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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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”.
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.
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.
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).