Collecting on a budget – Central Europe

German wine cellar

This follows similar guidance on Bordeaux, the rest of France and Italy. A rather shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

This instalment of my guide to starting a cellar on a budget is devoted to European wine-producing countries east of either France or Italy.

The most rewarding cellar candidate from this vast area is possibly not obvious: German Riesling. This is a category of wine that can outlast almost all others even though it may be relatively low in alcohol (and some may think only high-alcohol wines age well). Many years ago Hugh Johnson, my co-author of The World Atlas of Wine, and I hosted a tasting in Frankfurt that demonstrated that a fine Mosel Riesling could outlast red bordeaux. And a key scene in a television programme I made in the 1980s involved Manfred Prüm of Weingut J J Prüm giving me a taste of a remarkably youthful 40-year-old Riesling from his vines in the Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard.

Indeed no matter where in the world it is grown, the Riesling grape makes wines that can outlast those made from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. This is true even of relatively inexpensive examples. And the great thing about Riesling is that it actually develops more nuanced flavours as it ages. I have 1971s in my cellar which I’m in no hurry to open. Admittedly I have already opened the 1976s because this was an especially hot year and one of the things that preserves German Riesling is its high level of acidity, more pronounced in cooler than in hotter years.

As for which German vintage to lay down currently, there are so many that it is easier to identify the less obvious candidates. 2019 and 2020 are especially promising. Many 2018s are a little low in acidity but more recently growers, as elsewhere, have become more adept at coping with the hotter and hotter summers and even some 2022s are surprisingly well constituted. One notably instructive vintage plagued by rain and so much acidity that the wines in youth were uncomfortably tart was 2010, but those picked relatively late are just starting to drink well.

All of the comments above apply to the classic German Rieslings with words such as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese in their names, indicating increasing levels of sweetness – the sweeter the wine, the lower the alcohol, and in general the longer the wine’s life. (See the Prädikat entry in The Oxford Companion to Wine for more on these names.)

But what of modern dry (trocken) German wine? I asked a champion exponent of it, Klaus Peter Keller, who has put Rheinhessen on the map and added infinite value to its wines. My colleague and fellow Master of Wine Julia Harding tasted the 2007 vintage of the Kellers’ simplest Riesling, Riesling von der Fels, made from their youngest vines, last month and reckoned it was incredibly youthful and still had another five years’ life to it. Keller feels that 30 or more years’ ageing is no problem for the most lauded of Germany’s dry Rieslings, the Grosse Gewächse or GGs. ‘We recently tasted 2001, 2002 and 2003 [a very hot vintage] and they were still young with no signs of fading’, he reports.

The other classic white wine grape of Germany, Silvaner, a speciality of the Franken region, can also age well, but a bit faster than Riesling.

As for the new red Spätburgunders from Germany, so much more accomplished today than when they first appeared on the scene at the end of the last century, they can age almost as long as their counterparts from Burgundy (where the variety is known as Pinot Noir), sometimes longer.

Wines grown in Austria’s rather warmer climate tend not to last quite as long as their German counterparts but Austria also has an especially long-lived white-wine grape speciality, Grüner Veltliner. In 2002 I took part in a blind tasting in London in which 13 mature Grüner Veltliners were pitted against 17 hand-picked top Chardonnays, including seven highly respected burgundies. It was surprisingly easy to confuse a fine Grüner with a fine Chardonnay and I reported the result thus: ‘seven of the extremely able tasting group's ten favourite wines were Austrian, whereas five of the seven least-liked came from Burgundy’. The top-scoring wine was a 1990 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd from Emmerich Knoll, one of the most admired producers in Austria’s celebrated Wachau region.

Like fine white burgundy (and fine dry German Rieslings, come to think of it) the better Grüners are single-vineyard wines which can offer all sorts of interesting variations and comparisons.

And, perhaps the clincher, the prices of top German and Austrian wines are in general very much friendlier than those of top burgundies. The same is true of Austria’s signature red-wine grape Blaufränkisch, which is enjoying increasing popularity worldwide and can deserve up to 15 years in bottle to show its best. There are fascinating regional differences to be explored between, for instance, Leithaberg, Eisenberg and Carnuntum. (See this World Atlas of Wine map of the Austrian wine regions.)

In Hungary (mapped here), Blaufränkisch is known as Kékfrankos and can make equally ageworthy, lively reds of real character. Cabernet Franc can also shine over many years. The hotspots for red winemaking are Eger and Villány but sweet, white Tokaj is the most famous Hungarian wine by far and, by reputation at least, lasts forever. But dry versions of the main Tokaj grape Furmint are now making their mark and the best can continue to improve for many years in bottle.

Croatian wines can be delicious and can age well. Eastern European specialist and Master of Wine Caroline Gilby suggests Brda in western Slovenia as a source of cellar interest in the form of long-lived reds and their specialist white-wine grape Rebula. She also has experience of top Bulgarian answers to red bordeaux continuing to evolve for more than 10 years, though they are not always easy to find. She claims the best examples of the Bulgarian red-wine grape Mavrud are also worth ageing whereas The Wine Society’s eastern European buyer Freddy Bulmer nominates the southern Bulgarian grape speciality Melnik as a suitable cellar candidate.

I certainly agree with her that the Vranac/Vranec variety found in North Macedonia and Montenegro is a grape that makes wines very obviously destined to age well – and younger examples are great value.

As for Greece, a favourite source of fine wine, obvious cellar candidates are the reds of Naoussa based on the haunting and increasingly fashionable Xinomavro grape. My two colleagues even keener on Greek wine than me cannot agree on the ageing ability of Greece’s most famous wine, the electrifying dry whites of Santorini based on the Assyrtiko grape. I had a 2018 in magnum from one of my favourite producers Argyros the other day and thought it was already at its peak. But Tara Q Thomas swears by seriously aged examples from the likes of the late Haridimos Hatzidakis and Artemis Karamolegos, describing such wine as ‘one of the greatest bargains of the universe!’ 

The better examples of Santorini Assyrtiko are so delicious when young, you may feel there are young reds that more obviously need ageing. From Lebanon and Turkey, for instance.

In the UK, Tanners have one of the most comprehensive and affordable selections of wine from what they call ‘South East Europe & Asia’ because, as James Tanner reports, ‘the geographer in me says that going east, there are plenty of vineyards on a similar latitude to Bordeaux, and then going south into hotter climes such as Greece, 1,000-metre-high vineyards can produce some very fine wines indeed.’

Cellar candidates

German Riesling

Von Kesselstatt, Niedermenniger Riesling Kabinett 2022 Mosel 9.5%
£13.50 The Wine Society

Schloss Lieser, Lieser Niederberg Helden Riesling Grosses Gewächs 2022 Mosel 12.5%
£38 Howard Ripley

J J Prüm, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett 2019 Mosel 7.5%
£30.60 Four Walls, £38.99 Shelved Wine

Carl Loewen, Maximin Herrenberg 1896, Riesling, Alte Reben trocken 2022 Mosel 12.5%
£181.22 per case of 6 Justerini & Brooks

Keller, Von der Fels Riesling trocken 2020 Rheinhessen 12.5%
£51.21 Lay & Wheeler

Heymann-Löwenstein, Winninger Röttgen Riesling Grosses Gewächs 2022 Mosel 12.5%
£55.08 Wine-Square and Spirits24


Künstler, Assmannshäuser Rotschiefer Spätburgunder 2020 Rheingau 13.5%
£22 The Wine Society from the end of the month

Grüner Veltliner

Grabenwerkstatt, Grabenwerk Grüner Veltliner 2022 Wachau 12.5%
£32 The Wine Society

Prager, Achleiten Grüner Veltliner Smaragd 2021 Wachau 14%
£45 Four Walls, £48.95 Uncorked


Dorli Muhr, Samt & Seide Blaufränkisch 2019 Carnuntum 13.5%
£20 Justerini & Brooks


Royal Tokaji, Gold Label Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2017 Tokaj 10.5%
50 cl: £51.65 VINUM, £63 Shelved Wine

Dry Furmint

Oremus, Mandolás Dry Furmint 2020 Tokaj 13.5%
£25.99 Vinatis 


Cramele Recaš, Selene Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 Recaš 14%
£19.20 Tanners


Stobi, Selection Vranec 2020 Tikveš 14.5%
£10.50 Tanners


Thymiopoulos, Earth and Sky 2021 Naoussa and 2022 13.5%
£24 The Wine Society (2022 fro 15 April)

Dalamára Xinomavro 2020 Naoussa 14%
£28.50 Barrique Fine Wines

Diamantakos 2019 Naoussa 13.5%
£26.80 Hedonism, £32 Tanners

Photo of cellared German wines © picture alliance via Getty Images.

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