South East Europe

Forget France, forget Italy and forget the Romans, the origins of wine production lie rather further east! Lebanon and Israel lay claim to be the cradles of viticulture, but a ‘winery’ dating back over 6,000 years has recently been found in Georgia. Then there’s Armenia, Iran, Turkey and Greece in the frame so the counter-claims may go on until the aurochs come home! Even India dates back to several centuries BC. What doesn’t change is the consumers’ surprise that such countries even make wine.

The west of Austria is good for skiing but too mountainous for proper wine production whereas the east of the country around Vienna has rolling land and a dry climate, making it ideal for vines. About two thirds of the plantings are white grapes and one third black grapes which make red wines with softness and body. And don’t overlook the brilliant sweet wines which are world class!


This landlocked Balkan country, due north of Greece, makes some very impressive wines.

It isn’t to be confused with the nearby Greek province of Macedonia so is correctly called the ‘Republic of Macedonia’. It’s a large and ancient wine producer, particularly of red, and the local grape variety, Vranec, is rich and full-flavoured. Most wine production is in the middle of the country in the Vardar River Valley, also home to the capital Skopje. Production in the hilly west and mountainous east of the country is on a smaller scale.

Stobi Wines has seen massive investment since it was set up in 2009 and is centrally placed near the Vardar River.


There is no mistaking that Greece produces some brilliant and individual wines. It has had enough time to develop them! Ancient Greece is regarded as the origin of much of the diffusion of winemaking into the far-flung regions of both its own, and subsequently the Roman Empire. Vines travelled with trade and, where they blossomed, inevitably a wine region was created. The Greek wine scene is now a far cry from resin-infused Retsina only, and we just need a greater following for the wines so we can import more!

The noble red grape Saint-George (Aghiorghitiko) is fashioned into a world-class wine at the state-of-the-art Skouras winery in the Peloponnese’s Nemea region. Naoussa is made from the Xinomavro grape with the Diamantakos producing a great example from just 4 Ha of vines at 300 m above sea level.

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Intense and almost saline in character, whites from the volcanic island of Santorini, made from Assyrtiko grapes, are often praised by the Press. Family-owned Estate Argyros has 42 Ha of vines and a state-of-the-art winery on the island.

The Samos sweet ‘sticky’ comes from a seaside co-operative on the large island of Samos in the eastern Aegean. The best grapes come from the mountains where they ripen more slowly retaining all that Muscat grapiness. Vinsanto is the sweet wine of Santorini. Made from sun-dried grapes and aged in barrel, it is spelt slightly differently and made in a different way to Vin Santo of Tuscany.


Whilst the war in Syria is not far away and there are many refugees in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanese wine production continues unabated. Lebanon is the most beautiful country and, on a relatively recent visit, we criss-crossed the main mountain range four times passing through ski resorts and hillsides of cedars trees, their tresses flattened by countless snowfalls. Panoramic views stretched down towards Israel with Syria only blocked out by another range of mountains, neatly capped by snow. Lying in between is the Bekaa Valley – a massive expanse of fertile land with vines growing on its western slopes. The Lebanese argue that this is the ‘cradle of winemaking’, where the Romans built the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, and whence Phoenician traders took vines to Spain.

In the Bekaa Valley is a little corner of Tanners: a plaque on the wall of the Massaya winery, commemorating us as their first British importer! Brothers Sami and Ramzi Ghosn have now established a second Massaya outpost high in the mountains, both to grow high altitude grapes and to insure against trouble in the Bekaa. Château Musar is spectacularly situated above the Mediterranean in northern Beirut and its wines have a loyal following by those who like a mature cedary style.

The old harbour of Byblos is picture-postcard pretty, more like the south of France than the Middle-East, begging for a large platter of gambas prawns and a bottle of Massaya Rosé.


Israel has a sophisticated domestic market for its wines, and a large diaspora to follow them overseas. Dating back several thousand years, wine production in Israel has waxed and waned under Jewish, Muslim and Christian domination. The modern industry started in earnest in the 1880s with a massive injection of capital from the Rothschild family. There are now over 300 wineries with grape varieties, wine growing and winemaking largely based on the French model. The Golan Heights, Shomron, Samson and the Judean Hills all have their fair share of wineries.

Clos de Gat is situated in the foothills of the Judean Mountains, with the winery located on the site of an ancient, pre-Roman ‘Gat’, Hebrew for wine-press.

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Clos de Gat’s owner, Eyal Rotem, has planted 35 Ha of noble varieties and uses quality French oak barrels to make excellent reds and whites.


Part-Europe and part-Asia, Georgia occupies the Caucasus with Russia to the north, Turkey and Armenia to the south. It’s a country with a wine-growing heritage that goes back at least six thousand years and is chock-full of interesting, indigenous grape varieties. Formerly much of the wine was sweet and went to the Russian market, but recently its wine producers have sought closer links with the West and many of the wines are now made more to our tastes. There are however still plenty of traditional Qvevri wines produced in amphorae for home consumption. Winemakers in other countries are now re-discovering this method of making wine in amphorae and marketing it as something new, despite its long history!

Khareba Winery was founded in 2004 by three brothers who now have over 1000 Ha of vineyards, 700 Ha in the Kakheti region south-east of Tbilisi and 300 Ha in the north-west of the country at a higher altitude.

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A series of tunnels built into the Caucasus Mountains by the Russians for military purposes serve wine production well at Khareba Winery!


With 114,000 Ha of vines India has surprisingly large plantings of grapes, however most of these are for table grape production. The main areas are in central India, and in particular at Nasik, two and half hours north-east of Mumbai, at the northern end of the Deccan Plateau. Despite being in the northern hemisphere, the grapes are harvested in February or March because an autumn harvest would be washed away by the monsoon. In a tropical environment, a bit of jiggery-pokery with pruning and water supply can trick a vine to fruit at almost any time of year!

Soul Tree Wines source grapes from Nasik on the Deccan Plateau for a project that is Anglo-Indian in its inception.

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Not many producers make their wines with curry in mind, but Soul Tree wines do just that!


Bulgaria is making a comeback following its heady days in the late 1970s and then the collapse of communism. While still mainly a producer of cheap varietal wines from the Danubian Plain in northern Bulgaria and the Black Sea coast in eastern Bulgaria, there are an increasing number of smaller producers, so not just the old state-owned wineries in private hands. Interesting wines are coming out of the southern region of Thrace in particular. International grape varieties dominate, however Domaine Boyar has its main winery at Sliven in south-eastern Bulgaria and was the first to be established after the fall of communism in 1991.

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For white Chardonnay is the most planted of the international varieties, although plenty of local and Georgian grapes also get a look in.

Soft and easy reds from well-known grape varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet are the mainstay of red wine production in Bulgaria. it’s also worth looking out for local varieties such as Mavrud and Gamza.