As economic pressures bite, Joe Wadsack says it’s a good time to consider some of the cheaper but still delicious wines that have been produced across Eastern Europe for thousands of years.
In the jaws of a recession, it pays to get to like the word ‘like’. Eh? Whaddya mean, Joe? Well, recessions have proven to coincide with sea changes in consumers’ drinking habits. And these changes can be quite extreme. Aussie Chardonnay to Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Cava to prosecco. Chablis to Provence rosé. All of these changes of habit coincided with a recession.
Why? The wine got too popular, while incomes became smaller, so customers could no longer afford it. Necessity is the mother of invention, so drinkers start to ask themselves what they should drink instead that’s ‘like’ what they’re after. It is here, in this similar-but-different land, that there is an opportunity for venues to experiment.
Ask yourself, who is in your venue during a recession? The rich, yes, but also the young – and it is this mortgage-less, kid-less demographic who, even in a cost of living crisis, value exciting, new and different. Even better if your wines offer bang for buck. So, if I had a bar and small list of half a dozen wines and wanted to sell the best possible wines for the money, I would take advantage of this time of flux and mix things up a bit.
Right now, there’s no better place to look than your classic, well-known serves, such as Sancerre and Chablis. These are so laughably expensive for what you get, no one wins. So, if you are a bar operator trying to recession-proof your wine list, my tip to you is Eastern Europe, which is probably the last bastion of unmined soulful wines in the world. These wines can be truly Alternative thinking spectacular at prices that would make you question why we didn’t start drinking them earlier. And how long have they been at it? This is where it all started guys, over 7,000 years ago – Georgia, Serbia, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Hungary… We’ve got work to do.
If there was ever a time to try to sell that strange orange wine from Georgia or that unpronounceable white from Romania because you love it and think it’s delicious, plain and simple, then the time is sooo now. However, there are three essential pieces of advice.
Go for broke
First, go hard or go home. Don’t list a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a Chablis so that you have a wine that ‘everyone knows’. It spoils the whole point. People will end up only buying that one, if it’s the only wine on the list that they recognise. If you are going to list unusual and interesting, throw the customer into the deep end. Make them ask about the wines. This starts the dialogue, and if your cocktail game is strong, they are already asking about the interesting ingredients in your serves, so this shouldn’t be too big a hurdle for them.
Second, although your customers may not recognise the grape varieties, you can stock Eastern European varieties that are ‘like’ recognisable grape varieties. The stories are cooler. In some cases, Balkan grape varieties have been around thousands of years before the ones most people can name, so it’s weird to compare them, if you think about it. If someone asks what Feteasca Neagra is like, rather than saying it’s a bit like Cabernet Sauvignon, you could say, while nonchalantly polishing a glass: “Genetically speaking, it’s Cabernet Sauvignon’s great, great grandfather.” Now that’s cool. And probably true.
Third and final piece of advice: If you’re going to change your tiny list into a cool weapon of esoteric goodness, don’t charge less for the wines. That defeats the entire object. You’re doing this to make the wines better value and more interesting for your customers, and more profitable for yourself. These wines are already undervalued, under-priced, and likely to rise rapidly in price when people discover this, so make hay while the sun shines.
SIX OF THE BEST
Here is my recommended list of six Eastern European grape varieties that would convince any wine lover to return to your bar.
It means Royal Maiden and is a stable ancient variety from eastern Romania/Moldova. Utterly delicious aromatic white, mimicking Albariño and Viognier, depending on how late you pick it. Full of nectarine and apricot fruit.
The white noble variety of Hungary, better known for making immortal sweet wines in the form of Tokaji. I prefer its future as a multi-faceted, mouth-filling, minerally wine with a huge potential to age without the requirement of oak. Known as Sipon in Slovenia, I believe it will become world famous.
A Greek white variety of extraordinary complexity and finesse, especially from the volcanic slopes of the island of Santorini. Superior in my view to most Pouilly Fumé and Chablis, and manages to mimic both. Soft-shell crab, watch out.
One of a few Turkish grape varieties percolating to the top of the pile. Medium dark red variety that has an earthy wild streak, but tastes great with the abundance of lamb in Turkish cuisine. Reminds me of Cabernet Franc from the Loire. Great with kebabs and steaks.
An apparently psychotic cross of two of the world’s most tannic and hardcore red grapes varieties, Nebbiolo (of Barolo) and Syrah (of Aussie Shiraz and French Cornas). The results can be astonishingly silky, civilised and aromatic. Recent, still rare, but my favourite Bulgarian red variety. Makes a banging rosé too.
Meaning Black Maiden, it is perhaps the oldest isolated red grape variety on earth. Been making fine wine above the norm in Moldova and Romania for at least 4,000 years. Responsible for a lot of the Politburo’s finest wines, found bricked up under the Kremlin. Blends beautifully with Merlot and Cabernet, and is capable of genuine greatness. £25 buys you classed-growth Bordeaux quality.