Monday, October 12, 2009
Emerging wine country Serbia - Still in the early days after the break-up of Yugoslavia
Picture: Benjamin and Christian G.E. Schiller in Belgrade
Serbia is still an undiscovered, unknown country in the heart of Europe, when it comes to wine making. Wine is being made all over the country, for hundreds of years, but overall the quality remains low. It is not yet easy to find Serbian wines that are up to international standards in these days, due to 50 years of Yugoslavian-style socialism and 15 years of war and political repression and unrest, although things are changing rapidly in this lovely country in the Eastern part of Europe. Serbia has a long wine making tradition and quality wine making is gaining momentum. There are now about 70,000 hectares of vineyards in Serbia.
As in most of Europe, the wine industry in Serbia is over 1000 years old.
The history of Serbian wine making begins with the birth of the Serbian state in the 8th century. Serbian rulers made great efforts to foster the culture of wine making. Under the Serbian monarchy, the Nemanjić dynasty in particular (from the 11th to the late 14th century), the vine growing culture expanded at stupendous rates along with other agricultural industries. Laws were enacted concerning the wine production and trade. Wine was taken very seriously in medieval Serbia. Wine would witness the sealing of a treaty, the swearing of an oath or the giving of a promise; in short, it stood as a reminder of the laws and traditions of the time.
With Ottoman conquest of Serbia however, the vast majority of Serbian vineyards fell into disuse and decay, and the organized production of wine faced destruction as the Muslim faith forbade the consumption of alcohol.
Things took a turn for the better after the liberation from the Ottoman Empire. Being a protectorate of the Austro-Hungarian empire, wine production began again in Serbia.
But Yugoslavian-style socialism during the second part of the 20th century was a set-back as private winemakers were not allowed to operate. And the past 15 years of war and political repression and unrest did not help either. Until recently, private investors, in particular foreign, were practically absent in Serbia.
The eldest authentic grape sorts are considered to be Prokupac and Tamjanika. Prokupac is a red grape with a long history, while Tamjanika is a kind of a Muscat grape originating from Southern France. In addition, Chardonnay, Sauvignong Blanc, Rhine (Italian) Riesling, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown.
Wine growing areas
The most important Serbian wine growing areas are the following.
(1) Sandy grounds, a temperate continental climate with much sun during the summer are the main features of the Subotica-Horgos wine region up in the Voijvodina. The main producers here are two large wineries.
(2) The town of Sremski Karlovci region at the foot of the Fruska Gora mountain in the Srem region is known as Serbian wine capital, a little baroque city which had an important role in Serbian history. The Srem region is one of the oldest viticultural areas in Europe. Wine has been grown here for over 1,700 years, ever since it was first planted by Roman Emperor Probus. The specialty wines Ausbruch, Bermet and Schiller are produced here.
(3) Vrsac Wine area (Banat). Already famous in the days of the medieval Hungarian kings, the Serbian Banat region centers around Vrsac in the North East of Serbia, at the border to Romania. One of the largest mass producers of wine in Europe is here, the Vrsacko Vinogorje.
(4) The Sumadijsko-velimoravski wine region is know for the Royal Wine Cellars of the Karadjordjevic dynasty, established in 1903. Further up the Morava river is the village of Krnjevo. Radovanovic, one of the best winemakers in the country, is there.
(5) The Timok wine region stretches along the river of the same name from Knjazeva to Negotin. Wine has been cultivated in the border region to Bulgaria and Romania for hundreds of years. The region is known for its historical wine houses - entire villages consisting of nothing than stone built wine cellars.
(6) The Zapadnomoravski wine region is spreading on the hills around the central Serbia town of Aleksandrovac. All of the wealthy medieval monasteries had their vineyards here and that tradition was never abandoned in this quiet corner of Serbia. The Radenkovic winery is one of the leading wine makers of the area.
Winemaking in Serbia
By international standards, quality wine making is pretty underdeveloped in Serbia. This has in my view several reasons:
(1) Over many centuries, Serbia was ruled or under the control of the Ottomans, who do not drink alcohol.
(2) During the 50 years of Yugoslavia-style socialism, the key word was self-government, which meant that workers had all the control over their factories and production. Wineries were all workers-owned and private winemaking was forbidden.
(3) Since the break down of Yugoslavia, the country was involved in several wars, including the one against Croatia and the war against Nato in connection with the establishment of Kosovo, clearly limiting the opportunities for foreign investors.
(4) Finally, Serbs tend to prefer beer and hard liquors, like the famous Slivovic, the plum brandy. It is amazing to see the long list of brandies offered in Restaurants, compared with a rather short list of wines.
But still, things are happening, in particular since 2000. Private winemakers are beginning to emerge. Serbia is not currently producing too many world class wines but with new up-and-coming small, family owned vineyards, the industry is once again growing in terms of both quantity and quality. I would like to list the following. There may be more, but here is what I found in my first week in Belgrade.
Podrum Milijan Jelic
Podrum Radenkovic in Aleksandrovac in the Zapadnomoravski wine region
Podrum Radovanovic in Trnavci in the Sumadijsko-velimoravski wine region
Podrum Do Kraja Sveta in Kovilji in the Srem wine region
Domaine Oplenac from Kraljevo in the Sumadijsko-velimoravski wine region