And lo, stars rose in the East: Safeway is leading the quest to go beyond Bulgaria into wine's latest new world, says Anthony Rose

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IT WAS simply labelled C63 and it provided Liz Robertson, quality and selection controller at Safeway and one of the most influential wine buyers in the country, with a painful but instructive insight into the newly emerging wine industries of Eastern Europe. The C63 was the vat number of the pounds 1.99 Hungarian merlot that caused a sensation when it won a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge in 1989.

The wine's success took even Safeway by surprise. 'We realised it was good, but not that good,' says Ms Robertson, 'so we tried it again and were pleasantly surprised.' But then the wine sold out. Fresh stocks were ordered, but there was something wrong. The new batch was not as good. 'We went to Hungary to find out what happened and persuaded them to put up a sample of every vat. The C63 reference sample shone out like a beacon.'

A period of reflection followed. The good stuff was there and the first job was to locate it. But since continuity of supply was clearly an alien concept in Eastern Europe, Safeway realised an entirely new set of quality control criteria would have to apply if Hungarian or any other Eastern European wine were to be a regular source of supply. Fortunately, Ms Robertson and Mark Hughes, Safeway's trading controller, are better equipped than most to deal with the problems of inconsistent quality.

Ms Robertson, who became a Master of Wine in 1984, joined Safeway as quality and selection controller in 1987, when she was one of just two buyers. There is now a team of three buyers and two controllers. Together they have improved the range and quality to such an extent that Safeway was voted Wine Supermarket of the Year for the first time last year.

But why bother with Eastern Europe when there was so much good wine coming on to the market from the new world? For one thing, privatisation was already prising open the floodgates of Eastern Europe. Between them, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, the Czech Republic and CIS states account for one-tenth of the world's production of wine. The opportunity to develop a new source of reasonably priced quality wine was not to be missed. With cheap labour, Eastern Europe had - and still has - the potential to meet supermarket prices of pounds 2.99 and pounds 3.49.

Safeway's experience in Hungary and its attempt to find value-for-money wines has gone some way towards reflecting this potential. From this month, it is putting the results on the shelves. The range is not just from Bulgaria but also features wines from Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic.

Bulgaria was able to steal a march on its rivals by getting things moving at the end of the Seventies and has made most of the running in this country with a positive campaigning strategy. The Hungarovin state monopoly in Hungary crumbled in 1989. By subsidising exports of bottled wine to the tune of 30 per cent, Hungary has given the Western wine trade an added incentive to buy its wines and invest. The Czech monopoly did not disappear until spring 1991, while Romania and Moldova still have state controls of sorts.

Bulgaria's head start means that since the mid-Eighties it has almost quadrupled exports to the UK, to take sixth place in the import league. There are four new Bulgarian additions to the Safeway range. The 1987 Merlot Reserve from Stambolovo, pounds 3.49, occupies familiar territory. A period of ageing in American oak barrels adds softness and the typically charred bourbon-like taste that is one of the hallmarks of the traditional rioja-like Bulgarian red. Then there are three excellent bottles from the 1992 vintage. From Russe are two fruity young reds, both pounds 2.79, with bizarre names: Young Vatted Merlot and Young Vatted Cabernet Sauvignon. Ms Robertson explains: 'Russe is a flexible, go- ahead winery, easy to work with. To date Bulgaria has assiduously aged its varietal reds for as long as possible. The methods for making dashing young reds of demonstrable quality have just not been employed. Until now, that is.'

The results are a deep-coloured, somewhat stalky merlot with plenty of soft, lush fruitiness, and a vibrant, juicy cabernet sauvignon with undertones of plum and cherry fruit. Until 29 May, the merlot is on special offer at pounds 2.29. Completing the trio is a young, peppery, almost rhone-like Assenovgrad Mavrud at pounds 2.99.

Part of Safeway's Hungarian selection is made by antipodeans. Hugh Ryman's very accessible, Hungarian Gyongyos Estate 1992 Chardonnay, pounds 3.29, is certainly new world in spirit. But all is not chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. More obscure local grape varieties, some hardly known in the West, may provide the long- term key to success.

One of the best dry whites, for instance, is the Reserve Cask Olasz Rizling 1992, pounds 3.49, from Villany. Olasz rizling, also known as welschriesling, italico rizling and laski rizling (rizling was the ludicrous compromise that the European Community arrived at to distinguish the variety from Germany's Rhine riesling), is best known in this country for putting Lutomer on the map with its sugary liebfraumilch-style wines. But this richly textured, peachy version from Zoltan Bella, at Villany, shows that this despised Balkan variety is capable of producing something much more sophisticated and dry.

Nick Butler is another antipodean winemaker who has landed on his feet in Hungary. His Lake Balaton Pinot Gris 1992, pounds 3.49, is typically cool-fermented, apples and pears in aroma with a lean, pear and almond fruitiness on the palate. I particularly liked his Great Plain Kekfrankos 1992, Kiskunfelegyhaza, pounds 3.49 (try asking for that in a hurry), which is an aromatic, youthful red with ripe, peppery fruit.

'The working practices of the vast majority of Eastern European wineries are still very poor,' admits Ms Robertson. 'To find real quality, you either have to look to someone posted in - one of the flying winemaker group, for instance - or you need to find a local, hands- on person.' Such as A'kos Kamocsay from Mor, who makes the fragrant spicy White Hungarian Wine, pounds 2.59, and Marta Domokos, a veteran of 19 vintages, from Kiskoros, who makes Safeway's modern-style Hungarian Country red, pounds 2.59 with its slight peppery touch.

According to Ms Robertson, Marta Domokos is typical of a new, albeit small, breed of bright, creative local winemakers who are proud of their wines. 'It comes down to the people,' she says. 'Some like to do things better. No one had told her before that her wine was any good. She was nearly in tears when we told her how good we thought it was.'

Meanwhile, from Nagyrede comes a perfumed, refreshingly fruity 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon Rose, good value at pounds 2.99.

The Czech Republic and Romania are represented by only three wines to date. The Pinot Blanc 1992 from Moravia, pounds 2.79, with its cool, dusty, aromatic character and clean, almond-kernel fruit, is crisp and fresh enough, if a little neutral on the palate. I found the Romanian Merlot a little dry, although the 1988 Pinot Noir, with the old- fashioned, typical vegetal sweetness of pinot noir, at least has the virtue of cheapness and recognisable character. As for the BB Club Sparkling Brut from the Balatonboglar co-op in Hungary, I am still trying to get the cap off the sample bottle.

What Safeway has begun is now being taken up by other supermarkets eager to plunder the resources of a market desperate for Western cash and technology. Let us hope that the emerging wine industries of Eastern Europe do not sell themselves too cheaply.

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