Gamay, Traian, and Sauvignon Blanc by Dajić, Negotin, Serbia

From a good friend of mine I’ve learned that Japanese cuisine often puts more stress on structure and texture of ingredients than taste itself. Especially combing of products that are very different in texture and thus creating a contrast is allegedly highly valued. Could such a philosophy apply also to wine?

Nihil novi sub sole: I wasn’t the first to think of wine beauty in these categories. Lawrence Osborne cites in his brilliant book “The Accidental Connosseur” Chalone’s wine maker Don Karlsen, in whose opinion “aromas are not what matter. It’s texture that matters. Texture is all…” (2004, p. 97).

Last Friday, I was invited via Facebook to a wine tasting. Long life to social media! It turned out to be a very cozy and cheerful event, organized by the small but very professional wine bar “Mala Toskana” (Little Tuscany) in Belgrade. And there was live music too, provided by the “Trio Tajna” (tajna means ‘secret’ in Serbian). The deep, warm and very erotic voice of Vesna Dimić somehow becomes particularly beautiful when she sings in Russian, although I love also her French repertoire, mostly Édith Piaf’s songs. I had already opportunity to hear her as the trio sometimes performs in good restaurants. She made my evening singing “Hava Nagila”, a song which always makes me dance, may it be only in my soul.

The wines tasted were all from the Dajić Winery from Negotin in Eastern Serbia. The whole region of Negotin (Negotinska krajina) produces exceptional wines and has long traditions, whose silent witnesses are old complexes of pimnice, wine cellars (on the picture), in Rajac and other villages of this area. They are candidates for the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Mr. Dajić presented three of his wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay, and Traian, which is a cuvee from Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay and Prokupac. The white was intensely mineral, almost fizzy. The producer managed to provide a very dry wine, preserving that fresh aroma so typical for Sauvignon. So good and flawless example of its variety it was, so little is to be told about its character: Just another enjoyable Sauv.

The Gamay was quite a different thing! It was my favorite that evening and in Serbia it has an opinion to be the best wine of this variety in the whole country. I’m not able to confirm it as it’s also the only one I have ever tasted. One is sure: I loved it so much that it made me dancing not less than “Hava Nagila”. Gamay is not particularly popular here but the region of Negotin might be a right terroir for it. As a matter of fact, Cyrille and Estelle Bongiraud from Burgundy started to produce their wines here, convinced that the area is one of the best suitable for wine production in Europe. Gamay is one of the varieties they chose to grow, and it’s the main element in their red organic ‘Obećanje’ (Promise).

Freshly poured, Dajić’s Gamay releases aroma of red fruit, not unusual for this variety. There are the strawberries warmed by strong sun of June, some dried plums and black cherries… in chocolate. Then the structure starts to seduce: It’s virtually dancing on the palate, splitting into two like the Red Sea in front of Moses, caressing the edges of the tongue and flowing down on sides of the gullet, leaving a feeling of cool emptiness in the middle. There is a spicy note, subtly burning, but more like chili than alcohol. A warm wine as it could be expected from the moderately warm area of Negotin protected by the huge body of Danube. The color resembles black cherries too, not to mention the delicate bitterness of their stones bringing to mind almonds. I found in this wine some satin character, softness, but my glass could profit from some air, preferably fresh summer air on some veranda under one of Negotin’s lindens 🙂 Very probably, we have to do with a wine which is as exciting as easy to be loved: it’s not shocking through any disharmonious element. Cherry- and satin-like, easily pleasing and all this meant as a compliment.

The more air enters the glass, the more sunny and honey the wine becomes. The ‘cherry-ness’ gains the upper hand and finally dominates the taste. But the structure remains tender and subtly erotic. I don’t feel that I’m truly exploring this wine, but rather that it’s exploring me. Is it flirting? No, it goes much further and touches all those sensitive spots of wine lover, in order to playfully seduce.

Then the cuvee comes. ‘Traian’ is both heavier and more intense in its aroma. I would describe it as ‘denser’ – more tannins, more extract. There are violets, or generally a whole meadow exploding from the glass. I find it difficult to specify this flowery-vegetal character. It starts with spring and jumps into humid colorful leaves, shiny in the autumnal sun. There is a note of grated carrot or red beet, or maybe something more like lowest undergrowth full of moss… Every time I immerse my nose in the glass, the wine seems to change its character. Also here the structure is beautiful, but I often fail in falling in love with stronger, greater reds, even if elegant. The exciting aspect of this wine is its ability to express two Serbias – the modern, pro-European one, and that ‘oriental’, traditional: Cabernet and Prokupac.

Dajić’s reds are wines of exciting and seducing texture and this makes them really worth of trying! Cheers, or even better: Živeli!

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Bermet – a wine specialty from Serbia

Bermet belongs to the family of aromatized wines, which gain their particular flavor through added herbs and spices. This practice is probably as old as the wine itself and was often applied to hide imperfections of the product, as cream is used in the kitchen. By the way, the latter is a reason why many Italian chefs ban cream from their culinary creations. In modern times, we don’t use herbs and spices to hide bad taste of wine anymore. Now we have soda, which is able to cover any imperfection in taste, also consumer’s taste.  Probably the best-known example of aromatized wine is Vermouth, but there are also Barolo Chinato, Retsina, or… Bermet.

The wine is produced in the area around the town of Sremski Karlovci, which is surprisingly small in comparison to the role it played in the history of the region. It was here, where the treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League was signed in 1699, changing the balance of power in this part of Europe for the next two centuries. It was also here where the revival of Serbian culture started – the Metropolitans of the Serb Orthodox Church resided in the town and founded several important institutions. And I can add with a clear conscience ‘etcetera, etcetera’.

Sremski Karlovci is situated in Vojvodina, a northern, autonomic province of Serbia with a preserved ethnic mosaic, inherited from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To be even more precise, it is in Fruška Gora, a small hilly area, whose big part is a national park. There are also many old monasteries, and wine traditions which we can trace into the antiquity, when the Roman Emperor – Marcus Aurelius Probus, who was born in the region in Sirmium (today’s Sremska Mitrovica), planted the first vines on the mild slopes of Fruška Gora, then Alma Mons (fertile mountain). In the 15th century, the local wines were exported to Poland. And in the 18th century, Friedrich Wilhelm von Taube, a German traveller, was writing enchanted about the quality of the local wine and lamenting over insufficient exports of that delicacy.

Bermet is just one of the specialties here. There is the magnificent Ausbruch too, about which I’m going to write in the future. Sure is that the sweet aromatized wine, which can be either white or red, became popular a long time ago. It is said that already the Empress Maria Theresa knew to appreciate it. I imagine her in the winterish, humid Vienna with a glass of Bermet to warm the soul tired by politics, in which she unfortunately was successful. Some sources in Serbia claim that Bermet was served on Titanic, and generally known to the elites of 19th-century USA. This I was not able to check in any American sources.

In Serbia, people enjoy it as both aperitif and digestive and serve it at a relatively high temperature of 18-20°C. This is quite unusual for a sweet wine, containing between 16 and 18% of alcohol. There is no single recipe for this wine as every family has its own combination of herbs and spices used for maceration. The exact list of ingredients and the proportions are kept secret. Among them one can usually expect, for instance, dried figs, licorice, raisins, anise, nutmeg, wormwood, horseradish, vanilla, lemons, oranges, carob, mustard seeds, cinnamon, gorse, mint, and clove. The final product is fortified, for example with rakija.

I had good experiences with Bermets made by the wineries Kiš and Kovačević, but you will probably need to try several of them in order to find your favorite one… Although, why choosing and not liking all of them?… Cheers!

Ajvar – because there is a Balkan cuisine

Vague terms, generalizations, stereotypes that shift a lot of beautiful diversity on this world into obscurity, an ignorance cherished by everyone in some realms of live. Who doesn’t know them?! Designations like African, Slavic, Arabic, Asian usually don’t say anything. This is why I wished to speak about Serbian cuisine but need to revise this concept now. A Serbian friend of mine told me once that there is nothing like Serbian cuisine for him. Yes, there are regional cuisines in Serbia, with their traditions and specialties. However the next level will be already the Balkan one. The history of the region, shared by the majority of the area for several centuries, led to a common cultural heritage, visible as soon as we enter local kitchens. As a part of one empire for al least three to four centuries, Balkan people were learning from each other; their ideas spread, cultures shared their achievements. There is a spectrum of products, which you can find only here but at the same time in almost every corner of the peninsula. Think of feta-like cheese, rakija, kebab, sujuk sausage, shopska salad, ljutenica, stuffed paprika, kofta meatballs, börek, sarma, pita, baklava, and dozens more. So as a mater of fact, to a big extent, I need to agree with his point of view.

Here you go – one example of Serbian specialty, which is in fact known in the whole Balkan area: AJVAR. In my opinion, this is one of the best products of the Balkans and this one is indeed originally from Serbia, from where it later spread over the peninsula.

Ajvar is a word derived from Turkish though. It comes from ‘havyar’, which is salted roe and so the term ajvar shares its origin with the word ‘caviar’.

So what is the magnificent product bearing such an oriental name? We could probably talk about a relish based on red bell peppers, which are roasted and peeled, before the are blended or chopped and mixed with onion, salt, sunflower oil, vinegar, and sometimes also eggplants, treated as the peppers. As it’s a very simple product, its quality is dependent first of all on the aroma of peppers, which luckily feel in the region much at home since half a millennium.

Peppers were brought to Europe by Columbus. The plant soon conquered the stomachs of the whole Southern Europe, reaching Balkan very early, probably already in the 16th century. It is also from where it entered the Hungarian, and later also Austrian cuisines. In the northern countries of the continent, like Germany and Poland it basically remained unknown until the 20th century.

Here, in Serbia, the region, which is particularly famous for its red bell pepper, is the southeastern part of the country, around the city of Leskovac. Accordingly, also the best ajvar comes from there.

The relish is used as bread spread or as a side dish, but in my opinion it might be paired almost with everything. I add some to many pasta sauces, put it on ham, especially pečenica, or baked potatoes with horsemeat sausage, and even enjoy a layer of ajvar on bread with kajmak.

The best ajvar is the home made one that you can buy here from old ladies at pijaca, kind of farmers’ market, a true treasury of Balkan flavors and aromas. This is not surprising, of course. But there are also plenty of companies offering excellent products too. I had delicious ‘Leskovački cepkani ajvar’ (Chopped ajvar from Leckovac) from ‘Strela’ or ‘Domaći ajvar od pečene parpike’ (Homemade-like ajvar from roasted peppers) from ‘Zdravo’, which is organic. Basically everything is good if not from mass production, which offers low prices and the same low quality.

Slatko – a Serbian comfiture from little-known fruits

There are many variations of the traditional sweet and dense fruit product, of which marmalade is just the best known. There is jam, comfiture, powidl, jelly, and there is also slatko. The latter is a Serbian specialty, used also in Bulgarian, Greek and Jewish cuisines. It means literally ‘sweet’, and is traditionally served on a small plate, with a spoon and a glass of water. Such was usually the first part of the ceremony of taking in guests. The consistence of slatko makes it also perfect for being mixed with yogurt, muesli, and tea (Russian tradition), or poured over ice cream. The difference to many other comfiture-like products is the preparation process: sugar is cooked to syrup, the whole or chopped fruit added in the very end.

The most popular fruits used for slatko in Serbia are wood strawberries, plums, quinces, tart cherries, figs, blueberries and blackberries. These are mostly common tastes, with exception of wood strawberries and quince, to which I want to pay more attention.

My love to the wood strawberries is endless and even more so as they are a rarity – not cultivated, always locally and seasonally consumed, hardly known in many European countries, not to mention overseas. Who doesn’t know the seducing smell of fresh strawberries? True, the ones from supermarkets rarely smell, but those from our gardens or farmers’ markets do! Then imagine the same fruit – just smaller, with its sugars and aromas concentrated, growing in the half-shadow of forests, especially in the mountains. This is for me a smell from the childhood, and a taste of better, more natural and fragrant strawberry – a wild one! Slatko is one of few products that make it possible to enjoy these pleasures also out of season, and in the regions where you will never find wood strawberries.

Another story is quince, called in Serbian dunja, which almost disappeared from modern Polish and German cuisines, but enjoys its old position on the tables in Serbia, Italy, or Spain. In the latter two countries, there is cotognata (Italian) or dulce/carne de membrillo (Spanish) produced, which are basically the same and could be described as a very thick jelly, to be wonderfully combined with cheese, croissants, toasted bread, or just plain without anything else – served in a Japanese-like minimalist way, in slices on white rectangular plates. In Serbia, one of the most valued rakijas (Serbian spirit) – the famous dunjevača – is produced from quinces. My favorite brand of slatko – ‘Bakina tajna’ (Grandma’s secret) by Foodland, which offers awesome, mostly organic stuff without any colorants or preservatives – adds to its quince slatko chopped walnuts. All in all a very fine composition of tastes!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Žilavka Mostar 2010, Vinarija Čitluk, Bosnia and Herzegovina

I had my first Žilavka around 5 years ago, on a sunny terrace of some Croatian restaurant in the old town of Munich. It was a hot August day and we were a small but very international group looking for some light Mediterranean food and refreshment. We ordered calamari fritti and scampi, plus some white wine, completely unknown to us – by glass, so not even seeing the label. And refreshment is what we got, and how! I got excited about the bone dry and still aromatic wine, first Bosnian one to me, and tried to find this kind of exotic delicacy in Berlin.

It was all a fruitless effort, although there were some decent Žilavkas in Berlin’s Balkan shops. But the old Ottoman kismet had mercy on me and these days I rediscovered my Žilavka in Belgrade, in the lovely Café-Gallery “Priča”, close to my apartment. As soon as I got to know the name of the wine, I ran to the next wine shop, just to discover that here it’s a very popular wine, to be found just about everywhere in Belgrade, and a very good value for money. This only confirms that many good wines rarely leave their countries of origin – and here I treat Yugoslavia as a still existent entity. This is both not true and highly politically incorrect, but justified from the economical point of view, when considering that traditional trade relations make these markets extraordinarily integrated. This is not least a result of the similar preference structures of the consumers, too.

So I grabbed a bottle and paid to my surprise around $6,40 (550 dinars). But I’m not impatient. The bottle waited until the next evening – Santa pazienza! – when I could finally pour into my glass the wine, golden and slightly greenish at the same time, full of light, fresh morning light of the mountains. And the taste and aroma were those of mountains too. It was dry like the white limestone rocks rising over the Dalmatian coast, and the same fragrant of wood raisin. This is the smell of hot days in the region, due to pines, junipers and all those herbal plants rich in aromatic oils, green embroidery on the limestone. But the wine was still far from some opulent fragrance, one could expect after this description, and the sun they have in Herzegovina.

No, it was rather raisin and something like nutmeg – a bitter, nutty character. There was also something green to be tasted, a simple, raw and vegetal note. I had to think of this Žilavka as a very simple but handsome wine, a strapping and strong one, somehow even hesitant but self-confident. For some reason, it is easier to describe it as a person than just with the modern wine vocabulary of jams, berries, tobacco and chocolate. Indeed, Žilavka is much like men of Herzegovina (or Western Balkans in general) who are among the tallest in Europe, and in the world – allegedly 186 cm on average. So would it be a perfect case of wine expressing the character of the area? Think of the old bridge in Mostar, too! Men, stones, woods…

Well, on the other hand, the once more popular classification of wines as masculine or feminine seems to me ideologically unacceptable in the times of advancing gender concept. The women of Belgrade or Zagreb are far from any simply definable type either: strong and self-confident, and still so girlish and graceful! Maybe Žilavka is indeed a Balkan female wine, as its name could suggest?

Čitluk’s Žilavka Mostar is a cuvee consisting of three autochthon white varieties: 85% of Žilavka and 15% of Bene and Krkošija. It contains 12,5% of alcohol and the taste is much more pronounced that we could expect from this value: it is the dryness and light bitter note that kick. The exceptional wines of the community (Žilavka?) were already mentioned in the documents about the visit of ban Tvrtko in 1353.

The producer recommends drinking the wine cooled to the temperature of 10°C, with freshwater or sea fish, I would add: white one. Also pork and poultry would match the wine well, although less when in a heavy sweetish sauce. I can imagine meat prepared with lemon and rosemary as resembling the character of Čitluk’s Žilavka with its notes from the local woods.

It’s definitely not a very noble wine, but still beautiful in its authenticity and I love it as such. Or maybe it’s about those heart-warming memories from the sunny Munich?…

Zinfandel = Primitivo = Crljenak Kaštelanski = Kratošija

These weeks I am working a little bit on ampelography and digging deeper into the collection the Serbian National Library I’ve found some interesting article, which I want to share with you. Here is the bibliographical data you need to find it in Internet by yourself:

Savić, Svetozar (2010): Autohtone sorte vinove loze u Crnoj Gori. “Matica Crnogorska”, fall 2010, 453-480.

But since very few are familiar with Montenegrin language and the topic is interesting to all those who love autochthon wine varieties, let me summarize the main ideas of Savić’s article…

If Mr. Savić is right, the order of names in the title of my post should be the opposite one, as everything started in Montenegro (Crna Gora), where the variety most of us know as Zinfandel or Primitivo has at least three names: Kratošija, Krakošija, and Grotošija. Also in Croatia there is more than one name with Crljenak Kaštelanski being just the most popular, but in use there are also: Pribidrag, Tribidrag, or Tibidragho. Primitivo is variety’s Italian name, and Zinfandel… needless to write – who doesn’t know this proud Californian grape. Old grape varieties like mushrooms tend to have many local names.
After having read the article, I realized that much of the discourse is to be found on the omniscient Wikipedia. The difference to what you can read on Wikipedia is that the roots of the variety are now traced even further, both to the South and into history.
The discovery that Zinfandel and Primitivo are the same variety we owe to Austin Goheen from the UC Davis. Ampelographers of his university confirmed the identity of the vines from Puglia and California in 1972. However already in 1962, a Montenegrin scientist, Marko Ulićević claimed that Zinfandel and Kratošija are the same variety of grapevine. In the 90s there was a theory that Zinfandel is also identical to Mali Plavac from Croatia, an idea still represented first of all by the celebrated Californian wine-maker of Croatian origin, Mike Grgich. But the hypothesis didn’t find a confirmation in genetic tests by Carole Meredith. Be that as it may, it seems like Croatians decided to proof the Dalmatian origin of Zinfandel and in the beginning of the century they came up with Crljenak Kaštelanski, which is indeed the same variety as Zinfandel and Primitivo. But one thing is to discover that some vines are identical, another one to find out the origin of them all. Do the celebrated products of Sonoma and Manduria (Primitivo di Manduria DOC) owe its beauty to the hybridization and/or selection that started on the Croatian coast?
From earlier Croatian ampelographers like Stjepan Bulić, we know that Crljenak was rather a rare variety of Dalmatia, even marginal if considering the fact that in 19th century it was present actually only in the region of Imotski. In 2001, only 20 vines of the variety were found in the whole Croatia (sic!). It’s a very small population, especially when comparing its popularity in Montenegro, along with its long history over there. On the other hand, the history of Primitivo is traced into the 18th century, although the first documents mentioning this name are from the second half of the 19th century. This excludes Italy as a region of origin for this variety, but not as the origin for Zinfandel vines from California. The mentioned small population and marginal role of these grapes in Croatia may suggest that plants, which became known as Zinfandel, were brought to the USA either from Puglia in Italy or from Montenegro. Did migrants from one of these countries bring them? Most probably, but we still don’t know.
One is however sure: Zinfandel, Primitivo, Crljenak Kaštelanski and Kratošija are one and the same variety, which sometimes is able to give exceptional wines. Therefore it wouldn’t be a bad idea to discover the region of its origin… the country of old Greek colonies where the coast is a result of cultural exchange between Montenegrins and Venetians, and so is the architecture and food.
Kratošija means ‘short neck’, and ‘neck’ stands here for ‘stalk’. In Montenegro, it mostly gives easy-going, refreshing wines of a deeply red color, but even more often becomes a part in premium cuvees with Vranac. Unfortunately I cannot recommend any Kratošija wine as my private discovery of Montenegro is still on the to-do list. On the other hand, the biggest producer of the country – “13 jul-Plantaže”, who owes over a half of Montenegrin vineyards, uses Kratošija only in cuvees too. So there is no other way but looking for smaller barely known wineries on site. At least since the end of the World War II, Kratošija is grown also in Macedonia, but I’m skeptical about the quality of that from a huge industrial winery of “Tikveš”, though I need to try first before judging.
Kratošija may be an autochthon Montenegrin variety (see e.g. Dušan Burić 1985, 1995) and some old texts may point to the fact that it’s present in Montenegrin vineyards since centuries, but it’s still waiting for being rediscovered. I could barely find any information about it, not even in Montenegrin sources. There is still much to be done in the process of description and promotion of Balkan wines. But they are worth this job. I have no doubts about it!