When you say ‘internationally renowned wine’, places like Tuscany, Provence and Mendoza usually leap to mind first. Maybe a Yarra Valley or Napa County if your taste runs a little closer to home. One name that doesn’t usually feature is ‘Macedonia‘. Find an oenophile and show him a lusty Vranec from the little village of Veshje south-east of Skopje and he’ll probably say, ‘Huh?’
But one woman is trying to change all that. Ivana Simjanovska is Macedonia’s premier wine expert. She’s even written the first comprehensive Macedonian wine guide, and is spreading the good word of Macedonian terroir as wide and as far as she can. We sat down with Ivana and asked her how a little country, once a member of the former Yugoslavia, is now pumping out some of the best red wines in the world.
1. What makes Macedonian wine special?
Macedonia has been recreating its wine history for the past decade, after a long and turbulent wine history. There are archaeological findings that prove people were growing grapes in this part of the world in the 13th century BC! Balmy sunshine, which Macedonia specialises in, produces full-bodied, fruity red wines. It’s that big, bold style that has put the dark-skinned Vranec in people’s minds as a wine of serious international quality. But there’s more to Macedonian wine making than just one variety. The influences of various microclimates, soils and winemaking philosophies mean that Macedonia is a rich haven of crisp, fresh whites, lusciously sweet reds, playful rosés and even a small amount of sparkling wine.
2. What grape varieties are the most common? Where do they grow?
We grow regional, international and a few indigenous grape varieties in Macedonia, especially in the Tikves Wine District. Here you’ll find 12 000 hectares of vineyards, one third of all the grapes grown in the country. The most common varieties grown are Vranec and Smederevka. Then we have the aromatic Temjanika, mostly grown in the Veles and the Tikves Wine District, local grape varieties such as Zilavka, Smederevka, Prokupes, Grasevina and Rkatsiteli, spicy and elegant Syrahs grown in the Skopje and Veles. However we’re mostly proud of the country’s flag-bearer, the ferocious Vranec (some of the best Vranec grapes come from the villages of Veshje, and Dissan). This Balkan grape variety has really found its second home in Macedonia.
3. Which wineries should a traveler check out if they’re passing through? Do any do tasting sessions?
The Tikvesh Wine District is the most famous in the country. It’s where you can find 80% of Macedonia’s wineries, and many of them offer wine tastings. A few of my favourites are: Tikves (the oldest winery in the country and the biggest in South-East Europe); Popova Kula (the winery that resurrected the Stanushina); Popov (excellent location and some of the best Temjanikas in the country); and Stobi (the most modern winery in Macedonia). You can also opt to visit the Veles Wine District and go for a tasting at the boutique winery, Chateau Sopot (excellent Cabs), or go up north to the Skopje Wine District and visit Chateau Kamnik winery (country’s most awarded vineyard).
4. Is there something about the climate/topography of Macedonia that makes it good for wine growing?
According to climate characteristics and EU classification, Macedonia belongs in III-C-b zone for producing wine types of grape, and has adopted the enological regulations for this zone. Basically what that means is that the country enjoys 270 sunny days per year! The intense aroma of Macedonian wines is due to the combined influence of the Mediterranean and continental climates: warm sunny days and cool nights, which help to slow the ripening of the grapes.
5. Do any Macedonian dishes go well with any particular wine?
Macedonian cuisine is diverse and there are dozens of local dishes to try. The food here is strongly influenced by Turkish cuisine, with lots of fresh and tasty vegetables, a good choice of cheeses and of course tender Ohrid trout. Salads are perfectly paired with the local wine varieties such as Rkatsiteli, Zilavka or Grashevina. Tavche gravche (baked beans) or Selsko meso (a classic meat dish) go very well with Vranec. And if you’re trying the local goats cheese, make sure you wash it down with a glass of Stanushina.
6. What’s the future for the industry?
Macedonian wines on the international wine scene have raised numerous eyebrows amongst the experts, bringing the wines of this little country in the global spotlight. The wine industry here has been facing a lot of challenges, but at the same time it’s been gradually progressing. The biggest challenge is still the country’s territorial branding, as Macedonian wine is only now becoming available in different countries around the world. Macedonian wines are now available throughout Europe, USA, China, and Russia. You can usually find a good bottle by approaching local importers.
7. If a traveller could only bring back one bottle, what would you recommend?
Vranec, definitely! It’s the best expression of Macedonia’s terroir, excellent climate and fertile soils. A good Macedonian Vranec is like sunshine in a bottle.
Keen to try a tipple? You can sample a variety of excellent Macedonian wines on our Real Food Adventure – Montenegro & Macedonia.