Zupa and Sumadija are Serbia’s most historic wine regions, with many cultural connections related to the vine. For publication in week starting 19 June 2017.
Grapes have been grown in the Župa region in central Serbia for at least 3,000 years, even prior to the Roman invasion. The region is centred on the biggest town, Aleksandrovac, though “biggest” is a relative term because the town only has about 7,000 souls.
The region’s biggest annual event is a wine festival held in late September, and the town has a cute wine museum built in 1991. The museum’s most valuable exhibits are four statues made by the first farmers in the region. They are said to be about 7,000 years old.
Župa currently has about 2,000 hectares of vines, though a century ago the area under cultivation was probably treble the current size.
The Ivanović family has been growing grapes in Aleksandrovac since 1814. On his return from World War One in 1919, Dragoslav Ivanović established a wine cellar. The company grew quickly and by 1940 it was producing 500,000 litres a year. Production stalled after World War Two as family estates became collectivised under the Communist regime. The renaissance of Serbian winemaking has only really occurred in the past 15 years, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
In 1996 Dragoslav’s grandson, who has the same name, returned to Župa after his studies and used his grandfather’s notes, which had been hidden in dusty cellars for many years, to renew the family tradition. At the same time he has been unafraid to innovate and produces some remarkable wines.
Dragoslav’s 2015 No 3/4 Tamjanika is 85 per cent Tamjanika with 10 per cent of Sauvignon Blanc and 5 per cent Riesling, plus a touch of new oak. This is a sensational wine that smells and tastes of marmalade laced with ginger, with a dry textural finish. It is significantly more sophisticated than a range of wines made from the same grape tasted in Aleksandrovac last month.
Last week’s column noted that Tamjanika and Prokupac are the main indigenous grapes. Locals sometimes cultivate Prokupac in a traditional style: Vines are grown like bushes, with cordons bound together at the top. This guarantees a smaller crop, but with higher quality fruit; harvesting must be done by hand.
Tamjanika’s origins are uncertain. Some say it originated in France while others maintain it came from the island of Samos in Greece. The grape has been grown in Župa for several centuries and has adapted well to the terroir. The grape is probably a relative of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. In Serbia it has been named after the local word for francincense, tamjan, because of its intense aromas.
Another memorable Ivanović wine is the 2015 No 1/2 which consists of 50 per cent of the local grape Prokupac with a quarter each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The wine had only been bottled for a month before Dragoslav offered it for judging and it will get even better with time in the cellar.
Župa is about 230 km south-east of the capital, Belgrade, and consists mostly of softly-rolling hills surrounded by three mountain ranges. Vines are grown at between 250 and 700 metres. The climate is continental, similar to that of Bordeaux. Dragoslav Ivanović noted that accurate data about the current number of hectares of wine in Župa were not available.
During the Middle Ages Serbia’s three biggest monasteries had their vineyards in the Župa region. Winegrowing continued in the region under Turkish occupation during the Ottoman Empire. More recently, the national nursery for producing vine cuttings was established in Župa, which helped the region recover quickly from the phylloxera epidemic in the late nineteenth century.
Župa has a wine and agricultural school named after St Trifun (also spelled Tryphon), the patron saint of winemakers, built in 1926. It has 92 hectares planted to vines and a range of fruit trees. Zupa is a noted fruit region; indeed the strong connection between fruit regions that become wine regions can be noted around the world.
Zdravkovic Budimir, known locally as “Deda Buda” or grandfather Buda, is said to be Serbia’s oldest active winemaker and claims to have worked 77 vintages, though locals were uncertain as to his age. Milicia Smoljanic is the manager of the excellent Budimir Wines in Župa, which specialises in ageing Prokupac in old barrels of 3,000, 5000 and 7,000 litres. The results can be spectacular.
Alexander Raskovic, winemaker at Budimir Wines, created a delicious dessert wine from Tamjanika called Slatka Mala, which translates as “a little sweet”. Grapes were left to freeze on the vines a full three months after harvest, to concentrate flavours. The concentration was such that 2,700kg of grapes made only 1,000 bottles, about a third of what this quantity of grapes usually produces. Raskovic told me half the crop was stolen during those three months.
Some other exciting wines were encountered in the Sumadija region, about 100 km south-west of the capital, Belgrade. Excellent sparkling wines came the Aleksandrovic Estate: The 2015 Trijumf Rose, made from Pinot Noir, and the 2009 Trijumf Chardonnay, were easily some of the best sparkling wines tasted in Serbia. The latter was a veritable triumph of vinous delights with its profound expression of time, like musty books in a library, yet still fresh with lemon zest and brioche. Winery Aleksandrovic also makes excellent reds, with the Rodoslov Grande Reserve a highlight. The company’s drive for perfection is so strong that in 2014 the estate threw away 40 hectares of grapes because the quality was not good enough.
Special mention must also be made of Winery Radovanovic, also in the Sumadija region, who make reds from Cabernet Sauvignon and whites from Chardonnay. Owner Miodrag Mija Radovanovic presides over one of the most beautiful and precise estates I visited, and provided a vertical tasting of his wines at a memorable lunch under a huge walnut tree on a cloudless blue-sky day. His wines are a combination of tradition and innovation and should be sought out for their quality.
Last year more than 1.2 million tourists visited Belgrade — 13 per cent higher than during the previous year — suggesting the capital could evolve into a significant tourism destination, and later the rest of the country. The biggest groups came from China, Canada, Russia and the United States. Americans represented one of the biggest groups, at more than 16 per cent of the total. Locals regard 2016 as the starting point for a major evolution over the next five years that will culminate in 2021 when Novi Sad becomes the European Capital of Culture.
Disclosure: In May-June 2017 Stephen Quinn was a member of the first wine press tour to Serbia. It was organised by Wine Jam with journalist Paul Balke, and visitors were guests of the National Tourist Organisation of Serbia, Radisson Blue hotel and the Terra Travel agency.