Balkan Wine Travels (Part ІІ)
Following the unplanned but more than pleasant visit to Podrum Radovanović, we revert to our scheduled program and take the road southwest to Kragujevac. In the outskirts of the city, which is best known for its Zastava motor works (now property of the Italian FIAT), we reach our next stop – Rujevica winery. We know almost nothing about it, except the fact that it is a tiny winery, but very active in the field of wine tourism. What we see, however, exceeds our expectations.
The winery, located virtually in the geographical center of Serbia, welcomes us with the fresh greenness of its vast yard, a scent of pastoral idyll and big but tolerably clamorous group of guests. We take our seats around the table, where our hosts – the owners Ivan and Maria Dimitrijević – would offer us a try of their wines and some delicious appetizers. Soon we understand to our surprise that Rujevica is not officially a winery yet. The reason is that according to the Serbian legislation all producers with capacity below 5 tones are not obliged to register as vintners and adhere to all cumbersome prescriptive regulations. Until they grow big, they are allowed to sell their wine as ordinary farmers. Immediately, a recall comes to our minds about some periodic campaigns against the home production of wine in Bulgaria. The advantages of the more liberal approach are so evident (at least to us).
In fact, if we take the size of the vineyards of Rujevica as a sole criterion, the winery would have good reasons to claim for the status of a big enough producer. It has 5 ha of plantations, divided in two separate plots on the nearby hill.
The local people call this place the Red Stream hill (Rujevica brdo), because many years ago a hailstorm hit the old vineyards on the hill just before the harvest time and streams of red-colored rainwater poured down the slopes. Today’s winery carries the name of the hill.
The grape varieties grown in the vineyards are the indigenous red Prokupac and Tamjanika (both white and red), as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Currently, a couple of hundreds of bottles of wine are made from each variety. However, Ivan Dimitrijević intends to increase the production in order to meet the rising demand from the growing number of tourists visiting the winery.
The hospitable family of owners puts a lot of efforts in further development of the wine tourism, as it offers two apartments for guests in the adjacent to the wine cellar house (which have been furnished with the use of financial support from the government under a small entrepreneurship encouragement program), as well as an entirely organic vegetable garden, large playground for children, and many other ambitious ideas for the future.
The next winery on our road is a historical landmark and while we get to know it we are able to draw some interesting parallels on the development of winegrowing in Serbia and Bulgaria.
Both in Serbia and Bulgaria, the first professional and modernly equipped wineries were built by the monarchs – Kraljevska Vinarija (Royal Winery) on the Oplenac hill near the Serbian town of Topola by Alexander I Karadjordjević, and the wine cellar of the summer palace Euxinograd near Varna city in Bulgaria by Ferdinand. Unlike the Bulgarian ruler, whose winery served only the royal court and its guests, Karadjordjević promoted a full-scale modernization of the vine-growing and winemaking activities in the area of Topola and throughout Serbia. The king laid the foundations of a vine-growers’ cooperative, which planted 1 500 ha of new vineyards in the surroundings of Topola, and after the World War I built a large winery in the French model.
Today the winery is operated by the Royal Foundation and functions as a very attractive wine museum. The wine production has also been revived since 2006, though in considerably smaller scale. Extra-large bearing oak barrels from the beginning of last century are among the most impressive exhibits in the museum. An especially thoughtful inscription, carved on one of them, says: “Who doesn’t know why one should drink red wine, he is no man but a spawn cursed by the land” :-)
Once produced in Kraljevska Vinarija under technology of German winemakers and having obtained worldwide fame, the legendary white wine Trijumf continues its new life nowadays in the modern private Vinarija Aleksandrović, located in the nearby village of Vinča.
Owner of the winery is the ancestral winegrower Mr. Božidar Aleksandrović, who obtained in 1992 the original recipe for Trijumf from the emigrated in Canada former royal winemaker Živan Tadić. Then the rebirth of the legend and the winegrowing traditions of the area began…
In the outset of the new millennium, Mr. Aleksandrović managed to build a state-of-the-art winery and increase the size of his vineyards to 75 ha, almost evenly distributed between white varieties (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rhine Riesling, and Gewürztraminer) and red varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Muscat of Hamburg).
Vinarija Aleksandrović is among the undisputable leaders of the contemporary Serbian wine industry and regularly wins numerous awards for its wines from the most prestigious international contests. The winery is very suitable for wine tourism with its attractive tasting room, restaurant, congress hall and wine shop.
In the festive day of Easter, we leave behind the fields and hills of Šumadija and set our course for Srem province in the northwestern part of Serbia. The obvious difference in the architecture style reveals the fact that we are into a territory which has been under Austro-Hungarian influence for quite a long time. Later on we will learn that this influence has spread over the cuisine of the region and its wines too. Anecdotally, the local people like to divide the territory of the province to “Wine Srem” (Vinski Srem) and “Pork Srem” (Svinski Srem), depending on which part is producing more wine or more meat delicacies.
The aim of our trip here is to visit Vinarija Kovačević, located in the town of Irig. What we know in advance about it is that it makes probably the best Serbian wine from Chardonnay, served on numerous receptions to foreign state officials and celebrities visiting the country. As with most of the other Serbian wineries, the owner – Mr. Miroslav Kovačević – is a continuator of a century-old family winegrowing tradition. The tradition was revived in 2001, when his modern private winery (with a capacity of 10 tones at that time) received for vinification its first vintage.
Our first acquaintance with Vinarija Kovačević takes place in the wine restaurant of the owner, situated in the outskirts of Irig. This restaurant can definitely compete on quality of food and service with any Michelin starred restaurant.
The cuisine combines very well the European elegancy with the typical regional recipes.
We order rosé wine with the name Rosetto, made only of Cabernet Sauvignon, and it leaves us completely satisfied with its wonderful balance of aromas and flavors.
After the tasty lunch we take the road to the winery. There we are told that we should go to the old wine producing factory in the town – Iriški Podrum – which has been bought by Miroslav Kovačević a couple of years ago. Currently, almost the entire production of Vinarija Kovačević is relocated in the old factory.
Iriški Podrum was built in 1930 as a cooperative winery. In the time of socialist Yugoslavia it was the sole wine producer in this region. After the political changes in the end of last century, the factory was left abandoned for years.
Right after the acquisition, Kovačević started a large-scale retrofit of the factory, which is still in progress.
The old winemaking equipment was completely replaced with modern one and the (enormous!) concrete wine reservoir was turned into a unique compartment for barrel ageing of wines. What is ahead is the setting up of a degustation hall and opening of restaurant for the wine tourists.
Our host, who is a representative of the trade department of the winery, tells us that the new home of Vinarija Kovačević will ensure the necessary additional capacity for expansion of the product range. Currently, the brands of the winery are as follows: Orfelin (for blended white, red and rosé wines); Kovačević (for varietals); the Bordeaux-blend Aurelius; the varietal rosé Rosetto; as well as the sparkling wine Kovačević, and the sweet wine Bermet.
The grapes for the wines come from over 300 ha of own and rented vineyards with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Rhine Riesling, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, planted on the borders of the neighboring National park Fruška Gora, and controlled by the agronomists of the winery.
New vineyards will be planted in the near future on lands that have already been purchased. They will consist of only indigenous varieties, which will be grown in a traditional way. As our host explains, this means not only rejection of any chemical treating, but also non-use of mechanization. The vines will be cultivated manually and with the use of horse traction. This way the potential of the local terroir will be utilized at maximum and the previous glory of the wines from Srem and Fruška Gora will be restored.
To be continued...
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As for us, we are carefully packing the multitude of enjoyable impressions from the hospitable and abounding in tastes Serbia, and take the road further to the west, towards our next appealing Balkan wine destination – Croatia.