Serbia's emerging wine industry

Tuesday, 26. September 2017 - 19:15

Belgrade at night/Davi Lavi/Wikimedia Commons

Zdravkovic Budimir is known in the Župa region of Serbia as “Grandfather Buda” and is believed to be the country’s oldest active winemaker. Budimir is uncertain about his age, saying only that he was “born after World War One”. He claims to have worked 77 vintages, all in the Župa region.

Budimir may represent the traditional face of Serbian wine, but the country has many young winemakers keen to make an impact as the country undergoes a renaissance after many years in the doldrums.

Serbia at a glance

Serbia has always had a wine culture. Consumption is among the highest in the world, at 42.5 L per head each year. Only Croatians (46.9 L), the Portuguese (43.7) and the French (43.1) consumed more last year.

Last year Serbia produced only about 53m bottles. A lot of wine is imported to satisfy demand. Local winemakers appreciate the potential for domestic growth and are determined to produce the kind of quality wines that will capture the domestic market.

Like neighbour Bulgaria, Serbia took a long time to adjust to the post-1989 era in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, partly because of issues resolving land ownership. Much of the history of Serbian wine under the Communist regime between the end of WW2 and the fall of the wall involved production of bulk wine, sold cheaply and consumed domestically.

Serbia has four glossy print magazines about wine, which is high relative to the population of about 8.7m. The UK, with 65m people, has only two print magazines devoted to wine, and Portugal with 10m also has two.

Serbia has about 17,500 ha of vineyards, according to the most recent official figures based on the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Another 5,300 ha of potential vineyards appear to lie fallow because of disputes over land ownership.

About 80,341 households produce grapes, and 92% of those households own vineyards of less than 0.5 ha, according to data from the 2012 Census. A generation ago, two in three of the bottles produced were white. Now red has become more popular and production is about 50:50.

Of Serbia’s current 17,500 ha, about 2,600 are classified as wine with geographical indication based on European Union regulations. The other 14,900 ha fall outside EU regulations, but some of this wine is good and represents excellent value for money.

Serbia has 22 wine regions and 77 sub-regions. The capital, Belgrade, is by far the most important city. Almost a quarter of Serbia’s population lives there, so everything tends to be measured in relation to Belgrade. The most important regions are in Negotinska krajina, 250 km east of Belgrade; on the slopes of Fruška Gora Mountain 80 km north-west of the capital; Sumadija, about 100 km south-west of Belgrade, and Župa, 230 km south-east of the capital.

Župa and Sumadija are the country’s most historic wine regions. Grapes have been grown in the Župa region for at least 3,000 years. The region is centred on the biggest town, Aleksandrovac, though “biggest” is a relative term because the town only has about 7,000 souls.

A long history

Župa currently has about 2,000 ha of vines, though a century ago the area under cultivation was probably treble the current size. Winemaker Dragoslav Ivanović noted that accurate data about the current number of hectares of wine in Župa were not available. It consists mostly of softly rolling hills surrounded by three mountain ranges. The climate is continental, similar to that of Bordeaux.

During the Middle Ages Serbia’s three biggest monasteries had vineyards in the Župa region. Winegrowing continued in the region under Turkish occupation during the Ottoman Empire. More recently, the national nursery for producing vine cuttings was established in Župa, which helped the region recover quickly from the phylloxera epidemic in the late nineteenth century.

Župa has a wine and agricultural school named after St Trifun (also spelled Tryphon), the patron saint of winemakers, built in 1926. It has 92 ha planted to vines and a range of fruit trees. Župa is a noted fruit region. The strong connection between fruit regions that become wine regions can be noted around the world.

Alexander Raskovic, winemaker at Budimir Wines, specialises in making dessert wine from Tamjanika called Slatka Mala, which translates as “a little sweet”. Grapes are left to freeze on the vines a full three months after harvest, to concentrate flavours. The concentration was such that 2,700kg of grapes made only 1,000 bottles, about a third of what this quantity of grapes usually produces. Raskovic said half the crop was stolen from the vineyard during those three months.

The Sumadija region, about 100 km south-west of the capital Belgrade, is famous for producing award-winning sparkling wines, especially from the Aleksandrovic Estate. Their Trijumf Rose, made from Pinot Noir, and the Trijumf Chardonnay have consistently won prizes for the best fizz in Serbia. Winery Aleksandrovic also makes excellent reds. The company’s drive for perfection is so strong that in 2014 the estate dumped 40 ha worth of grapes because the quality was not good enough.

Prokupac and Vranac are the main indigenous red grapes. Prokupac is popular because it copes with winter temperatures and produces good yields with high sugar content even on poor soils. Vranac originated in neighbouring Macedonia and produces a unique taste and character said to be “synonymous with the Balkans”. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are relatively common.

The main indigenous white grapes are Smederevka – whose name comes from the Serbian city Smederevo – and Tamjanika, a relative of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains named after tamjan (the local word for frankincense) because of its intense aromas. Main international white grapes include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.

The Kovacevic Estate in the Fruška Gora region is the country’s biggest privately owned estate and makes about 800,000 bottles a year. Fruška Gora translates as “holy mountain” and the region has 16 Serbian Orthodox monasteries, many located in the national park of the same name and making wine.

The estate is well placed to take advantage of the potential for wine tourism because of the region’s closeness to the capital, and the clean green nature of the region. Owner Miroslav Kovacevic has been passionate about wine for decades and happily opens his cellar to visitors to show how his estate’s wines can age.

Deep past, bright future

Serbia was under Roman rule for 600 years from the first century BC, and the Roman emperor and author Marcus Aurelius was born in the Serbian city of Sirmium. Kovacevic’s flagship red is named Aurelius in honour of the emperor, who is said to have planted grapes there.

Some almost-forgotten traditions have been revived around Fruška Gora, including production of Bermet. This is a dessert wine made by macerating must with about 20 spices and herbs. The result is a digestive-style wine said to be good for one’s health. It was served on the Titanic. The recipe is a secret allegedly known only by a handful of families.

Last year more than 1.2m tourists visited Belgrade — 13% higher than the previous year — suggesting the capital could evolve into a significant wine tourism destination, and later the rest of the country. The largest groups came from China, Canada, Russia and the US. Locals regard this year as the starting point for a major evolution over the next five years that will culminate in 2021 when Novi Sad becomes the European Capital of Culture.

Stephen Quinn