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

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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. 

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.