WILL THE 21ST CENTURY see me deep in gallon jugs? As the growing ranks of enophiles who are willing to part with big bucks for small, prestigiously named bottles send prices up and up, I can only hope that some savvy importers will bring superior wines from lesser known sources -- such as southeastern Europe.
Premium wine from where? Many, basing their opinions on stereotypes inherited from several decades back, may find the very notion a contradiction in terms. For years wines from countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and Hungary have been a familiar sight on retail shelves, but in the past such imports have tended to be inexpensive facsimiles of well-known western wines.
New developments, however, are astir in the wine industries of southeastern Europe. These Communist countries have begun to shed their monolithic approach to wine production as they experiment with limited-production wines, usually from pieces of land known for their superior quality. As a result, premium wines with their own regional distinctions have begun to emerge from southeastern Europe. Many of these wines have qualities that rival those of premium western wines, and at affordable prices.
The decentralization of wine making has gone furthest in Hungary, where individual wineries can initiate action to produce, bottle and export superior wines. Recently available in the Washington area is one such wine: a '78 Egri Bikaver ("Bull's Blood of Eger") Reserve, excellent right now, and showing no signs of tiring (A&A Liquors, $6.79). A tasting of it, with the '81 Reserve and the standard '81 and '82 Bikaver, provides wine buffs with a useful lesson on new wine developments in southeastern Europe.
When compared with the ethnic wines available in New York, what's available in Washington seems scant. For example, the sweet white Cotnari Gold -- a Romanian wine made from "noble rot"-affected grapes -- is a wine lover's gold heist at $3 to $4 in New York. Although it is brought in by the importer of the ubiquitous Premiat wines, we have yet to see it here in Washington.
Washington's handicap may be its lack of ethnic neighborhoods. A full-bodied red Dingac from Dalmatia can be superb a decade out from the vintage date; but who other than a native Croat would be wise enough to know it when it costs but $5 to $6 a bottle?
However, Washington is not entirely without caterers to ethnic wine tastes. We have Greek markets carrying good homeland wines. The '82 Boutari Naoussa and the n.v. Grande Reserve Boutari from Macedonia (respectively $4.25 and $5.50 at Acropolis) are comparable to pinot noir wines selling for two or three times the price. They may not be the very best wines from their patch of Greece, but only Zeus knows when we will see those here. Meanwhile I'll pipe down and take Boutari while the taking's good.