Macedonia – a Country at the Crossroads

The tiny Balkan country of Macedonia lies at a crossroads in more ways than one. Strictly it should be called by its United Nations-recognised name of “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” or FYROM for short, as Greece has already registered the name Macedonia with the EU as a “Protected Geographical Indication” for one of its... View Article

The tiny Balkan country of Macedonia lies at a crossroads in more ways than one. Strictly it should be called by its United Nations-recognised name of “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” or FYROM for short, as Greece has already registered the name Macedonia with the EU as a “Protected Geographical Indication” for one of its wine producing regions. It is on the border between EU (which it hopes to join, though the name dispute with Greece is causing delay) and what used to be Yugoslavia. It declared independence in 1991 and fortunately escaped the civil wars and ethnic cleansing that scarred so many of its neighbours. By Caroline Gilby MW

Some like it hot

Macedonia is landlocked and bordered by Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania. Climatically, it lies at the cross-over point from Mediterranean to continental influences, and its southerly location means some brutally hot summer temperatures, often well above 40 degrees C, with warm nights too. Add to that very low rainfall, typically only 400mm in the main wine district of Tikveš, and the country faces some challenging growing conditions for its vines, especially with the threat of global warming. The positive side to all this is very low risk of fungal diseases, so very little need for spraying. Macedonian producers claim to spray just 1-4 times per year compared to 12 to 15 in a damper maritime climate like Bordeaux. And each treatment is a significant cost to wine growers (not just the actual chemicals but people to do the work, though a vineyard worker here would typically earn around 10 euros per day). Producers in Macedonia reckon their seasonal costs may be only a quarter of a typical French grower. The sheer abundance of wildlife in the vineyards, highlighted by a stunning backdrop of mountains, is a real feature that seems to go unappreciated locally – they are full of bright flowers, butterflies, and even wild tortoises roam.

A little bit of history

Macedonia was the birthplace of Alexander the Great (who died in 323BC) and under his rule the country was the most powerful state in the world. Later, as with so much of Central Europe, five centuries of Ottoman rule nearly destroyed the wine industry. The region of Macedonia was then partitioned between Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia (this last part eventually became today’s republic). After World War II, Macedonia joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and then became part of Yugoslavia. In wine terms, Macedonia was a significant producer in Yugoslav times, claiming a 50% share of production, while in the 1990s it became a leading supplier to Germany.

And Today

Wine today is still economically important in Macedonia – accounting for 4% of agricultural land and up to 20% of agricultural production by value, the second most valuable crop after tobacco. Statistics are not very reliable but best estimates are that just 23,500 hectares are planted to wine grapes, giving a crop of 1.2 million hectolitres in 2013. Macedonians don’t have that much of a thirst for their own product though, getting through just 9 litres per head per year (though there is reckoned to be a black market for another 6 litres each). It’s the local spirit called “rakiya” that takes pride of place. As a result, Macedonia exports around 75% of its wine, mostly as cheap bulk to Germany and its Central European neighbours.

United we stand

A group of 10 producers (out of total of 81 registered producers) has recently come together to work on changing this country’s reputation from just being a source of bulk, to a place to go for high quality bottled wine. These 10 wineries account for 95% of wine production and range from one of the biggest in Europe, Tikveš Winery (crushing from 1,000ha of its own plus 4,700ha from other growers) to some of the new small boutique estates such as Chateau Kamnik (with just 13 hectares of its own). It’s totally understandable that producers who have been forcibly collectivised in the past want to go their own way as individuals. But this group have realised that they must work together, if Macedonia is to change its global wine image.

Grapes and Flavour

Macedonia‘s story must mention Vranec (also known in Montenegro as Vranac) whose name means “Black Stallion” for its dark powerful wines. This is the most widely planted red wine variety and one with real potential to be a flagship. It naturally has 500mg/l of anthocyanins, considerably more than Cabernet Sauvignon for instance, giving very deeply pigmented wines. It also tends to have lots of alcohol, as it needs to get to around 14% before the flavours are ripe, but often it appears in premium wines at over 16%. The only genuinely Macedonian red is Stanušina, pale coloured and largely dismissed as suitable for rose only (though it would be good to see some trials along the lines of other lighter regional reds such as Kadarka). Of the international varieties that are widespread, Syrah and Petit Verdot show real promise, with some good Carmenere too, but Merlot and Pinot Noir are considerably less successful in this hot climate. Of the whites, Chardonnay produces some good, if sometimes alcoholic wines, and Grenache Blanc looks well suited to the climate, though Sauvignon is inclined to lack varietal identity. More promising are Balkan varieties particularly Žilavka and Temjanika, a local selection of Muscat Frontignan.

Pushing the quality boundaries

Producers in Macedonia are investing seriously into academic research to understand their soils and how to manage factors like oxidation, drought stress and sun burn. Several wineries have employed ambitious young winemakers such as Sandra Krstevska at Chateau Kamnik and Dane Jovanov at Stobi, both working on PhDs, while Tikveš has French-raised Marko Stojakovic, a protégée of their consultant Philippe Cambie. Some of the best of Macedonia’s wines are genuinely exciting and distinctive (see below for some of the author’s favourites) but in the case of others, there is still room for improvement – frequently the simpler wines are more appealing to western tastes as there is a tendency for premium wines to “try too hard” and reflect the Balkan admiration for power, extract and alcohol over drinkability and balance. Undoubtedly we will be seeing more of the wines of Macedonia.

Caroline Gilby MW ‘s Wine Recommendations

  • Tikveš Winery: Barovo ( both red and white), Bela Voda ( both red and white), Tikveš Special Selection (especially Grenache Blanc, Temjanika, Vranec)
  • Stobi winery: Vranec Veritas, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Žilavka, Chardonnay (Unoaked)
  • Chateau Kamnik: Temjanika Premium, Chardonnay, Carmenere, Ten barrels Shiraz, Vranec Terroir, Pinot Noir Wild Ferment
  • Ezimit Winery: Plavac Mali, Muscat Frontignan, Vranec
  • Skovin: Temjanika, Markov Manastir Vranec
  • Popova Kula: Stanušina rosé