Balkan Wine Travels (Part I)
The idea for a wine tour around the Balkan countries has been growing in the team of VinoZona for quite some time, but – for one reason or another – its implementation was postponed. Therefore, this year we started our planning early on, aiming to make a good use of the series of holidays in the beginning of May for such a major thematic trip.
Despite that the timing of our travel in the neighboring Serbia coincided with the celebration of the Orthodox Easter, most of the wineries we approached to book a visit (via e-mail) responded positively.
Thus, in the early Saturday morning, just a day before the greatest Christian feast, fueled with excellent mood and great ambition to escape as fast as we can from the drizzling cold Sofia rain, we are heading straight to the western border of Bulgaria. Our wine program for the day is quite busy and includes visits to four Serbian wineries. The first stop is some 270 km northwest of Sofia, in the surroundings of the Serbian town of Jagodina. Although wine has been made here since time immemorial, it was only recently that this region appeared again on the modern wine map of Serbia. The latter is largely due to the efforts of a man whom we are going to meet pretty soon – Miša Cilić.
The winery, called by her owner Gazdinstvo Cilić (or Tsillich Estate), is a modern building situated on top of one of the numerous hills around, and encircled by its own vineyards.
One of the first things Miša Cilić tells us when we meet at the entrance of his winery is about the varietal composition of the vineyards. The total planted area is some 12 hectares and includes Sauvignon Blanc, Black Muscat (Muscat of Hamburg), Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Like many other of his colleagues, Miša Cilić got into the winemaking business motivated to a large extent by his family traditions. All of his predecessors have been producing wine and rakia, and his father Zoran was a prominent figure in the wine industry of socialist Yugoslavia. Though young of age, Miša has already gained a solid experience at quite a few wineries in France (Burgundy and Bordeaux regions), USA, Argentina, Chile, as well as in countries from the Central and Southeastern Europe.
Having learned in-depth the winemaking profession, Cilić started his consulting business Enocentric in 2008 and helped the establishment of a dozen wineries throughout Europe. In parallel with that, he and his father Zoran began purchasing land plots around Jagodina, where in 2012 they built and put in operation their family winery with capacity of 200,000 bottles, which is utilized just in half for now.
“As a producer, I would like our wines to express both the terroir and the results of our work in the vineyards and winery”, puts shortly his philosophy Miša Cilić. The climate characteristics of the region and the hills with diverse soils allow for growing of many different varieties and making of memorable wines.
The latter we are going to explore ourselves in a while, as we enter the tasting hall on the upper floor of winery, whose bay windows command a stunning view of the vineyards and the whole region. The wines we are offered to taste are five labels of the winery.
We start with the new rosé wine, which carries the attractive name Homo Zero. Miša explains that this name is a pick on the prejudice (widely spread in Bulgaria, too) that pink wines are suitable just for the ladies. The wine itself is a pure Merlot, and its deep color shuns away from the fashionable in the last couple of years pale rosés in Provence style.
Two interesting white wines from Sauvignon Blanc are about to follow: Onyx, which goes in the tradition of the good French Sauvignons, and Fume Blanc – a relatively untypical, but still remarkable Sauvignon, aged for a couple of months in oak.
Our tasting session ends with two splendid red blends in the style of the famous French wine region of Bordeaux, which – as Cilić appropriately mentions – is located in the same geographical latitude as Jagodina.
Nearly half of the wines of Gazdinstvo Cilić are sold in Serbia – both in the neighboring towns and the good restaurants of Belgrade and the other major cities of the country. The rest of the output is well received among private clients and restaurants in Central and Western Europe. Cilić admits that his winegrowing business does not pay off yet. “Once we repay the bank loan we took to build the winery, it would be much more different. We would also have more vineyards in fruiting stage then, and hopefully our wines would be more recognizable”, adds he with a smile on his face.
Until it happens, Miša Cilić will rely mainly on his consulting business, which he develops quite successfully indeed. A solid proof of that is the neighboring Temet Winery, located literally at arm’s length, which was built under his design. “The more new and modern wineries emerge here in the region, the better it would be for all of us, as many more tourists would come around and spread the word about it”, he explains.
Unfortunately, the neighbors from Temet are not open during the holidays and our visit to their place will be postponed for some other time. The outward appearance of this winery is quite impressing and raises good expectations about what we could find inside.
We have to confess that our initial plans did not include a visit to Podrum Radovanović (Radovanovich Winery). However, as we talk about our program with our first host, Miša Cilić, he insists that it would not be a complete one if we miss a true symbol of the modern Serbian winegrowing. After a short phone call with winery’s owner, Mr. Miodrag Radovanović, Miša shows us the fastest and easiest way to get there. Some 70 km north, right in the heart of the same that Šumadija (Shumadia), probably the most developed and densely populated agricultural area of Serbia, we enter the village of Krnjevo where the winery is situated.
At first glance it does not stagger with its architecture and obviously it has been built in several stages according to the needs for gradual extension over the years. Our very first impressions are reconfirmed by our kind hosts who explain that Podrum Radovanović is actually the first private winery in Serbia after the communist times. It began its existence in the now-distant 1990.
Winemaking is a family tradition for Miodrag Radovanović too, and the Rhine Riesling – planted by his grandfather in the beginning of 20th century – is still present in the vineyards of the modern winery. Miodrag worked as a winemaker in the Yugoslavian state wine monopoly before the 1990s, but once it became possible, he established his own small (at that time) winery with initial capacity of just 1,500 liters, and started selling his wine to the local restaurant. Ever since his first steps, Miodrag strived to achieve the goal he set very clear – to make wines with quality that would be a real pride not only for Šumadija, but also for the entire Serbia.
Thanks to this philosophy, Podrum Radovanović today possesses 22 hectares of vineyards and buys grapes from another 25 hectares, owned by the local cooperative. The winery produces around 200,000 bottles of high quality wines each year.
The grape varieties grown by Podrum Radovanović include Rhine Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris of the whites, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and the local autochthonous Prokupac of the reds.
Though the region is traditionally renowned for its white wines, Podrum Radovanović became famous and won a number of prestigious awards for its red wine from Cabernet Sauvignon. The currently available vintage is 2012, as the wine ages from 18 to 24 months in oak barrels and at least a year in bottle.
The most attractive part of the winery is underground, where its “treasures” – barrels of wine from different varieties and vintages – are held in specials compartments with brick vaults.
The barrels also vary of size: along with the standard barriques, there are larger oak vessels in oval shape – very popular and widely used in the Western Balkans.
The conditions for wine tourism here are more than suitable - Podrum Radovanović is open for visiting anytime, and offers a spacious tasting hall on three levels and a wine shop. The winery can be easily reached as the road signs, pointing its direction, are carefully arranged starting from the highway.
On a general note, it is important to mention the excellent job done by the relevant institutions of the Republic of Serbia (and not only there, as we will show in the upcoming other parts of our Balkan Wine Travels) when it comes to the road signs put on all the major roads to mark the various wine routes and indicate the location of individual wineries in every wine region.
Such special road signs have been on the agenda of the Bulgarian government institutions for quite a long time, but the results are evidently and notably absent.
To be continued...
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