicious representation of Hungarian wines for our enjoyment. The dry Furmint was exceptionally good; a white wine with some backbone and flavor. Our starters were a delicious Gulyas soup (in which you could increase the ‘heat’ by adding more paprika condiment to taste) and a goose liver foie gras. Hungary features lots of very good foie gras; moreover, it is equally as good as found in France.
The main plates were two regional specialties: succulent braised pork cheeks with a delicious side savory strudel (actually a well-grilled crepe filled with minced vegetables, mushrooms and rolled up) and a beautifully braised and tender lamb shank with reduction sauce. These mains paired beautifully with the native grape red blends Kadarka / Kekfrankos and Kopar cuvee, respectively.
We enjoyed chatting with our next table mates –a couple from Northeast England – who remarked that they come to Budapest quite often as they can experience a ‘Parisian atmosphere’ without paying stratospheric Parisian prices. [NOTE: Do you remember the last time you were able to chat in a conversational tone of voice in a restaurant with live music? You can here.]
Two courses each, plus one dessert, five different glasses of wines, bottled water + tip = HUForints 34,000; approx $153. Open daily mid-day and evening.
[NOTE: The evening at Rezkakas was about one-half of what one would pay for a similar meal, wines and music at the venerable Restaurant Gundel, perhaps the best known of Budapest’s restaurants (unranked by Michelin, living on past glory?) in the city park near Heroes’ Square.]
COSTES RESTAURANT ( * Michelin)
Our second evening’s dining (a Sunday evening) was at * Michelin (the three *’s in Budapest are the highest ranked restaurants in the city) Costes Restaurant, a five minute, EUR 8 cab ride from the hotel. We were thrilled by Costes’ cuisine – classical haute cuisine with French technique, using fresh, local ingredients orchestrated by Portuguese chef Miguel Rocha Vieira– and the Sommelier’s delicious suggestions for various Hungarian wines with the courses. This evening’s six wines were all different from the prior evening’s enjoyment, so we have had a fine introduction to these up-and-coming Hungarian wines that have shaken off the dreariness of the collectivist winemaking attitude from former Socialist days.
Reservations must be made well in advance (Internet / email is available) for this 40 seats or so establishment. They are open for dinner Wednesday – Sunday. They offer a limited a-la-carte menu as well as the prix-fixe, tasting portion sized menus. The latter run from 3 courses (plus cheese or dessert = 4 actual courses) at EUR 75 upwards to 7 courses. In addition, there is the usual parade of interesting amuse bouches and breads/flavoured butters pre-meal, and the mignardises afterwards. We were pleasantly sated with the EUR 75 offering and the extras.
After three rounds of amuse bouches, the courses began in earnest. Duck liver foie gras marinated in Tokaji Aszu was seriously good; slightly better than the prior evening’s course. The sweet Szamorodni wine was a lighter, but effective foil for the dish.
Our second plates were a line-caught and perfectly seared sea bass with artichokes and gnocchi. In addition, a sous-vide cooked pintade was whimsically presented with poached grapes and oat flakes. The Kadarka proved to be effective and not over-powering for the pintade and, at the Sommelier’s urging, also worked very well with the sea bass.
The mains were a delicious, sous-vide created ‘pressed suckling pig’ (in perfectly square cubes on the plate!) and roasted deer loin from Hungary’s Mecsek mountains. The Cabernet Franc made a delicious and flavorful pairing with the deer, while the Bordeaux blend cut right through the succulence of the pork and worked well with the French cheese selection that followed.
The dessert was a tour de force in eye appeal, and tasty, too, in its simplicity. ‘Granny Smith sphere’ was a pale green tinted croquante in the shape of an apple. Inside was a bed of yogurt crème, flavored with cinnamon crumble and topped with barely-poached small cubes of Granny Smith apple dressed with a light caramel sauce. The last sips of Szamorodni were a delicious finale to an evening such as one would find in Paris or Lyon’s finest establishments.
Four courses each, prix fixe EUR75; plus a parade of amuse bouches and mignardises; six glasses of wine and tip = EUR 230. The quality of the offerings, presentations, waitstaff attention, décor, ambience and of course food and drink were equivalent to what you can enjoy in Paris or New York, and at better prices!
This country’s better white wines are made on the Adriatic seacoast. We were on the easternmost point of Croatia’s inland border region (the Danube making the easternmost border of the country). Also, its better red wines come from Dalmatia and Istria. As is known among wine aficionados, California’s Zinfandel is actually a grape that originated in Croatia. Two of their better reds are reported to be Dingac Riserva (something akin to Merlot in flavor) and Postup.
We had the opportunity to sample a red and a white wine at one of our touring stops near Osijek. The red, marked as “red” was probably a field blend of local grapes and unremarkable. The white wine - Grasevina – was drinkable. Grasevina is a local, workhorse grape; known elsewhere as in Eastern Europe as Welschreisling.
During socialism, Bulgaria dutifully churned out rivers of cheap plonk to earn hard currency.
The two Bulgarian wines that we sampled were simply undrinkable to us (although many of our fellow travelers drank them without comment). With very good Hungarian and Romanian wines from Eastern Europe, why be bothered with junk from this country.
One evening aboard ship, a Dry Muscat – white was served as the house pour. Muscat usually has a distinctive, telltale bouquet. This bouquet was peculiar, but not ‘off’, which I attributed perhaps to local terroir. The taste was industrial, unbalanced, and an example of plain bad winemaking. Avoid it.
One of our excursions featured a ‘typical Bulgarian lunch’ and included a bottle per table of Gulbarnis Bulgarian Red Blend ‘ 11. The cepage was Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere. The bouquet was prune-y with volatile acidity; the taste was not anything resembling any of the component parts of the blend. Avoid it.
During the lunch, I noticed a large clod of sediment hanging on the inside of the bottle. I cautioned our tablemates (all were drinking it except Melanie and me) to let the glass rest and then sip judiciously to avoid the sediment. One fellow emptied the last of the bottle into his glass; I could see the chunks of sediment flowing into his glass. He swirled it vigorously, drank it entirely, then pronounced ‘yes, there was sediment in there, but not too bad!’. C’est la vie.
BUCHAREST / ROMANIA
A study in contrasts, in that the country still produces bulk wines as a left-over vestige of the Soviet / collectivist days; however, as capital becomes available, better winemaking is occurring. As part of our city tour / overview of Bucharest, a ‘typical Romanian lunch’ with white and red wine offerings was included. The bill of fare was largely the same as the Bulgarian lunch, although this time the wines were poured from large pitchers; i.e. ‘vins mysterieux’! As my late wine friend Conway Hamilton once remarked: “It’s easier to choke down cheap red wine than cheap white wine!” Initial sniffs of each screamed ‘avoid it’. We did, but the others drank up.
Fortunately, our evening dining provided an opportunity to enjoy much better red and white wines, representative of what there is to look forward to from these ‘can-do’ Romanians.
Since we were flying all day the next day, we chose to not be adventurous in our evening dining in Bucharest. The city is not known for cuisine (no Michelin rated restaurants); however, several of the websites we browsed made mention of Caffe Citta in our Radisson Blu hotel as presenting very good Northern Italian cooking.
The restaurant manager Andrea was only too happy to showcase Romanian wines for our enjoyment from their extensive by-the-glass list. For aperitifs, we enjoyed the following:
We enjoyed the featured dish of the day – saltimbocca – (which was one of the items they are known for); shared a risotto of the day flavored with radicchio and Parmesan and an Insalata. Andrea presented the following red wines:
Along with four glasses of various Romanian wines, sparkling water and a generous tip for our charming and gracious Manager and servers, the tab was 320 Lei (approx $100).
 Rubyn, Jack, Chmn, IW&FS – Marin Branch – Haskell Norman Chapter; undated trip report “Croatia”.