Eastern promise

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It is more than half a decade since the former Soviet empire relinquished its stranglehold on its neighbours. Ample opportunity, you might think, for the wine producing countries of eastern Europe to develop their potential for more than basic, bog-standard stuff in the free market economies of the West. Yet Bulgarian cabernet sauvignon remains little more than a cheap, albeit successful, brand; Moldova and Romania have yet to live up to their billing; the Czech Republic is a dark horse; and the former Yugoslavia is synonymous, still, with Lutomer Laski Rizling.

In Hungary, alone among eastern Europe's wine producers, receptiveness to western advances has helped propel the country's wines on to the shelves of supermarkets and high street chains. Until this year, Hungary's generous subsidy of pounds 1.76 on each case of wine exported gave a boost to its export drive. This year, however, the subsidy has been wiped out, so efforts to maintain quality will need to be redoubled.

The transformation in Hungary's dry whites has been due largely to an injection of capital and the influence of overseas wine makers creating wines to a supermarket design brief. Nagyrede and Balatonboglar are among the giant cooperatives to have benefited from the introduction of oak barrels, and cooling and nitrogen-making equipment. Wine makers have brought the fine-tuning expertise needed to extract the fresh fruit aromas and flavours of Hungary's stock of native, aromatic and classic grape varieties.

It was only a matter of time before the Hungarians themselves developed the confidence to put into practice what they had picked up from visitors from Oz. At the newly equipped winery of Neszmely in northern Hungary, Eva Keresztury and her head wine maker, A'kos Kamocsay, decided to sever links with Australian wine maker Nick Butler. 1995, with its low yields and good acidity, was a pretty good vintage for Hungarian whites, and Neszmely has delivered a hatful of wines with crisp varietal definition and flavour.

Eastern Europe remains a difficult sales proposition, however, at anything other than cheap. The challenge for Hungary and its neighbours is to improve quality to justify prices that will provide a proper return. Kym Milne's experiments with barrel-ageing superior fruit, and now Neszmely's experimental, barrel-aged sauvignon blanc, point the way forward. But it's an uphill struggle.

Old-fashioned vineyard design remains a major problem. With exceptions, such as the impressive overseas investments in Tokaj, most vineyards are planted on the monocultural, state-farm system, with straight trellising and single-fruiting wires. "It's all planned," as Australian wine maker Adrian Wing says, "but the wrong way, for the wrong reasons." There is little new planting, and quality control in the vineyard is often dependent on the enthusiasm, if any, of individual cooperative members. The best that many visiting wine makers can do is to monitor and select the grapes for their own requirements.

The dearth of exciting red wines from Hungary leaves the door open, in theory at least, for Bulgaria. But, although it still outsells Hungary by three to one in the UK, Bulgaria has suffered from inflation and a chronic lack of investment, while its cabernet- and merlot-dominated vineyards were uprooted wholesale following Gorbachev's anti-alcohol crusade. According to David Gill, who buys eastern European wines for Waitrose, "Bulgaria's fallen by the wayside in development terms. No one is spending any money, and the emphasis is on volume rather than quality. For development, read: more oak, and a new label."

Recently, new projects by David Wollan at Rousse and Kym Milne at Lyaskovets suggest that there are receptive elements in Bulgaria's factory-style wineries. A case in point is Safeway's introduction of the Young Vatted style with the 1992 vintage from the Rousse winery, which heralded a new era f or youthful, fruitier styles of red. After a change of supplier, from Rousse to Haskovo, because of difficult vintage conditions, this year's cabernet sauvignon is uncharacteristically chunky, and Safeway are not yet convinced about the merlot. Nevertheless, there will be some fresh, young 1995s trickling on to the market soon from Bulgaria. There will even be some rather good reserve cabernet sauvignons from 1991 and 1992, such as the Iambol cabernets coming soon to a Sainsbury's near you. Privatisation, and the sort of progress being achieved at wineries such as Rousse and Iambol, are badly needed if Bulgaria is to reverse its plonk-ridden image

Recommended wines

1995 Badger Hill Hungarian White pounds 2.69, Asda. Affordable dry white from Neszmely, with the clean, refreshing, floral fragrance of freshly cut sweet peas

1995 River Duna Irsai Oliver pounds 2.99, Safeway. Another aromatic Neszmely dry white, with a hint of grapefruit and the scent of Turkish delight

1995 Deer Leap Harslevelu pounds 2.99, Waitrose. Clean, fresh, grapey fruitiness from one of Hungary's quality native grapes, with a touch of gingery spice

1995 Pinot Grigio, Nagyrede pounds 3.49, Safeway. Sounds Italian, but this richly textured, honeyed dry white is closer to a mini-Alsace in style

1995 Nagyrede Dry Muscat pounds 3.29, Oddbins (imminent). Muscat with a fresh, almost sauvignon-like, grapefruity fragrance and crisp acidity

1995 Mecsekalji Sauvignon Blanc Reserve pounds 3.29, Asda. Loire-style sauvignon from Neszmely, with nettly aromas, and good varietal gooseberry and green bean fruitiness

1995 Deer Leap Gewurztraminer pounds 3.85, Waitrose. The spicy, lychee character and body of Alsace gewurz, but with a drier, more refreshing spritz, and at two-thirds of the price

1985 Cool Ridge Chardonnay pounds 3.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Unoaked chardonnay from Kym Milne, with buttery-textured chardonnay fruit and crisp, green apple bite

1994 Dry Furmint, Disznoko pounds 4.79 (buy 2, save pounds 1), Majestic. Fragrant, tobacco-spicy aromas, good richness and weight, with the bracing acidity of Tokaj's furmint grape

1995 Barrique Sauvignon Blanc, Neszmely pounds 4.99, Safeway. Rich, deftly oaked, Graves-like fruit with a zippy, herbaceous aftertaste

1994 Burgas Barrel-Aged Merlot pounds 3.49, Asda. A deep-hued, youthful, smoothly oaked Bulgarian merlot with fresh, juicy, blackcurrant fruitiness