Župa, part V: Botunjac Vineyards (Vinogradi Botunjac), Donje Zleginje

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Kosta Botunjac is a wine-maker and an artist. His motto says that wine is a drinkable art (“Umestnost koja se pije”). Consequently, he does everything himself, with little technology. He designs all labels, some of them portraying his drawings. Pumps are not used at all, neither industrial yeast or enzymes. This way a consumer is offered a very traditional wine, which lives according the old principles, with all virtues and inconveniences. One of the typical problems is stable quality. Without too much intervention, Mr. Botunjac’s wines truly express the local “podneblje” (Serbia for terroir) and show an exceptional beauty, but they may also lose a lot of its charm because of many external factors. This makes these wines a kind of travel into the past: in fact, every bottle is a surprise, as every wine used to be before. Nowadays, we tend to be rather risk-averse and to love predictability,. Still, a wine lover shouldn’t resign on the experience of Botunjac’s Pinot Noir or Jagoda.

My experience with these wines was exactly of this kind. For the first time, I could try them on the BeoWineFair – Belgrade’s wine fairs, the biggest in the country. None of the wines was bad, but they were unspectacular and very usual. I was not able to understand many exited stories about them. As a result of this experience, I went to visit Mr. Botunjac full of doubts, whether I will taste something interesting at all. Before he opened the bottle of his standard Pinot, he talked about the ritual of tasting and his philosophy. He might be the only producer in the region, who doesn’t love the local Tamjanika grapes. In his opinion, Tamjanika is not a consistent wine: its smell promises a lot, while the taste is dominated by high alcohol content and only little charm. More than wines from autochthonous grape varieties, he wishes to offer good wines – produced in accordance with the local terroir, character of variety, and in balance between nature and man. Besides, in his opinion, it is a secondary issue where the variety is originally from when it matches the local conditions and embodies the “podneblje” in its uniqueness.

We started to taste the standard Pinot (there is also a more exclusive version called “Pino Svetih Ratnika” – the “Pinot of Holy Knights”) and I got completely overwhelmed by feeling of joy and gemütlichkeit. Memories, sentiments, and sensitivity for every small detail around me made me smile continuously. It couldn’t be only because of wine – it had to be the atmosphere created by Mr. Botunjac, his wife, and his mother, a lovely golden retriever called Zlatko (Goldie) laying at our feet, a fresh air coming from the orchard behind the house, scented with fragrance of elder and acacia blossom. I smiled and they said that there is no need to ask how is the wine. We all enjoyed ourselves.

Ivo Andrić had to experience moments of similar comfort and joy, asking:

 “And who then was not comforted and supported by wine? And who does not owe anything to it? (From these words occur the hope, bold and undreamt, that suddenly wine from brittle plant will smoothly and truly become merely invisible aroma, and then this ephemeral and changeable aroma of a fruit of the earth will become pure spirit, which lasts and rests on us in some way not known to us, without end and change…)

photo 4-2Then we opened also a bottle of Jagoda, made from an indigenous variety bearing the same name and grown at the moment only by the Botunjac family. These grapes are usually consumed fresh. Although the name means also “strawberry” in Serbian, there is no similarity in flavor. I found it hard to describe this taste and the producer told me that he tends to solve this problem by accepting the uniqueness of this wine and simply telling that Jagoda tastes, not more and not less, like Jagoda. Helpless at finding any fruit which could describe the aroma of this wine, I agreed and continue to enjoy. “Jagoda” is a semi-sweet wine, produced in small quantities and thus pretty expensive. A bottle costs around $27. Therefore I was extremely grateful to receive one as gift. It was drunk on a special occasion, a few days later – my birthday J

The fourth creation from this cellar is “Rasplet” (“Solution”), an Italian Riesling, and another mystery. A solution for what should this wine be, is to be decided by each one by himself.

There is no tasting room at the moment, no guest rooms, and no parking space. Nevertheless, whoever will travel to Župa, must visit this small winery – because of wine, and because of the unique ambience. Words will always fail to describe reality. 

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Župa, part IV: Spasić Wine House (Vinarska Kuća Spasić), Tržac

Like Minić, the family of Spasić is known mainly for their Tamjanikas.  There are two of them: basic one and the „Selekcija”, which is made from the best grapes from Spasić’s vineyards. Since the latter is also exported, there is an eye-catching difference between the labels of both wines. While the first is all in Cyrillic alphabet, for the other the Latin alphabet was used.

This is a lovely family with three small kids, of whom none is excluding future as a winemaker J Their business grows slowly and, one could say, organically, since investing only the money they gain from selling wine. Remembering well the ABC movement – “Anything but Chardonnay” (although it might be Cabernet just as well), they strongly believe in the potential of the local varieties.

 

Župa, part III: Ivanović Winery (Vinarija Ivanović), Aleksandrovac

This is not a big winery, but its Prokupac may be found in every self-respecting restaurant in Belgrade: Most probably, because it expresses in a very classical way the virtues of the variety. Prokupac might be this among autochthonous red varieties in the Balkans, which has the biggest potential to give in the future very noble wines. For those, who would like to explore its taste, I recommend a bottle of Ivanović’s one, which is also a great value for money, costing here around $9.

Also at this winery, you can find a charming Tamjanika. Its usual spices: incense, cinnamon, and basil, are complemented by pineapple and strawberry notes. And there is also a rosé, which starts to be a must for every Serbian producer, as the local palates are becoming more and more fond of this style. Ivanović’s one is made from Prokupac and Pinot Noir grapes, and maybe as homage to the latter French variety the wine is called “Petite Rose”, although also the Serbian variant would have sound tantalizing: “Mala Ruža”. As many rosés in Serbia, this wine is produced in a style reminding of the traditional clarets. Meant is a very dark rosé, not the common English synonym for Bordeaux reds.

In the family vineyards, also Riesling is grown and, in good years, grapes are used for a desert late-harvest “Zanos”. The name could be translated as “ecstasy” or “trance” and describes pretty much the beautiful honey freshness, which is a perfect company for either pate, or traditional Serbian (and generally Central-European) cake: strudel (in Serbian: štrudla or savijača), usually with poppy seeds or blended walnuts.

The cellar is situated under Mr. Ivanović’s house, which is protected as a historical monument. There is also a small and rustic tasting room in the garden. It was where I’ve learned from Mr. Ivanović that Serbian has a term perfectly expressing the meaning of terroir, as we understand it nowadays: including soil, climate, and human element. This word is “podneblje”, which basically means “under the sky”. It is usually translated as “climate”, but in the broader meaning, used in the Serbian wine world, this describes everything that may be found “under the sky” in certain area: soil, microclimate, relief, flora and fauna, people with their culture and knowledge…

Župa, part II: Minić Wine House (Vinska Kuća Minića), Tržac

Mr. Minić is known mostly for his Tamjanikas, traditional in style, that is, fragrant and mineral. The base Tamjanika bears the name “The Hundredth Tear” (“Stota Suza”), which is the title of a poem written by Mr. Minić’s father. This is hard for me to translate this rhythmic and rhyming text, but let me try at least to give it a try. This is the first strophe:

A hundredth tear of God’s gift

I poured in the bottle to sweeten soul

When your lips kiss the glass

You’ll know where are my vineyards.

Stotu suzu natočih u flašu

Božjim darom, da se duša sladi

Kad usne tvoje pomiluju čašu

Znaćeš gde su moji vinogradi.

There is also a Tamjanika from late harvest, in Serbian “Kasna Berba” and so is the name of the wine. It is a desert wine, spreading an intense smell of incense and basil. And finally there is also the oaked Tamjanika “Barik” (which is barrique). This will win you over with an aroma of incense too, of course. The very name “Tamjanika” comes from “tamjan”, that is, incense. But additionally to that olibanum fragrance, also vanilla notes will seduce you.

At the moment, the Minić family is working on providing their future guest with an opportunity to spend some nights in the winery, in bungalows. There would be nothing surprising about it, if not for the fact, that the bungalows are made from huge old wine barrels.

Župa, part I: Vino Budimir, Aleksandrovac

As a matter of fact, there are two Budimir wineries: the small “garage” cellar of the Budimir Zdravković, called Grandpa Budimir, and the big modern creation of his children, who named their winery after him, because it was him who passed the love for wine on to them.

But the family traditions in winemaking are much longer. Their wine was strengthening already the army of the Prince Mihajlo Obrenović in 1878, when Serbia became a fully independent country as a result of the Russo-Turkish War. Grandpa Budimir and his wife Vera work with wine already 70 years. They dismiss barrique to produce fruity wines since convinced that wine is from grapes and this should be the first flavor of the divine beverage. Such an opinion is to my contentment not rare in Župa. Personally I dislike over-oaked wines and love the sarcastic name, which is sometimes given to them by older Serbian winemakers: daskovača, where “daska” designates a wooden plank and “–ača” is a typical ending for different rakijas (Serbian grappa), like, for instance, dunjevača (rakija from dunja – quince), kajsijevača (rakija from kajsija – apricot), etc. A wine, which smells and tastes predominantly like oak, is like rakija made from wood. As simple and witty as the word is, it expresses well the problem of many wines.

photo 2-1Grandpa Budimir is known not only for his traditional wines, but also rakija and his famous vinjak (Serbian brandy), which I had the opportunity to taste. This is a lovely brandy for meditation, strong but charming. Many would add to this enjoyment a cigar in a dappled shade of late summer afternoon, and maybe a good book.

The big Budimir winery is quickly becoming one of the most renowned Serbian producers. On the one hand, they revitalized some century-old vineyards and work a lot with autochthonous varieties, on the other hand, all this happens with the support of state-of-the-art technology. Their top wine is “Sub Rosa”, a cuvee of Prokupac (60%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (40%). This charming red recently won several medals on international fairs and I had the opportunity to taste it for the first time on the Balkans International Wine Competition in Sofia, three weeks ago. I’m afraid that both the name, meaning in Latin “under the rose”, and the place, Bulgaria being famous for rose oil production, influenced my perception and I wanted to believe that the floral notes are all about roses. In fact, the name is related to the phrase used, also in English, to denote secrecy and mystery, and shouldn’t be understand as a hint to the aroma of the wine. But this smooth wine, dancing on the palate, offers a whole spectrum of further notes: coffee, chocolate, violets, cherry… I love the label – its color, texture, and simple elegance! I know that the wine is available in the U.S., for around $26.

Budimir offers also Tamjanika, Merlot, white and red “Triada” cuvees, rosé, and a Rhine Riesling “Margus Margi”, with the character, which I find so typical for Serbia and its neighbors, but very different from what we know from Germany and Austria.

Serbia’s wine regions – Župa

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Župa is an old wine region in southern Serbia, older than Serbia itself. This is also one of these corners of earth, which could endlessly inspire painters and poets. It is situated at the foot of the Kopaonik, a mountain range with country’s highest peak, Pančićev Vrh (2,017 m), and popular ski resorts. The first documents mentioning this region come from the 12th century, when župan (a kind of count, administrating some region in king’s name) Stefan Nemanja gave the winemaking villages of the area to the monastery of Studenica. The green and hilly Župa could be compared to Burgundy or Langhe, but local wine producers are proud and self-confident, and don’t like to hide themselves behind any vague comparisons.

We could distinguish the Lower (Donja) and Upper (Gornja) Župa – the former being home to numerous vineyards and orchards, the latter suitable rather for hiking, since cooler and more mountainous. The biggest town is Aleksandrovac (6,500 inhabitants) – offering to wine tourists its winemaking museum, several wineries, and – in September – a wine festival “Župa’s Vintage” (“Župska Berba”).

Apart from several international grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion, and Italian Riesling, local producers grow also autochthonous White Tamjanika and Prokupac. The latter grapes are cultivated in an ancient way, with wine trained like bushes and cordons bound together on the top. This is believed to guaranty a smaller crop, but of higher quality. Such a training system requires manual harvest. White Tamjanika is considered an indigenous variety, although it has been proven that their origins are in France. Still, it has been grown in Župa for the last few centuries and has perfectly adapted to its terroir, expressing it probably like no other white grapes.

There are many noteworthy producers in the region, and my choice can be surely questioned. I did my best though to use the limited time and visited five wineries: Budimir, Minić, Ivanović, Spasić, and Botunjac. There are further cellars, which should be mentioned and which I wish to visit in the future: Miletić, Nikolić, Radenković, Braća Rajković, Stemina, and Vila Vinum.

Italian Riesling and Don Oliver, by Vinski Dvor, Palić Region, Serbia

In the very north of Serbia, or more precisely: in the autonomous province of Vojvodina, there is a not big but rich in delightful architecture town of Subotica. Its closeness to Hungary is not only geographical (around 10 km) – 35% of the inhabitants are Hungarian, and you might be approached on the street, and especially on the farmers’ market, in either Serbian or Magyar. The style of wines produced on this sandy soil, part of the flat Pannonian lowlands, is also not far from the Hungarian one. This is of course logical – not least because of the similarity in terroir.

Just a few kilometers from the art nouveau center of Subotica, there are two lakes: Palić and Ludaš. At the latter one, there is a village of Hajdukovo, where the winery of “Vinski Dvor” (Wine Court/Palace) is situated. Since I stayed at the more touristic Palić Lake, known for its mineral water springs, I took a cab to Hajdukovo. On the way, the driver fed my imagination with pictures of a real castle, and so I was expecting a smart residence of some Hungarian landowner from the far past. The court proved to be by far younger than me, a product of Eastern European transformation tastes. However, its owner is well prepared for tourists – there is a tasting room, hotel, restaurant, quite a spacious parking, and a playground for kids. This is still a rare thing in Serbia, which enjoys more and more visitors every year, but remains one of the least touristic countries in Europe.

And here are my two favorites from the offer of the “Vinski Dvor”…

 

photo 1-3Rizling Italijanski 2008

In the very first moment, it was like a déjà vu. A wine of almost white color, floral, spicy, beautifully fragrant – I wanted to scream “Bagrina”. Then just another sniff and the aroma proved to be much more intensive, alluring… indeed like in Hungarian Olaszrizlings (Welschriesling). It smells sweet, even though it’s high in acidity too, which makes the wine very refreshing. In summer, it certainly fits well the searing heat of Pannonian sands (referred to as peščara). I imagine this wine at the Palić Lake, in the shadow of its old trees, or maybe on the porch of some salaš, covered with vine. Salaš is a typical old-style farm of Vojvodina, with romantic rural architecture and traditional cuisine, not unlike the Italian agriturismi.

The somehow weaker side of the wine is the flatness of its aroma. It immediately releases its splendid floral character, caress your palate with delicate acidity, but then nothing follows and there is only the warmth of alcohol in your stomach. And the wine contains only 11,6% of it.

 

Don Oliver 2011

Made from Irsai Olivér and Cserszegi fűszeres grapes, it is hinting even more at the proximity of Hungary and its winemaking traditions. The character of this wine is dominated by Muscat notes and minerality. This is the minerality of the Pannonian sands, which I find also in Muskat Krokan and Vojvodinian Italian Rieslings. It promises something very floral and rich, but this is a bone-dry wine, much in contrast to its smell. In this aspect, it is not unlike many Tamjanikas. Still, something bitter and greenish troubles me.

The spiciness typical for both varieties used for this wine might match very well the subtly piquant food of Hungary and Vojvodina, for instance, chicken paprikash (paprikás csirke in Hungarian, or just paprikaš in Serbian). And this you can find in almost every salaš.

According to the Serbian denomination system, which will be redefined the following years, it is merely a table wine: “stono vino”. This should not make you worried about quality of “Don Oliver” 🙂