So, the Republic of Macedonia, nestled in the heart of the Balkans, probably isn’t the first place you might think of as a producer of top quality wines. It certainly wasn’t for us. But you might be surprised to learn that this new country, formed as recently as the early 1990s after declaring independence from the former Yugoslavia, has a long history of wine production stretching back 2,500 years. It’s vineyards cover some 55,000 acres of land and some 120m litres of wine are produced annually.
The country benefits from a combination of Mediterranean and Continental climates, with warm sunny days (approx 270 pa) and cool nights, slowing down the grape ripening process, allowing flavours to develop and resulting in pronounced wine aromas. A number of grape varieties are cultivated here, including a large proportion of indigenous varieties ( Vranec, Kratošija, Stanusina Crna, Smerderevka, Zilavka) as well some of the more commonly grown international varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc). But it is Vranec that is most commonly grown here and probably the best known variety of the region.
Of course quantity is no guide to quality and it is fair to say that in the past Macedonian wines have perhaps not reached the very high standards of the leading Western European producers and the region has not been recognised as a producer of great wines. No doubt that is beginning to change, but how much progress has this nation made both in improving the quality of its wines and in changing the perception of the global wine community?
We recently visited the major Macedonian wine growing district of Tikveš, in the Povardarie district of the country, where 80% of Macedonia’s wineries are located. The climate of this particular district offers some natural advantage, being located on similar latitudes to Bordeaux, Tuscany and Napa Valley - not a bad set of winemaking regions to have something in common with. We enjoyed a tour and tasting at the Tikveš Winery, the most famous in the region, dating back to 1885 and the largest winery in south east Europe. This place is indeed huge and there is plenty of evidence of the mass production of wines. But is there any evidence of something special amongst the volume?
After a walk through the impressive cellars, refreshingly cool after the 30 plus degrees outside temperatures, where wines of various styles and ages mature in a combination of oak barriques and 80 hectolitre casks, we spent some time tasting five wines with our host.
First up, the Alexandria Riesling, an interesting slightly off dry version of this classic variety, dominated by peach, melon and white flower flavours rather than the perhaps more familiar citrus notes. Next the Rkaciteli, a Georgian variety, from old vines, fruity, refreshing and simple, dominated by mango and peach fruit flavours. An enjoyable Alexandria rosé followed, apparently a Muscat, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon blend with pronounced aromas of strawberry and red fruits. All good, enjoyable wines especially at the very low price points these can be bought for locally, giving very good price/quality ratios.
It is however the full bodied red wines which dominate in Macedonia, at about 80% of total production, and it is here we believe that the real quality shows. Vranec is probably the most well known local variety and the 2015 Special Selection we tried did not disappoint. Deep ruby red, pronounced flavours of ripe bramble and blackberry fruit, unoaked, grippy tannins and an ABV of 14%, this was a powerful wine that lives up to the literal translation of “Vranec” as “strong, black, powerful horse”! Ready to drink now but also with potential to age a little further. This was the star of the show by a distance, a wine that also matches very well with the local food choices - something we proved several times in the local restaurants. The final wine, a Cabernet Franc, new to the Tikveš range, was somewhat disappointing in comparison. Another bold wine, high tannins, unoaked, with dark chocolate and peppery notes to accompany the black fruit flavours, but somehow not quite a match for the indigenous variety.
So, an interesting snapshot of the general standard of widely available wines. But what about international recognition of Macedonian wines? We had read the recent reviews of Tikveš’s Barovo wine, a Decanter Platinum award winner with 97 points. This wine is a blend of Vranec and Kratošija, another indigenous variety, produced in the micro region of Barovo and reflecting this specific local terroir. The image above shows a good description of this elegant, concentrated, smooth, oak matured wine and there is a significant step up in price to accompany the superior quality. The Barovo is surely setting a new standard for Macedonian wine quality and seems to offer an opportunity for further establishing the country as a producer of not only highly affordable and quaffable wines, but also wines with balance, intense flavour, complexity and subtlety, to compete with those from the more famous, recognisable and highly regarded wine producing regions of the world.
Of course it was the Barovo that found its way into our luggage for the journey home and awaits a special occasion. We certainly look forward to seeking out more examples of such high quality wines from this welcoming and fascinating country, as Macedonia builds on the current international success of this wine (and others) and rises to the challenge of producing further wines to compete with the best available to gain still further international recognition.
Our thanks to Neil Miller for the excellent photographic contributions.