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In focus: Eastern Mediterranean wine

Covering a vast region, the wine producing countries of the eastern Mediterranean are starting to make their presence felt on the world wine scene, aided by curious consumers on the lookout for new taste experiences. By Phoebe French.

Covering an area that stretches from Croatia through to Armenia and Lebanon, the terms ‘eastern Mediterranean’, ‘eastern European’ or ‘Black Sea’, while useful for reference purposes, do little to reflect the idiosyncrasies of the wines made in the vast region.

While the area contains a number of countries that vie for being known as the cradle of wine, specialist knowledge of the 1,400 metre-high vineyards in Armenia, the amber-hued qvevri wines of Georgia or Israeli Argaman remains in the hands of a select few.

Frequently omitted from textbooks, the recently published eighth edition of Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson’s The World Atlas of Wine has attempted to redress the balance, for the first time devoting pages to Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel.

But how are these wines faring in international markets?

One country that is slightly leading the pack is Greece. Wines made from the tightly coiled, basket-trained Assyrtiko vines on the windswept volcanic island of Santorini have proved particularly popular, with low yields and growing world demand bumping up prices.

This year, around two million hectolitres of wine were produced in Greece, of which around 90% is made with the country’s 200 indigenous grape varieties. Roughly 13% of total wine production, worth €82.6 million (£71m), is exported.

Angelos Iatridis, winemaker at Alpha Estate, explains that it has been a tough battle to get Greek wine onto shop shelves and restaurant wine lists – but it is one he has been winning.

“It’s never-ending,” he says. “We started in 1995, and it has taken until very recently, I’d say 2014, for us to start seeing the benefits of developing our export markets. You need to invest a lot of time, money and energy to make people get closer to Greek wine.”

Alpha Estate exports its wines to 35 countries, with North America its most valuable destination.

Iatridis says it’s important to combine good distributors with company visits. “We have very good distributors there, but I also make sure I visit this market at least twice a year, for two weeks at a time,” he says. “It’s very important that the winemakers and the people involved are present in these markets.”

Steve Daniel, director of Hallgarten & Novum Wines, and a firm fan of Greek wine, is equally emphatic that such wines require a personal touch.

“Twenty years ago I brought in modern Greek wines to the UK for the first time. They went into Oddbins, and the labels were written in Greek script. They absolutely need a hand sell,” he says. Daniel also believes that the price point is important. “The cut-off price for trialling something new is always £10,” he says. “Nowadays any sommelier worth their salt will list a wine from Santorini. Whereas if you asked me that question five years ago, I’d say they didn’t.”

He continues: “Someone who likes fine white Burgundy will relate to a wine from Santorini. It used to be a very good, cheaper alternative to white Burgundy, but now with the issues in Santorini, such as low yields and the pressure on land from touris, and the grape prices, plus the scarcity and world demand, the prices for many are now alongside those of white Burgundy.”

Daniel believes this is opening up the market for the rest of Greece. “As Santorini increasingly moves more into the fine wine bracket, sommeliers will start to think of having a Greek wine at another price level.”

Georgia is likewise making inroads into the export market. In recent months, Hallgarten has taken on one of the country’s larger producers, Vachnadziani, and fellow UK importer Berkmann Wine Cellars has listed a range of wines from Tbilvino, a producer founded in 1962.

According to figures from the Wine Agency of Georgia, in the year to October 2019, exports have risen by 11% in volume and by 20% in value. Georgian wine is now exported to 50 countries, with new markets, such as Japan, the US, the UK, Sweden and Germany, opening up in the past five years.

“While the ‘traditional’ CIS (former Soviet) markets still account for the majority of exports by volume, the strategic and trend-setting markets of the UK and US are showing encouraging growth, as well as a welcome focus on the high value, premium quality segment of Georgian wines,” says Irakli Cholobargia, marketing director of the National Wine Agency of Georgia.

Russia and the Ukraine remain Georgia’s largest export markets, but China is in third position, and the US, UK and Scandinavia are driving the growth of qvevri wines.

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.

Key facts

Greek wine at a glance…

  • Greece has 106,000ha under vine, with around two million hectolitres of wine produced in 2019. (OIV)
  • 90% of plantings are indigenous varieties. The most planted are Savatiano, Roditis, Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro and Assyrtiko. (Wines of Greece)
  • Principal PDOs include Naoussa, Amynteo, Nemea, Mantinia and islands such as Santorini and Crete.
  • Approximately 13% of Greek wine is exported, with Germany being the top destination. (Wines of Greece)

Turkish wine at a glance…

  • Top indigenous varieties include red grapes Kalecik Karasi, Öküzgözü and Bogazkere, as well as white grapes Narince and Emir.
  • In 2016, the export value of Turkish wine exceeded US$10 million (£7.8m), with a total of 2.9 million litres of wine sent abroad.
  • In 2013, regulations imposed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party banned alcohol advertising, off-trade sales after 10pm, shop window promotion of alcohol sales and free alcohol tastings.
  • While Turkey, along with Georgia, is thought to be one of the countries in which winemaking first originated, modern wine production only resumed in the 1920s after the declaration of the republic.

Romanian wine at a glance…

  • Romania has eight main wine regions, including Transylvania, Moldova, Oltenia, Muntenia, Dobrogea, Banat, Crisana and Maramures.
  • It has around 180,000 hectares under vine and produced 4.9m hectolitres of wine in 2019. (OIV)
  • Top grape varieties include Feteasca Regala, Merlot and Feteasca Neagra.
  • The top export destinations by volume are Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. (Premium Wines of Romania)

Georgian wine at a glance…

  • Georgia produces a range of wine styles, from sparkling and dry whites, to fresh reds, natural qvevri wine and sweet wines.
  • Top grape varieties include Saperavi, Rkatsiteli and Dzelshavi.
  • Georgian wine is now exported to 50 countries. The top markets are Russia, the Ukraine, China, Poland and Kazakhstan. (Wine Agency of Georgia)
  • This January, the export of Georgian wine in bulk was prohibited.

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