Poland had three wine writers in 2001. When they gathered around the first bottle of modern Polish wine, there was an embarrassed silence, followed by a quest for euphemism. “Muscadet crisp” was coined for the mouth-puckering malic acid, while the foxy aromas of PIWI hybrids, which included the scents of beetroot and fresh paint, were “evocative of Polish countryside”. Alerting readers to their near undrinkability without discouraging an embryonic wine industry was a heroic balancing act.
Sixteen years later, being tongue-in-cheek is rarely necessary. Polish wines have come a long way, and they are not only palatable, but good. Jancis Robinson MW visited Poland in 2016 and was appreciative, finding the Wieliczka Merlot “very respectable” and Miłosz Pinot Noir, “surprisingly Burgundian”.; “I enjoyed my time there, and in the 16 Polish wines I had a chance to taste I saw great sincerity in combatting the severity of the climate.”
Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW praised the wines he tasted in Warsaw: “I am really surprised – specially by the level of the red wines.” And Eastern Europe specialist Caroline Gilby MW has experienced “wines ranging from watery and flavourless to a remarkably elegant Pinot Noir [the 2015 Adoria] that picked up a well-deserved silver at 2017 Decanter Awards.” Riesling expert Stuart Pigott echoed this: “The first Polish wines I encountered were rough and sour, but I was very surprised by the 2014 Rielsings from Marek Krojcig, Płochocki and Turnau. Winemaking is rapidly improving and the producers are developing distinctive styles.”
Poland has made grape wine since the Middle Ages. It was the Little Ice Age of the 18th century, imports from Hungary and Ukraine, and competition from cheaper apple wines that made viticulture unviable, though it persisted on a small scale. The western city of Zielona Góra, then named Grünberg, was Germany’s largest wine region and a centre of Sekt production until 1945, when it became part of communist Poland. Collectivisation and the planned economy dealt a final blow and production was discontinued in the 1960s.
But in 1985 Roman Myśliwiec, a photographer from Jasło in Poland’s far south-eastern corner, started a nursery. He planted frost- and disease-resistant varieties, such as Sibera (tasted by those poor journos in 2001), Bianca, Hibernal (the name says it all), Swenson Red, Maréchal Foch, and Léon Millot, sourced from Slovakia and Ukraine. Soon he found himself consulting for small hobby wineries who fell for the vine’s atavistic lure.
Myśliwiec’s foresight was remarkable, triggering the rebirth of viticulture on a scale no-one could have predicted. But his lack of winemaking experience also resulted in many wrong decisions. Hardened PIWI hybrids – fungus-resistant varieties created by crossings of Vitis vinifera with American grape varietals – were selected because they offered a crop every year, regardless of wine quality. Consequently, the early pioneers who planted Myśliwiec vine material quickly bumped against a glass ceiling.
The other problem was deeper: a lack of winemaking competence and infrastructure. Wine producers in established areas can get support from colleagues and institutions. In Poland, amateurs harvested a first crop from 0.1 ha with no-one to tell them how to add yeast or SO2. Until 2011, Polish wine could not even be legally marketed. But trial and error – as well as climate change – eventually brought cleaner, fruitier wines, and an appreciative market grew in tandem. It is now expected that good restaurants list at least one Polish wine; Poznań’s SPOT, and Warsaw’s Alewino have dozens. The number of licenced wineries skyrocketed from 26 in 2010 to 197 in 2017.
Stories of success
There are many stories of Polish vintners starting from scratch, though a few recurrent patterns emerge. Barbara and Marcin Płochocki started a winery in Subcarpathia in 2002, on the advice of Myśliwiec. Their wines immediately joined the Polish elite of wine, but the site was poorly chosen, and in 2006 the family bravely decided to relocate to Daromin near Sandomierz in central Poland. Here, they planted new varieties, including Zweigelt, Traminer, and Riesling. Wines from the new estate hit the market in 2009 and became an instant success (not least because of their approachable style with various shades of residual sugar), prompting the Płochockis to abandon their day jobs and weekly commutes from Warsaw. They didn’t rest on their laurels, however, and have gradually introduced new wines that have moved a long way from the commercial comfort zone: Inspira Volcano is a dry oaked Sibera and Kvevri is aged in genuine Georgian amphorae.
Srebrna Góra is a more romantic story. Mirosław Jaxa Kwiatkowski and Mikołaj Tyc leased land from a Camaldolese monastery on the outskirts of Cracow after researching the region’s winemaking past. Hiring Montpellier-trained oenologist Agnieszka Wyrobek-Rousseau, they released an impressive range of wines in 2012, which allowed them to expand to 15 hectares. The entry-level white Cuvée is a semi-dry hybrid blend while the higher-end wines – ambitiously priced at 65 to 110 PLN ($17.80 to $30.00) – include a spicy, trendsetting Pinot Noir. Yet as new plantings came into production, Srebrna Góra needed to step up distribution, and in 2016 struck a deal with Lidl, who listed the white, rosé, and red Polka for 29.99 PLN ($8.40). Thirty thousand bottles sold out in three days and arguably exposed more consumers to Polish wine than ever before. But while the Polka label is exclusive to Lidl, it has caused discontent amongst Srebrna Góra’s distributors (“Lidl hate” being a common disease in the Polish wine trade).
Another large winery is Turnau, located in the unlikely north-west of Poland, 20 km from the Baltic sea. Fifteen hectares are planted to vines, a major investment partly facilitated by local government and EU subsidies. An alliance with Marek Kondrat, a popular importer, was a clever shortcut to market. But the Turnaus were also savvy enough to format their wine for the seasoned urban drinkers that shop at Kondrat’s. Frank Faust, who runs a family winery in the Rheingau, was hired as winemaker, and he has imprinted the wines with a Germanic aromatic clarity – as well as actively used residual sugar to balance the high acid profiles. These are arguably Poland’s most assured wines, from a zesty, layered Riesling through a popular rosé to an impressive acacia-aged Chardonnay. A traditional method sparkling wine will be released in 2018. The success of Turnau also teaches a difficult lesson to other producers: growth requires investment, teamwork, and a sound business plan.
Located near the pretty Renaissance town of Kazimierz in central Poland, Dom Bliskowice is a more artsy affair. Run by Warsaw architects Lech Mill and Maciej Sondij, it enjoys one of Poland’s best terroirs, on a gentle ventilated limestone slope over the Vistula river. No expense is spared in the cellar, including used casks from top Burgundy domaines—Sondij also runs Winoblisko, a specialist Burgundy and natural wine importer. Indeed, the gorgeous designer labels and adventurous cuvées, such as the skin-contact Johanniter Ultra, would not be out of place in a hip garage winery in Catalonia or the Yarra Valley. The bread and butter wine, ‘J’, is one of the country’s most consistent.
“I was really surprised that wines of that quality are made in Poland. Our sommelier team love them, and so do our guests,” says Mikołaj Skrzypczak, head sommelier of Michelin-starred Trishna in London, who has listed Dom Bliskowice since 2016 after discovering the wines at the RAW Wine Fair.
But perhaps no winemaker better embodies the meteoric rise of Polish wine as Michał Pajdosz of Winnica Jakubów in Lower Silesia. Vines were planted as a hobby by his father Artur but when he prematurely passed away in 2013, 23-year-old Michał stepped in. The first wine he ever made with no previous winemaking experience, Traminer 2013, created a real stir. Pajdosz has since followed with an enviable string of releases, including Poland’s most successful late harvest sweetie, a juicy Dornfelder, and his signature dry Traminer. Working on five hectares, Pajdosz is still experimenting with various grape varieties and techniques. He obviously has natural winemaking talent but also expresses a generational open-mindedness and contemporary precision, marking a change from Polish wine’s founding fathers.
Where is Polish wine headed? Can it really establish itself on the world wine map? Caroline Gilby MW thinks, “there’s definite potential, though clearly still work in progress to establish how to make the best of Poland’s marginal climate”. The country has plenty of suitable terrain at low prices, and as existing estates gradually cluster into actual wine regions, new debuts will become immeasurably easier. The local wine market is one of the world’s most promising, with 38m consumers quickly closing the income and lifestyle gap to their Western counterparts. Currently, Polish wine production (official and not) accounts for less than 1% of national consumption.
Yet as production rises, it may soon outgrow the comfortable market niche it currently occupies. Polish wine is undoubtedly expensive for its quality; lacking economies of scale, vintners face a production cost as high as 20 PLN ($5.60) per bottle. The minute quantities currently produced find a welcoming market amongst patriotic aficionados, but who will buy those wines when production trebles? Srebrna Góra’s Lidl gamble demonstrates the vagaries of a market based on image and emotions.
Producers look keenly to the export market, in the hope that the large Polish diaspora in countries like Britain, Norway, Germany, or even the US could provide an entry to those markets. The wines can’t compete on price, but as the quality rises, the curiosity effect can be sustainable in the longer term. After all, Swiss and English wines have successfully made export inroads from a similar starting point.
For Polish wine producers, Byzantine red tape remains a major headache. Poland has a 200-page law on excise, including infamous paper strips that need to be applied manually on every bottle, while vine growing and alcohol production have their own, equally convoluted regulations. Mike Whitney of Adoria near Wrocław compiled a list of 125 administrative actions required to market a single bottle. Many wines are sold with no grape variety or vintage on the label because that would require “certification,” where an official from the dreaded Agricultural and Food Products Quality Inspection assists on harvest days, equipped with printed photos of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay leaves, to make sure nothing else makes it to the fermentation vat. The current right-wing government cannot convince Cabernet to ripen earlier but it could make vintners’ lives way easier with a simple deregulation. The rest is just a matter of time.