In focus: Eastern Mediterranean wine

Willingness to adapt

Sarah Abbott MW, who works with the Georgian National Wine Agency in the UK, believes it is the willingness of Georgian wine producers to adapt to feedback and collaborate that is driving sales and exports.

“Georgian wine producers are incredibly open-minded and adaptable. They welcome and listen to advice and feedback. Their willingness to listen to advice on marketing, price positioning, branding, wine style and promotion is the highest of any country or region I’ve ever worked with. At the same time, their cultural identification with wine as the life-blood of their nation is so strong that the wines never lose their distinctive personality,” she says.

Turkish winery Chamlija Wines also has ambitious growth plans. Owner Mustafa Camlica says the producer exports to 10 countries, with markets opening up significantly in recent years.

“Turkish wines are not successful in export markets,” he says. “The main reason is that producers are in their comfort zone selling to the local market. Turkish producers should allocate a number of bottles to export markets, even if margins are lower. Long-term planning is essential.”

Camlica believes that varieties including Papakarasi, which produces soft, fruit-forward reds and fresh, citric rosés, and the semi-aromatic white grape Narince, have great potential overseas.

Meanwhile, Daniel of Hallgarten, which imports wine from producer Kayra Wines, believes the country’s native red variety Öküzgözü could also cause a stir.

“It’s unpronounceable but very drinkable,” he says. “It’s a bit like the Malbec of Turkey.”

Cramele Recas

Romania is likewise blessed with a wide array of native grape varieties, including Feteasca Neagra, Novac and Tamaiosa Romaneasca.

Philip Cox, commercial director of Cramele Recas, Romania’s largest winery, believes the country has great potential.

“Romania is a country with a long tradition of winemaking, and interesting unique local varietals of its own. It has flexible legislation, allowing producers to choose to make wine from a wide range of commercially attractive varieties, and it has low land costs, and a low cost of living, which permit value wines to be produced here. It now has one of the most modern wine industries in Europe, with over 200 state-of-the-art new wineries built in the past 10 years and no old wineries left in operation,” he says.

Cramele Recas exports its wines to 23 countries, having gained national distribution in Japan, South Korea and Myanmar in the past year alone. In the UK it is particularly dominant in the supermarkets, providing buyers with what Cox refers to as “smart packaging and good value for money”.

Overseas success

Richard Fox, the UK agent for Prince Stirbey Wines, who lived in Romania for seven years, believes producers in the country should collaborate more to achieve greater success abroad.

This, he says, will help to better promote their wines overseas, and reduce the additional costs associated with production. Romania, along with many countries in the eastern Mediterranean, has no domestic glass bottle production facilities, meaning that wine bottles, labels, corks and other packaging must all be imported. Internal road networks also add time and money to transport costs.

“To improve visibility in export markets, producers need to work as a group,” he says. “But because of Romania’s recent political history, there’s a sort of underlying sentiment of mistrust.”

Romania has two main wine groups – government-run wine production board APEV, and breakaway group Premium Wines of Romania, run by 16 producers.

Fox believes Romania has great potential, but like Iatridis of Alpha, notes that a lot of hard work is required.

“Building relations is not about one-off orders, it’s about building long-term relationships,” he says. “The quality producers will have a market for their wines, whether it’s domestically or internationally, but not large enough volumes to make a serious dent outside the country. There are so many positive things happening, and the potential is just enormous.”

While no official Israeli wine group exists, Morris Herzog, the managing director of Israeli wine specialist Kedem Europe, is working with a number of producers to boost the country’s presence in the increasingly important UK market.

Herzog’s priority is to overcome misconceptions. “It’s only recently that sommeliers are finding out that some Isreali wines are actually high quality wines that represent the region, rather that just Kosher wines from Israel,” he says. He reports an increasing number of listings at specialist restaurants and non-Kosher restaurants alike in the past year.

Naming London restaurants Bala Baya, Coal Office, The Palomar, Haya and Hide as supporters of Israeli wine, he says wine professionals are increasingly seeking out wine to pair with the cuisine long-championed by the likes of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Olia Hercules, Samin Nosrat and Selin Kiazim.

He says: “Sommeliers are suddenly realising that these wines pair really well with Mediterranean food, while they also recognise that people coming to restaurants are also looking for something different. Instead of having another Bordeaux, Tuscany or Rioja wine they think ‘let’s see what’s new and different’.”

Faouzi Issa of Domaine des Tourelle

For Faouzi Issa, co-owner and winemaker of Lebanon’s oldest commercial winery, Domaine des Tourelles, the UK has been particularly receptive to his wines.

“The UK is our top market – consumers there are very open to discovering new wines, especially those with an interesting story,” he says.

A strong identity

Having started off exporting to just three countries, his wines are now in 25 markets.

“In 2019 we are selling eight times more wine overseas than we sold in 2009,” he says. “Good wines with a strong identity to start with is key, then market activation is essential. No-one can sell their wines from the office. We regularly travel to key markets and make sure we partner with the right distributor, and regularly meet with sommeliers, restaurants, indie retailers and buyers. This has helped us to build, and more importantly, maintain momentum in our export markets.”

Wines produced in countries in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea are likely to remain niche products for the foreseeable future.

Currently, only Romania, Hungary, Greece and Georgia make it into OIV’s list of countries that produce more than one million hectolitres of wine per year.

However, as Daniel of Hallgarten says, they each have a story to tell. Taking the time to visit export markets, together with a renewed focus on indigenous varieties and conserving traditional winemaking practices, is removing memories of the cheap, sweet wines made under the Soviet regime and shipped in bulk overseas.

Middle Eastern and eastern European cuisines have been championed by the West for some time, and, as the saying goes, “what grows together goes together”.

This feature was originally published in the December 2019 issue of the drinks business.

3 Responses to “In focus: Eastern Mediterranean wine”

  1. Keith Miller says:

    That’s a great article. Q: Was it your intention to not include wines from Israel, a country that is producing multi-award winning, world-class wines for some time now? It seems that was an oversight.

    • Phoebe French says:

      Hi Keith,

      If you read the entire article, you’ll see that I did include some comments about Israeli wine from Kedem’s Morris Herzog. This was all – in the limited space and scope that I had to cover – that I could include. I hope that we can run a feature dedicated to Israeli wine in the future.

      Best,
      Phoebe

  2. Patrick says:

    With the proximity of East Med ambassadors at hand and available in the Uk, I can’t say that we don’t feel orphaned, testimonial to the state of diffused definition of what actually constitutes the East Mediterranean. Regardless, your effort isn’t in vain, nice to see a certain defense of the region, well done in battling for the space that you’ve already got this time around.

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