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.