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.

Slovenia… the (little) European nugget

This was our first departure on board of the Wine Explorers’ new house-office-mobile, a brand new G700GJ campervan offered by Pilote, the French market leader.

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I looked forward to test this vehicle, fully equipped for the project : two offices, four beds, a kitchen, a huge fridge and a bathroom… what else could one want ?!
En route for 1200 km, heading south-east of Europe. After two days of driving, as a reward for the journey, a wonderful spectacle awaited us. The Monte Forno, the last rampart between the northern tip of Italy, Austria to our back and Slovenia proudly standing in front of us.

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With only 85km left before arriving in Slovenia, we couldn’t wait!

One of the most interesting vineyards in the world

Coup de cœur for the Slovenian vineyards, the preserved green treasure of Europe, where German, Slavic and Roman cultures have been intermingled for millennia. Only a drop of water in the world’s wine-growing ocean with 22,300 hectares planted (0.5% of the European vineyard), the country produces some of the best wines in the world. Its 2,400-year-old wine tradition, its unique climate (protection by the Alps from the north and the oceanic influence in the west), its complex soils (opoka, schist, granite…) and its multitude of seductive autochthonous grape varieties, made Slovenia one of the most interesting wine cultures that we have discovered so far.

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“The Slovenian wine market is growing very rapidly. With the help of some of the biggest names of Slovenian winegrowers, such as Marjan Simšič, our country is increasingly recognized as a wine country”, Saso Papp, CEO and co-founder of vinoo.co explained. “We are the only country with the word LOVE in its name – sLOVEnija”, he proudly added. A whole symbol.

The country has three main wine regions: Primorska, in the west (along the Mediterranean) and the Drava (Podravje) and Save (Posavje) valleys in the west. We chose to start with the wine-growing sub-region of Goriška Brda, in the west (1000 hectares of vineyards), nicknamed “Tuscany of Slovenia” for its undulating landscape.

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A small corner of paradise and a must stop for any wine lover. Its very particular location, 50 km from the Alps and 20 km from the sea, which makes it a fantastic region for the cultivation of vines.

Bjana Estate, the effervescent story of Miran Sirk

Miran Sirk and his wife, Petra, are the proud owners of Bjana Estate, a small 6.5-hectare estate in the Brda wine region, specializing in sparkling wines produced in traditional method. Their story is as beautiful as it is touching.
Until the early 1950s, Miran’s father owned a hundred hectares of vines. But after the Second World War, the vineyard and the house were requisitioned by the State and divided, as in most areas, under the regime of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.

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The family then only had a small piece of their own house, and little land. In 1976, it was the coup de grace. An earthquake destroyed the whole house, as well as other surrounding dwellings. The vineyard project was buried and along with it, the young Miran’s winemaking dreams.

In 1991, after the creation of Slovenia and the independence celebrated, Miran only had one dream in mind : to rebuild the house and the family estate, in order to produce great sparkling wines. He had to start from scratch. He replanted the vineyard in the same year, but couldn’t rebuild the house and the cellar before 2007, lacking money… A crazy bet and the work of a titan, during which, from 1991 to 2009, Miran worked as trade inspector in the casinos, traveling a lot and accumulating days of 16h, to earn enough money to pay for the construction.

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Today, thanks to his idea of planting a vineyard exposed to the north – in order to reduce the effect of the sun in this warm Mediterranean region – Miran produces, without a shadow of a doubt, world-class sparkling wines. And his “Cuvée Prestige” (70% Chardonnay, 30% Rebula), aged 56 months on the lees in bottles (!), has literally blown us away… Respect.

Marjan Simčič – Mr. Opoka

Another fantastic winemaker from Goriška Brda, and a great favorite of Wine Explorers, the emblematic Marjan Simčič, whom I like to call “Mr. Opoka”, or “the rock star of Rebula“.

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Every time I think about this visit and this encounter, I get goosebumps. Rarely have I had the opportunity to taste white wines with such intensity and depth. Wines of meditation, combining power and elegance, density and lightness, length and precision. Memorable.

Marjan and his family own 18 hectares of vineyard – some vines more than 55 years old – with parcels on both the Slovenian and Italian borders ; historical-geographic-political conflicts oblige. Marjan discovered different types of soils, one of them having obtained world-wide reputation for its unique character as a “terroir”: opoka.

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“The soils of Brda, deposited by ancient oceans on the surface of the hills, are fascinating. Wind, rain and sun have crushed, washed and heated them for thousands of years. The result: opoka, a soil rich in minerals which makes it possible to produce unique wines with a recognizable terroir“, Marjan, the 5th generation of winegrowers on the estate since 1860, explained.

Here, the dominant and most famous variety is the white Rebula(1), which accounts for about 25% of the wines produced in the region ; offering generous and inimitable wines. But that’s not all. This winemaker, who has magic in his fingers, also produces among the most beautiful cuvées of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that we have never tasted… (yes!).

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We finished the visit by admiring a beautiful sunset in one of its vineyards, right next to the Italian border. A moment out of time.

Vinakoper, land of Refosk

Next followed a change of region with Istria, in the south-east of Slovenia. And a change of scenery with Vinakoper, a 570-hectare estate created in 1947. A very successful example of a “fairly massive” producer, who has managed to concentrate exclusively on quality and who deserves to be visited.

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The key to success : a vineyard spread over 10 micro-locations around the town of Koper, one more beautiful than the next, from ground level up to 320 meters above sea level. Preserved and virgin sites of any dwelling, along the Gulf of Trieste, offering a microclimate unique to the region. We admired one of the vineyards, a plot of 64 hectares on the Debeli Rtič peninsula, literally plunging into the sea. Wild asparagus grow here on the edge of the forest. We improvised a picking and ate some green asparagus on the spot. A delight.

Overall, the wine range positively surprised us, with iconic wines around the red grape varieties Refosk (the most popular red varietal in Slovenia) and Cipro (an Istrian early ripening indigenous grape variety with only 6.6 hectares of vines in the whole world!).

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“Slovenia still lacks gratitude, even though wine has been produced here since the Roman era. Thanks to indigenous grape varieties such as Refosk, a variety with incredible potential and in which we firmly believe, it seems possible to make a difference and to assert Slovenia as a wine country with its own identity”, Gregor Bandel, the sales and marketing Director, explained.

Suklje, the revival of traditional viticulture

We finished our Slovenian stay at the Suklje estate, only a few kilometers from the Croatian border.

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A small and charming 7-hectare vineyard in the south-west of the country, in the mountainous region of Metlika. Here, there are no less than five generations of passionate winegrowers who have succeeded one another to make this estate one of the jewels of the region.

In 1994, a great turning point was initiated by Joze, the father, with the first bottling and an undeniable qualitative turn. Until then, the wine was sold in bulk, a common practice under the Yugoslav air. Matija, the 5th generation of vine growers, took over the reins of the vineyard, planted partly with Blaufränkisch (Modra frankinja), Laški rizling, Kerner and Sauvignon blanc ; under the watchful eye of his father. Katja, her sister, and her husband Guillaume Antalick, both doctors in oenology, also consult the vineyard.

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The Suklje family is actually turning the vineyard towards local and responsible oenotourism, offering exclusively fresh local products at the vineyard table (where you eat wonderfully well). A wine bar project has also been set up in Ljubljana, the capital(2). It is an initiative of Matija, Katja & Guillaume. We wish them all the best in this great adventure!

Let’s conclude this most rewarding journey with a humorous touch. We discovered an ingenious and original way of “re-filling” bottles of wine for the weekend! Practical and economical, the wine pump seems to be a success. Well done Vinakoper for this great initiative.

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Slovenia, we will be back soon. I promise. Your vineyard is a treasure.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

 

 

Thank you to Bajna, Marjan Simčič, Vinakoper and Suklje estates for their warm welcome. And a huge thank you to our friends Ante & Barbara BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for their valuable help and winery recommendations.


(1)
The Rebula, aka ‘Ribolla or Ribuela is a white grape variety originating in Greece but which has been cultivated in Slovenia for at least 750 years.
(2) For more information on the Suklje wine bar in Ljubljana: https://www.facebook.com/winebarsuklje/

Do you know Vietnamese wine?

Wine in Vietnam ?! Unthinkable, I was told at the time of preparing for the project. And yet, there are no fewer than twenty estates… and a few million bottles produced every year (1). I decided to go there, with the invaluable help of Raymond Ringhoff, CEO of Vietnam Wine Tours – the only company in the country specializing in wine tourism.
Direction Dalat, the biggest region of production, in the north of the country.

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Getting off the plane, I was awaited by Mr Huang The Hung, a lovely local guide, who was going to join me on this journey to help me with translation and winery visits. Indispensable in Vietnam.

Dalat, the headquarters of the Vietnamese production

From the airport, it took us no less than four hours to drive to Dalat, 180km inland. The city is perched at 1700 meters above sea level. Walking along the winding and damaged roads, the succession of wild landscapes through which we passed was breathtaking. Rice fields, forests, rivers, mountains, coffee plantations.

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I was so happy. Even the dampness in the air, which literally sticks ones clothes to ones skin, couldn’t alter the wonder that animated me.

The end of the road was reached by nightfall. Suddenly, thousands of white dots began to shine in the dark, following us along the road. It seemed like we were in a Japanese cartoon. As if a colony of fireflies had taken up residence in the mountain… The moment was magical. Quasi mystical. But what is it, then? These are the heating lamps used to grow flowers in greenhouses in the region, my guide explained. Dalat, with its more temperate climate, is renowned for its floral cultures. I laughed at so much naivety on my part.

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The next day, we visited Dalat Beco, one of the country’s flagship estates, which was set up in 2000. With 670,000 bottles produced each year, Dalat Beco‘s team confided in me that they are part of the medium-sized Vietnamese estates. One grape variety dominates the vineyards here: Cardinal. Its particularity: it is vinified in white as well as in red!

Visiting the bottling site, I was curious about not seeing any vineyards around the estate and questioned my hosts. “There was a vineyard a few miles from here: a failure, because of the altitude. Everything is now produced at the coast, three hours from here. The grapes are transported by truck to Dalat”, they explained.

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Purchases are made exclusively from farmers. Why not relocate the production in this case? Simply because “the altitude of Dalat ensures optimum conditions for the fermentation and the ageing of the wines”.
In this part of the world with an extreme climate, up to three harvests are done per year. Consequently, the vine never rests and its life expectancy does not exceed 8 years (one can grow vines for up to 15 years if grafted onto a rootstock). As in Bali, one can thus make wine all year round, simply by spacing the periods of pruning on different plots. This allows the wineries to have cooler and non-vintage wines.

Ladora Winery, based on the “wine from grapes” initiative

Before 1976 – and the independence of Vietnam – a production of liqueur and fruit wine, managed by the French excisted.

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It was not until 1998, however, that the first grape plantations appeared, under the impetus of Ladora Winery. In 1999, Vietnam’s first “wine from grapes” was born (in a tropical environment, grapes can be harvested from the second year).

The estate is both imposing and impressive, with its immense stainless steel tanks installed indoors and outdoors, and produce more than 2.5 million bottles per year. Upon entering the winery, it is compulsory to wear a white coat, a hygienic hat and protective footwear : Ladora Winery strictly applies the standards of European production. And I felt it in the wines, which are more homogeneous than elsewhere.

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A Skype session was organized with the management of the group, Ladofoods (also a producer of cashew nuts), based in Ho Chi Minh City, the capital. A fun and original situation. Here I was, having a discussion on a big screen with Sir Nguyen Hun Thuy (General Manager) and Nguyen Tran Quang (Senior Advisor of the BOD). I learned that Château Dalat, created in 2013, is the premium brand of the group. It includes international grape varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. A clear commitment to quality. And a step forward towards a more modern viticulture.

A vineyard at sea level

Whether Dalat Beco, Ladora Winery or any other winery of Dalat, the vineyards are all located in the coastal area of Ning Thuan, 130km away, at sea level.

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Only this part of Vietnam seems to give convincing results for vine cultivation. It is also the hottest region in the country. Today, while visiting some vineyards of Ning Thuan, it was “only” 30°C in the air. Temperatures easily reach 36°C at this time of the year.

I learned that Ning Thuan was very busy until the 2000s. The opening of new, more attractive regions, emptied the coast of its tourists. As a result, this partially abandoned region, with deserted beaches has a ghostly atmosphere. Strange. Whatever, the vineyards that faced us were beautiful.

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Ladora Winery has planted 20 hectares of Vitis vinifera for its great cuvées. The rest of the parcels, planted with Cardinal grapes, correspond to contracts with local farmers.

I met with the owners of My Hoa, one of the few family micro-estates in Vietnam, started in 2000. This craft production, made at the back of the house, is unpretentious but of great charm. Here, the wine ferments quietly in small plastic tanks. The family is as discreet as they are lovely. « We are far from the big productions of the country. » They have 2 hectares of vines, mostly planted with Cardinal and with a little NH01-48, an unnamed white local hybrid.

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The vineyard is planted with a pergola system, 1.5 meters from the ground, allowing work to be done at the height of man.

We tasted the white wine, made 100% from the grape variety NH01-48. The beverage was served fresh, with ice cubes. Why not. The mouth was sweet and had a sour taste, but went well with the boiled chicken served during lunch, to my surprise. I tasted the red wine with a little rice alcohol added. A harsh and unusual taste for the taste buds of a Westerner. “That’s how men drink it here”, Miss Hoa explained to me, laughing.

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The estate seems to experience great success: to satisfy the demand, the Hoa family plans to plant another hectare of vines next year, behind the house, in place of the current rice field. Like what, the taste of any wine is the world is always suited to local taste buds. And this must be respected.

We finished the meal – and the journey in Vietnam – with the discovery of Vú sữa (also called Chrysophyllum cainit), a green fruit in the shape of an apple, with a milky appearance inside, and whose pulpit, delicious and juicy, has a taste of almonds and ripe white fruit.

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A delight ! To be discovered exclusively in this country.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Dalat BecoLadora Winery and My Hoa for their warm welcome. Thank you to Raymond Ringhoff, CEO of Vietnam Wine Tours, for having helped, guided and advised me in the organization of this great trip. Finally, thank you to my friend Denis Gastin for introducing me to Raymond.

(1) Although it is complicated to have the exact figures of viticulture in Vietnam, it is estimated that there are about 20 estates, for an annual production exceeding 10 million bottles.

Cambodia, the newcomer on the Asian wine map

Having left Burma early in the morning and after a full day of traveling with three planes (Heho-Mandalay, Mandalay-Bangkok, Bangkok-Siem Reap), I was very excited about landing in Cambodia. I heard that there is a small vineyard lost in the Battambang countryside and I planned to get my hands on it!

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Where is it? What does it look like ? Why having planted vines in Cambodia? So many questions that I looked forward to finding answers to… Onwards for a most incredible exploration off the beaten track.

A well hidden vineyard

Do you believe in good luck? Personally, I do. Whenever I found myself back against the wall during this great adventure, I always had the good fortune of meeting someone who got me back on track. For that, I am grateful every morning.

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My Cambodian star was Visooth Lohitnavy (owner of the GranMonte estate in Thailand whom I met three weeks earlier). He met with Mr. Chan Thaychheoung, the owner of the famous Cambodian estate, a few years ago and offered to put us in touch. What luck!

After a brief exchange in summarized, but effective English, here I was, disembarked in Siem Reap only knowing that I had to take a bus the next day to Battambang. That’s all. I did not know where or what time to take the bus. The staff at the guest house in which I stayed for the night did not speak English. I was sent to the neighboring laundry, where the owner seemed to be in the habit of referring travelers. “It costs $6 to Battambang, with a bus leaving at 10am”.

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The next day, a mini bus picked me up. It was filled with a dozen friendly travelers. I learned that we all paid a different price, between $5 and $7. Anyway… We headed towards the railway station at the exit of the city – because buses are prohibited in Siem Reap. After 200 km, in somewhat chaotic traffic under a lead sun and 4h30 of road travel later, I arrived with an almost 2h delay to a “bus stop”, which was nothing but a small shop literally lost in the middle of nowhere.
I hoped that I was in the right place and that my hosts will have had the patience to wait for me.

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Outside, a dozen Cambodians craned on the side of the road, carrying placards at arm’s length, all promoting their Guest Houses. A little further away, Mr. Chan Thaychheoung and his son Chan Senghong were waiting for me with big smiles. What a welcome ! We did not know one another yet, but I already loved this family. They emited such positive energy.
So the wine adventure finally began. And begins with a memorable dinner.

Chan Thay Chhoeung Winery, the only one

Mr Chan Thaychheoung has such a touching story. Loving wine since the age of 21, he decided at the time to buy twenty vines, which he tried to grow in his garden. Failure. Putting his dream aside, he became a farmer, and like many other producers in the region, he grew oranges. But the competition was tough.

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So he began to think : he wanted to grow different fruit from those of the other Cambodian farmers. He then remembered his unsuccessful attempt to grow grapes in his youth. He decided to go against the current by growing grapes – something unique in this country.

Mr Chan Thaychheoung started out cautiously with 9 plants of the red Black Queen variety. Just to see… He succeeded with his first vintage in 2004, with a few bottles produced for friends and family. This was a revelation. Chan Thay Chhoeung Winery was born. In stride, he planted 3 hectares of Black Queen and a few vines of Shiraz, a grape variety which he particularly likes. A significant cost and a risky bet : he invested all his savings.

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A tireless worker, he gradually enlarged his vineyard, always reinvesting every penny of his limited capital. In 2013, he bought Shiraz plants from Israel and planted 3 additional hectares. Today he has 10 hectares.
At the moment the equipment is modest. The wine is vinified in glass bottles. It doesn’t matter, Rome was not built in one day. They have just invested in 3 stainless steel tanks made in China for next year, with a total production capacity of 7,000L. Step by step.

Fruit juice, education and pedagogy

This year, the rainy season was very intense and the harvest was not good enough.

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As a result no wine was produced and instead organic grape juice made from 100% Syrah, which delights the taste buds and which I enjoyed a lot, was produced.

We also tasted the wine production of last year. An atypical wine, also from the Syrah grape variety and far from European standards. But which within context and accompanied by a few ice cubes (it is a custom here), refreshes the palate and pairs very well with the local dishes made from fermented vegetables.

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Mr Chan Thaychheoung showed me with great pride the educational garden he created in front of his house. A true open-air museum, where the Cambodians come to admire the vine, a plant which was unknown to them before.

“It is important that we educate local people by showing them what a vine looks like and how a grape bunch grows”. A real success, where each of the visiting tourists seemed really enthusiastic, always having a glass of straw syrah juice.

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And there’s something for everyone here. We even met a group of curious monks who came to discover this new attraction, which is as playful as it is essential. Congratulations!

Bambou Train & Angkor: two must-sees

A bit of fun this weekend before leaving for Vietnam, aboard the “bamboo train”, a must-see attraction in the Battambang area which I was pleased to discover with the Chan family. It is a kind of motorized railway made up of a bamboo platform, which in the ’70s made it possible for the personnel responsible for maintaining the railway lines to get around, and then in the 80s to bring soldiers and their allies to the front.

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What gives it its charm and undeniable attractiveness to tourists from around the world, is it being a single rail for two directions of traffic. Suddenly, when meeting another train arriving from the opposite direction, the train stops and is dismounted to let the other train pass. And at a maximum speed of 50km/h, it jolts a lot. Best to keep a hand on ones hat.

Another unmistakable and most spectacular place is Angkor, in Siem Reap, with its temples, classified as a world heritage by UNESCO. Rise at dawn (the purchase counters open at 5am and are taken by assault), for an unforgettable and magical experience.

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Seeing the sun rising over the temple of Angkor Wat – the largest temple in the complex – is a unique moment. The gigantic columns of this edifice sculpted on all sides is a mystic sight to behold. The world is so beautiful when viewed from this angle…

Cambodia (still) presents many difficulties for wine making : extreme temperatures, a rainy season in summer accompanied by high and constant humidity. Not to mention a lack of access to advanced equipment. Whatever. The Chan family has the guts to make wine here, and everything is sold on the spot, and in addition to this, people come back. Every wine can find a shoe that fits.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Mr Chan Thaychheoung and his family for their extraordinary hospitality and for opening their house to me with such kindness. Thank you to his son, Chan Senghong, for being such a good guide and the great opportunity to discover the magic of Battambang. Finally, thanks to Visooth Lohitnavy (owner of the GranMonte estate in Thailand), for his valuable con

Burma, the two vineyards on the other side of the world

We continued our Asian trip by visiting the inescapable and fascinating Burma, a wonderful country of picturesque beauty. Nestled in the mountains, on the shores of Inle Lake, the only two Burmese wineries are hidden – as discreet as it is intriguing.

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En route to a colourful journey, accompanied by my friend and oenologist Amélie Mornex, who has true passion for Asian viticulture.

Mandalay and its positive energy

We arrived in Mandalay, the capital, under a crushing sun, a lot of dust and among omnipresent poverty : I had the impression of having taken a 50 years leap back in time. Only 30% of the households here are connected to electricity (2). Despite this, the people that we met all had a big smile on their lips and a palpable joie de vivre in their eyes. It was heartwarming.

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We paced the streets of the city astride a bike with two seats back to back and driven by a local guide. Amelie in front, facing the direction of the road, and I in the back, facing the traffic. A very convenient way to admire the landscape.

Nothing could be more agreeable than dining along the river Irrawaddy, where boats, canoes and other makeshift boats unload thousands of canvas bags filled with food, in an unceasing and steady flow, in a fashion as organized as an ant-hill. We met a couple of German tourists who arrived from Munich and we decided to share a dinner together at sunset. The place was beautiful, devoid of anything artificial. Many families live here in precarious wooden shelters, barefoot in the sand, dust and rubbish.

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Facing us, the laundry dried on bamboo palisades. Children were playing in the sand. The younger ones had their bottocks in the air,a few pigs grazing among them, looking for something to eat in the trash. Some inhabitants were soaping up in the river, it was time for us to take a shower too.

The next day at dawn, we departed by plane to Hého, 230km to the south: it was the easiest way to reach the two vineyards, considering the condition of the roads (it would take a day by bus to get there). We left at 6am. It was still dark outside and the spectacle in the streets of the city was something to behold, it had an almost mystical element to it: dozens of bare feet monks, draped in violet tunics, were in search of food offerings for their one and only meal of the day(3). A highly respected ancestral ritual in Burma.

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Aythaya, the Burmese pioneer

It was cool outside when we got off the plane. Quite nice. We were 1200 meters above sea level on the slopes of the Taunggyi Mountains.
It is here that Berth Morsbach, a German who specializes in tropical crops, created Aythaya (Myanmar Estate) in 1998, the first winery of Burma. A major challenge, he remembers, in a country with no wine culture and hostile weather conditions… The place is beautiful!

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With its ecological bungalows facing a vineyard as flowery as it is impeccable and its restaurant mixing delicious traditional dishes and world class cuisine, Myanmar Estate is a privileged place of the high Burmese bureaucracy.

Hans Leiendecker, the director and oenologist of the estate – also German and a graduate of the prestigious University of Geisenheim – gave an exciting explanation of the different production sites.

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In total, 10 hectares are owned by Aythaya and the equivalent under contract, spread all over the country, up to 800km of the winery:
-some in the north, at 1200 meters above sea level, along the Kyan Hnyat River, a favorable area for red grape varieties;
– some in Loikaw, to the east, at 850 meters above sea level, where Bert had established the first basmati rice plantation in the country in 1986;
-some in Mektila and Yamethin, in the center of the country, where the largest production of table grapes from Burma is also to be found;
-and some at Mount Popa, 300 meters above sea level, an ancient volcano in the center of the country which exploded about 400 years BC with very fertile soils.

On this February morning, Sauvignon Blanc arrived at the estate in small boxes.

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The grapes were beautifu and destined to be used for the Shan Panya Brut cuvée, a refreshing and very aromatic sparkling wine ; perfect for an aperitif.

A most complex tropical viticulture

At Aythaya, Hans is well aware of the difficulties in producing Vitis vinifera in a tropical climate. This is why the grass is cut very flat here: to protect the vines from moisture. There is always a minimum of 20% humidity during the day and usually around 90% humidity at night. Result: in Burma you can have vine diseases – like powdery mildew – without even having rain! This year, for the first time, they even saw botrytis. “We’d better grow mushrooms”, Hans said laughing.

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For him, tropical countries will never be real wine-producing countries. Growing conditions are too complex and the cost of production is twice as high. “It is impossible to make organic wine for example, with twenty to twenty-two sprays per year needed, compared with seven to eight on average in Europe“. This is the other side of the coin. “If there are only two wineries in Myanmar, it is maybe because there is reason”, he added.
As for the local fauna, it is better to be vigilant. It is not uncommon to encounter black-necked spitting cobras, white-lipped pit vipers (green snakes that look like branches in the grass), or pythons, lost between the rows of vines.

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I suddenly realized that I was wearing flip-flops walking in the vineyard… Not very smart.

Red Mountain Estate

A very pretty estate at the top of a small hill overlooking Inle Lake and facing the Paung Paing mountain range, Red Mountain was created in 2003, under the expertise of the French oenologist François-Xavier Raynal – who established the vineyard and managed it until 2015.
Divided into two sites, the vineyard of 75 hectares has been the laboratory of many experiments. International varieties such as Petit Verdot, Macabeu, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and even Merlot were quickly abandoned due to the lack of mature grapes.

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Red Mountain is now focusing on Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat à petits grains, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay in white ; Shiraz, Carignan, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo in red.

“We are focusing on one harvest per year, for a production of about 160,000 bottles”, according to the young and very sympathetic oenologist Naw Naw Aye, who took over the winemaking this year. An important challenge for her, because after a few years spent doing marketing at Red Moutain, Naw Naw is starting from scratch on the wine side. She has just returned from a one-year apprenticeship at the Suze la Rousse University (France), where she learned a few basics.

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Her teacher, Marie-Josée Richaud, came to Red Mountain for a month especially to encourage her pupil, whose first harvest was about to start a few days later. We wish her all the best in this great adventure!

Discovering Inle Lake

Since the two Burmese vineyards are located only a few minutes away from the famous Inle Lake, we took the opportunity to discover it, on board of a canoe.
Sailing the banks of the lake at sunset, we admired the fishing villages on stilts. On small, long, narrow boats, the fishermen have an acrobatic and a most original style: one leg wrapped around a paddle to advance with circular movements, the other leg on the prow to keep balance.

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A boat approached us. Two fishermen literally posed for us. In the end, they asked us for some money… I refused politely. The fishermen turned around without resentment, immediately heading to another tourist boat.

We concluded our wonderful stay in Burma at the beautiful ViewPoint Lodge & Fine Cuisines hotel, where we were welcomed by our friend Arno Di Biase. The place was idyllic: wooden bungalows on stilts, a spa, welcome cocktails on the terrace… here every little detail counts and makes the stay unforgettable.

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We enjoyed a last moment of relaxation at the SPA of the hotel, with an application of thanaka on the face, a cream obtained from bark of trees. It hydrates the skin and protects it from the sun. It was very pleasant and refreshing. Children, women and the elderly put thanaka on their faces every morning. You should try it too.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Aythaya (Myanmar Estate) and Red Moutain estate for their warm welcome. Thank you to Hans Leiendecker for having helped us on our travels in the country. Thank you to my friend Amélie Mornex for having accompanied me so well in this country that she knows like her pocket. And finally, thanks to Arno Di Biase, director of the ViewPoint Lodge & Fine Cuisines, for having hosted us in his beautiful establishment and for his valuable role as a guide in the streets of Nyaungshwe.

 

(1) There are apparently two to three new vineyard projects in the country, according to local sources, but no one is sure that this will succeed.
(2) To make some money, Burma sells some of its electricity to China and Thailand.
(3) Monks have until 11am to eat. Then they have to wait until the next day before taking their next meal.

The Thai vineyards: unforgettable and unclassifiable

As beautiful as it is fragile, as wild as it is welcoming, it exceeded all my expectations. Defying the laws of classical viticulture. Off the beaten track and reserving some wine treasures… The Thai vineyards are a really nice discovery!

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Thailand has a dozen wine estates, mainly in the Khao Yai region (in the north), which cover less than 4,000 hectares(1). Lets discover a fascinating wine world, consisting of a handful of passionate (and positively crazy) people.

Enthusiasm displayed despite major challenges

Having landed at dawn at Bangkok airport (4:30 am), I was pleasantly surprise by the professionalism of the Thai taxis: clearly posted prices, a unique queue and impeccable service. As soon as I arrived in the capital, a special atmosphere got hold of me.

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The joyful bazaar of the electric wires in the streets, the delicious smell of food in the air, the morning song of the birds and the still sleeping city gave me the impression of absolute plenitude.

I met with Mr. Pairach Intaput, the President of the Sommeliers’ Association of Thailand, at Bo Lan Restaurant – the ultimate Thai food refinement. Here I had the opportunity to learn that the wine history of the country – which started in 1995 with Château de Loei (now abandoned) and then with GranMonte in 1999 – is just beginning to emerge. “Since the promotion of wine is forbidden in Thailand, it is for the moment impossible to write a book on the subject. Moreover, the sommelier association has only officially been recognized since 2015: before, wine was assimilated to other strong beverages and responsible of alcoholism”, Mr. Intaput explained.

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Here, as in many humid and tropical climate countries, it is possible to do up to two harvests per year : with a dry season – where temperatures can easily exceed 40°C, and a rainy season – during which the vegetative cycle of the vine is severely tested.

For most conscientious winemakers, only the grapes produced during the dry season are harvested. Then, thanks to a product called Dormex – a plant growth regulator that is generally applied within 48 hours after harvest – uniform budbreak is promoted ; so that the plant can rest.

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“It’s not difficult to grow vines in Thailand. However, taking into consideration the atmospheric pressure and permanent humidity, it is (almost) impossible to make organic wines, as treatment against diseases such as mildew or gray rot is inevitable”, according to Mr. Intaput.

GranMonte, a beautiful family success story

After having met up with my friend Amélie Mornex – a French oenologist who loves making wine in Asia and who has been spending most of her time there for years – we headed to GranMonte, a two and a half hour drive north of Bangkok.

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The first impression upon arriving in front of this 15-hectare estate, at 350 meters above sea level, left me speechless. This vineyard was planted in 1999 on soils of clay, loess and limestone, rigorously cut into twenty blocks and have no less than twenty grape varieties coexisting… Among them, some international varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Grenache and Viognier. As well as other more surprising varieties, such as Semillon, Verdelho and Durif(2)!

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We met with the adorable Lohitnavy family. Visooth, the dad – a former racing driver and editor of an automotive magazine – wanted to make a change in his life to make wine. Sakuna, the mom, runs the restaurants and cafe of the estate. Mimi, the younger daughter, is taking care of marketing and public relations. And Nikki, the eldest of the two sisters, is responsible for viticulture and winemaking.

It was with excitement that we rose the next day at dawn for a harvest session of Chenin Blanc! Scissors in hand (not easy but quite fun), we cut the bunches in good humor under beautiful sunshine. 

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The sanitary aspect of the grapes is superb, promising a beautiful vintage.

Nikki Lohitnavy, the revelation in terms of tropical viticulture

I say it without detour : who says never having drunk a “great wine” from a tropical viticulture has not yet drunk one of GranMonte’s wines…
I already see from here people rising to the niche on the notion of great wines, crying out for heresy. Not at all ! Firstly, what is a great wine? This is a very personal question… A question of emotion, joy, deep feeling, plenitude, gluttony, which I like to describe as a moment as intense and comforting as a night by the fire in the arms of a loved one.

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Meeting with Nikki Lohitnavy. “At the age of 10, I wanted to be a botanist”. Graduated in oenology from the prestigious university of Adelaide, Nikki first traveled the world to train perfecting her technique, especially in northern Brazil, where she learned how to tame vines in an extremely humid environment. In 2009, she did her first vintage at GranMonte. A real qualitative shift for the estate, according to the press. This is a revelation.

From the straw on the vine trunks (to reduce the number of herbicidal sprays and to add organic matter to the soil), to the banana fibers used to tie the vines (for their eco-friendly aspect), Nikki is constantly experimenting. “I am currently experimenting with four new grape varieties: Sangiovese, Barbera, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. My dream would be to have more room to test many other grape varieties, but land is very expensive here”.

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The technology and equipment used on the estate are not bad either. “We operate our vineyard with a precision agricultural system called ‘Smart Vineyard‘, which incorporates microclimatic monitoring to help us to achieve the best grape quality potential in this unconventional viticulture climate”.

Nikki literally opened my eyes, by showing me that with passion, a lot of know-how, hard work on vines and state-of-the-art equipment, it is possible to make fantastic wines in tropical viticulture.

Oenotourism, the key to success

Despite its recent wine history, Thailand is already very advanced in wine tourism. Bravo !
As in Silverlake (Pattaya), where around 800,000 visitors annually visit the estate (!). People are fond of visiting the different parts of the estate by minibus. A real “amusement park” experience, extended at lunchtime in the restaurant and in the evening in one of the very nice Hollywood style rooms of the resort.

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In a more “zen” style, at Village Farm & Winery, in the Khao Yai area, you can meditate in the middle of the vineyards for a weekend, enjoying the calmness of the rooms without television or internet.

On the “nature” side, Alcidini Winery, the smallest Thai vineyard with 8 hectares, welcomes visitors in its pedagogical field conducted with an organic philosophy. A real challenge in a such humid part of the world : no pesticides, the use of sheep to eat the grass between the rows of vines and buying cow manure from the neighboring farmer.

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Finally, on the “music” side, the annual Jazz & Wine festival organized at GranMonte, which we had the chance to attend and enjoy, is a must-see cultural event.

Beautiful and fragile nature to preserve

On the way back, we had the good fortune of making two epic nature stops. The perfect opportunity for me to narrate the beauty of the Thai biodiversity to you and, I hope to make you want to (re)visit it!
Elephant Stay : a site dedicated to the protection and preservation of elephants. They are trained for parades and military demonstrations (in memory of their use as strike force during wartime). We enjoyed watching the daily shower of these impressive mammals, who are as comfortable as fish in the water.

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Khao Yai National Park, highlight of the stay. With 80km of coastline from east to west, this UNESCO World Heritage site is the country’s second largest park and is one of the largest forests in Asia. You can even pitch a tent there for the night… for a most exotic nature revival experience.

WineExplorers’ cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to GranMonte, Alcidini, Village Farm Winery, Silverlake and PB Valley for their warm welcome.
Thank you to the organisation of the Khao Yai National Park, and especially to our lovely guide, Ms. Issaya Siriwachanawong, for having taken us off the beaten path. Finally, thanks to the team of Elephant Stay for having allowed us to admire the bath of the elephants: an unforgettable moment. And to my friend Amélie Mornex, who helped me a lot with pictures during this trip. 

(1) Thai vineyards are found in three regions ranging from 110 to 530 meters above sea level: Prachuap Khiri Khan (Hua Hin) and Pattaya in the center of the country and Khao Yai in the north.
(2) Durif is a French variety originating from the Dauphiné, a spontaneous crossing of Poutin and Syrah. Named petite syrah or petite sirah in California, it is also known by this name in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Finally, it is also known under the names of bas plant, dure, duret, dureza, duriff, dyurif, gros noir, Kek Durif, nérin, pareux noir, petit duret, petite serine, petite sirah, petite syrah, pinot de l’Ermitage, pinot de Romans, plant durif, plant fourchu, serine, serine des Mauves, sirane fourchue, sirane de Tain and syrah forchue.