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Ottoman Taverna interior photo credit Rey Lopez.jpg
Oenophiles, impress your friends (and your palate) by seeking out wines from the Balkans, which are easy on the wallet but taste anything but. (Image: Rey Lopez)

Why you should be drinking Balkan wine

What do you consider an emerging wine region? The Finger Lakes? The Jura? How about Istria? Oenophiles, impress your friends (and your palate) by seeking out wines from the Balkans, which are produced both from international and indigenous varietals in food-friendly, easy-drinking yet eclectic styles that are easy on the wallet but taste anything but.

“Some of these countries are home to the most ancient winemaking regions,” explains Robert Hayk, CEO and founder of G&B Importers, who imports wines from the Balkans and other regions. “The Thracian Valley, which covers half of Bulgaria, northern Greece and northwest Turkey, was cited by Homer to [produce] the best wine in the known world.”

Admittedly, some of the varietal names don’t easily roll off the tongue (Kratoija or Bornova Misketi, anyone?), but cozying up to these wines is more than worth any pronunciation foils at the onset. Bulgaria, Hayk says, produces fabulous offerings from local grapes Mavrud and Gamza. But since the northern part of the country is at the same latitude as Bordeaux, northern Italy, and the Napa/Oregon border, it also boasts lush and elegant Cabernets and Merlots; southern Bulgaria, on the other hand, is home to earthy Burgundian-style Pinot Noirs.

“Balkan wines have significantly improved in quality over the past 25 years,” says Uros Jojic, beverage director for Ambar on Barracks Row. “Once communism was over a lot of small wineries opened all over Eastern Europe which helped drive the focus on quality vs. quantity.” Ambar’s wine list is comprised solely of Balkan wines and touts the largest selection in the country. Jojic believes well-known international grapes are a good source for budget-priced bottles, while native ones create awareness of the region and its authenticity.

Take Greece, for example. Five or ten years ago the Greek wines you’d find on shelves and menus was Retsina, the traditional pine-flavored beverage that’s got 2,000 years of history behind it, but isn’t very accessible or parable. Today, styles like Assyrtiko from Santorini and Xinomavro from the Peloponnese are sommelier darlings, and Turkey might just be the next Greece.

“Turkey is home to between 600 and 1,200 indigenous varietals of vitis vinifera, the European grape [varietals,]” says Nuray Karatas, who goes on to add that the country is the world’s fourth largest grape producer. The general manager of Ottoman Taverna in the Mount Vernon Triangle, represents all of the countries of the Ottoman Empire on her 95-bottle list, including grapes like Kalecik Karasi, a Pinot Noir stand-in, and Öküzgözü, which appeals to fans of Beaujolais. “They have been making wines for ages,” she notes. “All those regions have amazing wines and they deserve to be known.”

Bottles to Try:

  • 2015 Stobi Rose ($43/bottle at Ambar) Made from the Rkatsiteli and Vranec grapes in Macedonia’s Tikves region, it’s “zesty, refreshing and waiting to be discovered,” says Jojic, with “delicate aromas of strawberry, cranberry, fresh plum and floral notes carried by lively acidity and a long, clean finish.”
  • 2008 Vino Budimir Triada Prokupac ($51/bottle at Ambar) Prokupac is one of Serbia’s local red varietals, and Jojic describes this bottle as “ruby red, with aromas of wild cherries and red currants that complement menthol and leather; it’s concentrated and dry on the palate with velvety tannins.”
  • 2015 Bulgariana Sauvignon Blanc ($11.99, Calvert Woodley) “Hints of exotic fruits like pineapple, mango and kumquat, gently acidity and satisfying aftertaste,” says Hayk of this wine from Bulgaria’s Thracian Valley. “It makes a great picnic or poolside treat on a summer day.”
  • 2012 Burgozone Pinot Noir ($16.99, Cleveland Park Wines & Spirits) It touts “aromas of fresh-from-the-oven cherry pie, flavors of cherry and vanilla with undertones of baking spices and candied orange peel on the finish,” notes Hayk.
  • 2014 Kavaklidere Cankaya ($32/bottle at Ottoman Taverna) A blend of Narince, Emir and Sultana from the Aegean region of Turkey, this white wine is very fresh, with lively acidity, green fruit flavors and a touch of yeastiness.