Malta, an archipelago to preserve

Welcome to Malta, with its five magnificent islands of a thousand and one faces. Considered to be one of the smallest wine countries in the world (barely 500 hectares of vines), Malta has been producing wine for over 2000 years.

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Its viticultural history, eventful – introduced by the Phoenicians, developed by the Greeks and Romans, put to sleep during the Muslim occupation, brought up to date by the knights of the order of Saint John of Jerusalem… then again damaged by the British to replace vines with cotton, has finally stabilized in the last two decades, with Malta joining the European Union in 2004.

Malta, strategic crossroad of the Mediterranean

Governed since the dawn of time by foreign nations, this archipelago with a rich and unique cultural mix, has a crazy charm.

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Only fifteen minutes from Italy and thirty minutes from Africa, Malta has always been a strategic crossroad in the Mediterranean, arousing the greatest greed. And although its independence was recognized in 1964, it took ten years (December 13, 1974), for Malta to proclaim the republic and elect a president at its head. Valletta, the capital, where I lived during my stay, is beautiful. A tourist destination par excellence, with boutique-hotels blooming like daisies in the spring. Wine bars are not yet very developed. However, one address is already unmissable : Trabuxu (“corkscrew” in Maltese), to drink some nice local wines and to get a first impression of the Maltese wine industry.

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Not forgetting to visit the incredible Saint John’s Cathedral, a building with interior walls covered with gold.

On the wine side, everybody is in agreement that finding a bottle of fine Maltese wine before the end the 1990s was a real challenge. “The protectionism of the 1960s – with zero competition – dropped the quality of wines to the bottom, just like many other products. Even the chocolate came from China and had everything but the taste of chocolate“, Bernard Muscat, from the Marsovin estate, recalls. After joining the EU in 2004, the production of wine has become more serious, focusing mainly on international grape varieties, turning its back on local varieties, considered to be less qualitative.

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Finally, three appellations were created in 2007, to continue increasing quality: D.O.K. Malta and D.O.K. Gozo, for both islands, and I.G.T. Maltese Islands, more global.

Delicata and Marsovin, the two major players

Delicata and Marsovin, respectively established in 1907 and 1919, are the two largest and oldest producers in Malta. They are based near Paola, along the port of Melita, just before Valletta.

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The Delicata estate, which has been in the hands of the Delicata family since the beginning of its creation, is the second largest producer in Malta with 1.2 million bottles produced per year. The estate works with 300 farmers, established between the islands of Malta (in the south) and Gozo (in the north), with whom they have contracts for the purchase of their grapes. Our visit during the harvest coincided with the visit of Mr Clint Camilleri (Permanent Secretary for Agriculture, Fishing and Animal Protection, in the center of the photo). This presented the opportunity to exchange thoughts on the range of wines from Delicata, consisting of some 50 wines, highlighting autochthonous varietals Girgentina (white) and Gellewza (red).

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“It’s good to live here,” according to Alfred, a former retired employee who has worked here for 53 years and still comes to help during the harvest!

The story of Marsovin, located close by, is a very nice success story. This is the story of a man, Mr Cassar, who at the age of 16 was crisscrossing Malta with his cart, pulled by a donkey. He was selling wine in demijohns glass, to make a living. He quickly became interested in the production of wine, understood the trade, and founded Marsovin, which soon became Malta’s largest estate.

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Today, with 60% of the country’s grapes bought and 24 hectares of vines of its own, Marsovin continues to flourish. In the cellars of the estate, some treasures are to be found (more than 20 vintages), which can be opened for its members (around 3000), during vertical tastings organized once a month. There are even some magnums and jeroboams.

Water, a major concern

The Mediterranean climate of the island offers hot and dry summers, with temperatures reaching 40°C in July and August. However, rainfall remains low.

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Water is a major concern in Malta: twelve water desalination plants were created, to provide drinking water. Here, it is said laughingly that it is cheaper to shower with wine. “Irrigating by pumping water from basements in Malta is very risky for the vines since the water is much too salty and it would change the profile of the wines”. Despite this, new wineries appeared in recent years on the archipelago. Like the Maria Rosa estate, not far from the town of Mdina, which was created in 2006 by Joseph Fenech, who wanted to produce wine as his father had done in his youth. The estate covers 4.2 hectares, planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sirakuzan (Maltese name of the Italian grape variety Nero d’Avola).

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Around the estate, you can also see olive trees on the property, from which a delicious extra virgin olive oil is produced.

Meridiana and San Niklaw, flagships of Maltese viticulture

Not far from the city of Mdina, which can be seen in the background of the vineyard and the national football stadium, is the Meridiana vineyard.

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Karl Chetcuti, the director of the premises, explained that the estate was established in 1997… from scratch! And although with only twenty years of existence, they were among the first to make premium wine in Malta. “It was a long and dangerous way to get there.” An ambitious project, which after many refusals from the banks, was partly financed by the famous Italian Antinori family, friends of the owner. Today, with 17.5 hectares of vines planted, the estate is exclusively in the hands of Antinori and benefits from a unique know-how, advanced equipment and advice, to produce some of the best wines in Malta.

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With a bias towards ageing wines without new oak : “with 300 days of sunshine a year in Malta and the opportunity to have fresh fish every day, I prefer refreshing and unwooded wines”, Karl said with a big smile.

Some winegrowers discover a passion for wine very late… others combine two jobs at a time… We met with John Cauchi, both a renowned doctor of the island, a very talented winemaker, and a flourished man. This very nice neo-winemaker, together with his brother Thomas (ship captain) created the San Niklaw Estate in 2004.

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A crazy job for him. But above all, the feeling of having accomplished something beautiful and being able to share it. Three hectares of vines: Vermentino, Sangiovese, Syrah and Mourvèdre. The production is very small (10,000 bottles) and the wines are very fine and delicate. Notice to the amateurs, you can find their cuvées in some of the most beautiful Maltese restaurants.

Mar Casar, wine as therapy

There are sometimes hopeful stories with such a strong message that we simply have to share them.

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This is the story of Mark Casar, born in Valletta, who after working in the hospitality industry in France and Switzerland, returned to settle in Malta in 1991, where he was both a guide and a restorer of houses. Working 7/7, he finally fell into a depression and stayed at home for a year in 2004, to try to heal himself. He once thought of buying fields near the sea. “It was my cure, my therapy.” He planted three hectares with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Chardonnay. “I unconsciously stopped taking my pills”. Mark, sensitive to sulfur, has always suffered from headaches.

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He therefore decided to make natural wines, with the minimum amount of sulphite possible to stabilize his wines. Welcome to Mar Casar estate.
“A good wine goes beyond taste and smell. It must bring joy and emotion to the one who drinks it”. And to add: “it is the only product, containing alcohol, able to bring out the joy that recides inside us”. All his wines are fermented and aged in the Qvevri(1) method, in the sand. Mark uses clay amphora “raw”, ie unrefined. Important for the circulation of energy and the good ageing of the wines, it seems. Mark believes very strongly in the magnetism of wine.

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“We always talk about terroir, microclimate, but never about the cellar”, he is astonishingly right. “The best wineries are surely highly magnetized places”. To meditate…

Gozo, the wild and preserved side of Malta

The island of Gozo, north of Malta, is full of natural treasures. More rural than the South Island, it is a paradise for hikers, scuba diving, or simply gastronomy and local products…for gourmands like us!

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We met Joseph Spiteri, owner of the TaMena estate. Joseph is a lover of his island: he talks about goats, olive trees, tomatoes, with stars in his eyes. Because in addition to taking care of his 15-hectare estate, alone with his wife, Joseph finds the time to make olive oil (1500 olive trees), cheese, jams, as well as many local culinary preparations for the happiness of the tourists of the island.

A character as charming as overexcited, who never stops and who keeps a genuine smile on his lips in all circumstances.

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As you can see, the Maltese vineyard is slowly being reborn from its ashes. And although the low production of the country makes it difficult to export wines, and at the same time to promote them abroad, tourism is growing stronger – Valletta will even be the European capital of culture next year – and this is probably the card to play for the recognition of Maltese wine.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Delicata, Meridiana, San Niklaw, Marsovin, Maria Rosa, Mar Casar and TaMena for their warm welcome. Thank you to the agency MCA Communication, for its precious help in organizing this trip. Thank you to the team of Visit Malta, for accompanying us so kindly when visiting the wineries. Finally, thank you to Madame Béatrice le Fraper du Hellen, Ambassador of the French Republic in Malta, for her kind invitation.

 

(1) Qvevri is a large terracotta jar with a capacity of 800 to 3,500 liters, from Georgia. It looks like an amphora without handles; the interior is lined with a layer of beeswax sealing. Often buried below ground level, it is used for fermentation and storage of wine. The oldest date back to around 6,000 BC.

For more information on Malta : http://www.visitmalta.com/fr/

Spain, a land of wine promises

Should we still present Spain, the world’s largest vineyard in terms of size, with almost 1 million hectares(1)? The answer is : yes, of course ! Despite its imposing size (13% of the world’s vineyards) and its leading position (3rd place in the world rank of wine producers since 2014), Spain is always full of surprises and discoveries.

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In a country with 1,250 grape varieties and more than 60 denominations of origin, no one could pretend to know everything. It is besides, according to me, the country par excellence where you can find the best quality/price ratio wines at less than 6 euros, especially in red. From north to south, let’s discover some winemakers who have surprised us, both by their originality and their typicality. Everyone has a story that deserves a visit.

Txakoli, emblematic wine of the Basque Country

Do you know txakoli?

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Originally produced on the farms of the Basque Country in a traditional way, the txakoli (DO Getariako Txakolina) is above all a friendly and usually a white wine(2), produced from the local varieties Hondarribi Zuri (white) and Hondarribi Beltza (red). Its peculiarity : it is made from grapes harvested slightly green (which gives it some acidity). Also, txakoli wine is slightly carbonated (fizzing).

It is served in a traditional way by pouring long threads of wine from the bottle to the glass, see directly from the tank, as here at Ameztoi!

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Be careful not to splash your feet… it takes a bit of practice…

The finest Spanish bubbles have a name

Welcome to the Raventós i Blanc estate, in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, a region famous for Cava(3). Winegrowers since 1497, Raventós i Blanc has one of the longest documented wine traditions in the world.

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We fell in love with this estate, which decided in the early 1870s during a market crisis, to no longer make still wine, and created the first cava. To differentiate itself from the wines of Champagne, the estate honors autochthonous grape varieties : Xarel-lo (used since 1888 by Manuel Raventos Doménech), Macabeo (introduced in the 1920s) and Parallada, which will all three become the basis for the production of cavas. Today, Pepe Raventós, who represents the 21st generation, assisted by his father Manuel, works the 90 hectares (divided into 44 parcels) without irrigation, using biodynamic methods, horses and other animals (pigs, sheep…).

A beautiful property, 200m above sea level, with fossil limestone and marine soils formed more than 16 million years ago.

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Here sparkling wines are aged on the lees for 18 months to 5 years for the top cuvée. We are absolute fans : the estate undoubtedly produces some of the most beautiful sparkling wines in Spain… or even in the world. Indisputable proof that Spain can produce incredible bubbles.
For the anecdote, the Raventós family withdrew a short time ago from the Cava appellation, not without deep reflection and with a lot of courage, in order to define its own, more strict(4) rules.

Parés Balta, in the heart of the natural park of Foix

Discovering Parés Baltà estate, another green nugget from Penedès.

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From the pollination of the vines by the bees of the estate during flowering, to the sheep grazing among the vines once the grape harvest is over (removing weeds and offering natural fertilization), the Parés Baltà estate is 100% ecological. Its great diversity of soils (limestone, clay, marine fossils), with vines between 170 and 800m above sea level, allows the development of very beautiful wines, such as the Cosmic cuvée, blend of Xarel-lo and Sauvignon blanc.

“Here, wine is exclusively a women’s business!”, Joan and Josep Cusiné Carol, brothers and current owners of the family estate, laughingly told us.

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Indeed, the vinification is solely in the hands of Maria Elena Jimenez and Marta Casas, two talented oenologists… and their wives!

Visiting the vineyard with Gemma Muray, in charge of the oenotoursime, the opportunity was offered to me, on the heights of the natural park of Foix, to sabrage a bottle of sparkling wine with a sword. A big challenge, which I had already tried to achieve three years ago with my friend Jonathan, from Champagne Louis de Sacy, in Verzy. At the time, I completely failed.

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This time, I did it! Thank you Gemma for the lesson. And cheers, a glass of the cuvée Cava Brut in hand!

Ton Rimbau, the winemaker who ages his wine in ceramics

Ton Rimbau, winemaker and founder of the Casa Rimbau estate, in Penedès, is one of the most charismatic characters I have encountered during the project…

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Beyond organic and biodynamic viticulture, Ton Rimbau is a strong advocate of “permaculture”. A method of ancestral and natural culture, with the goal to keep the vines as if they were a forest, with the least possible amount of intervention. This system does not use pesticides or chemicals, as the ecosystem maintains a balance that allows plants to grow healthier and stronger. Spiders – whose vital role in Ton’s vineyard has earned them an effigy on bottle labels – also prevent the proliferation of plant pests, such as cetain types of moths. Finally, the weeds, after being flattened, form a protective layer for the soil, preventing UV from entering and affecting the quality of the soil. All a symbol!

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And that is not all. Add to that the fact that wines are exclusively aged in ceramic bottles… And that the (superb) sparkling wine of the estate is aged under water for two years (!), in Ton’s garage. Here you have a more complete overview of the unique style of this unclassifiable character. To better understand the cuvées of the estate, exclusively white, Ton Rimbau invited us to consult the lunar calendar. Lucky for us, our visit fell on a “fruit day”. I am an absolute fan!

Enric Soler, the quintessence of Xarel-lo

We met with with Enric Soler, in the Penedès – one of my favorite regions of Spain, as you may have noticed – for a lesson in winemaking with the Xarel-lo grape variety.

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Mainly known for cavas, Xarel-lo has only been vinified as a still wine for about ten years. “It’s a misunderstood variety, with extraordinary qualities, that can give great results as a still wine, when you know how to take care of it”, Enric explained.

Professor of oenology at the University of Barcelona, Enric Soler is a winemaker as we like them: discreet, always smiling, humble and so talented. When his grandfather passed away, he had the opportunity to take over his small vineyard, with 70-year-old Xarel.lo vines.

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A real treasure, which once in his hands, was bound to become a revelation. With 2 hectares cultivated biodynamically and with 3 different micro-cuvées (from soil of sand and clay, different altitudes and aging between stainless steel vats, concrete eggs and barrels) as original as it is delicious, Enric produces spectacular wines of complexity and elegance, which invites meditation.

Bodegas Moraza, a different approach of the Rioja

In Rioja Alta (north-central Spain) we visited the Bodegas Moraza, a family estate of 18 hectares, full of charm.

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Why a visit to this beautiful and famous Spanish region? Because the winemakers Julia Moraza and Patricio Brongo, goes against the current of what is being done in the region. “Our cuvées are made in concrete tanks for the reds and in stainless steel tanks for the white wines, to keep the freshness and typicality of the terroir”, Julia explained. An alternative to encourage, in a sunny region where harvests are more and more precocious, year after year, with the risk of over-matured grapes.

A beautiful story, started six generations ago by Julia’s family, in the village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra, a border area between the legendary kingdoms of Castile and Navarre.

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Located at the foot of Mount Toloño, their vineyard, spread over eleven plots between 400 and 650m above sea level, is mainly composed of clay and limestone. An ideal playground for the native varieties of Rioja such as Tempranillo, Grenache and Graciano, or Viura, in white. Another face of Rioja… that conquered us!

Sanlúcar de Barrameda, paradise of manzanilla

To the question “what wine would you take to a desert island?”, I could answer: a bottle of manzanilla, among my three favorite wines. Served very fresh, this delicious dry white wine, with its aromas of fresh walnuts and its incredible salty taste, bewitches me every time.

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Made from the Palomino grape variety, it is produced exclusively in the cellars of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, in the province of Cádiz. Why? Because the particular location of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on the estuary of the Guadalquivir River, offers cool temperatures (very windy) and high humidity, conducive to the development of flora. This yeast develops in the form of a thick veil on the wine, aged in 3/4 filled barrels. The action of flora? It naturally protect the wine from any contact with the air, giving it a unique fresh and delicate aspect.

Let’s discover two wineries that excel in the production of manzanilla. Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, founded in 1792 by Don José Pantoja Hidalgo, has been managed by the same family for eight generations.

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The estate uses grapes from its own vineyards, located in the plains of Balbaina and Miraflores, considered as the best terroirs of the appellation. “The criadera consists of a stack of barrels at several heights. The first level, on the floor, is named solera. The other levels are named first and second criadera…”, Fermin Hidalgo explained.

A very technical part, but essential to understand the evolution of the wine. Adding : “at the end of aging, the wine is withdrawn from the solera.

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The quantity of wine removed is replaced by that of the two barrels above. And so on until the maximum height which is filled with young wine. This system enables, besides aging of the wine, good homogenization of the production between the vintages and each one of the barrels of the criadera”. Result : non-vintage wines, blends of many harvests. The Spaniards like to say that with this system, the old wine educates the young.

Visiting the cellars of the Bodegas Baron was another rare and unforgettable moment.

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Located in the upper area of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, facing the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, the caves are directly exposed to the Atlantic breeze. Welcome to Bodegas Baron, where the Rodriguez Carrasco family has been making wine with the same family roots for 400 years. A very special iodine fragrance bathed the atmosphere, making it almost mystical.

Exactly what we needed to be in the right mood to taste manzanilla from the barrel. Unfiltered, the wine is served directly using a venencia, the traditional tool consisting of a cylindrical container attached to a long stem (formerly made of whalebone).

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A pure moment of joy and emotion.

Ximenez-Spinola, the new face of Pedro Ximenez

We met with José Antonio Zarzana, owner and winemaker of the Ximenez-Spinola estate, a family winery that has been making Pedro Ximenez wines since 1729.

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Recently, José brought a radical change to the region. First of all by planting 22 hectares of the eponymous Pedro Ximenez grape variety around his cellar (he is the only one to have his own vineyard in the region). Secondly, by introducing a new style of wine to the region: a 100% dry Pedro Ximenez wine, aged in new French oak barrels (Pedro Ximenez is usually known for the production of sweet wines of the same name, made from grapes dried under the sun).

“Everyone took me for a madman, even my family, from whom I had to buy the shares to realize the project of my life”, José confided.

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As a result, we discovered a delicious and complex white wine, with a real typicality and crazy charm. A pure delight!

As a culinary conclusion to this wonderful Spanish trip, we wanted to introduce you to the Pata Negra! A fantastic product that marries incredibly well with dry wines from the region, like manzanilla.

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We had the chance to stop in the Extremadura region to visit an Iberian pig farm. Here, pigs are raised freely for the production of the Maximiliano Jabugo Pata Negra. The peculiarity of the diet of this unique breed: the « bellota” (acorns), which gives the meat a unique nutty taste. The hams of Maximiliano Jabugo are then produced in Jabugo.

As we entered the building of the company, the smell of ham in the air was fascinating. I was literally salivating. The production of Pata Negra is as simple and natural as it is respectful to the product : after spending a few days in a salt bath to tighten the flesh, the hams are cured (dried) for about 30 months, depending on the weight of the piece.

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And that’s all. To be tasted for any occasion…

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Raventós i Blanc, Parés Baltà, Casa Rimbau, Enric Soler, Bodegas Moraza, Ameztoi, Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, Bodegas Baron and Ximenez-Spinola estates for their warm welcome. Thank you to our friend Bertrand Nouël for having opened the doors of this fabulous world of Pata Negra to us, as well as for his valuable advice and help in visiting wineries in the Cádiz region. Thank you to Maximiliano Portes, director of Maximiliano Jabugo, for having received us so well. Finally, thank you very much to my friend Benoît, for recommending to meet Enric Soler.

 

(1) 975,000 hectares en 2016 – source OIV 2017.
(2) Today you can find a pink version, only created for the export (USA).
(3) Cava (meaning cellar in Catalan and Spanish) is a sparkling wine produced in Spain (mainly in Catalonia), made according to the traditional method.
(4) Although Cava is predominantly Catalan, several Spanish municipalities – sometimes located at almost 1,000km – could get the right to mention the Cava appellation for their sparkling wines, sometimes made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.

For more information on Maximiliano Jabugo : https://www.maximilianojabugo.com/fr/ 

Cyprus, an island full of (wine) treasures

Legend has it that Cyprus was called “the island of love” after Aphrodite was born from foam at the point where the sea throws itself on the rocks of the coast of Paphos… The reality, in fact, is just as idyllic on the wine side.

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Located on the easternmost part of the Mediterranean Sea, in the Levantine basin(1), the island is full of wine treasures : a history rich in traditions, indigenous varieties as varied as interesting, and the production of Commandaria, the oldest wine still in production. There was nothing more needed to sharpen our curiosity.

A plurimillenary wine tradition

Welcome to Cyprus, an island of just 1.3 million inhabitants, with around 60 estates(2) spread over 7900 hectares of vineyards, producing about 81000 hl per year(3).

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Our focus was on four essential wine producers, along with Manon Perramond, a young (and talented) photographer who accompanied the Wine Explorers at this new destination.

“Did you know that the wine-growing history of Cyprus is 5000 years old ?!”… It was with these words that we were receive with an enthusiastic energy by Mrs. Loannides, who was smiling from ear to ear. She and her husband – an 85-year-old doctor, still active – are winegrowers and the owners of the Ayia Mavri estate in central Cyprus.

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A wonderful meeting, full of humanity and positivism, where passion was more palpable than ever. Like her husband, she speaks about wine with stars in the eyes. Started in 1983, the estate produces 50,000 bottles and has been nicknamed “the sweet vineyard” by the locals, thanks to its specialization in the production of world-class sweet wines. They even have some Xynisteri vines (a delicious white indigenous grape) 100 years old… To be discovered urgently!

An island under the sign of the sun

On the way to our second visit, we were surprised to discover a lot of water heaters on the roofs of the buildings of the island.

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“The weather is so beautiful all year round that people provide their hot water needs with the sun”, Mrs. Sofroniou, from the Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism of Cyprus, who accompanied us during the visits, explained. “We do not use electricity from April to October, only solar panels, to supply our homes with hot water”.

Rendez-vous at Vlassides estate, a very pretty property of 18 hectares, located on the plateau of Koilani, at 700m above sea level, in the center of the island – established by Sophocle Vlassides in 1998.

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At the time, Sophocle already had the vision to transform the small shop of his grandfather to produce “garage wine”. He studied oenology at the University of Davis, California. In 2012, the success was there and the team moved to a new, more modern cellar, with a cave dug 9 meters into the rock, to preserve the freshness of the wines. As you will have realized, it is hot in Cyprus.

We visited the vineyard at 8am… at 27°C. Panos Magalios, the assistant oenologist, explained to us that Vlassides produces 120,000 bottles a year, mainly from the grape varieties Xynisteri, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. In recent years, the estate has experimented with some indigenous Cypriot varieties such as Maratheftiko and Yiannoudi (red), and Promara and Morokanella (white).

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“We need to experiment more to see which grape varieties are best suited to the heat, as well as to the high humidity present during summer time”, Panos said.

Kyperounda, one of the highest vineyards in Europe

During the discovery of Kyperounda winery, we were accompanied by Minas Mina, a fantastic and passionate Cypriot winemaker! Built at the end of the 1990s, Kyperounda belongs to more than 40 shareholders, whose control and management are placed in the hands of the Photos Photiades group.

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The estate was built on three levels, in order to use gravity to move the grape juice in the gentlest way possible.
The cellar, located in the region of Pitsilia, 75 km from Nicosia and 50 km from Limassol, is magnificent. With an altitude of 1,400 meters above sea level (one of the highest in Europe), the schist and loess soils (very poor), are fantastic for the production of deep and precise wines. Add to this low yields and cool nights – unique in the region – this combination makes the Kyperounda estate one of the jewels of Cyprus viticulture…

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A special mention for its Commandaria (100% Xynisteri). A unique type of sweet wine exclusively found in Cyprus, developed at the foot of the Troodos Mountains. This is the oldest wine in the world still in production, and is made from the grape varieties Xynisteri (white) and/or Mavro (red), whose clusters are dried in the sun to concentrate the grape berries into sugar. The juice from pressing is then fermented naturally in stainless steel vats (even sometimes in terracotta jars), then fortified(4) to reach an alcohol level of about 15%. The wine is then brought to the cellars of Limassol, where it is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The result : concentrated sweet wines with an amber color and a perfume of resin, pine, dried fruit and nuts. A delight…

Yiannoudin, (red) favorite grape

We ended our stay by visiting Tsiakkas winery, in the village of Pelendri, in the south of the island.

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Perched at an altitude of 1000m, it is probably one of the most beautiful vineyards in Cyprus, with its northern exposition and amphitheater shape. Costas Tsiakkas, the owner of the estate and a former businessman (he was a banker in a previous life), started in 1988 with only 5,000 bottles. Today, with a production of 150,000 bottles, his success is impressive.

His secret? The search for unrecognized or forgotten indigenous grape varieties. “I like to focus on local grape varieties : they are more resistant to diseases and are the future of Cypriot winemaking, both in terms of taste and identity”.

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Here we discovered Yiannoudin, a red grape with very fine skin and berries, and concentrated juice. And a special mention for the cuvée Yiannoudin 2014, a generous red wine full of depth and freshness, with notes of wild black fruit, leather, spices and cigar. We loved it!

We departed from Cyprus with stars in our eyes… A (wine) destination of great interest. And a country full of authentic people and wine treasures. Our last meal on the beach, a plate of Halloumi (the traditional cheese) and a glass of Ouzo.

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Another facet of the rich local gastronomic heritage.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Vlassides, Ayia Mavri, Kyperounda Winery and Tsiakkas Winery for their warm welcome. Thanks also to the Trade Office of the Embassy of Cyprus in Paris and to the Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism of Cyprus for having organized and supported this visit in such a beautiful way. Finally, thanks to the young and talented photographer Manon Perramond for participating in the trip.

 

(1) The Levantine Basin is a subdivision of the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea and corresponds to its easternmost part (Southern Turkey, Cyprus, Middle East).
(2) The island has about 60 commercial domains, as well as many small domestic plantations intended for private consumption.
(3) Production 2016 – source : Cypriot Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism.
(4) Following fermentation, the wine is fortified, either with a wine brandy containing 95% alcohol by volume or a distilled wine containing 70% by volume of alcohol.

Andorra has some surprises for you

Welcome to Andorra, one of the smallest sovereign states in Europe, with an area of 468 km2. Bordered by Spain and France, its location in the Pyrenees makes it a country mainly composed of high mountains. Its capital, Andorra la Vella, is also the highest in Europe (1,023 meters above sea level).

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It is a country as small as it is charming and which currently have four wine estates. We had the chance to visit two of them. This deserved an article. Because, by hijacking a famous quote by Alfred de Musset, I would say : “No matter the size of the vineyard, provided we have drunkenness”. And we got it.

Unique topography and climate in Europe

Arriving with our camper from the Regional Natural Park of Ariège Pyrenees, south, we started to climb the mountain in laces, which unfolded at our feet, towards Andorra. The time trial stage of the Tour de France between Saint-Girons and Foix had just ended. We encountered fun amateur cyclists descending, followed by dozens of motorhomes. The atmosphere was festive.

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Located astride the 42nd parallel north, one might rightly think that Andorra enjoys a similar climate to that of the south of France, with which the country is bordering. Not at all. Possessing one of the highest vineyards in Europe, located between 1100 and 1200 meters above sea level, Andorra enjoys ideal climatic conditions. Between spring and summer – starting from flowering(1), until the harvest – the days are mild, warm in summer (31°C during our visit, mid-July).

But the nights are cool and rarely rise above 16-18°C (2). On the rainfall side, precipitation amounts to about 850 millimeters per year (the equivalent of Bordeaux) and are well distributed throughout the year.

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Ideal conditions for the production of tobacco, the main agricultural activity of Andorra. And of course, a great terroir for the production of white wines.

Borda Sabaté, a vineyard accessible only by 4X4

Located in Sant Julià, near the Spanish border, the Borda Sabaté estate was planted in 2006, with the desire to be the pioneer of wine tourism in the Principality ; offering all year round various options to visit its vineyards (organized meals, picnics, seminars).

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Two hectares of Riesling, Cornalin(3), Merlot and Syrah are planted on slopes and worked following an ecological and biodynamic agriculture, under the guidance of the Rhône-Alpes winemaker Alain Graillot, who consults the estate.

Because of the very steep gravel roads that lead to the vineyard, getting there is a real adventure, as impressive as it is risky, and only possible with a 4X4 vehicle. Upon reaching the summit (1200 meters), we admired the privileged view over the valley, at the top of the sunny side of the Muxella. Magnificent. As for the winery, no less spectacular, as it was built directly into the rock, in order to have a natural and constant freshness.

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The work of a titan… and great passion. With (only) two wines and 3,500 bottles produced per year… it is better to visit the estate directly to have the chance to discover this beautiful production.

Casa Beal, the Gewurztraminer in all its splendor

Not far from here, we discovered the Casa Beal estate. We met with Joan Visa, a genius winemaker and a humble and endearing character.

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Joan is a farmer, a profession handed down from generation to generation on the family estate (since 1170!), specializing in the production of tobacco. An ancient art consisting of growing tobacco plants first and then drying the leaves in a well-ventilated, hot and humid place for about 12 weeks.

In 2004, Joan wanted to plant a few vines, to diversify its activities. This was the revelation.

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He planted 1.5 hectares, only with Gewurztraminer! And started to produce a unique cuvée, of which he barely makes 1200 bottles in the best years. A wine of extraordinary precision and that I am not ready to forget.

Because even if I’m not always a big fan of the powerful aromas of rose and lychee that are characteristic of wines made from the Gewurztraminer grape variety, I must admit that I fell in love with Joan’s wine, which is based on notes of honeysuckle, mountain flowers and chestnut honey. A pure moment of meditation, which provided proof, if it was necessary, that Andorra can produce great wines. So if you are in te vicinity, stop at Joan’s winery. He will be delighted to welcome you.

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As you can understand, wine from Andorra is a rare product. And its price may be high compared to other parts of the world ; legitimated by high production costs. But sometimes, it is also what creates the charm and the magic of a wine.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Borda Sabaté and Casa Beal for their warm welcome.

 

(1) The vegetative cycle is characterized by several stages. After the appearance of the first leaves and first clusters comes flowering, in June.
(2) Source : http://www.climatsetvoyages.com
(3) Cornalin is a black grape vine originating from Switzerland and among the oldest autochthonous vines planted in Valais.

Kosovo, in search of a deserved recognition

Welcome to Kosovo! In the heart of the former Yugoslavia, this country, as small as it is charming (1.8 million inhabitants), often unknown to tourists (wrongly!), has literally amazed us by the beauty of its landscapes and the welcoming nature of its inhabitants.

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Surrounded by Montenegro and Albania to the west, Macedonia to the south and Serbia to the northwest, Kosovo was only recognized as an independent state in 2008. Still very rural, its economic system is based on an agricultural dominance, where wine has always had a place ; although in limited quantities. Bullied in the last century, like many neighboring countries under the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo is gradually getting its viticulture back on track. Story of a vineyard in search of identity.

A remarkable arrival in Rahovec

At its peak in 1989, Kosovo had 9,000 hectares of vineyards. It was largely destroyed in the 1990s(1), when the country was plunged into war. Today, with renewed peace and the arrival of new investors, the Kosovar vineyard is finding new life ; to our delight.

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On the way to Rahovec – the country’s main wine region, with 3000 hectares of vines and around 20 wine estates – the Wine Explorers motorhome attracted curiosity! The people we met, surprised and intrigued, all turn in our direction, waving their hands. At each stop, people approached us, smiling. After shaking our hands, all made it clear that they would not be opposed to a short visit. We played the game with happiness. It was a nice and original way to get to know locals, after all.

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Large panels proudly displayed the wine route. Welcome to Rahovec. What a beautiful surprise the landscape here offered to us! Leaving the agricultural plains of the south, we arrived on a hilly plateau, with a scattered topography, where vines were planted on hillsides, as far as the eye can see. Wonderful. It (almost) looked like Tuscany…

The rehabilitation of former state-owned companies

We visited Stone Castle and Bodrumi i Vjeter. Both date from 1953 and testify to the revival of the Kosovar viticulture. Belonging to the state under the regime of the former Yugoslavia, these wineries had at the time a dual objective: productivity and efficiency (quantity at the expense of quality). Privatized in 2006, they are today expanding well, equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and now focused on quality.

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Stone Castle well deserves its name. We arrived in front of a huge stone facade, built in a “medieval” style. It was in 2006 that Rrustem and Hysen Gecaj embarked on the wine adventure, reactivating a modern winery on the foundations of a former state-owned company. On the property of 2,200 ha (of which 650 are planted with vines), the Gecaj family has invested several million euros to create Stone Castle. This wine giant (for the country) is currently the largest winery of Kosovo, with a production of 8 to 9 million liters per year (capacity of 30 million liters).

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Located in the heart of the Rahovec Valley, its vineyards are composed of poor and sandy soils, laden with minerals. The vineyard is caressed by abundant sunlight and a gentle breeze. “It’s classic weather this spring season”, we were told. Result, well made red wines, fresh and fruit driven.

At the Bodrumi i Vjeter estate, which means “old cellar”, Vranac, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay and Merlot were planted in red, Chardonnay and Italian Riesling in white. We visited the vineyards at sunset.

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The air was getting fresher but nice. An ideal time to admire the hectares of vines that extended on these hilly reliefs, between 340 and 600 meters above sea level, like big mushrooms just getting out of the ground. The place was idyllic. The moderate continental climate of Rahovec, combined with the Mediterranean currents from the west, offers the region a nice terroir, propitious to the cultivation of vines.

The emergence of small family estates

Sefa Wine is one of the few family estates in Kosovo. Dating back to 1917, it has seen 3 generations of wine growers passing on their precious know-how to produce quality wines.

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Mr Labinot Shulina, owner and winemaker, has set up his estate in the heights of the city of Rahovec, next to the family house. We had the opportunity to taste some samples taken from stainless steel tanks and barrels. The red wines, made from Vranac grapes, were fresh, crunchy and full of black fruit. A limited production (60,000 bottles a year for the estate), but promising wines.

Active on social media, he brilliantly developed tourism in order to attract many travelers to his tasting table. A very sympathetic group of Dutch tourists came to join us for a nice moment of sharing and exchange.

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We concluded our stay with a visit to the national association of the vineyards of Kosovo, “Enologjia”, created in October 2008 which includes some twenty estates. Initiated by a few producers in the Rahovec region, this multi-hat association is both a guarantor of the protection of common interests, a regulator of development on the internal and external market and also fights against unauthorized sales of wine and eau-de-vie. A qualitative springboard for the viticulture of the country.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Bodrumi i Vjeter, Stone Castle and Sefa Wine, for their warm welcome. Thank you to the Enologjia team for kindly receiving us and for having provided us with very valuable information about the vineyards of Kosovo.

 

(1) The Kosovo war took place from March 6th, 1998 to June 10th, 1999 in the territory of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, opposing the Yugoslav Army to the Liberation Army of Kosovo and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Macedonia, towards a new wine-making blast

Have you ever heard of red grape varieties such as Stanouchina, Prokupets, Vranets, Kratochia and Kadarka? Or white ones like Smederevka and Joupyanka? So many indigenous treasures which seduced us and helped to build the wine heritage and the identity of the Macedonian vineyard.

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Although the vineyard is the country’s second largest crop with 28,000 hectares (after tobacco production), it is certain that Macedonian viticulture is coming back from a long road. To our greatest happiness, it plays in the big leagues today. Overview of a beautiful country, as green as it is mountainous, with a rich wildlife – one can encounter wolves, bears or lynxes – that bewitched us at first sight.

A revival of the vineyard after independence

It should be noted that viticulture was introduced to Macedonia in ancient times. Maintained by the monasteries under the Ottoman Empire – from the 14th century to 1912 – for the production of quality wines. It experienced a sharp turn towards mass production in the last century . So much so, that during the communist period, Macedonia was able to supply up to 80% of the wine production of Yugoslavia.

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Macedonian wine was then cheap, sold in bulk and often mixed with blended wines. “In the days of communism, not only was maximum production expected from the farmers, but the one who had the most grapes per vine won a television!”, we were told. It was only after September 8, 1991 and the independence of the country, that a viticulture of quality was reborn, with the creation of new wineries.

Like the Popov estate, established in 2001 in Sopot, in the heart of the most famous wine region of Macedonia(1), which with 45 hectares of vineyards, has successfully overcome the challenge of modernity.

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I must admit, all the vineyards we visited positively surprised us, showing that Macedonia has more than ever earned its place on the world wine scene. With a moderate continental climate (the country is totally continental, without any maritime boundary) and a rather mountainous topography, the country has all the geographical assets to produce beautiful wines. It only lacks global recognition, which would be important to revalue its production ; a kilo of grapes are currently sold for around 0.25 euro cents.

Popova Kula and the Stanushina

Located in the heart of one of the largest ornithological parks in Europe, in the south-east of the country, the Popova Kula estate welcomed us under the watchful eye of its watchtower. Welcome to Demir Kapija, a region with a unique microclimate of 300 days of sunshine a year, which was already chosen by King Alexander I of Yugoslavia in the late 1920s, to plant his vineyard. Today, the estate focuses on wine tourism (a pioneer in the region) and offers outstanding activities to its visitors: off-the-beaten track trails, wildlife viewing, traditional cooking lessons, and even folk dances lessons!

Spotlight on Stanushina, an endemic grape variety discovered ten years ago on the Popova Kula estate which grows nowhere else in the world (2 hectares planted).

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Characterized by small berries with thin skins, it produces juicy red wines, light, with delicious flavors of plum and wild strawberry. We loved it.

Tikves, the Macedonian giant

A true emblem of Macedonian wine since 1885, Tikves is the most important winery in Southeast Europe in terms of production, with an average of 12 million bottles sold per year. Not bad.

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It is located in the town of Kavadarci, in the south. We visited this impressive winery complex, accompanied by Marco Stojakovic, the oenologist. Despite the size of the premises, the professionalism and meticulous organization that reigns here forces admiration. A model of its kind.

The region, bathed in sunshine for most of the year, is very pleasant to live in. The pure water of the surroundings, from Lake Tikvesh, combined with a light and constant wind, gives the vineyards – some of which are planted on plots higher than 700m above sea level – optimal conditions for the maturity of the grapes.

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As a result, we tasted surprising wines with intense aromas, such as the red wine “Barovo 2013” (blend of Vranec and Kratosija), with notes of blackberries, blueberries, garrigue and cigar…

Bovin, the different tastes of Vranac

It is in Negotino, a charming city of 15,000 inhabitants in the south of Macedonia, that the vineyards of the Bovin estate grow.

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We were warmly welcomed by Kostadin Kitanov, the Sales Manager, a very happy and enthusiastic person. Here, “positive energy is de rigueur”, and “that’s how we make good wines!”. This is perhaps what explains the success of Bovin, Kostadin explained, since 80% of the production of the estate is exported to 36 countries. During the tasting, we discovered with wonder the many possible variations of Vranac, an autochthonous red variety representing 60% of the estate’s production. Sometimes dry, sometimes sweet, fermented in stainless steel tanks or in barrels, this grape variety never stopped surprising and delighting our taste buds.

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Not far from there are the ruins of the city of Stobi, which Kostadin kindly took us to visit. An important experience to understand the history of the country. The city occupied a key position in the Vardar Valley, on the strategic axis linking the Aegean Sea to the Danube basin. The invasion of the Ostrogoths in 482, and the earthquake of 518 were two disasters which Stobi never recovered from, and it would have been abandoned towards the end of the 5th century. A must-see site, and a wonderful testimony to Macedonian cultural heritage.

Château Kamnik, hunting landmark and fine wines

Welcome to Château Kamnik, a majestic 15-hectare vineyard in north-central Macedonia, in the beautiful capital of Skopje.

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Upon our arrival to the estate, we visited the hotel complex with Anita Jovanovska, a person as funny and kind as she is welcoming. The decoration is in the style of a “hunter’s landmark”. Ambiance guaranteed…

Founded in 2004 by Mr Ilija Malinkovski, an outstanding businessman, passionated about wine, hunting and gastronomy, Château Kamnik produces beautiful bottles from a wide range of grape varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Vranac ; not to name them all.

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Spotlight on the cuvée “Chardonnay Barrel Fermented 2006“, very complex and with great freshness, proof that Macedonian white wines can age well.

And while recognition on the local market is still complicated – “it’s easier to sell a foreign entry-level wine in Macedonia than the best Macedonian wine”, according to Anita – Macedonian wines are worth the detour and have a thousand and one tastes, one as interesting as the next… Go for it.

 

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Popova Kula, Bovin, Tikves, Popov and Château Kamnik for their warm welcome. Thanks to the Stobi team for this exciting visit. Thanks to our friend Anita Jovanovska, from Château Kamnik, for having played the guide in Skopje at night. Finally, thanks to Mr Ante BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for his valuable winery recommendations.

 

(1) Macedonia has three major production regions: the Vardar Valley, where 85% of Macedonian wine is produced, along the Vardar River, which crosses the country from north to south; Pelagonie-Polog, in the south-west of the country, where the vines grow on plateaus between 600 and 680 meters above sea level (11% of Macedonian wine) ; Pchinya- Osogovo, more arid and mountainous (4% of Macedonian wine).

Albania, one of the oldest vineyards in Europe

Before arriving in Albania, I asked myself a thousand questions about this country. What does it look like? How will we be welcomed? Are the roads in good condition for our motorhome? What about the quality of the wines? So many questions fueled my desire to explore this enigmatic wine destination of the Balkans, wedged between Montenegro and Kosovo in the north, Macedonia in the east, and Greece in the south.

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With its beautiful rugged mountains with snow-capped peaks, lush green countryside, picturesque beaches and vibrant cities, Albania is an open postcard to discover urgently. For wine lovers, its many autochthonous grape varieties, its vineyard of 10,000 hectares(1) and its multi-millennial wine tradition will delight the most curious.

2800 years of viticulture

Arriving in Albania from the north at nightfall, after a border check of more than two hours, we started to feel the fatigue in the camper. We decided to drive a few more kilometers and to stop after Shkodër, the main city of the region.

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Suddenly, right in the city center, as we drove unhindered twice on two lanes separated by a median strip, a white horse rose out of nowhere, trotting against the direction of the road. By good reflex, we barely avoided the animal. The moment was surreal!

After all these emotions, we stopped for dinner and took the opportunity to learn more about the wine history of the country from the locals. Surprising. Viticulture developed in the 8th century BC on the basis of autochthonous grape varieties that had survived the ice age, making Albania one of the oldest wine producing countries in Europe. During the 17th century, wine production slowed down under the Islam influence, due to the decline in the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

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It was not until 1972, during Communist rule, that Albanian wine production reached its peak with 20,000 hectares(1). In the early 1990s, a research institute was set up and a privatization program for viticultural land was set up to modernize wine production, promote local grape varieties and establish a market economy. The beginning of a new era for the Albanian vineyard and the promise of beautiful discoveries.

Kantina Arbëri, a symbol of the revival of Albanian viticulture

Having just arrived in Mirditë, a village of 40,000 inhabitants in the north of the country, we were warmly welcomed by the locals, with great smiles and hand signals. The motorhome was such an attraction here. Some people were approaching us. Others kept their distance. All seemed curious.

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Welcome to Arbëri estate. With 25 hectares located between 396 and 640m above sea level, this family vineyard has seen 3 generations of winemakers succeed one another. The microclimate of the region, between the warmth of the Mediterranean sun and the freshness of mountain nights, makes it possible to work with precision on two autochthonous grape varieties: Kallmet (red) and Shesh i Bardhë (white).

“My grandfather, who started planting in the 1920s, was forced to stop during Albanian communism (1941-1991), because of the collectivization of the vineyards by the government”, Rigers, his grandson, explained. In 1991, after the country regained its independence, Fran Kaçorri, his father, had the courage to reopen the Arbëri estate and started from scratch… A beautiful story, in which Rigers is now involved, as oenologist.

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For the record, Mirditë – which is certainly the most Catholic district of Albania – was visited by Pope Francis I, who came to visit Kantina Arbëri and tasted some wines in 2014. The Holy Grail for the estate.

Kantina Bardha, the incredible (American) success story

Definitely, the Albanian vineyard continued to surprise us. In the center-west of the country, overlooking the village of Marikaj, lies the Bardha estate. A superb house with Italian architecture, rising to 400m above sea level, where Mavrud and Shesh i Zi indigenous grapes are grown in red and Shesh i Bardhe in white.

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This estate was the dream of Mr Ekrem Bardha. After having to emigrate to the United States because of the communist regime in the 1950s, then a barber by trade, he embarked on the McDonald adventure with his first franchise. With an extraordinary sense of business, this indefatigable self-taught man is today at the head of a small empire (18 franchises!). His most cherished dream at the time was to return to Albania, as soon as the newfound country gained independence, in order to create a vineyard on the land of his childhood.

Thus Kantina Bardha was born, a vineyard of charm, planted on hillsides, where the hens walk quietly between the rows of vines.

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With no less than 300 days of sunshine a year and mineral soils, the unique climate of the region gives the wines a very good balance between acidity (freshness) and anthocyanes (superb natural antioxidants!). We really liked it.

Donkey ride in the vineyard

Welcome to Kokomani estate, a lovely vineyard created in 2008. Halfway between Tirana (the capital, to the east) and Durres (to the west), it overlooks the surrounding mountains, offering a breathtaking panoramic view. In good weather, you can even see the sea.

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The ideal place for tourists who seek to discover the charms of this country, while enjoying beautiful local wines.

We met with Blerim Kokomani, the owner and winemaker, who has worked in Italy for 13 years alongside the famous winemaker Andrea Franchetti, before returning to Albania and creating the Kokomani estate. This “lover of nature”, as his wife and daughter like to point out, cultivates his vines biologically. Irrigation and pesticides are not allowed here.

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After having tasted the delicious traditional food of the estate’s restaurant, we ended our visit with an epic tour of the 20-hectares estate riding the donkey of the estate during which we took the time to admire the wild nature around us. Because it is on mineral soils and old marine alluvium, that two emblematic grapevines of Albania: Shesh i Bardhe (white) and Shesh i Zi (red), coming from the village of Shesh (5km from here) are grown.

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To be visited urgently.

A viticulture that has managed to recover from communism

Let’s not forget that the Albanian vineyard is a survivor. In the last century, at the end of the communist regime, it had to be rebuild from scratch. As evidenced by Çobo winery, in Ura Vajgurore, in the south of the country, that we had the pleasure to visit.

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“Despite a long winemaking tradition dating back to the early 1900s, my family – just like many other estates across Albania – was forced to stop production when the communist regime took power in 1945. Private companies were not allowed”, Muharrem Çobo said. During this difficult period, wine traditions disappeared. And it is thanks to the memories and stories passed down by the family members, that the Çobo winery was reborn after the advent of Albanian democracy in 1991(2).

“We have revived the tradition and we are proud to make Çobo exist again, through our vineyards, the winery and the wines we produce”.

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Today, the Çobo vineyards, planted in terraces on the surrounding hills, are probably some of the most beautiful wine-growing sites in the country. And the light which played cross it in the late summer afternoon of our visit, sublimated it even more.

 

On the way out, I already knew that I will have to come back. This trip touched me and I must say that I came back grown up after this visit. The humility and kindness of the people were breathtaking.

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The smile of the Albanians, their welcome and their simplicity – in the noble sense of the term – make Albania an even more beautiful country. And the cherry on the cake, we drunk delicious wines.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thanks to Arbëri, Bardha, Kokomani and Çobo estates for their warm welcome. Thanks also to Mr Dashamir Elezi, President of the Association of Sommeliers of Albania, for having accompanied us during our visit to the Bardha estate. A huge thank you to Arjeta Frroku, professor of mathematics and Arbëri neighbor, for having spontaneously accompanied us during our visit of the domain, to help us to translate some technical terms. Finally, thank you to my young intern Dimitri Bourdon, who joined the adventure in Albania, for his daily good mood.

 

(1) The country has grown to 20,000 hectares (of which 14,000 hectares were devoted to wine grape varieties) during the half-century of Soviet rule.
(2) The People’s Republic of Albania was officially proclaimed on January 11, 1946. Albania was then isolated from the rest of the world until the collapse of the communist regime in 1991 and was subject to one of the most severe regimes of the history of modern Europe, with more than 8,000 people on death row and thousands of people imprisoned in camps (compared to a post-war population of 1 million).

Montenegro, the European wine Tom Thumb

As small as it is charming, as wild as it is welcoming and as mountainous as it is verdant, Montenegro deserves the detour on your next summer vacation.

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Bordering five other wine-producing countries (Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania), the country has barely 680,000 inhabitants (less than Marseille, for example). And with 4300 hectares planted(1), this little European Tom Thumb progressively tries to make its way in the wine landscape… but has not finished to surprise us. Overview.

Viticulture concentrated around Podgorica, the capital

From the south of Croatia, it took us a little more than 3 hours by motorhome to cover the 150 km that separate the coast, to the west, from the Podgorica region, to the east, where the Montenegrin vineyard is located. To go inland, we had to follow winding roads, with innumerable turns.

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The mountains of Montenegro are among the most hilly roads in Europe… and I can assure you that it was climbing. But the beauty of the scenery overcame the fatigue of the road. Here, nature is beautiful and preserved. Everything is green during spring. Along the majestic Skadar Lake, we finally reached the Petrovac valley, which adjoins Podgorica.

It is here that we discovered Zenta, a family vineyard of 4 hectares, where Drasko Vučinić, aided by his aunt Dragica, produces superb red wines from Vranac, an indigenous grape variety, among others.

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“We have a very interesting microclimate for the cultivation of vines, since we are in the most southern part of the Adriatic coast. The result is a temperate climate with mild nights and sunny days in summer, and regular rainfall, concentrated in winter and spring”. Be careful where you step though, some horned vipers hang out here in summer! Fortunately, the cats in the field stand guard. And the place remains idyllic.

When painting, wine and music go hand in hand

An invitation can’t be refused. Especially when it hides a beautiful surprise.

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Welcome to the Ćetković winery, in the village of Beri (15 minutes from Podgorica), a vineyard of 3,200 vines (barely one hectare), planted with Vranac and Marselan, producing 4,000 bottles per year.

A peaceful place, founded by Vucic Ćetković (painter) and his cousin Vuk Ćetković (oenologist) less than five years ago. Why such a project? “We wanted to continue the wine tradition of our grandfather who was already making wine on this land”, the two men said unanimously.

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We discovered with great pleasure their concept, around “Art and Wine”. A formula that is not new, some people will say. Perhaps. Except that here, everything fits wonderfully.

The tasting cellar is none other than the painting workshop of Vucic. The place is full of good vibrations and positive energy. A little paradise… Especially when tasting some good Montenegrin red wines, with music beautifully played by the duo formed by Vucic’s girlfriend, Milena Vukovic (violin) and her friend Milica Vujovic (cello).

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A pure moment of sharing and joy!

Plantaže, the European giant

Curious as we are, we could not visit Montenegro without stopping at the estate Plantaže, which alone accounts for more than 80% of the country’s wine production(2).

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With 2,310 hectares – and 11.5 million vines planted – Plantaže is today the largest single vineyard in Europe.

Rather impressive, even paradoxical, to find such a large estate in such a small country. “The most significant phase in the development of Plantaže was the realization of the project called “The Plains of Ćemovsko“ in 1970, when 2,000 hectares of vines and orchards were planted, in addition to the existing vineyard. At the time, it was the biggest project in Europe”, we were told.

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For the anecdote, part of the current vineyard was planted on the former military airport of the country, which moved its activities to the Independence of Montenegro in 2006.

And it is on the old aerial track of 2178 m – from which the planes took off – that we went through the vineyard by car, vines passing on each side of the cockpit, as far as the eye can see. In the neighboring mountain, the underground military hangar which was built to protect and maintain the equipment, has now been converted into a cellar by Plantaže for aging its wines. A striking and magical place.

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On the wine side, some very nice surprises. The vineyard is bordered by a chain of limestone hills, benefiting from very beautiful poor soils with a sandy tendency, on which mainly Vranac (70% of the production) are grown, alongside a multitude of international varieties.

Making house-wine in Montenegro, a thousand-year-old tradition

“Every household here makes wine and distills for its own consumption.

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It’s a millennial tradition since Roman times”, according to Miloš Rajković, the third generation of winegrowers on the BUK estate, who welcomed us with a glass of Rakija, a national brandy made from grapes!

It is in the peaceful village of Bukovic that this young enthusiast produces 11,000 bottles of wine a year, from Vranac, Marselan (he was the first to introduce this grape variety in the country in 2005), Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Muscat Ottonel. His favorite pastime: being in the cellar to make the blends. At the forefront of equipment technology (wine press, vats, fudges…), its red wines are delicious and full of freshness.

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A very nice winegrower and a family that welcomes one with huge smiles. Even their dog looks like a huge plush! We loved it.

Seven kilometers away, after taking a few narrow paths in the forest, where our camper van was just passing through, we finally found the charming village of Utrg, 10km from the Adriatic (to the east) and the Skadar Lake (to the west). An appointment was taken with the Vukmanović estate, as the last visit of our journey.

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A micro vineyard of 1 hectare, perched at 380m above sea level, mainly producing red wines from the Vranac, Kratosija(3) and Lisičina native varieties. Another little corner of paradise, where the water of the mountains is drunk directly at the source!

Aleksandar Vukmanović, 13th generation of winemakers on the estate, shares his week between his job as an electrical engineer and his passion for wine. “I like to perpetuate the tradition. Working in the vineyard three days a week, as well as on weekends and during my holidays”, said this non-standard and very sympathetic winegrower, back from a walk in the mountains.

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The tasting was done under the trees, to the sound of the bees that foraged around us. The moment was out of time.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Zenta, Ćetković, Vukmanović, Buk and Plantaže estates for their warm welcome. And special thanks to Vucic Ćetković, founder of the Art & Wine House Montenegro concept and his family for giving us such a nice overview of their country and making us feel at home during our stay.

 

(1) Latest official figures, according to the Ministry of Agriculture of Montenegro: about 4300 hectares of vines planted.
(2) 2/3 of the country’s vineyard is used for commercial production; the rest has been planted by private individuals for personal production/consumption.
(3) the kratosija variety is also known as Primitivo and Zinfandel.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, the sleepy beauty of the Balkans

Welcome to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a wine country with crazy charm, which, if I believe my little finger, should soon become a talking point ?

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Known as one of the last European refuges of the vine after the Ice Age, the vineyard of Bosnia and Herzegovina developed on the basis of indigenous grape varieties that had survived this glacial period(1). Hardly touched by the war of 1992-1995, the vineyard shrunk from 6000 hectares before the war, to 3570 hectares today ; concentrated mainly in the region of Mostar, along the Neretva valley.

When weddings rhyme with wine

Vilinka Winery is the story of an adorable family who embarked on the wine adventure in 2008 with 3 hectares of vines planted in the Vilinka region of southern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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The Eres family initially specialized in the organization of weddings – with a company creating wedding dresses and a reception building built at the foot of the mountains – their idea to create a vineyard capable of supplying wine during the weddings was brilliant. Because people do not joke around when it comes to wedding parties in this country: count between 500 and 700 guests on average for dinner! “If you forget to invite someone to your wedding, close to you or not, family or simple co-worker, this person will come to your house within a year to bring you a gift. It is better to invite everyone in one go! “, Velimir enjoyed to share with us.

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Velimir, who is self-taught, learned all about viticulture and oenology from books. He planted his vineyard on a plateau at 400m above sea level, on white pebble soils. An exceptional terroir for the local grape varieties Žilavka, in white (pronounced “Jilavka”) and Blatina, in red; beautifully maintained by Velimir. Production is almost exclusively sold on the spot. A wedding was planned when I arrived. Everyone was busy preparing.

About fifteen pigs were being roasted on the spit and the delicious smell of grilled pork spread quickly throughout the village.

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At nightfall, the guests were there and the music was in full swing. Everyone danced, feasted… and drunk Vilinka wines. The party was a huge success.

The vineyard of broken rocks

The region of Mostar is an extraordinary terroir for the cultivation of vines, with its temperate Mediterranean climate and its white soils, composed of poor fossil rocks, favorable for the production of great wines, in both white and red.

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The result is a deep, mineral and stretched signature in all the good wines of the country – especially on Trnjak (red) and Žilavka (white) grape varieties. The only problem is that the stones are so compact on the surface of the soils that it is impossible to plant vines with traditional machines: they can not penetrate the soil… Nuić estate, created in 2004 in the village of Crnopod, in southern Herzegovina, found the solution, inventing a machine capable of smaching stone!

The work of a Titan, because it is necessary to break the innumerable rocks present in the soil into pieces before being able to plant any vines.

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“The wine-growing history of Bosnia and Herzegovina dates back to BC and was then already predominantly in this region. It was up to us to reconnect with the tradition by taming its magnificent soils of “unique white crushed stones, which make the richness of our wines “, Ivan Planinic from Nuić estate, explained. Fascinating, after so many countries explored, to discover new planting techniques, as well as new indigenous grape varieties – showing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s identity in terms of wine and cultural wealth.

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The world of wine is definitely full of surprises. An infinite playground and my garden of predilection ; for which I thank nature every day.

Brkić, a model of success

Between a micro-production of top quality wines (15,000 bottles produced per year), an organic philosophy – even biodynamic on certain wines – and an exclusive focus on two indigenous grape varieties, Žilavka (white) and Blatina (red), the Brkić estate is a must see in Bosnia Herzegovina.

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Located 20km south of Mostar, in the town of Čitluk, the estate has been in existence since 1979 and has been handed down from father to son for three generations.

After the death of his father Pasko, who had planted the vineyard between 300 and 400 meters above sea level, Josip Brkić took over the estate in search of the right balance between acidity, tannins and texture. Fifteen years ago, he converted the vineyards and the cellar to biodynamic practices. “I later discovered that wine is more than a product: it is a living organism”. It was with his three boys that we discovered the vineyard and tasted the wines.

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The succession ? Too early to say. Josip was pleased to open one of their rare 30 bottles of sparkling wine in traditional method, 100% Žilavka. A “trial” done in 2014 (a rainy and capricious vintage), and I must confess… very conclusive.

The Monastery of Tvrdoš

We concluded our trip by visiting the Monastery of Tvrdoš, an Orthodox monastery founded in the 15th century and dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

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It is located on the right bank of the Trebišnjica River, four kilometers west of Trebinje, in the extreme south of Bosnia and Herzegovina, only a few kilometers from Croatia (Dubrovnik) and Montenegro. Nowadays, with 150 hectares of vines spread over 3 sites and an annual production of 350,000 bottles, the Monastery of Tvrdoš is one of the major players in the country and exports its wines to more than 20 countries. Its particularity: the wine is made by the monks of the domain. Open to the public, its long underground cellars, where the barrels are stored, are open all year round.

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The cuvée “Tvrdoš 2013” (100% Vranac) – which represents 60% of the estate’s production – is a pleasant wine with notes of intense black fruit, licorice and garrigue. On the palate, a taste of cherry, plum and coffee. A nice surprise.

The Bosnian vineyards have undeniable potential. It is really encouraging. Moreover, as Professor Marko Ivanković, Director of the Federal Agro-Mediterranean Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, rightly pointed out during our meeting, “the quality of wines has evolved considerably over the last fifteen years, after the privatization of the vineyards”.

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They even target a plantation of 10,000 hectares in total within fifteen to twenty years, if the country joins the European Union.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Vilinka Vinery, Vinogradi Nuić, Brkić and the Monastery of Tvrdoš for their warm welcome. Thank you to Marko Ivanković, Professor Marko Ivanković, Director of the Federal Agro-Mediterranean Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Mostar for his time. Thank you to Ivica Glamuzina, from Vinogradi Nuić, for organizing this meeting with Professor Ivanković. Finally, thank you to Ante Bacic, from Les Robes de l’Est, for his valuable winery recommendations.

 

(1) The three emblematic grape varieties of Bosnia and Herzegovina being Žilavka in white; Trnjak and Blatina in red.

The Croatian viticulture, in the pantheon of the great ones

One could sum up the richness of the Croatian vineyards with these two sentences: “its vine cultivation goes back as far as the first inhabitants who settled here”. Adding that “the list of indigenous grape varieties is as long as the Croatian coast”. It sets the scenary.

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However, it was not until the early 1990s – and Croatia’s independence – that many individuals could reclaim land previously requisitioned by the state(1). Over the past two decades, Croatia has regained its reputation, producing both extraordinary and varied wines.
From Continental Croatia (north), to Dalmatia (south), via Slavonia (along the Hungarian, Serbian and Bosnian borders) and Istria (west), each of the four Croatian wine regions deserves a stop. Story of a journey full of unforgettable discoveries.

Continental Croatia, land of great white and sparkling wines

Welcome to the coolest region of Croatia, with its scenery of steep hills with rounded summits, rural villages and carefully maintained vineyards, producing excellent white, sparkling… and even ice wines!

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Visiting Cmrečnjak estate, in the village of Štrigova. A unique terroir with a maximum altitude of 340m and clay soils, ideal for the cultivation of grape varieties such as Posipel (Furmint), Silvanac zeleni (Sylvaner) or Grasevina (Welschriesling). Marko Cmrečnjak, 4th generation of winegrowers, is proud to follow in his father’s footsteps and “could not imagine another job in life”. His cuvée “Ledena Vino 2012“, a 100% Grasevina ice wine, is fantastic!

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Not far from Zagreb, in the village of Jastrebarsko (Plešivica region), we discovered the Sember family, a great producer of sparkling wines in traditional methods.

“Thanks to a cooler continental climate, limestone soils and a 6-hectare well-exposed vineyard on hillsides, we have the optimum conditions for the production of fine bubbles”, Nikola, the eldest son, explained. A project of sparkling wine made in amphorae is currently being tested.

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We tried the “orange” wine in fermentation, in the amphorae buried in the garden. Promising.

Coups de cœur for the Teran and the Malvazija istarska

Istria. Such a beauty… In the north-west of Croatia, discover this wild region with crazy charm, still preserved, where we had the happiness to discover the grape varieties Teran and Malvazija istarska.

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Here, the typical “terra rossa” red soils of the region (loaded with iron), combined with a unique micro climate and strict green harvests (maximum yields of 1.5kg per vine for the best estates), offer wines as greedy as they are deep.

It was at Coronica estate, in the extreme northwest of the Istrian peninsula, where we fell under the spell of the Teran. A red grape variety with fine skin and bulky berries, difficult to work with.

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“It is important to harvest teran with 20% resinous grapes to add complexity to the wine”, Moreno Coronica, a winemaker as charming as he is talented, explained. Result : deep and straight wines, with superb tannins and insolent freshness. Made for aging.

A few kilometers away, in the coastal village of Višnjan, the Radovan family, with 9 hectares of vines, showcases Malvazija istarska, a white grape with aromas of almond kernel, apricot, ripe white fruits and wild flowers.

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“Here, nature is beautiful: the sea wind blows on the vineyard in the morning, refreshing the air, and the land wind blows in the evening, softening the atmosphere”, Franko, the father, enthused. Their cuvée “Malvazija Istarska 2015” is a pure delight!

Léo Gracin, the rock star of the Babič

It is in Primošten, at the grandmother’s house of our friend (and formidable guide) Barbara Bacic, that we met Léo Gracin, one of the great figures of Croatian viticulture.

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Winemaker of talent, Léo is also a Doctor of oenology, a professor at the University of Zagreb and a consultant for the finest Croatian estates. His casual look and his permanent smile make him a character as friendly as he is charismatic. Léo owns one hectare of vineyard in the Bucavac Primošten appellation, in Dalmatia, which is going to become the first Croatian wine-growing region classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The fragmented topography of the site, the hard rock soils, the obligation to work by hand, the plots all being isolated from each other, the ban on irrigation and the incredible difficulty of working in this vineyard (44°C in summer, forcing the workers to start their days at 4am and ending them at 11am…), probably make it one of the most atypical vineyards that we have ever discovered.

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Discovering the babič, a Croatian red grape originally from Primošten and wonderfully vinified by Leo. Its sweetened version, called Prošek(3), a Dalmatian specialty, is of great complexity and pairs fantastically with local cheeses.

Stina Vino, an extreme vineyard

Croatia has 1185 islands and islets. Some of them are home to some of the most beautiful vineyards in the world. Welcome to the island of Brač, 50 minutes by ferry south of Split, famous for its white stone (Stina). A small multi-century wine-growing paradise, which has seen the apparition of very interesting indigenous grape varieties, such as Plavac mali, in red.

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Visit of Stina Vino, a gorgeous estate, with 70 hectares of vines spread over two sites. One of them is undoubtedly one of the most extreme vineyards visited during the project. Literally carved into the rock, this parcel is culminated at 650 meters above sea level and dives into the sea, with slopes having 65% of inclination! In other words, to work there requires above all the art of the tightrope walker… Risking to (slightly) descend in a row of vines myself, I failed not falling…

The second plot – 45 hectares in one piece – is located between 420 and 520m above sea level. The brightness of the sun reflecting on these very special white stone soils, gave the vineyard a lunar aspect.

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A real postcard. The result: magnificent wines, concentrated and of great freshness ; like the red cuvée “Plavac mali remek djelo 2011“.

The island of Korčula and its treasures of indigenous grape varieties

Once upon a time there was the Grk, a white grape variety from the village of Lumbarda, on the island of Korčula – and the specialty of Frano Bire.

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“Grk”, in Croatian, means “bitter”. In reality, the wine is dry, with beautiful tension. Cultivated on the sandy soils of Lumbarda, where it ripens best, it develops beautiful aromas, like notes of pine.

“The Grk grape has only female flowers. To ensure its pollination, it must be co-planted with another grape variety with male flowers, usually the Plavac mali”, Frano Bire, a very sympathetic vine grower, owner and winemaker of Bire Winery, explained. Great wines, full of emotion, to discover on the spot… micro-production obliges.

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On the other side of the island, we met with Luka Krajančić, a native of Korčula. “I am only a small part of a local history of 2,500 years”.

Painter, poet, philosopher, winegrower… Luka has always been a Pošip lover, another white grape from Korčula Island – and just as interesting.

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Appearing 100 years ago on the island (spontaneous crossing of two other local varieties: Bratkovina x Zlatarice), this highly aromatic variety (mainly with an exotic fruit profile), with a great acidity level that balances a relatively high alcohol content, encounters great success. With no less than 6 different Pošip styles – from the stainless steel tank, to the barrel, to an ageing on the lees, a sweet wine version or one with 100 days maceration on the skins – Luka is definitely the “King of Pošip”.

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The great Croatian estates – as well as the native grape varieties – are legion. I already look forward to coming back, to continue exploring this incomparable wine (and cultural) heritage.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Thank you to CMREČNJAK, Sember, Radovan, Coronica, Stina, Krajančić, Bire estates and to Léo Gracin, for their warm welcome. Thank you to our friends Ante & Barbara BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for their valuable recommendations of wineries, and especially Barbara for having accompanied and guided us on the ground. Finally, thanks to Mr Željko Suhadolnik (Editor-in-Chief of Svijet u čaši) and to Mr Ivan Dropuljić (Director of Zagreb fair VINOcom), for having join us during our visit to Sember.

(1) At the end of the Second World War, Tito’s communism took place, the country then focused more on quantity than on quality.
(2) Teran – originally from Slovenia and also produced in Italy – is also known as Cagnina, Refosk, Refosca of Istria, Refosco del carso, Refosco dal peduncolo rosso, Rabiosa nera, Crodarina or Magnacan.
(3) Prošek is a traditional sweet wine produced exclusively in Dalmatia from grapes dried in the sun. This method, often called “passerillage”, makes it possible to dehydrate the bunches, giving a maximum concentration of sugar. The Prošek usually bears between 15 and 17 degrees of alc.