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).