Those of us Indians who have read history in school would remember that ‘Alexander the Great’ from Macedonia invaded India 2300 years ago, in a bid to conquer the world, thinking India was at its edge. He defeated Porus in Punjab but was so impressed by his demeanour that he let him rule as his satrap (provincial governor).
However, it is not clear which Macedonia he came from; there is one in the northern mountainous region of Greece, established in 1913 with Thessaloniki as its Capital, that I visited in June 2016 during my visit to Greece and in particular the wine estate, Ktima Gerovassiliou post my visit to Bulgaria after judging at the annual Concours Mondial de Bruxelles.
There is yet another Macedonia right across the border, called Republic of Northern Macedonia (known as Macedonia before 2019 and still popularly referred to as Macedonia with Skopje as its Capital. This was a constituent of communist Yugoslavia after World War II in 1945 and became independent in 1991 after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. However, there was a conflict in the usage the name ‘Macedonia’ between the two regions, that was resolved in 2018. My discussions with a few nationals on both sides about the origins of Alexander the Great always result in passionate responses depending on who I am talking to- each side takes full credit of his origin.
Since wine is the main subject of this article, I will not delve on the historical discussion, except perhaps that the two regions were then together as one ‘Makedonia’. But it is a matter of surprise that this small land-locked Balkan region with a population of barely 2 million (less than the Indian Capital of Delhi- NCR) has been producing wine for thousands of years. Northern Macedonia borders Northern Greece, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Bulgaria. It is one of the 5 countries that applied for membership in 2005 and is expected to become a part of EU at around 2025. At 41.6⁰ it shares a similar latitude as Napa Valley, Bordeaux and Tuscany.
Although it has a history of winemaking going back to 13th century BC, and its wines were important during the middle ages and the Ottoman rule of Macedonia, the first modern day winery was opened in 1885. As a part of Yugoslavia, Macedonia was a major producer of wine, accounting for over 65% of the total Yugoslavian production.
Wines of Macedonia at Mundusvini
Macedonia has been participating in Mundus Vini for several years, Last year they had sent 35 samples and won 20 medals. This year, at Spring Tasting in February, 2020, the Macedonian wineries won an impressive 28 Gold and 13 silver medals- Almost half of the medals won had Vranec as the grape varietal or a component of the blend. Having tasted them at the World Bulk Wine Exhibition (WBWE) for years and liking them, I did not hesitate to sign up for the ‘Vranec Wines from Macedonia’ Masterclass on the 22 February, 2020, that was spearheaded by Dane Jovanov of Puklavec Family Wines at Hotel Prinzregent Edenkoben, about 11 kms south of Neustadt.
Background through a Brand Ambassador
To understand the background of Vranec grapes and Macedonian wines, I talked with Paul Robert Blom, a senior wine professional from Netherlands and a fellow judge for years. He has been importing and successfully selling Macedonian wines for the last 40 years and was appointed one of the five Brand Ambassadors last year on October 4, when Macedonia also declared October 5 as Vranec World Day.
‘To understand the story of Vranæc (Vranec), you have to start at the University of Davis, California. When the well-known Californian winemaker Mike Grgich of Croatian descent, became famous at the Judgement of Paris Tasting in 1976 with his Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 ahead of top Burgundies and people asked him about his impressive Zinfandel, he replied that he was familiar with this variety since his parents in Dalmatia worked with a similar red Grape called Plavec Mali,’ says Paul.
‘This triggered the researchers at Davis to contact colleagues in Split and Zagreb to trace the way back to its origin. The first stop was Puglia for Primitivo, then to Dalmatian coast to Tribidrag (where Plavec Mali is an offspring variety) on to Macedonia and Montenegro where the almost forgotten Kratoshija was found as the source of all these varieties.
After the breakup of Yugoslavia, the regional viticulture institutions suddenly went National and without intensive cooperation among each other like before. The export boycott of Serbia & Montenegro created new opportunity for North Macedonia where bonuses were given to winegrowers to promote Vranec, as Montenegro had registered Vranac as a trade mark long before. Most vineyards had the plantings as a mixture of Kratoshija and Vranec and they could easily call the whole crop ‘Vranec’ to profit from a higher price. Incidentally, before disintegration of Yugoslavia, producers from North Macedonia never sent any samples of Vranec to the famous competition in Ljubljana, but only Kratoshija.
As member of that jury since 1977 I possess all the catalogues to prove it. During my last visit in October I asked the chief winemaker of Tikves to show me the difference between two bunches of Kratoshija and Vranec. He hesitated and said. ‘I cannot show you the difference as they are extremely similar. My first confrontation with these two cousins was during the Wine Show in Ljubljana in 1976.’
VRANEC-Black Stallion of Macedonia
The word Vranec means strong, black and powerful horse (black stallion) in Macedonia and wine made from this grape variety is associated with strength, potency, and success. The dark coloured wines is also known as black wine. It is assumed to have been created by natural crossbreeding or spontaneous mutations. Also grown in Montenegro and Dalmatia and Herzegovina, it is the most important variety for red wines in Macedonia.
To get the right perspective, Vranec is the most grown variety- 38.40% of 10.800 hA (compare with international grape varieties-Merlot 1240 hA Cabernet Sauvignon at 1140 hA and Pinot Noir 508 hA). A total of 15,000 Ha of Vranec is being grown in the world. Macedonia has a total surface area of 33,423 hA out of which about 28,000 hA or 85% are wine grapes. Total wine production is 91 million liters of which only 40% is bottled wine, the balance is sold in Bulk. The best place to taste these wines is the 2-day World Bulk Wine Exhibition (WBWE) held in Amsterdam RAI (23-24 November 2020). 74 export-oriented wines export 85% of the wines to 38 countries.
It is an exuberant grapevine with middle-sized clusters and dark-blue grapes with coloured skin enriched by colouring substances. The high content of anthocyanin is the main characteristic with perhaps high quantity of resveratrol antioxidants, making it a unique and healthy variety. It is suitable for blending with the international varietals-Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, but can also be used to add colour to wines.
The perfumed wines are generally full of aromas of ripe fruits and taste full on the mouth with gentle structure and harmony. The young wines have aromas of strawberry jam and wild berries and firm tannins structure with potential to ripe in oak barrels. Aged wines on finish have complex aroma of dry fruit and flavours that include cocoa and chocolate.
Wine Tasting and Dinner
Following wines were tasted at Hotel Prinzregent Edenkoben, followed by a sit-down dinner at the nearby Hotel Pfaelzer Hof where one could taste these and several other wines from Macedonia. I was one of the journalists who got a gift of a bottle that will be opened on October 5 to honour the Vranec World Day and to show solidarity with Wines of Macedonia:
1. Vranec Smolnik 2018 Popov (100% Vranec, 14% alc)
2. Vranec Special Selection 2016, Tikves (100% Vranec, 14% alc)
3. Aminta 2015, Stobi (40% Merlot, 35% Vranec, 25% Cab. Sauv., 14% alc)
4. Vranec Hermes 2015, Dalvina (100% Vranec, 14.5 % alc)
5. Terra Makedonika 2012, Ezimit (50% Vranec, 25% Merlot, 25% Cab. Sauv., 14.5% alc)
6. Vranec Terroir 2013, Kamnik (100% Vranec, 16.3% alc)
Barring one wine, I really liked all the other 5 wines-they were all full bodied, perfumed and persistent on the mouth wines, though they felt a bit heavy on the palate. Dalvina was my most favourite wine. It was slightly jammy, with strong tannins and excellent structure, a fruity wine that is evolving nicely and it will still be a few years before it reaches its prime, thanks to the tannins, concentration and good acidity.
Wines of Macedonia is doing an excellent job at promoting their wines and putting a big country like India to shame; with their aggressive promotion policy of reaching out to the world. Of course, they have to depend on exports for survival whereas in India exports is still a luxury.