Andorra has some surprises for you

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

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

Unique topography and climate in Europe

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

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

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

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

Borda Sabaté, a vineyard accessible only by 4X4

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

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

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

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

Casa Beal, the Gewurztraminer in all its splendor

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

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

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

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

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

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

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

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

 

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

Kosovo, in search of a deserved recognition

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

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

A remarkable arrival in Rahovec

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

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

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

The rehabilitation of former state-owned companies

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

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

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

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

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

The emergence of small family estates

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

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

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

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

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

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

 

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