Gregory Alonzo: Albanian Wines, The Missing Tradition
As summer’s warmth gives way to the glorious colors of fall, I know that this in my last beach trip for the year. Overlooking the sandy beaches of Durres, the sunset was no less striking. From the veranda of our bungalow, my friend and fellow sommelier, Kalina Novac, and I enjoyed an assortment of fresh fruits, sheep and goat cheeses, and some of Albania’s most delectable wines.
There are Roman accounts dating back to the 8th Century BCE of the fabled wines of Illyria. It was Pliny himself who described the wines of this region to be quite luscious, and among his personal favorites. Illyria can boast proudly that it has one of Europe’s longest traditions of viticulture. Point in fact, many of Italy’s most popular varietals actually hail from this region of the western Balkans.
On a slightly different note, Illyria is the setting for William Shakespeare’s, “The Twelfth Night.” Sometimes known as “What You Will,” the play is a fun and jovial romp through festivities consisting of drink, dance, and giving in to general self-indulgence.
“Gregory, the things you know,” Kalina flashed me an even smile.
“Mindless twaddle,” I grinned expansively. “It comes from years of entertaining the crowds at wine tastings.”
We both erupted with laughter. “Good,” Kalina handed me our first selection. “Let’s start this tasting.”
“Gezuar,” I toasted her.
Our first wine is the white signature wine from the Xhoda Vineyards. Shesh i Bardhe, “White Field,” as the name translates from the Albanian language. It is named for the succulent variety of grape from which it is produced. These grapes adapt well to the lush hills of Albania’s renown Lundra region. The wine’s coloring is a bright yellowish straw, that gives way to a lovely aromatic scent of fresh flowers. However, this pungent white is ripe with apple fruit. There are also subtle notes of peach and pear dominating our dry wine. The finish is quite distinct and of medium length. Overall, Xhoda’s Shesh i Bardhe is a wonderful presentation of this traditional Albanian white wine.
“I like serving Shesh i Bardhe with fresh fruit, fish, and light dishes,” Kalina was quick to add. I also prefer to serve it slightly chilled,” She paused to savor her wine. “At about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.”
“It seems that Albanian wines tend to stay at or below 12% alcohol.”
“Yes, that is correct,” Kalina smiled evenly.
I nodded in approval. “What is our next selection?”
“Something I am sure you find quite interesting,” Kalina said with anticipation.
Our second selection was a signature wine from the Cobo family. E Bardha e Berati, “The white grapes of Berat.” The Puls, or “Pulse grape” is found only in the region of Berat and was used traditionally to make Raki. The Berati region is somewhat higher in altitude, 1300-2400 feet above sea level. As a result, the region is not affected by sea winds. The vineyards are treated in a minimum way and not treated with any pesticides.The Cobo family has been producing this wine only since 2003. However, it is already a particular favorite both in Albania and the international wine community.
Visually, E Bardha e Berati’s coloring is a uniform yellow straw. It is also tinged hints of light green. On the nose, there is once again that fragrance of flowers unique to the wines produced in this region. This dry white wine has good body and bouquet. The finish is long and once again uniquely Albanian.
“I would also serve this wine at a temperature of of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit,” Kalina’s tone was matter of fact. “This wine pairs mainly with local cheeses of sheep and goat, and with fish dishes.”
Our first red is very important to the Albanian wine industry. It is a Shesh i Zi. The name translates as “Black Field.” The varietal takes its name from the Shesh Hills of Central Albania. which lies just outside of the capital city, Tirana. Shesh i Zi is a low yield varietal that produces quality wines worthy of aging.
Kalina’s selection was from the Vererat Shqiptare Winery. Our wine was a lovely red ruby color with violet hints. The aroma is that of fragrant forest fruits, unripe plums, and apples. Our aromatic wine also had a very pleasant sourness on the mouth. There is a bit of tannin resulting in an interesting taste sensation and a long finish.
“Typically I accompany Shesh i Zi with cheese and meat dishes,” Kalina paused for effect. I also like to serve this wine at approximately 65-68 degrees Fahreheit.”
Our final wine also had a long and unique history. Kallmet is the noblest of the country’s reds, and to Albanians, it reigns as the king of wines. Traditionally the grapes were cultivated in the region of Kallmet in Zadrime. Today the grapes are cultivated in Koplik and Zagore for the region’s unique microclimate. In Albania, Kallmet is typically used in cuvees.
Kalina selected a 2005 Kallmet Reserva from the Arberi Vineyards. Located in the high hills of Bukmira, Arberi is a relative new comer to the Albanian wine industry. The company’s laurels rest on the fact that all machinery and equipment are state of the art, and supplied by renown Italian Wine Companies, Cavalzani and Morri.
Our Kallmet Reserva showed exceptionally well. It was a deep ruby-red in color, well-balanced and enhanced by 12 months of maturation in French oak barrels. Our full-bodied wine had a deep and pleasant aroma of violets. On the mouth, our Kallmet was smooth and quite likeable. A very easy wine to drink. The alcohol content is 13% and Kalina served our Kallmet at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I especially enjoy Kallmet with pizzas, lamb, grilled meat, deserts, and chocolates.” Kalina flashed me a pleasant smile.
“Chocolates?” I smiled mischievously.
“Oh stop it,” Kalina lightly slapped my hand. “I am ready for our moonlight stroll on the beach.”
“But that my friends is another story …”