Malagousia, 2013 Single Vineyard, by Alpha Estate, Florina, Greece

Let us drink, then/And/perhaps we’ll
find/something new/in our wine
(…) I hate an empty life/empty of wine.
[Hedylus, Let Us Drink]

Greece surely is a good place to start one’s wine education or just to follow a little bit Aristippus of Cyrene in his hedonist ethics and enjoy local food and wine. Although wine production is older than written history and as such certainly older than Greek civilization, Europeans see the roots of their wine culture in the ancient Greece. After all, they love tracing all possible aspects of their culture back to the ancients. But those who spread wine growing and wine making in the whole Mediterranean were indeed Greeks and Phoenicians. Hellenic poets and philosophers have amply documented great wines of their time, even though probably none of those would have ever gotten a decent score in modern tasting, mixed with honey, spices or seawater as they were.

The ancients truly hated “an empty life/empty of wine,” as Hedylus wrote in the third century B.C. Still, when the modern world of wine started in the 1960s, Greece was basically non-existent on the wine maps. Like many traditional wine producing countries it needed more time to reinvent itself in the premium wine market. Several centuries in the Ottoman Empire, with Muslim culture as the dominating one, haven’t helped either – a considerable part of contemporary Greek territory remained in the Ottoman hands until 1913.

Fortunately, everything changes, as Mercedes Sosa sang. As vineyards are mushrooming just everywhere around the world, many old wine regions in Europe experience a revival: from Poland and Eastern part of Germany through the Balkans up to Greece and Turkey.

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Malagousia (Greek Μαλαγουζιά) from Alpha Estate is the first Greek wine I’m writing about. It’s made from a eponymous white autochthonous grape variety, originating in the region of Nafpaktos (Ναύπακτος, known rather by its Italian name Lepanto) in western Greece. The variety was virtually extinct until Domaine Carras in the late 20th century began to cultivate it for its varietals.

Although it is found mainly in Greek Macedonia, some wineries started to cultivate it also in Attica and the Peloponnese. Its aromatic grapes have potential to give soft elegant and full-bodied wines of medium acidity, with aromas of exotic fruits, citrus, jasmine or even mint. Yannis Voyatzis, the chief enologist at Boutari Wines, called Malagousia the next Riesling.

Alpha Estate is located in the Florina region, in the northwest part of Greece. Parts of this area, the Amyndeon (also Amyndeo or Amyntaio) region, enjoy an ΟΠΑΠ status, which stands in the Greek appellation system for ‘Wines with Appellation of Superior Quality’ (Ονομασίας Προελεύσεως Ανωτέρας Ποιότητος) and as such for the highest quality. However this doesn’t apply to white wines, which need to be labeled as ‘country wine,’ regardless their quality.

IMG_1474The 2013 Single Vineyard Malagousia in my glass first exploded with citrus and apple aromas and indeed I was expecting to taste something like a ‘feinherb’ Riesling. But soon notes of tropical fruits, particularly pineapple, arrived and I could taste a strong (13% ABV) chunky wine, perfect for summer evenings but rather far in character from a usual German Riesling. As the wine was opening up, there was more and more jasmine scent in it and here you go, a perfect evening at the Mediterranean Sea. This Malagousia fully expresses the climate it was born in – such an opulent but elegant white wine brings gustative memories rather from Central Italy than from the North of Europe.

But I guess that Voyatzis meant rather the potential of this variety to conquer wine lovers’ hearts as Riesling has been doing it for years. Here, I agree. Malagousia might be indeed the next ‘Riesling’, or to find a comparison from the world of successful local varieties on a smaller scale: an Istrian Malvazia or an Albariño of Greece.

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All about Sangiovese

“Bevete il Sangiovese, quello scuro
d’anni ne camperete centomila
fa bene alla salute, e v’assicuro
fa far l’amore dieci volte in fila.”

“Drink Sangiovese, the dark one / you’ll live hundred thousand years / it’s good for health, and I assure you / you’ll be able to make love ten times in a row.” This is how Roberto Benigni finishes his poem “To Sangiovese.” He goes even further… he claims in his humorous poetry that, compared to Sangiovese, even Champagne becomes a vulgar chamomile tea. No doubts, Tuscans are famous for their ironic sense of humor.

Sangiovese is among the noblest autochthonous grape varieties in Italy and most probably doesn’t even need this kind of promotion.  The variety is widely associated with Tuscany, being the main component of Chianti. Indeed, the geographical origins of the variety are in Central Italy, in the regions of Tuscany, Marche, Umbria and Romagna, and it is where its vines still flourish.

Chianti in the typical 'fiasco' bottle

Chianti in the typical ‘fiasco’ bottle

In fact, Sangiovese is the most cultivated red variety in Italy, occupying 11% of all vineyards. There are 90,000 ha of DOC vineyards planted with it, of which 40,000 ha are in Tuscany, and 6,000 ha in Romagna. More than 100 DOCs allow this variety. Several of them are famous DOCGs like, for example, Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Carmignano, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Some authors claim Sangiovese to be known already to the Etruscan winegrowers, way before the Romans even started to think of an empire. Maybe ‘l’Ombra della sera’ (Shadow of the Evening) – one of the most beautiful artifacts preserved from the antiquity – was a votive statue buried in a vineyard with Sangiovese plants? The Etruscan name got however lost, the current one being derived from Latin ‘sanguis Jovis’ – the blood of Jupiter.

a smaller copy of the "Shadow of the Evening" and one of my favorite Sangiovese

a smaller copy of the “Shadow of the Evening” and one of my favorite Sangiovese wines

It might be the richness of synonyms, which sometimes leads to underestimating the role of Sangiovese in the Italian wine production. There are more than thirty names for this grape, some being the exact synonyms, others denominating subvatieties. There is Morellino di Scansano (Maremma), Brunello (Montalcino), Prugnolo Gentile (Montepulciano), Sangiovese Romagnolo (called also Nostrano or Sangiovese del Cannello Lungo), Nieluccio (Corsica), and many more.

The spectrum of aromas it may develop depending on terroir is spectacular. It usually has a great potential for aging too. And as for pairings, Tonino Guerra, an Italian poet and screenwriter, said that “Sangiovese is good with everything, just like the high-class prostitutes.” Have I mentioned yet, that Romagnoli (people from the region of Romagna) are famous for their humor too? 🙂

another good Sangiovese

another good Sangiovese

Negotin region – wine in ancient stone cellars

Since there are some fine wines from this area, the name of Negotin has already appeared on my blog several times. Today I want to write more on the region, which is among the best in Serbia.

Find on the map the point, where Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria meet and you’ll see what area we are talking about. Negotin is situated close to the place where the Timok river joins the waters of Danube. The valley of the former river is planted with vineyards since centuries. Its picturesque character stays in contrast to the town of Negotin itself, founded on a perfectly flat terrain. The town is known rather for its music festival called ‘The Days of Mokranjac,’ or in the graceful Serbian ‘Mokranjčevi dani.’ The Negotin-born Stevan Stojanović Mokranjac is probably the best-known Serbian composer, mostly of the choral music.

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Aldo at the house and monument of S. Mokranjac.

But for the wine lovers the most important name is Rajac, which is merely a small village, some 25 km from Negotin. In the Serbian appellation system, which is still in its introductory phase, the area we are talking about is called ‘Krajinski podrejon,’ that is the subregion of Krajina or Borderland, and makes part of the ‘Timočki rejon’ or Timok river region. One can hear also the term ‘Timočka krajina,’ as the whole valley of Timok is a borderland.

There are several autochthonous grape varieties in the region, mostly very rare. Only in the recent years, some of them have been rediscovered and new exciting wines are gradually entering the market. Noteworthy are Bagrina and Black Tamjanika. The former smells like the flowers of robinia (Robinia pseudoacacia) and thus is called after them, ‘bagrem’ being their Serbian name. The latter gives wines rich in extract, low in acidity, with an intense aroma of different berries. A glass of this specialty is perfect to finish a meal.

a stone cellar in Rajac

a stone cellar in Rajac

My Italian friend Aldo and I arrived in Negotin from Belgrade by bus. It was the very end of April – Serbian hills and mountains drowned in fresh green of young leaves and intense colors of blossom: from white of late fruit trees to purple of lilac. At the market square we had our Turkish coffee, called also Serbian or domestic (Serbian: domaća kafa), and two huge doughnuts.

Safe from low blood sugar, we took the small local train heading for Rajac. Just two cars, a friendly, relaxed conductor from whom one can also buy a ticket, and people returning to their villages, engaged in discussions, about inevitably better past, hard present, and unsure future. After several kilometers the first hills spring up from the plain. They become higher, covered with broadleaf forest, orchards and vineyards. In the valley, fields were mostly brown – intensely from freshly ploughed soil, or greyish from last-year weed stalks if abandoned. Air was scented with flowers and etheric oils released by the strong spring sun from the first leaves of aromatic herbs.

stone cellars in Rajac

stone cellars in Rajac

The train station in Rajac was abandoned and ruined. The village itself was once a rich wine-producing community and you can still admire the tasteful stone arches over the gates, quite Byzantine in their style. Now, many houses are empty and there are few young people left. Children of many wine-producing families moved to big cities and are little interested in the continuation of the great traditions of Rajac.

There are no hotels there and you can stay in private rooms – fortunately, I would add. In few days, we learned a lot about Serbian culture. We started every day with slatko and glass of water, coffee and a glass of rakija. Our host was a wine producer himself. He and his mother, an older charming lady with always smiling light blue eyes, booked for us dinners in a small inn uphill, where the ancient cellars are situated. The wine cellars are uninhabited stone buildings on the top of the hill, while their owners live in the village in the Timok valley. In the small inn of ‘Sveti Trifun’ (Saint Tryphon, the patron saint of winegrowers), my Italian friend could try all traditional Serbian products as for the dinner the owner filled our table with different bread types: pogača, proja, kifle; with sudžuk sausage, pršuta ham, kajmak, ajvar, several type of cheese, and much more. From time to time, he or his wife appeared with small bowls of prebranac, a kind of bean stew, or veal soup (teleća čorba). All this was accompanied by homemade wine, rakija and brandy (vinjak).

the very first delicacies arrived, at 'Sveti Trifun'

the very first delicacies arrived, at ‘Sveti Trifun’

The cellars, in one of which is the inn, are still waiting to join the great family of UNESCO-protected cultural heritage objects. There is no doubt that they are unique – an old colony of houses, created for wine storing. Usually on weekends, the owners open the small cellars to visitors and you can go and try the wines. Only the wine brought out is to be paid, abundant degustation is free. Few stroll down the hill on their way back without singing, swaying, and cheerfully commenting the beauty of the nature they finally notice.

The wines are often rustic, a little bit old-fashioned; giving the idea how was wine before. There are also modern producers, notably the ‘Matalj winery’, already mentioned on my blog, and the ‘French winery’ (Francuska Vinarija) in Rogljevo, where a French family of Bongiraud discovered their perfect terroir. Interestingly, one of the varieties that give best results here is Gamay. The old autochthonous varieties need to be reintroduced, after the communist period when they were not supported by the government. The first wine growers return to Black Tamjanika, Bagrina, Prokupac, or Začinak. On the other side of the border, in Bulgaria, there is another Balkan variety gaining its popularity: Gamza, known to most of us under the name of Kadarka. In Serbia, this variety experiences its revival rather in the northern part of the country, in Vojvodina.

We returned to Belgrade with as much wine as we were able to carry. Do you need any other words of recommendation? 😉

Rieslings from the Reuscher-Haart estate on the Mosel

photo 2Although I live in Germany, for a long time our domestic Rieslings only rarely have been guests in my house. Rather I often tried those from Austria, Serbia, Czech Republic, France, and even Poland, with its first wine experiments since the World War II. There was no particular reason for this behavior, or maybe I was just not ready to appreciate the spectrum of expressive sweetness present in German Rieslings.

My conversion started with Oliver’s preaching. There are many beautifully written posts on Riesling on his blog: www.thewinegetter.com. He was even so courageous to challenge the German system of wine classifications, which is different from what we know from other countries, and to try to explain it. So, when he recommended me two wineries in the valley of Mosel, I immediately decided to fill the gap in my wine education and ordered a case from each estate. This post is about one of them: Reuscher-Haart.

Germany is Riesling’s homeland and it is here where the variety offers some wines of incomparable excellence and specificity. As a matter of fact, the very beauty of German Riesling is much about keeping the balance between sugar and acidity. When it’s done successfully, we obtain an exceptional product, when not, we can only grimace, for the result is a sweetish water or tart diluted vinegar. This may apply to all wines but I think that some of our terroirs carry this contrast to an extreme: from one of the best white wines in the world to the one that nobody wants to drink (think of Liebfraumilch).

photo 4From the six bottles I ordered from Reuscher-Haart, not all have been tried yet. Still, there is a wine I fell in love with and about which I’m going to write more: the 2012 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Kabinett! If Piesport is a municipality in the Middle Mosel area, Goldtröpfchen is a site, which Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson consider to be one of the best for Riesling in the whole country. We might describe this wine as feinherb, which is basically medium-dry. This term is the same poetic as zartbitter, used for dark chocolate. They both were invented to describe fine differences in taste and both could be translated as ‘subtly tart’ or ‘gently bitter.’ You remember that it’s all about keeping the balance between sugar and acidity. Thus, the producers are looking for a way to express the dainty variations in the palette of ‘balances,’ which they create between the two sides of Riesling.

Generally, Riesling is enjoyed rather alone than paired with food, although there is nothing speaking against the latter. In the case of the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Kabinett, I decided to pair it, though not with food. In ‘Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,’ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote that ‘Every day one should at least hear one little song, read one good poem, see one fine painting and – if at all possible – speak a few sensible words.’ And one could add: drink a glass of good wine. I didn’t have an opportunity to see some fine painting, while drinking at home. Though I had to think about a good poem, which could describe the beauty in my glass and which one of the best German wine writers – Ursula Heinzelmann loves so much: the 13th among Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Sonnets to Orpheus:’

Fat apple, banana, pear
gooseberry. . . .all speak immanence
of death and life to the child there;
I sense it on his countenance

as he partakes. This comes from afar.
Does something you cannot relate
slowly traverse your own palate;
replacing speech with fiats from the jam jar?

Dare to declare a pear.
This sweetness, thick at first,
then to clarity reversed

awakens from the slumbering nectar
luminous twin significance
of sun and earth; presence and joy – immense!

(trans. Robert Hunter)

photo 5This invitation to pure enjoyment was also an invitation to contemplate pleasure, joy and the very moment of drinking ‘this sun in a glass.’ So I felt the need to listen to a song, a beautiful song in Hebrew ‘A man inside himself’ (‘Adam Betoch Azmo Hu Gar’), by Shalom Hanoch, for which I have a working translation from my friend Kate:

A man lives inside himself
Lives inside himself.
Sometimes he is sad or bitter,
Sometimes he sings,
Sometimes he opens the door
To receive an acquaintance
But
But mostly,
A man is closed inside himself.

A man lives inside himself
Lives inside himself.
Either in some stormy town
Or in some village
Sometimes a storm passes
And his house breaks
But
But mostly,
A man is stranger also to himself.

And you, and you
How good it is that you came,
Without you the house is empty
And the night is cold.
So I am guarding you
As much as possible,
And with all this,
Will I find you tomorrow?

A man is close to himself
A man lives inside himself.

(trans. Kate Sereda)

photo 1The rest of the evening was even more contemplative – the bottle was finished, while watching Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ‘Three Colors: Blue.’ All this may be a perfect pairing, at least à la Goethe, but how to describe this wine?… In my opinion, the name of the site speaks for itself. ‘Goldtröpfchen’ means ‘golden droplets’ and when I watched my glass it was exactly that! It is such a seducing wine that it literally disappears, which is not that dangerous considering its 8,5% of alcohol. There were those ripe rosy apples of my grandma inside, who knows of which of ancient Polish varieties. And then also some exotic fruits but don’t ask me which ones… papaya or honey melon? Passionate and intense as it was, the wine made my evening!

Ursula Heinzelmann wrote once about another Riesling from this site: ‘opulent creaminess in glass’ – that fits also Reuscher-Haart’s product. And then something completely unbelievable – bought directly from the producer, this wine costs only €5,50 ($7,30). Even the term ‘good value for money’ is unsuitable in this case.

Also their ‘simple’ 2012 Piesporter Riesling in a 1-Liter bottle is a charming wine, which became star of the evening, when I paired it with Polish cheese specialties for my Italian friends.

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The 2012 Gutsriesling Trocken proved to be much less seductive, its sweetness less elegant. Then yesterday I had also a bottle of the 2011 Piesport Falkenberg Riesling Kabinett Trocken. Probably, spoiled by the fluid ‘feinherb’ gold, I couldn’t truly admire this wine, which is for sure a light and aromatic white, but appeared to me slightly rough around the edges.

All these wines fill me with gratitude to Mario Schwang for producing them, to Oliver Windgätter for telling me about them, and for my friends for sharing them with me! Cheers! 🙂

Trebinje – the wine capital of Republika Srpska

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Trebinje

Trebinje is a small town, lost in the dry mountains of the southern edge of Herzegovina. Hidden in a deep valley, it may resemble end of the world, when entering it. But I knew that there are some experienced producers of quality wine there and my trip to this town did not disappoint me at all. More: I could not stop marveling over the assets Trebinje enjoys.

As lost as it may appear, it is not difficult to reach – situated in the corner between Croatia and Montenegro. It is all about a short drive from Dubrovnik or Herceg Novi, both highly touristic spots of the eastern Adriatic coast. But you need a car… and I don’t have any. I do not drive. Americans will feel shocked, Europeans less surprised. Using public transportation, I made quite a nice circle to reach the town. I came from Montenegro, via Dubrovnik in Croatia, and went to Mostar – to see one of the most famous bridges in the world, and to spend night before continuation of the journey. I could stay in Dubrovnik too, but young traveller’s budget is not adapted to this terrifyingly commercialized, UNESCO-protected Disneyland.

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Trebinje

Mostar is the historical capital of Herzegovina, inhabited mostly by Catholic Croatians and Muslim Bosnians, each group preferring to stay on its side of Neretva river. The 16th century bridge is what connects both communities both virtually and symbolically. Destroyed during the war in Bosnia, it was rebuilt in its original form soon after. On the Muslim side, just a few meters from the bridge, there is a Serbian café, which I discovered on the very first evening. It was a prelude to my trip to Trebinje. The café offered exclusively wines from the Monastery of Tvrdoš – one of my destinations. So – of course – I had a glass. To be precise, it was a glass of the monastery’s Cabernet, called “Hum,” called after the medieval principality in this region. It was a pleasantly cool evening, with Neretva resoundingly weaving its way through the rocks of its bed. The 2007 “Hum”, kept for two years in French oak, had those minerals giving it a smell of blood. Subtle spices, forest fruits and a bitter herbal notes were developing in the contact with air.

wines from the Tvrdoš monastery

Tvrdoš monastery, wines

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Tvrdoš monastery, vineyards

It was the evening of the next day, when I arrived in Trebinje. The town is situated in Republika Srpska, which should not be confused with Republic of Serbia. The former one is a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, within its patchwork-like postwar political and administrative system. Bosnian people owe this mess to the Dayton Agreement, which should bring peace but also caught them into a trap of dysfunctional system that impedes economic development. In fact, during the time I stayed there, in many Bosnian cities students were protesting against this inconvenient political construct offering them no future.

Staying in the centrally situated hotel “Platani,” I had the small historical center around me, and the old famous plane trees above, after which the hotel was named.  Tired, I went to the first nicely looking restaurant: “Tarana”. Over there I ordered 0,5 liter of their house wine and a plate with Herzegovinian prosciutto ham (Serbian: pršuta) and hard cheese marinated in olive oil (sir iz ulja). This is one of the places where “vino de casa” is not worse than any other one sold by bottle – their white is Žilavka from Anđelić, another great producer I was going to visit in Trebinje. This was divine food and, as I discovered later, only a modest beginning. The aforementioned Žilavka got a medal from the Decanter: a dry but fruity wine, of a golden-green color, elegant in its structure and so different from many rich, strong whites of the Mediterranean climate.

The next day was a Sunday and I took a cab to the Monastery of Tvrdoš, which is – I guess – not more than 5 km from the town center. The typically small Orthodox church is from the very beginning of the 16th century, constructed on the ruins of older temples, the earliest one from the 4th century. But the big part of the winery is rather new. The monastery has a long wine making traditions, which suffered however from the Turkish, and later from the two World Wars, the communism, and the war in Yugoslavia. As a matter of fact, they started their quality wine production only in the early 2000s. In the cellars, I was warmly received and the long talk, I enjoyed with one of the cellar workers, was only shortly disturbed by groups of tourists coming to visit the church and have a tasting of wines and spirits.

The monastery has seven wine and three spirit labels, the spirits produced from grapes too. As every respectful producer of the region, they have their Žilavka, an autochthonous variety, appreciated much by the Austrian-Hungarian emperors, who sourced it from a Hungarian producer in Lastva, a village to the south of Trebinje. Tvrdoš’ Žilavka was a beautifully balanced white, mineralic and with refreshing acidity. The strong sun, additionally reflected by limestone, makes the wines strong though, this one containing 13,7% of alcohol. The vines grow on stony, dry and poor soil with their roots reaching deep into the rock. It is not unlikely that the name could be traced from the word “žilavost,” meaning tenacity and strength. I’ve heard once that genetically Žilavka is not that far from Riesling and indeed whoever loves German and Austrian Rieslings most probably will appreciate tenacious whites from Herzegovina too. But also the Chardonnay “Oros” (Greek for mount) proved to be an elegant wine – with its fruity and honey notes and spiciness. My first red was Merlot, blended from two vintages: 2008 and 2009. It’s called “Izba” – an old Slavic word for cellar or pit-dwelling. In medieval times, the monks kept their wines in such an izba. This light plumy wine was beautifully rounded by oak, its exciting herbal notes (mint and sage?) underlined. Good start before the 2007 Cabernet “Hum,” which I mentioned before. There are few Cabs that I don’t find tasting like all others, myself being only a moderate fan of this variety. In this one, I love its fresh acidity, forest berries – first of all European blueberries (bilberries), and bitter herbal accents. But Tvrdoš’ champion is Vranac, my bottle being from 2010. The harshness and fruitiness are mixed in a lovely tradition of this part of the world. Vranac gives wild and strong wines, acidic and heavy, particularly in its most prominent terroirs around Lake Skadar in Montenegro. In Serbia and Herzegovina, producers try to make it rather modern, tame it and reach this way more elegant creations. This one is even sweetish in aftertaste, revealing caramel-like, cherry and dried cranberry notes. The monks manage to produce even a quality sweet red – a drinkable and virtuous sacramental Cabernet Sauvignon!

For a late lunch, I went to a restaurant that was recommended by virtually everyone I asked for a good place to eat. I won’t keep its name secret, although I maybe should. Still, I’m aware that the mountains of Herzegovina will stay a barrier high enough to quick and exaggerated commercialization, and thus tradition destruction (see: Dubrovnik). In the “Konoba Studenac,” I had fresh trout, the restaurant being situated at the Trebišnjica river. The owner raises fish also in the pool in the middle of the garden, with fresh water from Trebišnjica. I took also grilled red bell peppers, which are marinated with garlic and herbs – an all-Balkan tradition, and French fries – freshly done, not frozen, from a bag, as it sometimes happens. The wine I had was again Žilavka from Anđelić’s cellars. The river simmered, the wine simmered – I felt like a dessert, and it had to be happiness, because otherwise I was full after all that fish they served me. Dessert was very Balkan – a huge portion (because here small portions are almost offending!) of tulumbe pastries. The incredible part of the meal was not only quality, but also the price – I paid for all of that not more than $15!

Konoba Studenac, source: www.indeks.ba

Konoba Studenac, source: http://www.indeks.ba

On Monday, I started my week in the Vukoje winery, which is considered one of the best wineries in the whole Southeastern Europe, their tasting room wallpapered with medals and prizes. The producer has even more labels than Tvrdoš, so this time I tried only some wines, selected by my host. We started with the 2007 “Zlatna Vukoje Selekcija Bijela” – a product from selection of best Chardonnay (60%) and Žilavka (40%) grapes. They call this cuvee a golden selection and indeed there is the sun and aromatic herbs inside, so typical for the local whites. The wine is oaked for 12 months, and enchants drinker with notes of almond, dry figs and quince. The second glass was filled with 2007 Cabernet “Tribunia.” Tribunia is an ancient name of Trebinje and designates a varietal wine series from international grapes. This elegant Cab seduced me by its forest fruit and tobacco (?) notes. Its sweet and tart notes as well as tannins are well balanced. Oak was used only to its advantage. It has a potential for aging to satisfy with increased complexity of its fruity bouquet. Further, we compared Vranac “Rezerva” from 2006 and 2008. The former one is not available in the market anymore – what a pity! Its smell – alluring honey, sour cherry, chocolate and tobacco notes, becomes richer every time your nose is diving into the glass… pepper, cinnamon… there was the original wildness of Vranac visible, reemerging with age. The younger Vranac was less acidic, with notes underlined by oak more assertive. Its original wildness was tamed and hasn’t reappeared yet. There was something like honey acidity – kind of modern character but with traditions! Personally, I preferred the older one, but I strongly believe in the potential of the young.

Vukoje cellars

Vukoje cellars

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In the afternoon, I went to Vukoje’s restaurant, kept much in the Slow Food spirit. They source the majority of their ingredients from the local organic producers, offering this way exceptional olive oil, cheese or ham. My plan was to try here some dish containing raštan – a sort of cabbage used in the regional cuisine. However, I begun with a „Herzegovinian plate” being a mix of several delicious starters, for example, hard goat cheese aged in olive oil, two or three kinds of pršuta (Balkan type of prosciutto ham), cheese and herb pita (more like burek than pita bread from the Middle East). All this was served with freshly baked bread. My aperitivo was a glass of travarica – grape rakija with several herbs, rosemary being the most important one. The main dish – chicken breast fillet, stuffed with collard leaves (Serbian: raštan, Croatian: raštika), with slices of ham and in creamy mushroom sauce – was served with wine: Vukoje’s Žilavka. This was an awesome combination, although afterwards I came to the conclusion that a glass of Pinot Noir would be even a better pick. Then a waiter brought a glass of bitter on house – a mix of almost 60 herbs pleased my already satisfied stomach. No problems with digestion were even thinkable! The owner gave me also a bottle of their Syrah – a new label created for the 30th anniversary of the winery and restaurant, celebrated last year. Later I spent with this wine my last evening in Trebinje, reaching the state of serenity, so characteristic for the town. The Syrah proved to be a fruity wine, with intense aroma of blackberries and black currant, black also by color.

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Restaurant Vukoje, antipasti (I took the picture too late)

From the restaurant I took a taxi to the Anđelić’s cellars. I was lucky since I arrived in the moment when they were about to close. Here, like in other two wineries, they were expanding their production and facilities for visitors – an impressive growth in this hardly known part of Europe! Still, every year Trebinje has more visitors. The producer told me that just in the last few weeks he had plenty of tourists from Norway, Poland, Russia, and Sweden.

Since I knew their Žilavka, I started with Chardonnay “Žirado,” and this was a shock. This aromatic, buttery but fresh wine, with a scent of ripe apple, was dry but tasted like semi-sweet, and what’s more, it tasted like “Jagoda” from the winery of Botunjac, in Serbia. However, Jagoda is a unique variety in the Župa region, so how comes that Chardonnay gives a wine with impressively similar aroma and character? Funnily, the producer said that it perfectly goes with štrudla cake. So does the “Jagoda!” Confused, I grabbed the glass of Rosé from Merlot, called “Lira.” It had an interesting copper color, like diluted port wine. The smell was intense, kind of cooked strawberry. Astonishingly, this was the strongest wine of the cellar: 14,5% of alcohol. The first red was a cuvee of Vranac, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot called “Tribun” – a very subtle and balanced wine of beautiful color. Pure Vranac, also from 2009, had of course more temperament; yet, it had a delicate aroma of bilberry and something earthy.  They have also “Mičevac” – a barrique version of “Tribun.” Unfortunately I had no time to try this wine, which along with Žilavka received medals from “Decanter.” Afterwards I got a drive to the center and my wine trip to Trebinje was basically finished, my bag full of notes, my head full of memories.

Trebinje seems to be an exceptional piece of earth, hot and dry, but giving balanced and elegant wines, although usually quite heavy and rich. Beautiful as a town, close to such touristic attractions like Dubrovnik, Mostar and Kotor, it surely deserves more attention… especially from wine lovers.

small farmers' market

small farmers’ market

Chateau Musar, Red 2004, by Gaston Hochar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

The lands of the Middle East were among the first wine-producing areas in the history. The divine beverage is mentioned several times already in the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a 4000 years old text written in the cuneiforms, in the ancient Babylonia. In fact, wine played an important role in the economies, cultures, and religions of the region until Islam started to spread in the 7th century.

Wine is generally forbidden in the Quran, although there are some contradictions, which over centuries caused among many Muslims a somehow ambivalent attitude toward alcohol. The famous 14th-century Persian poet – Hafiz wrote:

From the large jug, drink the wine of Unity,
So that from your heart you can wash away the futility of life’s grief.”

This is both a proof that wine was present on the tables of some Muslims and that it could be even culturally celebrated.

But although wine has never completely disappeared from the region, extensive production was never well seen by the Islamic rulers and the majority of the Muslims chose alcohol abstinence. Thus, the autochthonous varieties were predominantly lost and a serious wine-growing started only in the 19th century in the areas, which are still Middle East’s champions in this activity: Lebanon and Israel.

Chateau Musar, founded in 1930, might be the best-known winery in Lebanon. It sources its grapes from the Bakaa Valley vineyards, situated on the altitude of around 1,000m (or 3,280 ft), which makes in this pretty hot country possible to produce fresh and highly elegant wines. The Hochar family has their grapes hand-harvested, their wine “neither fined nor filtered,” as their website states. They believe in the organic production and the results are exceptional, when I take the bottle I had as an example.

I obtained this treasure in a Systembolaget shop in Stockholm, and it spent a year in my house, waiting for the right occasion to be opened. Then it spent some time in a decanter, too. Finally I poured into glasses a purple wine with orange reflexes, a color resembling that of Polish tart cherry liquor: wiśniówka. The wine is a blend from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan. We got excited with this mild and silky wine, so complex and rich in aromas. There were the fine honey notes and bitter herbal ones too. There was ripe fruitiness: cherries and black berries, but also elegant acidity and spiciness. I felt literally thrown into a state of meditative admiration, my palate caressed, my whole body warmed, mind excited by the long finish.

The futility of life’s grief was certainly washed away! Cheerful, I checked the prices of flights to Beirut… just in case. For now, the movies of Nadine Labaki must satisfy my fascination with Lebanon, the movies and the next glass of Chateau Musar red.

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

photo 3-3

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.