“For one country is different from another; its earth is different, as are its stones, wines, bread, meat, and everything that grows and thrives in a specific region.” – Paracelsus
We have an exciting year of wine ahead of us, so I hope you have your bags packed! We begin this month in Macedonia – The Republic of Macedonia, not Macedonia, IA. The Republic of Macedonia is an ancient, biblical country, geographically situated in the central part of the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe.
The Republic of Macedonia is about 10,000 square miles adjacent to Greece in the south, Bulgaria to the east, and Albania to the west. It has a population of just over two million people and its history can be traced back over 7,000 years.
Macedonia is a landlocked country. It is geographically defined by a central valley formed by the Vardar River and framed along its borders by mountain ranges. It is at the border of the Mediterranean and Continental climate with warm, dry summers and autumns, and relatively stable winters with mild temperatures. Average annual precipitation varies from about 65 inches in the western mountainous area to just under 20 inches in the eastern area.
Wine making in Macedonia goes back over 4,000 years. Artifacts found in ancient sites speak to the long tradition of grape growing. Macedonians even had a god of wine, Dionysus, and Alexander the Macedonian had his own “wine pourer” servant. Grape growing and winemaking continued from ancient times through the rise of Christianity.
It was not until 1885 that a modern winery appeared; today, that winery is the largest in southeast Europe. In 1912, the winery produced its first Tikveš labeled wine. Somewhere between 1908 and 1914, phylloxera hit much of the area and most vines were decayed by 1920. A slight resurgence happened beginning in the late ‘20s, but World War II created another period of stagnation. As with the German Riesling, post-war brought new life to the business of growing grapes and winemaking. It helped that some vines had already been grafted with American stock that proved to be more phylloxera-resistant. During the 1960s and ‘70s due to modern technology and demand, vineyard planting increased.
Wine is an intrinsic part of Macedonian history and culture. Legends and tales, rituals and folk songs are all elements of this region and wine is a constant in this rich legacy. Even today, wedding customs in many villages and towns involve wine. On the wedding day, when the groom goes to the house of the bride, her mother brings him a pie. He is obliged to pour wine over the pie. From this wine soaked pie, he gives one slice to the bride.
People in the center of Macedonia in the Vardar River Valley are known for celebrating the Christian holiday of St. Trifun, the patron of wine growers. It is celebrated on February 14 each year. On this day, men who own vineyards gather and trim the vines which symbolically marks the beginning of pruning and new vegetation. After the symbolic pruning, a general merriment starts with drinking wine and singing songs.
Since the early 1990s, the wine industry in Macedonia has grown significantly. New vineyards and more wineries have been built with the goal of placing Macedonian wines in the international market. Today, there are 24,700 hectares (one hectare equals about 2.5 acres) of vineyards managed by 15,000 grape growing families and wine producers making wines from international varietals and indigenous grapes. Wine production takes place in 84 officially registered wineries. The geographical representation of wineries is identical to the representation of vineyards, so most wine cellars are located in the central region along the valley of River Vardar, primarily in the Skopje, Veles, Tikveš, and Gevgelija-Valandovo wine districts.
There are six principal grapes indigenous to Macedonia. Whites include Smederevka, Zhilavka, and Temjanika. Reds include Kratoshila, Stanushina, and Vranec.
Smederevka is the leading grape for white wine production in Macedonia. Many believe it originated in Serbia, but no one is quite sure. It is agreed that it is one of the oldest in the Balkans. Smederevka ripens in October and produces a high yield. The grape is sensitive to low temperatures, therefore it thrives in the warmer growing regions with healthy, fertile soils. The grapes are large, oval-shaped with thin, translucent, and hard skin. The greenish-yellow color is carried over to the wine. Smederevka is considered a table wine. It has fruity aromas, low in alcohol, and is best consumed when young. It is best served cool (around 50 degrees) with white meat, cheese, fish, or summer salads. During warm summer months in Macedonia, it is served with soda water as a drink called “spritzer” or “bunar,” often with mixed fruit.
Zhilavka is also planted in warmer regions with warm, dry soils. The vine produces medium sized clusters with a conical shape. The berry is round with thin skins that range from colorless to greenish-yellow. Grapes are juicy and sweet with a refreshing aroma and fruit flavor. Zhilavka produces top quality dry wines and is best served slightly more than 50 degrees. Serve with seafood, pasta, appetizers with cheese, or desserts.
Temjanika’s primary name (according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine – OIV) is “Muscat Blanc a petit Grain.” It has a striking Muscat aroma that apparently you either like or dislike at once. It is grown mostly in the Tikveš wine district. It ripens in late August or early September and produces a high-quality dry, semi-dry, or dessert wine. Muscat aromas run from spicy to peach, apricot, dry plum, and often orange. Flavors turn to basil and incense on the finish. Serve with light food or dessert.
Kratosija, a red grape, has a long history dating back to ancient Macedonia. A recent study has made a genetic link between the Kratosija grape and Primitivo, Zinfandel, and Crljenak Kastelanški (Croatian). This is the grape that made its way to California to become Zinfandel. Zinfandel and Primitivo (Puglia region of Italy) have been shown to be identical. In Macedonia the clusters are medium-sized, cylindrical, and conical in shape. The berry is medium-sized, round to flat with a thick, dark blue skin. Kratosija is a quality dry red wine. It has an intense smell of dark fruit such as black currant, spices, and sweet tones of smoke. On the palate the wine gives a delicate taste of berries and a creamy, fruity mouthfeel. It has a lovely, yet solid finish. It goes well with meals of meat, pork, chicken, cheeses or noodles and best served around 60 degrees.
Stanushina is a grape that grows nowhere else in the world. It goes by Gradesh and Black Stanushina. The grape originates in the Tikveš wine district where it was widespread. One of the oldest grapes from Macedonia, it is only now getting the attention it deserves. Today’s vines produce dark blue grapes with high amounts of sugar, which in turn produce high-quality wines. Vines are usually strong enough to grow without man-made support. Clusters are medium cylindrical sized without wings (a second shoot from same stem). The berry is round, medium-sized, and ripens in October. It produces a strong, red wine, which is characteristic of wines from this region. While skins are dark blue, the wine is characteristically pale. It has high acidity which offers an exquisite freshness. Aromas of strawberry, raspberry, and fruit notes are prevalent though the wine is best enjoyed when young. Serve with salads, puddings, stuffed bell peppers, or other light dishes.
The last, and the only one I’ve found in the Dubuque area, is Vranec (pronounced vrahn-ets). Vranec means strong, black, powerful horse (black stallion) and this varietal wine is associated with strength, potency, and success. In Macedonia the wine is known as black wine. Vranec is a local, Balkan variety and speaks to the character of the region’s people – warm-blooded and strong. It can be found in Montenegro, Dalmacija, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, but it is in Macedonia where it reaches its fullest expression. Vranec wines have a dark, intense red color. Aromas include dark red fruits such as plum, blackberry, and often a bit of cassis. The wine has a gentle structure with a balanced flavor profile with wild berries and chocolate. Vranec pairs well with red meat, game, barbeque and smoked meats. Locally, you can enjoy a glass of Vranec at L. May Eatery.
So, our adventure for the year begins with a goal of tasting many new and different wines.
Na zdravye (Cheers! In Macedonian)!
Wines I recently tasted
2013 Natura Pinot Noir – Emiliana Organic Vineyards (14.1 % ABV)
This wine is from 100% organic grapes and is a very pleasant, especially at the price point ($10). Its color is bright ruby red and it has an earthy bouquet with berry aromas, spice, and cocoa. The taste on the palate didn’t bowl me over, but it had soft tannins, well-balanced acidity, and a fresh finish. I purchased this at the Dubuque Food Co-op.
2009 R & B Cellars Petite Sirah – Napa Valley, California (14.9 % ABV)
This is a classic California Petite Sirah – dark, very full-bodied with an intense flavor. It is 97% Petite Syrah and 3% Zinfandel. The nose gives you an aroma of dark red fruit and the flavors blast your mouth with hints of blueberry, black currant, and dark plum. It has been aged in French oak, which offers notes of chocolate, a slight hint of vanilla, and spice. This is a serious wine that will hold up to big food.
2009 Paradise Springs Meritage Wine – Paradise Springs Winery, Clifton, Virginia (13.5% ABV)
This is a Bordeaux-style red with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Grapes are all grown in Virginia. I received a bottle as a gift and it was most enjoyable. The color is a striking garnet and it has well-balanced tannins with dark berry fruit, a hint of licorice, and a long, dry finish. This particular year it scored 90 points.
2013 Tikves Winery Vranec – Special Selection
This wine is from the oldest winery in the region, founded in 1885. Vranec is indigenous to the region, comes from 30 to 60-year-old vines, and is the leading red wine from Macedonia. This wine presents an ideal selection for an afternoon glass of wine. It will hold up to food just fine, but for sitting back and sharing a glass of wine before dinner, Vranec fills the bill perfectly. The wine possesses gorgeous fruit, has a medium to full body, and supple tannins. This wine is a remarkable value at around $12, available at L.May Eatery.
Open That Bottle Night (OTBN) 2016
February 27, 2016 is Open That Bottle Night. This is an evening when you gather with friends and you share stories about the bottle of wine you’ve been saving for a special occasion. The time together becomes the special occasion and it’s all about friends, stories, and remembrances.
So what do you need to do? Invite as many friends as your home can comfortably accommodate and ask them to bring whatever food item you want them to bring. They do need to bring a bottle of wine, preferably one they’ve been saving for a special occasion. It is not about the wine, but about how they came to have the wine, where they were or what they were doing when they bought it, or maybe who gave it to them.
Once everyone has arrived and formalities are over and plates are filled with food, begin the evening. As host, you may wish to be the lead, or you may elect to wrap up the stories as closure for the evening. The important thing is that the night really is all about the fellowship gained by sharing stories about each bottle.
There are guidelines if you are interested and I’ll have them posted on the Julien’s Journal website (www.juliensjournal.com) if you are interested. Or, if you save copies of the magazine, look in my column from last year for the printed guidelines.
When your evening is over, I would love to hear any stories about your OTBN. Send me an email at email@example.com and I will mention you in a future column.