The Re-Emergence of Macedonia

By Sara d’Amato

Eastern European wine is fast on the rise with Baltic countries experiencing a renaissance the way Portugal, Greece and southern Italy have seen. Wines from the Baltic basin began creeping into our market over the past five years brandishing homespun labels featuring the names of unfamiliar grape varieties sometimes blended with international grapes. Although uncertainty has been largely responsible for slow consumer uptake, the current taste for anything-but-chardonnay is beginning to sway more adventurous wine drinkers. While many of these regions have not fully embraced modern winemaking practices and the wines may be somewhat unrefined in relation to Western European standards, they are budding with potential, often use little oak are fresh and expressive and, as of yet, are relatively inexpensive.

Bulgaria, Georgia, Montenegro and Serbia have been making quiet momentum with a gradually paced transformation of their wine landscapes. State run wineries and co-operatives that supplied the former Soviet Union in the 80s in Bulgaria are being replaced by private quality minded producers rising from the ashes of an industry that fell into neglect. Montenegro’s small production of vranec and some zinfandel (Kratoshija or Crljenak Kasteljanski) has been receiving some attention while Georgia’s Kakheti province, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, has been the source of wine buzz with its rustic Qvevri fermented wines based on a wealth of indigenous varieties, most notably those of sapervi (red) and rkatsiteli (white). The largest state of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, Serbia, is also the most prolific of the states in terms of wine production. It is gaining impetus with its blends of international varieties with indigenous grapes smederevka (white) and prokupac, a red variety thought to be the same as syrah.

Within this context and geographically sandwiched between Albania, Kosovo, Bulgaria and Greece, Macedonia’s small but serious wine industry had me as their guest this past year to experience its developing wine culture. It is a country of only 2 million people and is slightly larger than Vermont. Its tenuous relationship with Greece has affected the recognition of the state itself and has caused confusion with Greek Macedonia, especially when it comes to wine. Although to much of the world and the 4 million displaced Macedonian’s throughout the world (in countries like Australia, Canada, Greece and spread throughout the Balkans) the country is known as “Macedonia”, to Greece and the EU, it is known as “The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia” or FYROM. The contentious issue of the country’s name is largely responsible for its non-admittance to the E.U. despite Macedonia’s compliance with E.U. regulations and requirements. Notwithstanding, the wine regulatory system in Macedonia is based on the PDO/PGI system and recognizes and protects its distinct regional character.

In order to enhance the distinction of the unique geographical differences in wine region based on terroir, the Wines of Macedonia have embarked upon a project Coordinated by Wines of Macedonia’s Elena Milosevska, consultants from France and Italy were involved in undertaking detailed soil and climatic analysis to help delimit these regions. Unfortunately, when the project was complete and proposed, the new demarcations were put on hold indefinitely for complex diplomatic reasons. Thus, the wine regions of Macedonia today are still based on administrative districts as opposed to their agricultural distinctiveness. Hope still remains that the government and the wine community will embrace the new demarcations in the future.Skopje, the capital city

Skopje, the capital city

A Country Under Vine

A great deal of Macedonian countryside is under vine. From Skopje to Veles, Negotino, Kavadarci to Demirkapija, all the way to Gevgelija, the roads are bordered with an abundance of grape vines. The sunshine is a perma-feature of the region and fosters the phenolic ripeness of Balkan varieties, many of which are historical remnants planted almost exclusively in the region. Wine growing in Macedonia is thought to be a culture dating back 4,000 years, making it one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world. Documents dating back to the time of Alexander the Great recount the employ of wines grown in the Tikvesh region as recompense for military service.

Distinguishing climatic features include sunshine – over 270 days per year. The climate is a mix of Mediterranean and Continental and its E.U. categorization allows for acidification. Macedonia’s wine is 50/50 split between red and white and includes many Balkan-indigenous grape varieties. The whites are dominated by:

Smerdevka which make up 60% of the white grapes grown. The grape variety is likely native to Serbia and is grown throughout the Balkans, known for its delicate aromatic profile, understated wines and contribution to blends.

International varieties such as chardonnay, riesling, grenache blanc (belan) and sauvignon blanc play a more important role than ever before. In particular, examples of chardonnay exceeded my expectations to the extent they I tasted some of the most beguiling, unexpected and compelling examples of the variety while visiting Macedonia.

Other white varieties are:

Zilavka: primarily a blending grape and used for making brandies, it is high in acid and is both nutty and floral. Some single varietal examples are now emerging.

Temjanika: a highly aromatic variety with a muscat-like character grown most notably in the Tikvesh region.  It produces both sweet styles of wine made from raisined grapes as well as dry, single varietal incarnations. A highly prized varietal capable of producing structured and complex wines.

Zupljanka: Serbian in origin, zupljanka is a cross between prokupec and pinot noir. Grown throughout Macedonia, its high acidity makes it coveted in blends but single varietal examples are also emerging.

Rkaciteli: a hearty Georgian variety that offers peppery spice, floral aromas and peachy fruit. Widely planted throughout the Balkans but is particularly expressive when grown in cooler sites in Macedonia.

Traminer: also known as savagnin blanc and a variant of gewürztraminer, traminer can be an intensely aromatic variety whose perfume is best coaxed out with little winemaking interference.

Red wines in Macedonia vary in style from deep and powerful to light and fragrant. By far, the most widely planted red variety is:

Vranec: an indigenous variety to the Balkans likely originating in nearby Montenegro. The name translates roughly to “black stallion” which gives you an idea of its depth of colour, potency and strength of character. This is perhaps Macedonia’s greatest export as it is a global benchmark for this variety and likely pre-dates cabernet sauvignon. Vranec is responsible for a whopping 50% of reds in the country. It produces wines that are intensely pigmented, full-bodied with red fruit, along with notes of licorice and cocoa from wood. Almost every winery produces a version of vranec, sometimes several, and they are prized for their noble traits of structure, ageabillity and complexity. Vranec is sometimes blended with merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah to increase its export marketability.

Kratoshija: is Macedonia’s second most important red varietal and is deserving of attention. It is known as both zinfandel, primitivo and crljenak kashtelanski in Croatia but it is only called kratoshija in Macedonia. Here the variety has a unique expression that would be similar to a blend of gamay and cabernet sauvignon. It produces wines that are spicy, with red fruit, moderate alcohol and have good acidity.

Stanushina: perhaps the country’s most curious grape and the only Balkan wine grape which has been proven to be indigenous to Macedonia itself from the Tikvesh region. It was more widely planted pre-phylloxera and its extinction has been threatened by the planting of international varieties. Thankfully there is a small resurgence of the variety mostly for rosé wine production by the Popova Kula winery.

Wine Regions

Macedonia has 16 administrative districts that are also the named wine regions. The districts are geographically protected through labeling regulations. Although grapes are planted throughout Macedonia, the most notable wine regions are that of Skopje (surrounding the region’s capital city in the northwest), Veles, just south of Skopje, Tikvesh and Gevgelija-Valandovo in the southeast. These districts that make up over 80% of the country’s production follow the Vardar River that provides tempering climatic effects. However, it is Tikvesh that is the largest and most renown region; its mix of flat lands and rolling hills is surrounded on three sides by mountains that keep the climate arid and shelters it from wind.

The Tikvesh district is also home to Tikveš winery, one of the oldest in the country dating back to 1885. The winery was state run for 60 years beginning in 1946 and had a reputation for bulk wine production. Historically it was known for its production of T’ga za Jug wine, perhaps Macedonia’s most famous export: a semi-dry red made from late-harvested vranec that was widely consumed throughout the Balkans. Everything changed for this most recognized Macedonian brand in 2003 when private investors purchased it and it became quality focused with an interest in research and innovative projects. The renown French “travelling winemaker”, Phillipe Cambie, is currently consulting for the winery and has helped identify several “Grand Cru” sites at various elevations capable of producing stunning chardonnays.Vineyard in Tikvesh region

Vineyard in Tikvesh region.

Site-specific locations of importance are being defined and highlighted by producers rather than by government initiatives at this juncture. A project of particular interest is that of Domaine Lepovo, a premium wine venture led by oenologists Marko Stojakovic and the aforementioned Phillipe Cambie. The small batch production of chardonnay and pinot noir with plantings of cabernet sauvignon, vranec and merlot, is sourced from a hillside vineyard at 250 meters of altitude along the Vardar Valley. Although the vines are only 15 years old, they are producing wine of sublime elegance already and are very much worth seeking out.

Furthermore, Tikveš has been working to preserve a top vineyard growing area that has all but been abandoned. The Barovo site is located high in the Kozuf Mountain of southern Macedonia benefitting from cool temperatures allowing for the most elegant expressions of kratosija and vranec. The sustainably grown, 40-year old vines, traditionally planted are now under the protection of the winery and are worth every bit of the challenge of maintaining them. White varieties of belan (grenache blanc) and salty, nervy chardonnay are also planted here and produce a distinctive, highly complex white version. The nearby single vineyard site of Bela Voda planted with vranec, plavec as well as belan and chardonnay are also worthy of a great deal of celebration.

Wineries and Wines of Note

Stobi

Stobi’s Winemaker Andon Krstevski

Located in the Tikvesh wine region, Stobi’s investment in local viticulture has proven highly successful with both indigenous and international varieties. The winery is a mix of traditional and well-funded modern with classically adapted French practices. Winemaker Andon Krstevski is a globally experienced innovator whose depth of knowledge and understanding of the unique climatic influences of the region is masterly.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay Acacia

Vranec

Axius

Veritas

Tikves

See above for information regarding the country’s oldest and largest winery.

Belan (grenache blanc)

Barovo White

Bela Voda White

Vranec Special Selection

Domaine Lepovo Pinot Noir

Barovo Red

Bela Voda Red

Skovin

Located in the Skopje wine district, the winery established in 1979 produces an impressive 17 million litres of wine and over 45 labels. It is known especially for its sparkling wine and its push to elevate quality wine production in Macedonia. The southern foothills of Mount Vodno at elevations of 400-600 meters in elevation are home to much of Skovin’s 150 hectares of vines.

Temjanika

Markov Manastir

Bovin

Located in the Tivesh region, Bovin has a huge export market and produces over 1.2 million litres of wine on its 60 hectares of vineyards. The internationally awarded winery focuses on sustainable practices and dry farming.

Alexandar

Venus

Dissan

Popova Kula

Located in the Tikvesh region and relatively small, Popova Kula is known as the champion and saviour of the indigenous stanusina grape variety whose existence was endangered by the planting of non-native grape varieties.

Stanusina Rosé

Stanusina Red

Popov

Located in the heart of the Tikvesh region with relatively small but longstanding production, Popov meticulously maintains its 5 hectares of prime vineyard land.

Grenache Blanc

Vranec

Grand Cuvée Reserve

Imako

Located in the Ovechepole district in eastern-central Macedonia, Imako is a sizable winery that has worked hard to establish themselves as a quality minded producer. It has invested considerably in its hillside vineyards and its portfolio as of late.

Temjanika

Cabernet Sauvignon

Kadarka

Ezimit

On the road in Stip Shtip with Ezimit Winemaker Petar Milev.

Located in the Ovechepole district, Ezimit is a leading exporter of Macedonian wine and focuses on eco-friendly winemaking. In prior days, it was responsible for a great deal of the Macedonian wine available in Canada.

Stardust Viognier

Vranec Barrique

Terra Makedonika

Dalvina

Located in the Stumca-Radovish district, this sizable winery owns an impressive 370 hectares of land under vine.

Astraion Zupljanaka

Ar-magedon

Château Kamnik

Located in the Skopje wine district, the internationally awarded Kamnik winery has invested substantial dollars into innovative winemaking research techniques and the development of new grape clones. The estate owns 15 hectares of vines that are planted at over 330 meters above sea level. A serious project with ample resources housed in a classically designed, inspired structure with state-of-the-art winemaking facilities.

Temjanika

Winemakers’ Selection

Cuvée de Prestige

Pivka

Located in the Tikvesh wine region, Pivka is a small boutique producer with an underground, gravity fed winery. Some of the most breathtaking vineyard landscapes can be viewed from this site.

Traminec

Vranec

Overview

Macedonia is an idiosyncratic wine growing region and contrasts starkly with both classical and new world regions you will have visited. Its influences are many, most notably are those from: Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and Eastern Europe. But perhaps it is more fitting to suggest that it was Macedonia that consequently shaped all of these realms. Macedonia is the birthplace of the Cyrillic language, the home of Alexandar the Great but it has more recently been pushed and pulled, its citizens scattered throughout the world and its future in flux. Its challenges have been significant, from the rebuilding of the great capital city of Skopje with its towering iron statues and classical architecture, to rediscovering Macedonian cultural heritage post the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Macedonia is home to the largest Turkish Bazar outside of Turkey and both societal and aesthetic inspiration is notable. Both an intense sense of national pride and a laissez-faire attitude, caused by its inescapable fate, define the current cultural landscape of modern day Macedonia.

Although geographically smaller than it has ever been, natural beauty is very much a distinguishing feature of Macedonia with wide, wind-swept valleys, mountains and vacation destination lakes. Continental and Mediterranean influence collide in the country giving Macedonia a great deal of viticultural diversity. The country still produces the majority of its wine in bulk format but is edging out of that mold and discovering its unique terroir through the work of both small and large producers alike. Macedonia wineries export throughout the world but still most notably to markets of the Balkans, Germany and more increasingly in Asia.

Currently winemaking is not particularly advanced nor is it stuck in the dark ages. Biodynamics, wild yeast ferment or fancy fermenters are not widely in play. That being said, the majority of the producers seem to be doing it right – investing in good equipment and taking their time to improve the quality of their wine by gaining a greater understanding of what is beneath their feet. There is a great deal of blending between international and local varieties in order to increase the marketability of Macedonian wines. It was my experience, however, that the best wines separated the two types of grapes. I was not expecting to be so enamored with chardonnay and grenache blanc. Conversely, absolutely compelling were the examples of vranec that allowed the grape to express itself in a wild, untamed fashion.