A wine and food pairing, and educative tasting by a WSET wine educator and also a tour through the glass as we discussed what does Balkan mean at all, what countries are considered to be Balkan, and what unites all the diverse countries under this geographical and cultural concept.
What countries are considered to be Balkans?
The concept - Balkan peninsula was created in 19th century by a German geographer, he mistakenly considered the Balkan mountains the largest mountain range of the South East Europe. Balkans was also a European synonym for what the Ottomans called Rumelia - the European provinces of the Ottoman empire.
Officially, the Balkan states are Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Slovenia, Albania, Northern Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, parts of Romania, Greece and Turkey. We included wines from almost all these countries in the first release of the Balkan Tales Wine Collection by Once Upon A Wine. On the tasting at Bij Barba on April 10th we started with a Slovenian skin contact white wine, continued with a special white wine from Bosnia-Herzegovina, tasted a Turkish orange wine, had two red wines from Serbia and Romania, and finished with a Croatian traditional method sparkling wine.
Malvazija Istrska by Guerilla Winery, Slovenia
Our first wine comes from the Vipava Valley in Slovenia. Slovenia as a wine country is like Burgundy of the East, just 16 000 ha but spread among 29 000 small producers. This wasn't like that always. In times of Yugoslavia all vineyards became state owned, indigenous grape varieties were practically prohibited and people keeping their local grapes in the vineyards were getting fined. But winemaking is part of Slovenia's history, they've been doing wine since 5-4th century BC. And after the country regained its' independence, a wave of young winemakers emerged in the region. They bring in new technologies that complement the traditions of their ancestors. So many of today's wineries are doing natural wines, either organic or biodynamic. And the wine we were tasting is a product of such estate.
Guerilla winery is an organic and biodynamic certified estate by Zmago Petrič. He was born in a family of farmers, and spent his childhood in the vineyards and cellar. The year he was born his father actually received an award for his Pinella wine (that's another Slovenian grape). A sign of fate, perhaps?
All their vineyards are like on the photo, terraced on steep slopes of the Vipava valley. This provides good sun exposure, cooling winds and high day and night temperature difference - a key for having fresh wines with sharp and mineral acidity.
The fermentation is always spontaneous using natural yeast, the harvest manual, biodynamic preparations are used to revitalize the soil and flora.
Regarding the grape variety, Malvazia Istrska is a grape that is native to three countries - Slovenia, Croatia, Italy, countries that share the Istria peninsula. It can make very diverse wines, from pure and sharp whites to intense orange wines.
Malvazia Istrska by Guerilla winery has light, sunny yellow and lively colour. Distinguished by its complex nose. Aromas of white flowers, peach, citruses, dried grass, spices, crushed rock. A full-body and distinct mineral taste. High complexity and smoothness.
Hercegovacka Žilavka by Podrumi Vukoje 1982, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Next wine is Žilavka from Bosnia-Herzegovina. A real gem from Herzegovina, seriously, local winemakers say that Žilavka is, first of all, their countries top grape, second, might even be among the top grapes of the world.
Wine has been made here for more than 2000 years, again the reason we don't see much wine on the store shelves from BiH is more geopolitics rather than winemaking. In Yugoslavia times quantity was more important than quality, plus the civil wars caused massive vineyard destruction.
Today, it's a small but ambitious winemaking country with 65% of the vineyards covered with local grapes. Once it was a very important wine region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and back than, Žilavka was the preferred grape of Emperors.
Our Herzegovacka Žilavka comes from a family run winery - Podrumi Vukoje, from the south-west of Herzegovina, neighbouring Dubrovnik and Montenegro. Their Žilavka vineyard is just 2,2 ha and it was owned by the Habsbourg court from 1894 to the formation of Yugoslavia. During the Austro-Hungarian empire it was determined that this land was the best for growing Žilavka.
The owner of the winery, Radovan, did lots of internships in Italian wineries mainly, but he always wanted to come back home and make wine on his own land. They won over 150 gold medals on int competitions and the number keeps growing.
Žilavka's name translates as "strong roots" it is a grape that's known for having roots resisting drought in the stony soil of Herzegovina. It has a common parent with Furmint - Alba Imputotato, a parent and relative of many other famous grapes.
The wine has a distinctive green hue, on the nose the classical peach, herbs and spices. The wine is very mineral as Žilavka is grown practically in rocks. The fruit profile is complemented by complex cheese, yogurt and cream aromas and flavours.
Trakya encompasses the entire European Turkey. We divide it on a couple of subregions, and today's wine comes from Şarköy. The vineyard is just 3km inland from the Marmara sea, facing the sea and its' winds - this is one of the best ways to keep a vineyard pest free naturally, without using pesticides. Well drained, loamy soil, with perfect pH for vineyard. These are old Yapincak vineyards here, 50+ years old, free standing bush vines.
Yapincak is an indigenous variety to the Thrace region. Paşaeli was the first winery in Turkey to bottle a 100% Yapincak wine. People thought they were crazy, as at those times, in 2011, most of the existing wineries in Turkey were focusing on international grapes. Yet the same year their Yapincak won a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine competition, the first gold medal for a Turkish winery. This is how the revival of this forgotten and ancient Turkish grape has begun.
Paşaeli winery was founded by Seyit Karagozoglu, the name of the estate means the Land of the Pasha, which relates to the the whole Thrace region. The founder has been in fine wine import since 1993, and in 2002 he started his own winery with an aim to promote the native grapes of Turkey. Many local grape varieties were rescued from extinction thanks to Pasaeli, grape varieties like Kolorko, Yapincak, Cakal, Cal Karasi, Sidalan and more to come.
Most of their wines are done as microvinifications - sometimes just 500 bottles per label. All wines are wild ferments, and most of them are suitable for vegans. Wines made from indigenous grape varieties and produced in very limited numbers. Finds them in Netherlands at Once Upon A Wine.
The wine has medium gold colour. It's smoky and spicy on the nose with dried grass, bitter orange and dry apricot. On the palate, tannins are well present with freshness and oily minerality.
Tri Morave Red by Temet Winery, Serbia
Now we travel to Serbia and are going to taste Prokupac, this grape variety is going through a real renaissance.
Serbia has been making wine since more than 2000 years ago, with the peak of development at Roman times. Then Serbia was a major wine exporter in Middle Ages, and in Ottoman times the wine making was down to homemade production. In Yugoslavia times there was another wine peak - but it was related to quantity not quality, many indigenous grapes became extinct as the country was focusing on international grapes mostly.
The last years Serbia is recovering its' wine reputation. Our today's winery comes from the Tri Morave region - the region where three Morava rivers are united.
Temet is a young winery with most advanced technical possibilities, young enologist and owner, and an ancient winemaking site, even its' name Lozovik means grape vine. All the works are manual and since 2018 they're managed without any pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, the winery just finally received its' organic certification and the next vintages will already have the organic logo on the label.
Some 20-30 years ago Prokupac had a very bad reputation, too little colour and tannins, high alcohol. It reminds me the trouble Grenache has. But then you know Grenache can also make the finest wines on Earth like Chateauneuf du Pape.
It is important to lower the yield of Prokupac by planting it in poor soil, choosing a low yield rootstock, choose a southern exposure and remove the leaves at time of ripening to increase the concentration of flavours and tannins in the wine.
The profile of Temet Tri Morave Prokupac is full of black forest berries, black plum, licorice and some hints of pepper, cedar and smoke. The wine has well-structured tannins and a long finish.
Negru de Drăgășani by Avincis Winery, Romania
Our next wine comes from a very well known to me country - Romania. I spent there almost 6 years. It's one of the oldest winemaking countries in Europe, they've been making wine here for 6000 years, specifically in the Thracian part, on the border with Bulgaria.
The south part belongs by geography and soul to the Balkans, the western part is more Austro-Hungarian. Grapes like Muscat, Riesling, Gewurztramminer became like native to that part of the country and been traditionally planted there. The sad part of their wine history is again related to communist times, the regime of Ceausescu. But since 1991 the land reform brought a lot of private investments and new private wineries started to emerge.
In the south of Romania we find Drăgășani, a hilly region on the Olt river. It's very close to the Danube and Serbian border. In 2007 Cristiana and Valeriu Stoica decided to restore the ruined family mansion in Drăgășani and restore the abandoned vineyards. They were fueled ever since by one dream - to put Romania on the int wine map again. All works are manual, the vineyards have day long sun exposure with sand, limestone and gravel soils.
Negru de Drăgășani is a cross that was created in Dragasani town in 1993 by crossing Negru Vartos and Saperavi or Babeasca Neagra. A variety with good frost resistance, high amount of colour, fruity and fresh wine.
The wine has medium purple colour, delicate and silky taste with ripe cherries, blueberries, a hint of violet and fresh pepper. Avincis Negru de Drăgășani pairs well with hearty vegetarian dishes based on beans, mushrooms and lentils. It also pairs well with duck breast and wild rabbit pate.
Opolo Brut Rosé by Testament Winery, Croatia
And the final jewel of tonight is a traditional method sparkling wine from Croatia's Dalmatia. Greek settlers were the authors of winemaking here in 500 BC. The same story as in other countries, Yugoslavia didn't serve well for the winemaking reputation of Croatia. However, today the country has done everything to revive the quality winemaking. They have a very strict classification system and well defined wine regions.
Testament is an organic certified winery that focuses on wines from indigenous grapes, a young estate with lots of international awards, including Decanter gold medals. Their vineyards are in Dalmatia, near the town of Šibenik. This town is full of ancient Roman winemaking legacy, like the 102 Roman wine amphorae for wine transportation that were found in the Adriatic sea near the coast of Šibenik.
This wine is made from Babić grapes. Babić just like Prokupac tends to have super high yield in too fertile soils. However, the karst terraces of Šibenik and Primošten are a perfect challenging environment for Babic where it makes highly tannic and concentrated wines.
Babić is native to the Dalmatian coast.
The aromas ressemble of peaches, strawberries and wild flowers. The taste is accompanied by the aroma, it's balanced, rich and fresh. Testament Opolo Brut Rosé is the right choice for refreshment on warm summer days or simply for romantic socializing. Pair it with gazpacho, oysters or enjoy alone as aperitif.