Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia; all names which we’re guessing probably don’t immediately spring to mind when you think of wine producing countries. Yet there’s a thriving, and historic, wine scene in the Balkans, which overflows with centuries of wine making tradition, exotic sounding grape varieties and interesting, high quality wines.
Wondering where to start?
Let’s start with the familiar. Chances are you’ve already had some experience with wines from Romania or Bulgaria. Wines from this corner of the Balkans have been exported to the UK and the US markets for decades now and what has landed on these soils often ends up with a reputation as being cheap and cheerful, if rather rustic, drinking options. Whilst more often than not the fashion here has been to grow grapes with names foreign drinkers will easily recognise, it’s worth seeking out indigenous Bulgarian varieties such as Mavrud, for its deep and soft reds and Melnik, which makes a wine not dissimilar to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or the wonderfully sounding Fetească Albă from Romania. This ‘White Maiden’ produces a delightfully aromatic, off-dry white wine.
From there, we can jump to the more ‘up and coming’ countries which, despite their almost millennia of winemaking history, are only starting to enter the mainstream wine lovers consciousness. Countries such as Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia; who all once formed part of Yugoslavia and today are each forging distinct winemaking identities. It’s here that we meet one of the great grape varieties of the Balkans: Vranac. Indigenous to Montenegro, but also widely grown in Macedonia and Serbia, this ‘Strong Black’ grape (as the name translates), is closely related to Primitivo (Zinfandel) and creates a dense red wine with impressive cellaring potential.
Anyone who has travelled through the Balkans in mid-July knows that summers can be scorching in this part of the world; thankfully local winemakers know how to make a rosé wine! In Serbia, the grape variety called Prokupac makes deep pink rosés, redolent of strawberries and rosés, whilst the Macedonians also craft a lighter style from the indigenous variety Stanusina. A glass or two goes down a treat on a hot afternoon. We know from experience!
The Bosnia & Herzegovina wine scene may be one of the smallest in the region, but the earth around the historic city of Mostar appears perfectly suited to one particular grape variety, Zilavka. This white grape produces a white wine, high in acidity and alcohol, with particularly nutty aromas that develop as the wine ages.
If you think you’ll struggle to find a wine from Bosnia & Herzegovina at your local cellars, how about Kosovo and Albania? Yes, you read correctly! Whilst it’s easier to get a bottle of neighbouring Montenegrin wine than a local drop in Kosovo, there is a wine route outside the pretty southern city of Prizren for the more intrepid wine lover to follow, whilst Albania boasts an historic reputation for high quality wines which, in the post-communist era, it has been focusing on restoring. Distinctly local grape varieties include Shesh i bardhe (white) and Debin e Zeze (red).
From the niche to the sublime; the sweet wonder that is Hungarian Tokaji is no secret to wine lovers around the world and the most famous Balkan wine export. Yet Furmint, the dominant grape variety in Tokaji, is also used to make a dry white wine which is attracting industry attention from New York to London.
Other Balkan wines currently in fashion include the minerally white Assyrtiko from Greece and the robust red Plavac Mali from Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast.
Have you got any favourite wines from the Balkans?
Chrissie McClatchie is an Australian freelance writer and wine specialist who has been living in France since 2008. You can follow her on Twitter @RivieraGrape as she explores the wines of the French Riviera and Italy's Liguria.
If you look around the world of wine today, you'll notice that most wine is made with the same grape varieties. Pretty much every 'New World' country produces wines made from grapes native to France; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot... the list goes on. This is no bad thing as stylistically, all the above varieties can be drastically different depending upon climate, soil, viticulture and vinification. The vast majority of glossy, bold Shiraz from Australia is, literally and figuratively, a world away from the savoury, peppery wines of the Northern Rhone, for example. However, in the last 10 years the fashion has been to move away from seeking out the 'best' examples of these well known varieties and instead to look for unique expressions, typically from grapes native to specific countries and regions. This has seen the emergence of some new stars in the world of wine, from the austere, mineral wines of Mount Etna in Sicily to the powerful, racy Assyrtiko of Santorini in Greece. Austria has re-modelled its vinous reputation with the versatile Grüner Veltliner and even as afar as South America, Bonarda and Pais are resurging on both sides of the Andes, in Argentina and Chile respectively.
However, no country has been rediscovered in quite the same way as Spain. There are somewhere in the region of 600 grape varieties on the Iberian Peninsula, the vast majority of them indigenous and regionally specific in production. Despite this, Spain was for decades synonymous with oaky, extracted wines from Rioja, and to a lesser extent Ribera del Duero, with Tempranillo the only celebrated indigenous grape hailing from the country. Short-sighted producers ripped up their old, unfashionable vineyards and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and anything that was currently selling, not realising that in doing so they were giving up their major point of difference on the international market-place. However, this wasn't true for all producers and quietly, many went about their business as they had done for centuries; cultivating their families vineyards and producing wines of distinction and style, as their vines slowly became older, sturdier and produced better quality fruit. To look at the market now compared to 20 years ago is staggering. Shops in Barcelona are awash with local Catalan wines, Galician field-blends are appearing in top restaurants across the world and even Sherry is making a come-back! To cover the entirety of this resurgence would take a strong liver and a lot of time, but I'd like to share a few exciting varieties from my own little corner of Spain, the fiercely independent Catalunya:
Wine is a fussy product. Starting from its very beginnings as embryonic genetic material located on the buds of vines, to its moment of glory in your glass, there are countless chemical reactions, pitfalls and opportunities to be navigated and controlled in order to create a good bottle of wine. The vast majority of these is, fortunately, taken care of by the time we actually buy a bottle of wine, as the vigneron has spent the entire year wrestling against nature, ensuring the right balance of sugars, acids and flavour compounds, before handing over the baton to the wine-maker. This is where the grapes will be converted into wine through the magical process of fermentation, possibly aged and then bottled with care being taken to ensure biological stability. Then depending on where the wine is to be sold, it will go through a long or short supply route, potentially crossing oceans, continents and all sorts of checks before it finally appears on a shop shelf or restaurant list somewhere in the world.
Enter us; the consumer. We purchase the wine with the intention of one day drinking it, whether that be within minutes of the purchase, or 20 years down the line, after extended storage to allow for it to evolve within the bottle. Assuming the bottle has been purchased close to home and you intend to drink it in the near future, this is all well and good as any issues of storage are very much the responsibility of the retailer/restaurant and bottles can be returned for a refund. However, if you're buying the wine far from home, possibly, abroad, we run into some potential issues quite quickly.
Having just come back from a two week trip to the Mount Etna region of eastern Sicily we thought we'd share some of the best wine stores we came across travelling in the region. I must say I love the "enoteca" concept in Italy, where you can come for an aperitivo, taste local wines by the glass with some food, and then purchase bottles that you've tasted and liked. We loved visiting and tasting wines directly at the wineries of course, but the experience of tasting different producers side by side, and the ability to try older vintages can only be done at an enoteca.