ANYONE FOR A VRANEC?

by Rose Murray Brown MW       Published in The Scotsman 2 Aug 2014

Fancy tasting a Macedonian red Vranec or white Zilavka?  My latest hot tip amongst the emerging countries of the world is the Republic of Macedonia – and the wines from this interesting southern Balkan country are now available in a wine merchant near you.

Firstly – just to make things clear – this is not the Macedonia of northern Greece.  FYROM (as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is known) is a separate country with the same name.  A landlocked country – bordering northern Greece, as well as Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia and Albania – with a long history of winemaking and wine drinking.

Its wine history stretches back to C13 BC.  Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great are its best known historical figures – and the Macedon royal family had a reputation for being very big drinkers.  Macedonia collapsed in 167 BC and became part of the Roman empire.  Despite a dramatic decline during the Ottoman empire, viticulture has continued here.  Whilst under communism, post WWII, there were 13 large wineries and 30,000 small families making wine, so winemaking is very much part of Macedonian life.

Today FYROM’s vineyards are about the same size as Burgundy or Champagne in France.  With 34,000 hectares of vineyards, but only 24,000 hectares of these are planted with wine grapes, the remainder are table grapes.  There are about 80 wineries across the three regions: the main quality region is the central POVARDARIE near Skopje.  The other two are PCINA OSOGOVO in the east near Bulgaria and PELAGONIJA POLOG around Lake Ohrid on the western border near Albania.

Climatically, it is very different from Burgundy and Champagne.  This landlocked mountainous country has a very hot dry climate and fertile soils, so it majors on producing high alcohol reds from the local Vranec, which DNA analysis shows may be related to the Croatian Tribidrag, otherwise known as Zinfandel.  The Macedonians also plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and local Kratosija.

Whites are less successful due to FYROM’s fiercely hot summers.  They grow Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Welshriesling and local Smederevka and Zilavka.  I tasted two Macedonian whites (one from Zilavka and another made from Muscat).  I was impressed by the potential of the spicy nutty native Zilavka grape.  Today the winemakers here are searching for cooler microclimates – higher altitude up in the mountains (of which they have plenty) – than their normal plantings at 200m to 600m – where cool nights can retain acidity more suitable for making whites.

I tasted wine from two wineries – both showed good promise.  The first was a small family boutique winery called Chateau Kamnik, with just 13 hectares.  Their aim is to make handcrafted wines and keep production small.  I really enjoyed their Merlot and Vranec – both superb wines which reminded me of the lush fleshy Italian Merlot you find on Tuscany’s coast area of Bolgheri.  Sadly Chateau Kamnik currently they do not sell to the UK. 

The second winery, Stobi, is one of the larger wineries with 600 hectares in Tikves region about 80 km south of Skopje.  A relatively new project which began in 2009 with a large range of mainly reds from Vranec, Syrah, Petit Verdot and whites from Muscat and the rather enticing Zilavka grape, who have just started exporting to the UK.  Their labels and packaging are very stylish, the wines are well made and have proved very popular at my recent Emerging Countries tastings.  Now available in Edinburgh wine merchants, you can try them for yourself.

“We are having great success particularly with the Vranec”, says James Wrobel of Cornelius Wines in Edinburgh.  “They appeal to those who like Argentinian Malbec or big red styles”.

Republic of Macedonia wine by Rose Murray Brown MWTASTE TEST:

WHITE WINE

STOBI ZILAVKA 2013
£11 Cornelius Wines, 18 Easter Road, Edinburgh 0131 652 2405

A very engaging white with an interesting nutty, spiciness and good fresh natural acidity.  It tastes as if it has higher alcohol than its moderate 12%. 

RED WINES

STOBI VRANEC CLASSIC 2011
£11 bt Cornelius Wines, 18 Easter Road, Edinburgh; Cork & Cask, Marchmont Road, Edinburgh 0131 447 7721 www.corkandcask.co.uk; £9.99 Wine Rack stores, London; House of Townend, Hull; £9.95 Turton Wines, Lancashire; North Coast Wine Co, Cornwall

Serve this to your friends who like Italian Primitivo or Argentinian Malbec and wait for their reaction.  Delicious rich plummy fruits, black fruit flavours, raisiny sweet, softly acidic with ripe tannins and good length.  Alcohol: 14.5%  STAR BUY

STOBI VRANEC VERITAS RESERVE 2011
£16.95 bt Cork & Cask, Edinburgh; Wine Rack stores, London; House of Townend, Hull; £9.95 Turton Wines, Lancashire; North Coast Wine Co, Cornwall

Vranec lives up to its name as the ‘strong black’ or ‘black stallion’ – this is very dense, extracted, perhaps a little over oaked and expensive – but shows interesting promise needing a few more years in bottle to mellow.  Alcohol: 14.5%

STOBI SYRAH BARRIQUE 2011
£15 bt Cornelius Wines, 18 Easter Road, Edinburgh

A promising Syrah, although it is quite expensive when compared to northern Rhone, it is definitely worth a try.  Quite extracted, powerful gutsy red with prominent acidity with spicy vanilla undertones from ageing in French and American oak for 18 months.  Alcohol at 13.5%

CHATEAU KAMNIK SINGLE VINEYARD MERLOT 2009
(N/A in UK)

With more spiciness and ripeness than a Pomerol, but with an interesting lush fleshy fatness that you often find from warmer climate Merlot.  Very well made.  Alcohol: 13%

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