Darrel Joseph explores up and coming wines from Macedonia
Emerging wine regions expert: Darrel Joseph
On August 31, I completed my most recent visit to the Republic of Macedonia, having sniffed and tasted my way through dozens of wines produced by nine of this Balkan country’s top quality wineries. Over the course of those six days, my impressions were more vivid and my conclusions more solid than those I had made during any of my previous visits to the country, the last of which was in December 2012. To sum it up, Macedonia’s quality wines not only have gotten, but are getting better and better. The consistency, the expression of aromas and flavours, the freshness, the balance and harmony, the use of wood, the ageing potential - in other words, the absolute quality - are seriously there and keep notching upward.
Of course, the country has a serious foundation to build on. Grape growing in Macedonia is believed to date back more than 4, 000 years, according to ancient artifacts found in the country. And some 2, 300 years ago, Alexander III – better known as Alexander the Great - supplied his soldiers with wine from grapes grown in what is today’s Tikveš district.
Fast-forward to the 20th century: Macedonia’s hot and sunny summers and range of soils – sand, limestone and clay, for example – made it the land of choice for wine production during its 45-year tenure as a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Until it became an independent republic in 1991, Macedonia produced nearly two-thirds of Yugoslavia’s wine.
Granted, Macedonia produced mainly bulk wine during those Yugoslav days, and even now, a huge chunk of the country’s 24, 700 hectares of wine grape vineyards are utilised for bulk. However, an increasing number of producers today – so far, around 15 of the 81 officially registered wineries – are concentrating on creating bottled quality wines. True, the amounts are not exactly voluminous - an average of 1 - 1.2 million hectoliters of wine are produced annually in Macedonia, with roughly 35 million liters of it comprised of bottled quality wine. Around 18 million litres of this is exported. And that figure is likely to increase.
Why? Though landlocked by Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Greece and Bulgaria, Macedonia has its own distinctive constellation of climatic and terroir conditions, with more and more of its producers cluing in to them. With these, I am referring to the Vardar River Valley region, or Povardarie, in the central part of the country. Comprising 21, 000 ha, the Vardar River Valley holds the lion’s share of Macedonia’s vineyards (the two regions Pcinya-Osogovo and Pelaginiya-Polog are planted with the rest). Here is where continental and Mediterranean climates meet to stir up roasting summer daytime temperatures that can easily climb above 40°C, and then drop by 15°C – 20 °C overnight, especially where there are high hillside vineyards planted between 400 and 600 meters above sea level.
That may sound dramatic, but look at the beneficial points: the air is so dry, that the grapes are not often threatened by fungal disease – which means minimal spraying, far less than is the norm in many other European vineyards. Added to this are generous ventilating winds that lend further to keeping the grapes clean and disease-free. Also, in many vineyards, drip irrigation is installed to provide compensation for the low annual rainfall.
And quite simply, the nature here is incomparable. The vineyards play host to an array of plants, flowers, birds and other forms of wildlife. During my visit, I was captivated by the stunning beauty and distinctive call of the bright, multi-coloured bee eater birds swooping through the areas abundant with loess hillsides, in which they live.
The grape varieties are what ultimately define Macedonian wines, and it comes as no surprise that local and regional Balkan varieties show extremely well. Vranec, grown also in Montenegro and spelled Vranac there, is Macedonia’s kingpin grape. With its prominent acidity, masculine tannins and thick red and dark fruit flavours (I find that elderberry consistently shows up), Vranec can run the gamut of (mainly dry) styles: young and fruit-forward, medium-bodied or big, bold and oak-aged with less-than-shy alcohol levels.
It is also excellent as a blend variety. Planted to 7, 000 ha, there is certainly enough Vranec to go around, both in and out of the country. Other important red varieties include Stanušina, which is indigenous to the Tikveš district and is a kind of softer, gentler counterpart to Vranec; Kratošija – the same variety known as Crljenak Kaštelanski in Croatia, Primitivo in Italy and Zinfandel in California; and Prokupec, which is being revived in Serbia as well. There are several international reds that shine, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
Surprisingly, a number of white varieties express themselves beautifully in Macedonia, most prominently, Temjanika (Muscat Frontignan), Žilavka (found mainly in Bosnia & Herzegovina), and Smederevka, which is widely-planted and yields light, easy-drinking wines, but can show more vitality when blended with the Rkaciteli variety.
It should be noted that climate change is beginning to show its face in Macedonia. Over the past few months, there was significant rainfall – the most in recent memory. Some producers were not prepared for the resulting outbreak of downy mildew and grey rot and, consequently, it is estimated that at least 30% of this year’s grape crop will be lost. Those producers who reacted quickly to the wet conditions managed to stave off disease through an unusually high 8 – 12 sprayings.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is concern that the already-high annual summer temperatures may climb even higher due to global warming; some winemakers, such as Dane Jovanov from the Stobi winery in the Tikveš district, are considering the possibility of planting more vineyards higher up on hillsides so that grapes will be better exposed to the winds and cool nighttime temperatures. A tall order, no doubt, but a reasonable – and maybe necessary - one.
Below is a selection of Macedonian wines that impressed my palate during my recent visit to the country. I provide tasting notes to help convey the individuality of the wines as well as the wineries that produced them. All nine wineries are represented - seven of them are members of the Wines of Macedonia association, which was founded in 2010 to help further develop and support Macedonia’s burgeoning wine industry. All of the wineries and vineyards are located in the Vardar River Valley region.
1) SKOVIN winery
Cuvée Selection (Barrique) 2010
Made of Vranec (30%), Cabernet Sauvignon (30%), Syrah (15%), Merlot (15%) and Sangiovese (10%). Alc 13%.
Matured for two years in new Serbian and Slavonian oak, this wine exudes flavours of black currant, blackberry, eucalyptus, and a nuance of bay leaf. A subtle savoury hint also. Juicy texture, balanced ripeness and good oak integration. A touch of vanilla on the finish. A fine example of a Macedonian blend and a significant show of quality for the bulk-focused Skovin, whose origins go back to 1979 Yugoslavia.
2) STOBI winery
a) Žilavka 2013. Alc 12%
From the “Classic” series, a refreshing wine with aromas of citrus, lemon blossom and hints of sage and thyme. Juicy, light palate with citrus and mineral flavours. Refreshing acidity. Availalble in UK.
b) Aminta 2011
Made of Vranec (30%), Merlot (30%), Cabernet Sauvignon (30%) and Petit Verdot (10%).
A “Premium” series wine matured for four months in 5,000-liter casks and 12 months in barriques. Rich flavours of cherry and orange with touches of currant, lingonberry and elderberry. Soft herbal notes and gentle, well-integrated tannins. Balanced ripe fruit and vibrant acidity. Mouthwateringly delicious.
3) CHATEAU KAMNIK
Ten Barrels Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2009 Alc. 14.7%
From the 13 ha estate overlooking Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, this Cabernet spent 26 months in new barriques (guess how many) before being bottled. Refined expression with fabulous aromas and flavours of capsicum, red fruits and tones of liquorice and coffee. Beautiful structure.
4) BOVIN winery
Vranec (100%) Alc. 14.5%
From Macedonia’s first privately-owned winery, Bovin, founded in 1998. The Dissan was made from 45-year-old Vranec vines and spent six months maturing in new Macedonian oak barriques. Deep aromas and flavours of elderberry, boysenberry, red plum and raspberry with nuances of chocolate and mocha and hints of toffee. Fresh and ripe, yet deep and firmly structured. Well integrated alcohol and acidity.
5) POPOV winery
Temjanika Reserve 2012
Fine, elegant expression of spicy muscat and nutmeg. Very good use of oak.
Barrel sample; will be bottled in the fall of 2014.
6) TIKVEŠ winery
Bela Voda red 2012 Alc 14%
Made from a 45-year-old vineyard planted with Vranec and Plavac Mali - two of the most renowned varieties of the Balkans. Seductive nose with red fruit and soft mint aromas. Mouthfilling flavours of cranberry, lingonberry, raspberry, a touch of orange and a hint of clove. Youthful tannins and vibrant acidity. Plenty of ageing potential. Delicious!
Note: Founded in 1885, Tikveš is a Balkan institution. In fact, its signature wine during the Yugoslavia era, the semi-dry Vranec called T’ga za Jug (“longing for the south”), is still produced and widely sold throughout the region. In recent years, Tikveš added to its roster premium wines from the top vineyard sites Bela Voda and Barovo. And now, Tikveš has introduced its new premium Domaine Lepovo line. So far, only the Chardonnay 2013 has been released, but in the near future, Pinot Noir, Vranec and a cuvée blend will make their market debuts.
7) POPOVA KULA winery
Owner Jordan Trojkov founded Popova Kula in 2004 with the goal of highlighting the best of Macedonian and regional Balkan grape varieties. With the help of his winemaker, Ekaterina Gargova, he is certainly succeeding.
a) Stanušina Barrique 2009
A vibrant, youthful wine with notes of red currant and clove and undertones of herbs & spices. Not a deep wine, but a clever one with well-integrated oak (used French and American barriques) and lovely, balanced length. Just enough of everything to bring out the light but distinctive character of the Stanušina variety.
b) Prokupec 2013
Alc. 12.7 %
Another precocious Popova Kula wine, just freshly bottled (though still not released). From very young vines, this Prokupec exudes an aroma of fresh country blackberry pie and a nuance of calfskin. Elegant, delicious flavours of blackberry and raspberry, red currant and a soft mocha finish. Juicy and sophisticated; very well crafted.
8) EZIMIT winery
Vranec Barrique 2012
A juicy medium-bodied wine matured for 16 months in new and used barriques. Rose hip, red currant and raspberry flavours along with some clove & spice notes. A somewhat easy-drinking wine with a touch of elegance. Clean and fruity.
9) CHATEAU SOPOT
Alšar Barrique 2007
Cabernet Sauvignon (85%), Merlot (10%), Cabernet Franc (5%)
A big yet balanced Macedonian red that shows just how good Cabernet Sauvignon does in this country. Fresh aromas and balanced tannins. Very masculine with a touch of finesse. Bottled in 2010 after 2.5 years in barriques. Only 1000 bottles made. A wine that practically goes beyond flavour. Gorgeous sophistication.