If you drink and you are in Macedonia, you will go for it in one way or the other. So it’s better if you knew something about it before you do. If you drink but you don’t see yourself anywhere near Macedonia, let me try convincing you to buy a bottle or two if you see it. If you don’t drink… well…
The history of wine making in Macedonia is nearly 4000 years old and 2 300 years ago Alexander the great was getting his army drunk on wine made with grapes of Tikves region. So believe me, despite all the odds, quite a few people living those lands know something about the hills, soils and the sun, and they definitely know the vines.
Macedonia’s climate is very unique. This mountainous country has 270 sunny days in a year and very little rain fall. Most of the vineyards cover the hillsides on elevations between 400 and 600 m over the sea level. Soils are mostly sand, limestone and clay. The temperature in summer reaches 40 Celsius during the day but drops to 15 - 20 during the night. The air so dry that there is rarely any fungus disease, which means barely any spraying! The vineyards are very intertwined with nature and homing many wild animals, birds and plants. The only one of the common intervention is drip irrigation.
Despite the great conditions for wine growing, still most of the production in the country is for the mass market. Two thirds of the wine is produced in bulk. Communism times unfortunately have caused a lot of damage to the reputation of wines coming from eastern and south-eastern part of Europe. We know the system nearly killed Tokay in Hungary and in other countries, such as Moldova, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia - they almost eliminated the production of dry wines. The governments forced most producers to compromise on quality and mass make the semi-sweet or semi-dry wine mostly for the distribution in countries of communistic bloc. Few countries however had such and old relationship with wine that the nearly half a century of the regime did not manage to spoil the quality of best produced wines. Macedonia was one of them.
There is 84 wineries operating in Macedonia today, out of which 15 are producing quality oriented wines. Domestic consumption of wine is 10 litres per head, so no wonder only 15% of all production goes abroad, mostly to the other ex-yugoslavian countries, but also to Germany, Canada, Russia or China.
But enough of the blah blah and lets get down to drinking. The must try is Vranec, a grape that has actually originated in Montenegro, but really unveiled it’s true lovely nature here, in Macedonia. Its name means nothing else but a ‘strong, black and powerful horse’, it can also mean ‘black raven’. Hence it is locally know as the black wine. It is definitely the showstopper of the region and it is just alike the horse its named after - very strong and powerful. Its unique taste and character is synonymous with the balkan wines. The large, deeply coloured berries are always hand harvested. The wine made with them is characterised, as one would expect, by high acidity and massive tannin. When young it is bright purple colour of medium body, very much fruit forward with purple and red berries as well as fruit jam on the nose. When aged, it turns bigger and bolder, it takes more deep ruby colour and develops more complex nose with notes of cinnamon, chocolate, liquorice, black fruits and even sometimes flowers. Finally, just as most red wines in Macedonia, it is rather high in alcohol. Vranec is usually made into a 100% wine, but it is also blended, mostly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
Other native grapes in Macedonia are the reds - Kratosija (known as Primitivo in Italy and Zinfandel in USA), Traminec, Alexandria and a white one - Smederevka. The last one is one of the oldest in Balkans, it has big grapes with hard skin in greenish/yellow colour. Wine made with Smederevka is low in alcohol. of fruity aromas and best to drink young. It is also very best one to make rakija.
And last but not least, time to talk a bit about the wine makers. Tikves is oldest and largest winery, not only in the country, but also in the whole south-eastern Europe. It produces 50 different labels. Personally the best one I have tried is the Bela Voda - a blend of Vranec and Plavac Mali, picked from a 45 years old vineyard. It has an amazing nose with pronounced red fruit such as cranberry and raspberry and hints of orange, clove and even a bit of soft mint. I have also tried the only one traditional Yugoslavian wine T’ga za Jug (longing for the south) - it is a semi-dry Vranec, and although it is interesting, I have to say I can't really get down to drinking any red wine other than dry. Thankfully it is the only one semi-dry red they are still producing. Other big and known producer is Bovin, some waiters told us they were actually the mostly appreciated wines by the locals. I have tried their Sangiovese, and although it lacks the elegance of best Italian examples, Bovin did the justice to the grape and the bottle was enjoyable. Kamnik, the vineyard on the outskirts of Skopje, is also well known. I have made a trip to the Chateau, and although I didn’t have time to visit the vineyard, I had amazing lunch at their hunters' lodge, which I am dedicating a separate post. When it comes to their wines though, I have to say, I was not that impressed. Although they do have some good wines made with single grapes, such as ten barrels Cabernet Sauvignon or Single vineyard Merlot, I was quite surprised with their blends. Winemakers' selection is 40% Vranec, 40% Merlot and 20% Carmenere, the Cuvee de Prestige was Merlot 69%, Cabernet Franc 18% and 13% of Vranec. The selection of grapes for the blends is experimental and innovative, but in my humble opinion it does not work as good as either the classic combinations or the single wines. Other inventions was leaving the Vranec grapes on the vine until they dry out a bit and make it in Amarone style of wine. The result is a huge, very strong (16.2% alc) bomb with a bit too heavy jammy/syrupy notes. Again - for me a bit overthought. Another wine oddity was a sweet Cabernet Sauvignon made with late harvest method. What I would prefer to see a really good and simple Vranec that would show a bit of style and elegance. And that's what we got from a Vranec made by Popova Kula.
When talking about simpleness - you will find some great wine experience in Macedonia when you least expect it. I had two such a surprises - the first one was in a small traditional restaurant in Skopje - I really wasn't in a mood for anything special, we were tired with children a bit sick. All I wanted was a quick dinner with a glass of something. I have ordered ‘something’ they called ‘wine on tap. Don’t get me wrong - it was never to be an amazing wine, it was supposed to be an unassuming, easy drinking cheap glass. And for table wine - this one was sooooo drinkable!!! The second surprise was a home made Pinot Noir made by an enthusiast owing a Villa near Pelister National Park. He said it was organic, and solely made for the use of his family and the guests at the villa. He bottled the wines but he didn't preserve it any way. He said the secret was his cellar - the humidity and the temperature of the room. That's why he wasn’t even selling any wines for ‘take away' as they would need to be drunk as soon as taken out of the wine rack. And wow - that bottle was delicious!!! Really elegant and light, with good balance of tannin and acidity, the beautiful red fruit but not overpowering. Just poetry on the palette.
Finishing my little story on the wine of Macedonia, I need to mention the legendary Rakija. This spirit, distilled from the pressed clusters, skins and lees, is the most popular around the whole Balkan area. Macedonia does it in a very refined way though. The drink reminds me sometimes of Grappa, especially that you do get in silver or gold (matured in oak or not…), and the nose is very similar to good Italian produce. I won’t waste too many words here - good rakija is so worth trying!