Flagship Grapes in Central & Eastern Europe

Do the emerging wine regions of Central & Eastern Europe need flagship native grapes?

The region of Central and Eastern Europe is a treasure trove of native grape varieties that most drinkers have never heard of. Winemakers are paying increasing attention to these grapes to create a point of difference and a unique local identity for their wines, and to establish a country flagship, but should they? The idea of selling a grape no one has heard of from a country with little reputation for quality wine can be a big ask.

The Survival & Revival of Native Grapes

Politics have been writ large across the wine industries of the former Eastern Bloc, which has had a huge effect on what is planted where. For instance, in Bulgaria, the arrival of PepsiCo and its trade swaps for wine drove the planting of Bordeaux grape varieties and Chardonnay at the expense of local grapes. The planned economy and Bulgaria’s role as supplier of wine to Comecon also encouraged the planting of international varieties. In contrast, Romania was not a designated Comecon wine country and largely produced volume for its own population, so more local varieties survived. However, this was not universal, as varieties that couldn’t cope with high trellising or needed cross pollinators (Crâmpo┼čie and Negru Vârtos as just two examples) lost out.

Today’s focus has switched to quality, so many of these local grapes are being reassessed and worked with to select better clones and to improve winemaking. And with an eye to how other countries have used flagship grapes to market their wines (Sauvignon Blanc for New Zealand, Malbec for Argentina, Carmenère for Chile, Pinotage for South Africa, and so on), producers are asking themselves whether any of the grapes they grow could—or should—fulfill that role.

To be a flagship, a grape must be capable of high-quality wines and offer a unique connection with a place. Emerging in this region are some grapes that genuinely

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