Twenty-seven years ago, a curtain opened in Europe. Twin Cities wine lovers are only now reaping the benefits.
After decades of being under the thumb of Communists with little or no incentive to pursue excellence, grape growers and winemakers in the former Soviet Bloc countries needed time to incorporate the vineyard and cellar practices of the rest of the world. Even now, many vintners in the former Iron Curtain nations toil for co-ops, and some still produce highly oxidated wines that the locals got used to and embraced.
But the timing actually was fortuitous for the shackles to come off, since it coincided with a wave of advancements in all aspects of winemaking.
Still, getting the wines to these shores took a while. Convoluted laws at both ends of the export-import chain didn't help.
Neither did the wine culture in this country, which until recently was focused on familiar grapes from familiar places. Just over a decade ago, a local wholesaler brought in a boatload of swell wines from Hungary, but they proved a tough sell in this market.
Not anymore. Now we're getting choice stuff not only from Hungary and the Czech Republic, but also countries that didn't even exist in Cold War days, including the Republic of Georgia and especially the splinter nations of the former Yugoslavia.
The latter, particularly Slovenia, have been at the forefront of the wave of wines coming from the erstwhile Eastern Bloc.
"The interest is there," said Annette Peters, who started bringing in Slovenian whites in 2012 in her Domaines & Appellations import business. "I surprise people [at public tastings] by showing up with Verus [wine], and they'll go 'Wow, these are fresh and clean and really well-made.' "
The Verus wines, named after the Latin word for "true" and made by three friends who couldn't convince a local co-op to adopt a more modern style, are uniformly delicious. The sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and especially the furmint boast fabulous florals, fruit and vibrancy.
Other Slovenian whites gaining local favor are the stupendous Marjan Simcic Sauvignonasse and the Pullus Pinot Grigio, which is more orange than white and is super-tasty.
"We have a lot of people coming in looking for the Pullus," said Lonny Isenberg, wine-monger at the Minnetonka Haskell's. "We also have a few people asking about Croatian wine."
Peters attributed the influx of Croatian imports to tourism along the Dalmatian coast. There's also a locally owned brand, Korta Katarina. Unlike the Slovenian wines, which tend to be white, Croatia specializes more in reds, and they tend to be a bit spendy. The Piližota Plavina, a friendly cherry-berry delight, is a nice introduction for less money.
Even Serbia has reached the heartland. I recently was wowed by two wines from the Vinarija Zvonko Bogdan winery, a hearty, earthy red called Život Tece (Life Flows) and a firm, focused white, 8 Tambraša (8 Guitar Players).
Meanwhile, Hungary, until recently known mostly for its sterling Tokaji dessert delights, now boasts stellar dry wines, many crafted with furmint, the white variety used in those sweet concoctions. Absolutely stellar versions emanate from Evolúció, Affinitas, Château Hellha and Royal Tokaji (called "The Oddity"). The reds are catching up, if the likes of Evolúció's expressive, blueberry-laden blaufrankisch is any indication.
Farther east, after breaking off from Russia, the Republic of Georgia is becoming a vinous player. Tchotiashvili and Pheasant's Tears are already in the market, and more brands are on the way. The Georgian red wines I sampled years ago were not memorable. But today these are being brought here by savvy importers.
One Georgian varietal completely worth checking out is rkatsiteli ("rkah-tsee-tely"), a white with bracing briskness and beautiful balance. Worthy renditions from Pheasant's Tears and a winery from Macedonia (another Yugoslavian offshoot), Tikves, are available locally.
It's fitting that Georgia is on our minds. Last, year, fragments of earthenware jars discovered there revealed the earliest evidence of winemaking, 8,000 years ago.
In that context, a few decades for the wines to be unleashed on the West is a pittance.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.