Wine has been made in Serbia for centuries, though quality has been variable. Data on wine production is scarce. For publication in week starting 12 June 2017.
Like neighbour Bulgaria, Serbia took a long time to adjust to the post-1989 era in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In recent years the Bulgarian wine industry has experienced a renaissance, driven by improved quality at boutique vineyards.
Since the early 2000s Serbia has undergone a similar revival to Bulgaria with a focus on small vineyards and quality production. According to the most recent official figures, based on the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Serbia had about 17,500 hectares of vineyards. Another 5,300 hectares appear to lie fallow because of disputes over land ownership.
Of those 17,500 hectares, about 2,600 are classified as producing wine with geographical indication based on European Union regulations. The other 14,900 hectares fall outside EU regulations but some of this wine is very good, and excellent value for money.
About 80,341 households produce grapes, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, yet 92 per cent of those households own vineyards of less than 0.5 ha. Small is beautiful.
Serbia has always had a wine culture and consumption is one of the highest in the world, at 42.5 litres per capita last year. Only Croatians (46.9 litres), the Portuguese (43.7) and the French (43.1) consumed more per head (though consumption in the Vatican City was an astronomical 56 litres a head that year).
A generation ago two in three bottles produced were white, but red has become more popular and production is currently about 50:50. Last year Serbia produced about 53 million bottles. That is not enough for local consumption and the country imports twice as much wine as is made domestically.
The country has four print wine magazines and a range of web sites devoted to wine, which is high relative to the population of about 8.7 million. The UK, with 65 million people, has only two print wine magazines, and Portugal with 10 million also has two.
Much of the history of Serbian wine under the Communist regime between the end of WW2 and the fall of the wall related to production of bulk wine, sold cheaply and consumed domestically. In an article headlined “Competitiveness of Wine Export from the Republic of Serbia”, Branislav Vlahović and academic colleagues from the Faculty of Agriculture at Novi Sad University described wine exports as “very modest”. About 5 per cent of total production was exported between 2004 and 2007 at an average price of 1.11 USD a litre. About 90 per cent of the exports were bulk wine, the academics said.
Serbia has 22 official wine-growing regions and 77 sub-regions. The capital is by far the most important city. Almost a quarter of Serbia’s population lives there, so everything tends to be measured in relation to Belgrade. The most important are in Negotinska krajina, 250 km east of Belgrade; on the slopes of Fruška Gora Mountain 80 km north-west of the capital; Sumadija, about 100 km south-west of Belgrade, and Župa, 230 km south-east of the capital.
Prokupac and Vranac are the main indigenous red grapes. Prokupac is popular because it can cope with low temperatures and produces good yields with high sugar content even on poor soils. Vranac originated in neighbouring Macedonia and produces a unique taste and character said to be “synonymous with the Balkans”. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are relatively common.
The main indigenous white grapes are Smederevka – whose name comes from the Serbian city Smederevo – and Tamjanika, a relative of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains named after the local word for francincense, tamjan, because of its intense aromas. The main international white grapes include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.
The Kovacevic Estate in the Fruška Gora region is the biggest privately owned winery in Serbia and makes a range of formidable wines. Fruška Gora translates as “holy mountain” and the area has 16 beautiful Serbian Orthodox monasteries, many located in the Fruška Gora national park. The estate is in the village of Irig, probably the best-known wine town in the country. Kovacevic produces about 800,000 bottles a year.
The estate is superbly placed to take advantage of the potential for wine tourism because of the region’s closeness to the capital, the clean green nature of the region and the excellent range of local foods. Owner Miroslav Kovacevic has been passionate about wine for decades and opened his cellar to a group of visiting journalists to show how his estate’s wines can age. A 2008 Kovacevic Riesling was a thing of joy, showing steely grace and charm despite 2008 being an ordinary year.
A highlight was the 2004 Kovacevic Chardonnay, made in a poor vintage, that glowed gold in the glass and exuded aromas of honey, nuts and brioche. This wine received no oak and was made in stainless steel tanks yet showed elegance and structure and could have been cellared for another decade. In recent years Kovacevic has experimented with using traditional clay amphorae for storing wine, as well as introducing oak from Hungary, Croatia, Austria and the Czech Republic as well as traditional suppliers France and the United States.
Modern-day Serbia was under Roman rule for 600 years from the first century BC, and the Roman emperor and author Marcus Aurelius was born in the Serbian city of Sirmium. Kovacevic’s flagship red is named Aurelius in honour of the emperor, who is said to have planted grapes there. It is a blend of 60 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon with the balance Merlot. The current edition is the 2012, full of bright black fruits. We also tried a 2008, which demonstrated the longevity of this fine wine.
Kovacevic has 15 hectares of estate vines and buys grapes from another 200 hectares of local growers. It exports to Canada as well as Belgium, Austria and the Czech Republic.
Some almost-forgotten traditions have been revived around Fruška Gora Mountain, including production of Bermet. This is a dessert wine made by macerating must with about 20 spices and herbs. The result is a digestive-style wine that is said to be good for one’s health. Locals claim Bermet was served on the Titanic. The recipe is allegedly a secret known only to a handful of families.
Future columns will discuss other wine regions in Serbia.
Disclosure: In May-June 2017 Stephen Quinn was a member of the first wine press tour to Serbia, and a guest of the National Tourist Organisation of Serbia, Radisson Blue hotel and the Terra organisation.
Serbia’s winemaking revival