Intriguing Wine Exotica: Eastern European and Balkans New Releases

K&L’s Zach Smith


How often does one get to try Eastern European wines? The varietal Debit? Wines raised in beeswax lined amphorae? The varietal Refošk? Balkan wine? Here in the otherwise rich and vibrant fine wine world of the San Francisco Bay area, not often enough. So kudos to K&L for doing a Friday evening tasting devoted to current releases from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I’m not saying any of these are the greatest wines I’ve ever tasted–a couple of them weren’t that good at all. But they were a welcome blast of diversity, featuring some unique vinous flavors and mouth feels, and I enjoyed the experience.

The only one of these I’d had before was the Movia, which has become a cult wine in the wine geek world that follows “orange wines,” i.e., white wines fermented with prolonged skin contact. Totally new for me were the Pheasant’s Tears wines, from an American and his Georgian partners who are producing wines from indigenous Georgian varietals in a traditional mode, in beeswax lined amphorae. Along with the Movia, they were my favorite wines of the tasting. The Debit grape was totally new to me, and its slow, rolling entry was an unusual experience. The sparkling wine, Bagrationi, was also highly unusual, and wacked. I can’t imagine why someone would make a sparkling wine out of grapes that intense and tannic, but there you go. Gotta love diversity.

For more detail on the producers and wines, see the summaries and tasting notes below:


Winemaking has a 5,000 year old history in Georgia. The Bagrationi website claims that their wines are the first and only Georgian sparkling wines in the U.S. Unfortunately, I don’t think this first example is exactly going to inspire a demand for any more. The grape varieties used for this wine are Chinebuli, Mtsvane and Tsitska, but you knew that, of course. The wine is made with the Charmat method, which includes whole cluster pressing, long cool fermentation, and a second fermentation in “pressure vessels.” The whole cluster fermentation, with seeds and stems, must contribute to the very tannic nature of this wine. It’s intense and tangy. It’s not particularly good, and lacks any of the delicacy and finesse I expect from a good sparkling wine. Maybe it works, though, with heavy Georgian cooking, which seems to depend a lot on garlic and walnuts, judging from the recipes on Bagrationi’s website. It probably is just the thing with Satsivi, roast chicken in garlic walnut sauce, or Red Beans Pkhali, made with garlic and walnuts, but I still think I’ll pass.

  • N.V. Bagrationi 1882 Extra Dry – Georgia, Kakheti
    Light canary yellow color; creamy apple, lemon chiffon, peach nose; big, intense, baked pear, baked peach palate with tang and surprising tannins; medium-plus finish (81 pts.)


Two of these were from Hungary, and one each from Georgia, Croatia and Slovenia. The Hungarian dry Furmint seemed the least exotic to me, though it is an indigenous Hungarian varietal, as I’ve had dry versions of that varietal before, both from Hungary and elsewhere. Pinot Gris isn’t very exotic either, but the Szöke Mátyás was strikingly chalky and high in acid compared to the many others I’ve had.

Croatia’s Bibich Winery was originally established in the early 1900s, but revitalized starting in 1995 by current owner/winemaker Alen Bibić. His original focus was historical Croatian varieties–red grapes Babich, Plavina and Lasin; and white grapes Debit, Maraština and Pošip. Lately, however, he has begun to plant Rhone varietals as well, Grenache and Syrah. The Debit was okay, mild and minerally, with that slow rolling entry–raised in stainless steel. Could be a good pairing with acidic vegetable dishes, and ideal with something like cauliflower. The grape is thought to be a relative of Trebbiano. I’ve been hearing about this producer for a couple years and would like to try more of his wines.

As mentioned above, Movia was the producer I was most familiar with, as I’ve tried their orange wines on a few occasions. It’s a family-owned winery with a long history, currently run by Ales Kristancic. The winery is on the Italian border, and the family owns vineyards both in Slovenia and across the border in Italy. Ales, who studied winemaking in France and Italy, employs some pretty radical techniques, like aging the whites in large Slovenian casks or in tiny Slovenian barriques on their lees without stirring for two years, and aging the reds for up to seven years without racking. He also follows biodynamic principles. His undisgorged sparkling wine called Puro requires underwater opening to remove the plug of yeast from the bottle. The whites often have an oxidative quality, as this Ribolla Gialla did. I enjoyed the ’06 version of this wine when I had it before a lot more than this ’07. His orange wine that I’ve had, the Lunar, is also made with the Ribolla Gialla grape. Very unusual wines, and worth seeking out.

Finally, back to Georgia, all the Pheasant’s Tears wines are fermented and aged in a qvevri, a uniquely Georgian wine vessel, made of clay, lined with beeswax, and completely buried in the ground to allow the wines to ferment in an even, naturally cool condition. Some of the vessels currently used at this winery date back to the mid-1800s. Since there’s no oak involved, you’d think these would be perfect for those among us who are becoming increasingly oak averse. The white wine, make from Rkatsiteli, was a little oxidative, but had some very nice savory, tangy, baked citrus and vegetable flavors. I’d love to try it with a chicken tajine dish.

  • 2008 Szöke Mátyás Mátra – Hungary, Mátraalja
    Light canary yellow color; tart grapefruit, chalk, very tart citrus nose; tight, tangy, tart citrus, very tart apple, chalk palate with medium-acidity; medium finish (85 pts.)
  • 2009 Bibich Debit – Croatia, Dalmatian Coast
    Light lemon yellow color; tart apple, apple skin, chalk nose; slow, rolling entry, chalky, minerally, very tart apple, citrus palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (87 pts.)
  • 2007 Movia Ribolla Gialla – Slovenia, Primorje, Goriška Brda
    Light lemon yellow color; oxidative, tart yellow apple, citrus, chalk nose; tight, tangy, slightly oxidative, lemon, mineral palate with medium-plus body, medium acidity and tart tannins; medium-plus finish (100% new French oak with light toast) (88 pts.)
  • 2008 Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli Alazani Valley – Georgia, Kakheti
    Light medium yellow orange color; oxidative, VA, tart orange, preserved and baked lemon, lemon tajine nose; huge, tangy, tart lemon, baked lemon, lemon tajine, spice palate, funky, tannic and medium-bodied; long finish 88+ points (aged in beeswax-lined amphorae) (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Tokaj Hétszőlő Furmint Tokaji – Hungary, Hegyalja, Tokaji
    Pale yellow color; tart apple, tart peach nose; tight, medium-bodied, tangy, tart peach, tart apple, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (87 pts.)


The first of our reds was another Pheasant’s Tears production, this time from the very dark, or black, Saperavi grape. Like the Rkatsiteli and the rest of the winery’s production, it was fermented and aged in the traditional qvevri. I enjoyed its savory, smoky qualities, along with a herbaceousness that reminded me of Cabernet Franc, but a very ripe and deep version of Cab Franc. I can imagine trying it with a number of savory Middle Eastern and Moroccan lamb dishes and stews. The Pfneiszl was made from Kekfrankos, which is just the Hungarian name for what is known in Austria as Blaufrankisch. This wine, too, reminded me a lot of a Cabernet Franc, more so than the Austrian Blaufrankisches I’ve tasted. The winemaker is a woman, Birgit Pfneisl, who owns and manages the winery with her sister Katrin. They come from a family that has long made wines on the Hungarian/Austrian border. Their uncle makes wine from vineyards the family has long owned on the Austrian side. The vineyards on the Hungarian side had been seized by the Communist regime for collective farming, and were only returned to the family in 1993. The winery was just certified as organic last year. I’d like to try more of their wines as well.

The final wine in our line up hails from Slovenia. From the Santomas website, it sounds like the Glavina family, which has been producing wine in this area since the mid-1800s, makes some very serious wines, including some Cabernet Sauvignon and Refosco with lengthy barrel aging. They also produce some less serious, fruity wines, for early consumption. The “Big Red,” made from Refošk (part of a family of red wines known in Italy as Refosco) is in the latter category. It was big alright, and smoky and tart, with some depth and a sense of dried herbs. I’d like to try some of their more serious wines, if this is an example of the lighter side.

  • 2008 Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi Black Wine Alazani Valley – Georgia, Kakheti
    Opaque purple red violet color; earthy, savory, charcoal, black pepper, smoke nose; tasty, tart, tannic, black fruit, charcoal, mineral, smoke palate, reminiscent of a rich, ripe Cabernet Franc; medium-plus finish (I really like Umay’s description) (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Pfneiszl Kékfrankos Újra Együtt – Hungary, Sopron
    Medium dark red color with pale meniscus; Cab Franc-like, olive, tart red currant nose; tart red currant, olive, tart red fruit palate with medium acidity and balance; medium finish 87+ points (87 pts.)
  • 2007 Santomas Refosco Big Red – Slovenia, Primorska, Goriška Brda
    Very dark cherry red color; tart plum, tart black fruit, smoke, nutmeg nose; tight, tart red fruit, tart currant, tangy, tart plum, tar, dried herb palate, with depth; medium-plus finish 87+ points (87 pts.)
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5 Responses to Intriguing Wine Exotica: Eastern European and Balkans New Releases

  1. Dear Mr. Jennings,

    I have been following your tasting notes since 2007 on Cellar Tracker and I am very happy to have found a connection to you thanks to Georgian wines apparently. We are active in Turkey through a tasting group called “Crazy 4 Wine” and I have a special interest to the underdogs of the wine world like Georgia, Turkey and Croatia. Last year my article on the Georgian wine scene was published on Purple Pages and you can find it through the link below in case you are interested in further information about the country and its wines.

    I have noticed that you have not tasted any Turkish wines yet and I would be pleased to introduce you to our varieties in the near future.

    Best regards,

    Umay Ceviker

    • Richard Jennings says:

      It’s great to hear from you. Thank you for the link to your very informative piece on Jancis’s website. I learned a lot from it. And I would very much like to learn about Turkish wines.
      Warm regards,

  2. What a great post. We launched a blog called Black Sea Wines,, a blog dedicated to the wines of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Black Sea region. We’d be delighted to exchange links with you.

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Thank you for the kind words. I appreciate knowing about your new blog. I have added it as a resource to the links page here.

  3. Helen says:

    Thanks for tasting Georgian wines. For everyone interested in Georgian wine, we have started first English-language news site at Welcome.

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