Recent History and the Future of Balkan Winemaking:

A Few Words with Frank Dietrich, Blue Danube Wines

 

I started tasting Blue Danube’s wines in 2005 when I was putting the wine list together for CAV. Frank Dietrich, the German born owner, assembled a small selection of the best quality Eastern European wines I had tried up to that point. Since then, his portfolio has become pretty exceptional, a result of his experience and the emergence of more talented and dedicated producers from these countries. Frank and I share an interest in wine history so when I realized I was going to dedicate a newsletter issue to the wines from the Balkan countries Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia, I gave him a shout. Here are some of the excerpts from the conversation:

 

PSB: I noticed that when I asked Josip Brkić, through a translator, about how the war affected his vineyards, he said he was conscripted but that was it.

Hugh Johnson’s Modern Encylopedia of Wine, 1983

FD: These days they are trying to stay away from it. People don’t want to talk about it. Some wineries still have mines in the vineyards. When you go to see Bibich (which is in Croatia) and you travel through his neighborhood, you can see houses that are still deserted. They are still very much divided in a way. The road signs are bi-lingual with the Serbian in Cyrillic. Depending on where you are, there is graffiti on the other guys.

 

They make the same wines because the grapes don’t know or recognize the ethnic difference. They know the climatic conditions, that’s the nice thing about the grapes.

 

PSB: There has also been generational change.

 

FD: The younger generation is no longer just limited to their own experience because they have been able to travel. They are no longer isolated; I saw that this year in Serbia. Altogether, in Serbia, you have a feeling they are eager to get out of isolation. There is a feeling they lost one generation already with all these wars.

 

PSB: Serbia was fighting with everyone; they went from being at war with the Slovenians and Croatians to Bosnia-Herzegovina and then Kosovo.

 

FD: Kosovo is still an open issue for sure. I think the wine, and that is the encouraging part, is the oldest and one of the most stable industries they’re engaged in and it’s a viable part of restructuring their economies. In Serbia, I saw tons of brand new wineries. You see people who go from selling car parts to wine making.

 

If you go in rough strokes, Slovenia was probably the first of the former Yugoslavian states to progress because they are neighbors of Italy and Austria, so they had the proximity. The further south you go, the further away you are and are surrounded by other countries (Bulgaria, Romania) that are still struggling, especially with natural wine. There is nothing in Macedonia and Brkic is by himself in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

He tries as best he can. He has a book on Steiner, but is not a Demeter guy. His methodology is a very personal one.

 

PSB: You might think that because natural winemaking requires less it would be a no brainer in countries that don’t have as much money and access.

FD: That’s the Georgian story. Natural winemaking is the easiest. It’s down to earth. It doesn’t cost you very much money. Because of its simplicity, it has the beauty, if it’s done right. It does take hygiene, it’s not automatic. In Georgia it’s a revival of old traditions.

 

The first thing I believe happened, back in 1989, were they looked around and said what are the best wines made today? And they find Parker, they find Bordeaux, they hear about Australia, and they see the success of California. So that became the role model they tried to emulate. It took them the experience of 20-30 years to appreciate their own sense of identify and take pride. All these weird grape varieties were considered minor grapes. To think you can make great wine from Teran, that takes self-confidence. It’s a fairly recent development that you consider your own history as assets and consider it a unique proposition. That takes trials and errors. They have been synchronizing with that trend. It’s the more ambitious guys, guys who are better informed. They are not necessarily globalists.

 

There is one other part. For small family producers, it is a thing of independence being able to do something different from the large companies surrounding them and they take pride but you have to be able to develop and sustain that.

 

Also, the wine culture has become much more sophisticated. I remember the days when I traveled in these countries and on a restaurant wine list they wouldn’t list the vintage. Today, you have a wine scene and people who are willing to pay for it. It’s an ecosystem that’s emerging in these countries.