Over the years I’ve been writing about wine I found my role has changed. Back in the mid 1990s when I first went freelance, there were still a lot of really quite poor wines for sale, so the job of wine writers and critics was largely to sort the good from the ordinary and downright bad. But today better winemaking everywhere means most wine (at least in Western Europe) is decent and drinkable, so wine consumers don’t need wine journalists in the same way.
Nowadays I see the role of writers and communicators as providing insight and telling the stories behind the wines to engage consumers. Ironically wine is a product where more knowledgeable drinkers, often the desirable customers who are prepared to pay more, are less likely to be brand loyal. Wine knowledge encourages a desire to experiment rather than stick to a few favourites. It is therefore important for wineries to try other ways to engage these desirable customers and telling an interesting story is one.
People tend to be interested in people and are more likely to connect through personal stories than simply a wine being delicious to drink (that is of course still important) or through the technical history of how it has been made. Wine is also a great lens to focus on bringing together the factors that affect the taste of the wine –landscape, climate, culture and the human factor. These all add up to that indefinable term of “terroir”. Central and Eastern Europe is a particularly hot topic today. Arguably, it is the last undiscovered corner of the wine world and yet is based on a long and authentic history, and is full of genuinely interesting wine stories – just a few examples highlighted here.
At Verus in Slovenia, three friends set up their own winery in 2007 in the stunning hills around Jeruzalem-Ormoz after leaving the big former state winery. They have 20 ha and a simple warehouse winery in a former bakery and each of the three friends takes a different role. Danilo does the winemaking, Bozidar looks after the vineyards and Rajko looks after sales and marketing. Sauvignon Blanc is a key grape for them and it does really well in this part of Slovenia. It’s continental and hilly so great for flavour development along with good acidity and this wine is genuinely handcrafted, with six harvesting trips though the vineyard in 2016.
Over to Turkey, where winelover Mustafa Camlica founded his Chamlija winery high in the Strandja mountains in a region historically known as “city of vines” in Bulgarian. His family have farmed here since the 1930s and he was keen to join the new wave of Turkish winemaking. Rediscovering the potential of local, Thracian grapes like Papaskarasi has been a passion for Mustafa. Its parents are Alba Imputato and Prokupac so it has proper Balkan heritage. It was particularly highly regarded by Marcel Biron, the founder of modern Turkish viticulture in the 1930s who wrote about it as a Blanc de Noir, which inspired Mustafa to recreate this this historic style.
In the Republic of Macedonia, unusually it’s the big wineries that are key in driving quality revolution. Tikveš is the country’s biggest winery, and even one of the biggest in the Balkans, but has also committed a lot of effort to quality, hiring a French consultant and taking on one of his protégés as their winemaker. They’ve also conducted extensive viticultural research in conjunction with a Slovenian university. The result is selection of a couple of better sites for single vineyard wines especially Barovo which is relatively high at up to 600 m in the hills. The white version is an intriguing blend of Grenache Blanc (known locally as Belan) and Chardonnay which works beautifully.
Back to Bulgaria and the boutique winery Borovitza, in the stunning Belogradchik national park near Vidin. This region in Bulgaria was never famous for its reds, but long sunshine hours and the proximity of the Danube actually give fine elegant reds with good acidity and a long life. Founded in 2007 in an abandoned winery building by Ognyan ‘Ogy’ Tzvetanov and Adriana Srebrinova to realise their dreams of limited parcels of handcrafted interesting wines, often bought from growers in nearby villages. One such is their Great Terroirs Bouquet 2015 – produced from a rare grape that is was described by Ogy as “A cross of beauty and the beast”. Developed in 1951, it’s a cross of Pinot Noir and Mavrud and this is one of only two wineries to produce it commercially. Sadly, Ogy is no longer with us but wishing Adriana well in carrying on their joint vision.
Over to the gorgeous region of Istria in Croatia where the great local white grape variety called Malvazija Istarska is king. The green rolling hills have distinctly Mediterranean climate and a bedrock of limestone and a multitude of small family wineries. Benvenuti is owned by Livio and his two sons Nikola and Alberto. They focus on local grapes including Malvazija in both its light, easy, summer-drinking form but also a more serious version. This is a versatile grape and picked late from ancient vines, then given a few days skin contact and oak fermentation can produce wines that age really well – giving amazing long-lived complex food wines with an extra dimension.
From Romania comes a wine from SERVE, the first private winery in the country, founded in 1993 by Guy de Poix (a Corsican count with a family history of 600 years in winemaking). He was inspired to come to Romania by reading Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine. His Cuvée Charlotte red blend has long been held up as an iconic wine for Romania to show the world the country’s potential for quality. It also pioneered the idea of a blend which brings together the best of both worlds. Here the international Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot work beautifully with the local dimension of the Feteasca Neagra. Sadly Guy died in 2011 but his widow Mihaela and Aurel the company’s long-time winemaker continue Guy’s vision.
Finally to Serbia, perhaps a little behind other countries in the Balkans but catching up fast with an incredibly dynamic wine scene right now. Prokupac is coming to the fore – once treated as a rustic workhorse grape but now showing that it has serious potential. Vina Budimir Svb Rosa is 60% Prokupac from ancient vines (some are a century-old) aged in 3000l and 5000l casks, along with 40% Cabernet Sauvignon from barrique. The name means “under the rose” and is so named because a rose over a doorway was a symbol of a secret meeting and on tasting this classy wine reveals hidden depths.
The Balkans is such a dynamic and exciting part of the wine world, with so much to keep exploring, and so many inspiring personal stories to tell and great wines to discover.
The Wine List
Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Verus, Slovenia
Blanc de Noirs 2016, Papaskarasi, Chamlija, Turkey
Barovo white 2015, Tikveš, Macedonia
Malvazija Istarska Anno Domini 2013 Benvenuti winery, Croatia
Great Terroirs Bouquet 2015 , Borovitza, Bulgaria
Cuvee Charlotte 2011, S.E.R.V.E, Romania
Svb Rosa, Prokupac, 2009, Vinarija Budimir, Serbia