Falling in love with the new-old natural wines of Central Europe
by Amanda Smeltz
One of our difficulties as wine drinkers—and maybe as people in general—is that we tend to stick to what we know. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to want comfort or the familiar, and wine can feel already like such an overblown, pretentious subject that we really don’t want to pile it on: words we don’t know how to pronounce, grapes we’ve never heard of, and hues and flavors that don’t necessarily look or taste like anything we’ve had before. It makes sense that we would reach regularly for, say, American wine—words we can say, grapes we often recognize—or Italian or French wine if we fancy ourselves more than a novice.
It’s worth noticing our tendencies to reach for what we know, because the world is so big: there’s so much more to viticultural regions than the global market usually gets to see. Here we make our argument—out of 68 winemaking countries and counting!—for at least momentarily diverting our attention away from Western Europe and the States to a swath of viticulture that’s been well-hidden from the world’s eye: Central Europe.
Central Europe has been aligned with Western Europe in terms of its culture and major influences since at least 1000 years ago—Catholicism and Roman culture are the big two—but because of the Iron Curtain and 20th-century politics in general, many of these countries seem quite foreign culturally to us now in the States. We mean the following places—and yes, some of these have only been nations since the early ‘90s, when the Curtain fell: Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia.
What we’re excited about is that many of these nations have been reclaiming millennia-old viticultural practices, finally able to independently farm with a natural manner, produce high-quality wine with a bit of freedom, and be able to export it in the absence of trade embargos. Here at Folkways we’re super excited about wines from these countries that have much more in common with more familiar wines than you’d think: the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for example, are home to formerly famous cool-climate winemaking regions, on the same latitude as famously cold Champagne. New generations of Austrian winemakers introduce more and more bottles each year that have the same lightness and complexity as Loire Valley natural wines. And if you are a great lover of that Mediterranean peninsula drenched in sun, Italy, for your imbibing, wait until you skip a stone over the Adriatic to bask in Croatia’s salty, herbal, bracing red and white wines.
All the wines we’ve selected below are some of our favorite representations of Central Europe’s return to the limelight, thirty years after the dissolution of the USSR and some eighty after the schisms and shudderings of WWII. Now we have dozens of natural farmers and producers re-connecting to more thoughtful, deliberate agricultural traditions, sending us wines outside of industrial and commercial hegemony—drink industrial Montepulciano no more!—we have a plethora of fascinating and delicious new things to share. And if you can’t pronounce the grape varieties or the regions or even the producers’ names, don’t worry. We’re here to help with that too; we’re all learning just how big the world actually can be.
Clai Refošk 'Baracija' 2018
Refošk, or Refosco in Italian, is an Adriatic native red variety; it is dark-fruited and earthy, with soil-driven characteristics and tremendous acidity. Clai is a great natural producer from this coastal wine climate that's little known to the West. In their own words: "Our wine-growing approach respects nature to the fullest and is inspired by the principles of our grandparents. The geographic and climate situation for us is particularly beneficial: the air from the Ucka mountains and the sea air that goes up the river Mirna meet here and create an ideal microclimate. Our principal goal is to enhance our terroir." If you're an Italian red wine person, this coastal Croatian red is a must-try. Clai's Refošk has a lot of the savory, herbal characteristics that make people fall in love with wine from other peninsulas that stick out into the Mediterranean.
Vína Herzánovi Modry Portugal 2018
The young couple Jakub and Sandra are working in the village of Koblyí in Moravia to make delicious, fresh wines that are perfect for the table, with a deep commitment to biodynamic farming in the vineyards. This Modry Portugal (the Czech name for Portugieser) is a Pinot Noir or Loire Cab Franc lover's dream: at 10.5% alcohol, it's as nimble and lifted as Mosel Riesling, but with Portugieser's characteristic peppery, vibrant, forest-y qualities. It's perfect fall wine and, with such nice fruit and no SO2 added, is so easy to drink you'll crack a second bottle.
Koráb 'Lemonade' Pétillant Naturel 2020
Petr Koráb's pét-nat, made of one of our favorite Central European white varieties, Welschriesling, is slightly creamy, with an unfiltered, lemonade-like feel: hence the name. Lemon meringue and key lime notes. It's frizzante in style, with short maceration, so don't expect Prosecco-like sparkling: think of it as a fizzy aperitif, a treat for when you need a refresher before you start cooking dinner or eating!
Naboso Slovakia Blaufränkisch 'Ritual' 2017
An elegant, stirring red wine from the couple Andrej and Nadja working in the region of Svätý Jur, Slovakia. The Blaufränkisch was macerated for 21 days on the skins, then pressed off into neutral oak barrels, where it rested for a year. Ruddy red berry fruit, with incense and woodsy notes, this is one of the most beautiful new-to-us bottles we've seen out of in Central Europe in the last few years. Don't miss if you love more elegant, fresher Bordeaux or lighter reds from the Jura and Savoie—this one's worth every penny.
Claus Preisinger 'Froot Loops' blanc 2020
It's our suspicion Preisinger calls this wine 'Froot Loops' because of how kaleidoscopic these grape varieties are together: the blend is 50% Scheurebe, 25% Furmint, 25% Riesling, a jazzy mashup of Hungarian and Germanic varieties that are never put or grown together. We love the texture of this wine: elegant, supple, fuller-bodied, but humming with energy and wide awake with acidity. It's a masterful white wine and an amazing nod to the meeting of various wine cultures that happens in Burgenland on the great Pannonian plain. We hope Preisinger will keep making more and more wines like it!
=== featured collection === Eastern and Central Europe === featured collection ===