The words wine and Poland are not natural bedfellows. But, after years on the sidelines, the grape is back with a bang.
Wine is once more making a splash in Poland. “Once more?” you ask… Yes indeed. “It’s wrong to say the culture is new to Poland,” corrects Katarzyna Chelpińska, co-owner of Haka and prolific wine blogger. “Look at Polish literature and you’ll see how important wine was in the past – it’s a history that dates all the way back to when Queen Bona married into the Polish royal family. And while the petitions damaged our wine culture, it was still maintained. What destroyed it was the war.” The political changes that followed the collapse of the Iron Curtain opened the door anew. Quicker than most to sense the opportunity was New Zealander John Borrell, a war correspondent who left the battle lines to create the Kania Lodge retreat in the north of Poland. “When I opened the lodge in the 90’s it was very difficult to find interesting wine in Poland,” says Borrell, “there was cheap and expensive. So I imported a pallet of New Zealand and other wines from a distributor in Britain. Guests loved the wines and most took cases home with them. Then they started calling asking if I could send them cases. I did and soon realized there was an untapped market of mainly expatriates in Warsaw and elsewhere. So I started Wine Express…” Now, many years on, Wine Express (wine-express.pl) has evolved to become an industry giant.
“The fact that the choice of wines was so limited in the early 90’s made things relatively easy. We were the first company, for example, to import wine from New Zealand – we instantly had customers.” For Borrell, the problem wasn’t finding the buyers, but supplying them. “We sent our first wine with the conductors of passenger trains running from Gdańsk to Warsaw. Clients had to be at the train station to collect the wine.”
But this was still a time of vodka. Borrell estimates 90% of his orders went direct to ex-pats (today, the figure has swung to 90% Polish), and it’s not difficult to imagine a country trapped largely in ignorance. Andrzej Strzelczyk, Poland’s top ranked sommelier, grew up in such times: “When I was 18 I knew nothing about wine, my colleagues knew nothing, and neither did my family.” For Strzelczyk, his break came when he failed his entry exams for a physical academy – instead, looking to broaden his options, he joined a hospitality and tourism course, a complex path that would ultimately take him to his current role as sommelier of Le Regina. “When I started my parents thought I was a waiter,” he laughs, “for all I know, they probably still think that.” The future, he believes, lies in the new generation. “Young people want to learn about wine,” he says, “to taste it. You can even observe that in pubs and bars. The power is with the younger generation. Older Poles still prefer, ahem, other alcoholic beverages.”
In spite of its growth, Poland’s nascent wine culture faces a steep uphill climb. “We’ve seen a non-stop increase in consumption,” says Katarzyna Chelpińska, “but it’s still tiny compared to France, Spain or even Sweden.” And the barriers to further development? “It’s still not going the way it should,” says Chelpińska, “we need normal language, wine needs to be reachable. People who talk and write about wine do so in a way many don’t understand. People avoid specialized shops because it’s natural that no-one likes being perceived as knowing very little. I want to give people a platform to gain that knowledge.”
The problem of education is being gradually breached by the inroads made courtesy of the supermarket chains. “Paradoxically,” says Chelpińska, “chains have played a huge role in popularizing wine – and you have to start somewhere. Some of the wines at Biedronka and Lidl are decent, and they bring it down to a level where people can start a relationship with it. My belief is cheap wine has allowed people to learn, and once people have tried one wine several times, they then start to crave something better.”
That wine has gradually pushed vodka off the dinner table is telling. “When we first started vodka was still the alcohol of choice,” says John Borrell, “you’d see it on tables at banquets, events and family dinners. Now wine has taken over. Although the majority of wine sold in Poland is still in the price range of zł. 20 or below, consumption of mid-range and premium wines has also grown significantly.”
There are faint hopes, also, for domestic wine. “Most Polish wine is not great,” says Borrell, “but it’s not the producer’s fault. The big problem is the climate. Most of Poland is too cold to produce consistently good grape harvests. That said, the quality has gone up tremendously in the last 15 years. One of the biggest producers produces some very drinkable if not great wines.”Strzelczyk, too, is quietly positive. “We definitely need a few more years. In ten years our producers will be more experienced and the vines will be older. We also need to work on our grape suitability and buy better equipment. But with the effects of global warming, Poland might have better wine conditions than Sicily by 2025 / 2030.”
So, just what is the future of the wine industry as a whole? “It will take a lot of time,” says Chelpińska, “but we’ll get there. For instance, I’m noticing a lot of smaller importers –
that’s definitely a sign we’ve been noticed as a market.” And for Andrzej Strzelczyk? “In ten years I think we’ll be able to say Poland has a wine culture. I want this to become a country where people don’t just drink wine on New Year’s Eve, but on normal everyday occasions – I want Poles to treat wine as a natural thing.”