Dating back to antiquity, most of what is now the Republic of Macedonia was known as the Kingdom of Paeonia. The peoples who inhabited these lands were primarily of Thracian stock. In 356 BCE, Phillip ll of Macedon took control of Paeonia. Under his reign, King Phillip not only brought in Greek culture, the tradition of Greek vineyards began to thrive throughout the land. It was at this time, that an interesting melding of Thracian (Bulgaria) and Greek varietals began to be developed. Once Phillip’s son, Alexander the Great, came to the throne, these wine styles were exported throughout Alexander’s empire and the Hellenistic world.
Today I am in the capital city of Skopje with friend and fellow sommelier, Vesna Markova. We are in her favorite eatery, Cafe Crepe. From our window seats, we have a wonderful view of revelers and strollers as they enjoy a midday walk.
Besides being intensely aromatic, what is it that makes Macedonian wines so unique? First in consideration is the region itself. This part of the Balkans has the richness of its terroir, which thrives in carbonates and minerals. There is also geography. Macedonia has the influence of both Mediterranean and continental climates. Summer days are long and warm while the nights are much cooler. Macedonia also boasts an average of 270 sun-drenched days each year. Such ideal conditions contribute to the lengthy ripening of the annual grape yield.
Due to Greek and other regional influences, along with the popularity of growing international varietals, it is somewhat difficult to agree on what exactly is a varietal indigenous to Macedonia. However, aficionados of Macedonian wines are quick to agree on Zilavka and Stanushina.
For our first selection, Vesna chose a 2011 Stobi Winery Zilavka. Sourced from 100% estate vineyards, this traditional dry white wine is a classic example of Macedonia’s wine heritage. In the glass, this Zilavka is a light yellow-green that exudes with brilliance as it catches the light. On the nose, there are fruity aromas of green apple, pear, and white floral notes, which all follow through on the palate. The wine is also delicately laced with flavors of peach and spice. Over all, the 2011 Zilavka is refreshing, nicely balanced, and with moderate acidity. The alcohol content is 13.5% with a bottle price of $15.
“I think this wine is at its best when served chilled,” I paused to collect my thoughts. “45-50 degrees Fahrenheit.”
“You Americans,” Vesna teased playfully. “You prefer your drinks too cold. 50 degrees would be more appropriate.”
“Ovacii,” I toasted her. “With what dishes would you pair this Zilavka?”
“Most definitely fish and seafood,” Vesna was quick to reply.
For our next wine, Vesna selected a 2011 Stanushina Rosé from Popova Kula Winery. It is 100% Stanushina grapes from the Tikveshiya appellation. In the glass, the wine is bright rose in color with soft violet nuances. The nose is filled with fresh fruity aromas of raspberry and strawberry that follow through to the palate. The Stanushina Rosé is full-bodied and filled with fresh fruit flavors. On the back palate, a slight nuttiness is unexpected but most welcome. The finish is long, pleasurable, fresh, and fruity. The alcohol content is 14.5% with a bottle price of $12.
“With its rich fruit character, I’d definitely serve this Rosé as an aperitif,” I chuckled lightly. “Especially on warm summer days.”
“I agree, but serve it chilled,” she replied with a smile. “Right around 55 degrees Fahrenheit would be perfect.”
“I prefer to serve this Rosé as a dessert wine with fruit salads,” Vesna paused lightly and then broke into laughter. Not forgetting every girl’s dream, ice cream.”
For our next selection, Vesna chose a 2010 Tikves “Bela Voda.” The name translates as “Beautiful Water.” It is indeed a beautifully crafted wine. It is 50% Plavec and 50% Vranec. Both of these indigenous grapes are important varietals throughout the region. The Tikves Winery, whose origins date back to the 19th century, source their grapes from 35 year old vines that are grown in the Tikves region. Historically, this area has been seen as Macedonia’s most important wine growing region. The winery itself, is located where the Mediterranean climate from the south, meets the continental winds of the north. These superb wine growing conditions produce lively fruit forward wines. In the glass, is the Bela Voda is a rich dark purple. The nose is alive with vibrant aromas of dark berries, fig, and plum, all jumping out of the glass. The palate shows potent fruit flavors of concentrated blueberry, raspberry, plum, and fig. There are soft notes of chocolate with a hint of spice from spending 8 months in large oak barrels. The Bela Voda is complex, well structured, and with good tannins. The finish is enjoyable and with just a whisper of spice. The alcohol content is 14.5% with a bottle price of $21.
“I have enjoyed both Plavec and Vranec over the years,” I openly displayed my pleasure. “The Bola Voda is clearly one of the best.”
“What I like about this wine is that it is the perfect pairing with all smoked or grilled meats,” Vesna paused for effect. “Especially with Balkan dishes and cheeses.”
“What types of cheese?” I queried.
“Smoked or strong cheeses pair best.”
Our last wine, 2010 Tikves Barovo is another blend of traditional varietals. It is 50% Kratosija, which is distantly related to the Zinfandel family, and 50% Vranec. The old vine grapes are from the Tikves region and are fermented in stainless steel tanks. In the glass, the Barovo is an opaque purple in color. The nose is a bit restrained, however, with some air it opens up nicely. There are pleasant aromas of blackberry and raspberry with earthy undertones. The palate has just enough cranberry and berry fruit, with ripe citrus prevailing. The Barovo has good body, is nicely balanced, and with formidable tannins. The finish is long, a tad on the tart side, but most enjoyable. The alcohol content is 14.5% with a bottle price of $20.
“Again I was pleasantly surprised,” I flashed Vesna a wide smile.
“All this talk of food has made me hungry,” I paused lightly. “The chef is from France?
“Noeline, the owner and chef, is from Brittany.”
“Let’s order some crepes and a bottle of Stanushina.
“Rosé or the red?” Vesna was quick to ask.
“Let’s go with the red … but that my friends, is a different story …. ”