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The Macedonia massive

Published:  23 July, 2008

Macedonia is a country that people aren't quite sure about: it could be part of Greece or Turkey; it could be independent; it could be one of those confusing Balkan states. In many ways, Macedonia is all of these things, or at least it has been at some point in its history. At the moment it's independent and has been so since its peaceful secession from Yugoslavia in 1991. This is important, because the years since then can be seen as a make-or-break period for the country, and nowhere is this more relevant than in the realm of wine production.

To put things into perspective, wine from the Balkan countries does not play a major role in the global wine market, and Macedonia is currently among the least well-known wine-producing countries in the Balkans. To say that Macedonian wine companies are up against it would be a positive spin on the situation. Furthermore, with the growing library of articles from the press referring to the existing worldwide wine glut, it's perhaps justifiable to have concerns about the lifespan of yet another emerging wine region.

However, while Macedonian wine is new' in the sense that quality wine from the region is only just beginning to arrive on the marketplace, there is nothing new about the production of wine in the country itself. Wine has been made in Macedonia since the times of the Roman Empire, and the tradition has continued through the arrival of the Slavs in medieval times, during the five centuries spent under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and throughout the Socialist regime beneath the wing of Yugoslavia. In fact, in the 1980s Macedonia accounted for two thirds of the total wine production within the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (which included Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro).

With this kind of history, who can blame Macedonia for wanting to put its own stamp on the vineyards now that the country is finally free?

To this end, and with the help of funding from The United States Agency for International Development, six of the country's new privately owned wine companies have joined together to form The Macedonian Fine Wines Export Group. The aim is to make a strong move away from the bulk-wine production that characterised the industry under Socialism and to build up a new reputation for quality and individualism. Each member of the group is fully aware that in order to make an impact on the world stage, it is vital to make a collective push towards Brand Macedonia rather than attempt to branch out alone. This was the philosophy of Australia in the early days of its wine success, and the fact that it's been taken up by Macedonia - even in a small way - should be seen as the first step in the right direction.

The group has skirted around the problem of labelling itself as either New World or Old World, preferring to describe the wines as new wave'. Kiril Bogevski, chair of the group and owner/president of Bovin Winery, explained, We have a centuries-old winemaking tradition and are located on the old continent, so you could say that we are "Old World" wine producers. However, we are relatively unknown and new to

the world wine market. Thus we're "new wave" producers.' In addition to Bovin, the other five wineries currently in this band are Skovin, Fonko, Popov, Pivka and Cekorovi. Although, according to Kire Andov, manager of Pivka, this number is likely to grow. It doesn't have to stay with six; we are always open to other companies dedicated to quality wine production,' he said.

The right product

Alongside a strong communal drive, the other crucial element involved in marketing a new product is finding that elusive USP. For Macedonia, this hasn't presented too much of a problem. There is an indigenous red-grape variety called Vranec (pronounced vran-its'), on which the hopes of the winemakers have been pinned. Gjorgi Jovanov, chief winemaker at Bovin, is clear on this point, saying, We believe that Vranec is our power because there is nothing to compare to it.' Dimitar Petrusevski, managing director at Skovin agrees: Vranec has great potential if you know what to do with it.'

The subject of Vranec brings both a smile and a grimace to the face of most Macedonian winemakers. No doubt the smile is due to the sense of pride in their home-grown grape, while the grimace is there to indicate the menace of this little-known variety. There's a common tendency to slap a sex label on grape varieties, depending on their characteristics; and in the case of Vranec it's male testosterone all the way. The colour, when young, is powerful black/purple ink, which evolves into a deep ruby red with a bit of age. The drinker can look forward to vampire-black teeth after little more than a glass, and this puts the wine into the same category as a Yorkie chocolate bar: not for girls'.

Other indigenous grape varieties are grown, such as the white Zilavka, but these are generally restricted to use in blends and, on the whole, the wineries are keen to stick with the usual suspects. This is inevitable and necessary: introducing wines made from unrecognisable (and often unpronounceable) grape varieties would undoubtedly be commercial suicide. The flip side of this, however, is the problem of convincing a highly competitive marketplace that a Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay from Macedonia is worth looking at.

In terms of terroir, there's plenty in its favour. The summers are long, hot and dry, giving a lengthy ripening period, while the cold winters allow a good recovery time for the vines. Macedonia is also a mountainous country with opportunities for high-altitude planting. Most importantly, perhaps, is the constant presence of what the winemakers call a rose' of winds. Jovanov, of Bovin, emphasises this point, saying, The wind keeps disease away from the vines, which means that we only have to use chemical sprays around three times a year, unlike what's necessary in wetter climates.'

But how does this climate reflect in the wines? The almost unanimous answer to this question is fruit. The hot temperatures result in an overload of colour, flavour and alcohol, giving wines that are very rich in aroma and different fruit tastes', says Nadezda Sofijanova, chief winemaker at Skovin. And Fonko's chief winemaker Venera Gelebeseva-Krstik corroborates this: I would say that the fruity character distinguishes our wines,' she says. Goran Milanov, chief winemaker at Popov, adds, Concentrated fruit flavours are a key characteristic.' They make a good point,

and the current absence of oak in most Macedonian wineries keeps the fruit in a starring role. That said, there's a lot of talk about bringing more oak on to the scene, and one can only hope this doesn't kill off the freshness and flavour showing through in the recent vintages.

The gang of six

And what of the six wineries themselves? There's a lot of variation, and it's here that the transitional aspect of Macedonia can be seen in stark and glaring clarity. Skovin is the third-biggest winery in the country - with a capacity approaching 20 million litres - and its tanks are huge, imposing and industrious, screaming of boring bulk production. But this is exactly what the country is trying to change, and Skovin has now been bought by the respected company Fersped AD Skopje, which has started a full-scale investment into the winery, including new plantings, smaller tanks and modern equipment - all with a view to producing quality rather than quantity.

Far and away down the other end of the scale, there is the Cekorovi Winery, which occupies a mere stonewalled room of an unremarkable size. Most of the equipment here is manual or semi-automatic, and the white grapes are still pressed in an old Italian basket press, the likes of which one would normally expect to find only in a museum. Each year, 20,000 bottles are produced by owner/winemaker Kiril Ceborov, and although this quantity is small and the work very labour-intensive, the Vranec produced by this tiny winery shows the grape at its very best: modern, fresh berries all the way.

The other four companies fall somewhere in between, and as yet Fonko is the only one to have built a brand-new winery in the heart of its vineyards. However, Bovin is also in the process of big investment, with a view to producing a winery that is both good for the wine and visitor-friendly. And this isn't where it ends: owner Kiril Bogevski pointed out that he's currently building a second winery for his son - to introduce a bit of friendly competition'. These are the sorts of investment that are needed if Macedonia is to be taken seriously as a wine destination for both the trade and tourists. But this takes time and money, two things that Macedonia has in short supply. The wineries and winemakers are all slowly recovering from the Yugoslavian era of state ownership, and money from the new private owners is only just becoming visible.

It's a very new and fragile time for the wine producers, and there are still a few odd bottles popping up, such as a semi-sweet Cabernet Sauvignon described as suitable for serving during breakfasting', and a crazy blend of Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc to create Bovin's Symphony wine. There's also a veil of uncertainty over the handling of oak, and Vladislav Popov, owner of Popov, jokes that working with oak is very difficult, and maybe after 100 years we'll have it sorted. All you need is tradition.'

Joking aside, though, with the oldest vintages dating back little further than 2000, there is a distinct lack of knowledge regarding the potential evolution of these wines in either bottle or barrel. But this is all part of the fun of the fair, and nothing good has ever been produced without trial and error. Even in these very early days, the wineries have started to pick up awards from local competitions, such as World of Wines Belgrade. And Fonko has already received a hearty slap on the back from the UK in the shape of a Seal of Approval at the 2004 International Wine Challenge for its Chardonnay. There are also signs that the labels are going to be kept fairly consumer-friendly, with names such as Bovin's Alexander (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Vranec) given to the more premium wines. Cashing in on a colourful history is generally a good move, and Alexander the Great has given Macedonia a great starting point. Fonko has also taken advantage of this conqueror connection with its Bucephall wine (Vranec), named after Alexander's horse.

Finding a place

One great universal truth is that there is rarely any substitute for hard work and genuine enthusiasm, and it's here that Macedonians truly excel. They also place a lot of importance on tradition, which is demonstrated each year on 14 February when the wine trade rejects St Valentine in favour of St Trifun (the protector of grape vines and wine) and takes part in a ritualistic blessing of the grapes and a symbolic pruning of the vines. The Macedonian Fine Wines Export Group came to the UK for the first time in September 2005, and a return visit is on the cards for spring '06. Looked at together, the six wineries have all the components necessary to make good wine - and in many cases, they are already doing just that. With established leaders of the good value for money' niche, such as Australia and Chile, looking to move up the price scale, perhaps there will be space for Macedonia here. Its wines are already exported to Germany, Japan and the United States among others, so why not the UK?

If the investments remain steady and the quality keeps edging upwards, it's only a matter of time.