North Macedonia has only officially been on the map since 2019. But wine has been made in the region for 4000 years. Nesting in the center of the Balkans, a small wine universe opens up in the small country.
Birds circle above the vineyards. From below you can see that they are quite large. "Bald eagles," says Radosh Vulkichevich, "a protected species", as he trudges between the rows of vines. They will find good prey in the deep gorges of the surrounding mountains. The Béla Voda vineyards, on the other hand, are gently undulating hills and show careful maintenance.
"In the past, there were only those high pergolas here," he says, pointing to an overgrown vineyard next door, over which the vines overhang like a roof. As managing director of Tikveš Winery, he is also partly responsible for the change and explains the modern way of working along the straight, low-trained rows of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. "Pruning, green harvesting, harvesting,… everything is done by hand." With over 50 different bottlings and sourcing grapes from hundreds of hectares of vineyard, the winery is by far the biggest in the country. Even so its scale is not atypical in the North Macedonian economy.
After 1989, the companies mostly emerged as direct successors of the state-owned companies. That explains why there are now only 74 registered wineries - but 15,000 grape growers - across 28,000 hectares. Nine of them have production capacities of 5 to 50 million litres each, with a combined annual production currently of 91 million litres. But North Macedonia still has some plans to move forward and beyond.
Almost all of the major wineries in the former Yugoslav sub-state were revitalized with lavish investments. The money often came from the other industries, and sometimes other countries, where their owners made good fortunes to then find out the cultural value of Macedonian viticulture.
Wine has been grown and religiously venerated in the region for 4000 years. The many, and well-preserved, statues of wine god Dionysius, for example, are a testament to this. Drinking was already an integral part of social life when Alexander the Great, the leader that would make Macedonia famous until today, ruled. The king tended to drink so heavily that his excesses are even reflected in historiography.
From State-owned to export companies
Tikveš was privatized in 1994. Until then it mainly produced bulk supplies and 400 million litres of base wine for distillation and production of Rakia schnapps. External private investment brought international oenologists and consultants to the country, and transformed the cooperative planned-production model into commercial ventures satisfying consumer demand.
To achieve this, they stocked up with modern technology and set high standards. A tour of the halls begins with a view of presses made in Switzerland, continues through through a barrel cellar with barriques from renowned French tonnelleries and ends in the sparkling clean laboratory with shiny stone floor where French consultant Philippe Cambie works.
”All the grapes are cooled after the harvest”, explains Radosh. The production process runs under a nitro-insulated atmosphere. “This system alone cost 40 million euros," he says, while pouring some Muscat. The aromatic variety has a tradition in the region as a semi-sweet pour. "Today we're shifting to dry styles and sell five times more." The sample has clear varietal aromas of orange, nutmeg and basil and shows good balance. An easily fit for different markets.
The same applies to most of their range. Large producers are naturally focusing on the export markets and develop single-variety wines from international grapes such as the different Pinot´s and Cabernet´s. Sauvignons Blanc grown at high altitude mostly keep the set expectations. Merlot and red Rhône varieties also produce good results. This might be a realistic strategy. As a country still without a winemaking reputation, you might first need to make a name for yourself with well-known grape varieties. But beyond products in the upper middle-range, the terroirs hold potential for more.
You can explore such possibilities at Domaine Lepovo, near Kavadarci the main wine town. Rather medium-sized in the national context, the estate specializes in Rhône and Burgundy varieties. And, as in many wineries, Burgundy, with its small-scale terroirs, is the yardstick for great ambitions. “Three days cold-macerated, then fermented on the skins for ten days,” Nicolas unveils the technical data behind the house's Pinot Noir as he pours it. The barrel sample shows a fine structure with berry aromas and herbal notes. "The wood is not yet perfectly integrated," he says self-critically. "We have to fight for Pinot in North Macedonia".
The Chardonnay that follows is more than a stage win. Floral finesse on the nose, Burgundian in profile, with playful lightness of combined complex fruit and flower notes on the palate. The hot summers still pose challenges, namely early ripeness and draught, the latter being fought with irrigation. But it is clear where the journey leads.
Big brother Tikveš also has an eye on premium products and relies on technology to produce them. The company has its own production line for micro-vinification. Vines are sprayed with selected yeasts to enhance the variety character. Oxidisation management is done through a practically uninterrupted chain from harvest to bottling. "We take measures everywhere," says Radosh, "because we actually want to check it at every point."
Looking for deeper knowledge in the soil
With highly detailed and technical cellar-work, many winegrowers, on the other hand, say little about their soils. Sometimes sand, sometimes glacial alluvial soils, sometimes turf and loam, often with a "hummus-rich topsoil", according to official records. The lack of precise knowledge carries a certain risk. The deep layers often contain a lot of clay. As a result, when the soil water level fluctuates, cracks called Smalik or Vertisol open. The fertility of these soils quickly becomes a problem. A research project is now underway to research soil composition in detail, but there are still no final results. "Sand and clay are crucial because of the drainage," Professor Klime Beleski, the leader of the research project, speculates. "We will know more in five to six years".
Another area of tension is the discussion around genetic material. Profitable vines were not just a dogma of Josip Tito's socialist market economy. There are still plenty of mass carriers in the region. "And if you irrigate," explains Radosh, "you can drive the yields very high." Large producers work against it with new plantings, but a lot of grape material comes from small farmers. The distribution system, in which buyers may have to pay for their goods without knowing the resale price, is also a source of vulnerability.
For many winegrowers, the political system is too static. A large Albanian minority has strong interests and participation rights. Without their 20 percent of the electorate, there is often no political majority. In addition, there are diffused threats from the many neighbouring countries with their fragile political systems. The international recognition of the North Macedonian state after the long quarrels with Greece will not only be a self-esteem boost. Exports to the EU will become easier as a candidate country. The USA, China, Canada and Japan are also markets of prospective growth.
This is particularly important for a small country where 85 percent of wines produced are consumed abroad and consumption per capita is less than ten litres. If traditional export-markets such as Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia consumed around two thirds of Macedonian wine in the time of Yugoslavia, almost exactly the same proportion now flows into EU countries. This is especially true for bulk wine, of which Germany alone takes 45 percent of total production.
Despite its long winemaking tradition, North Macedonia is not yet a reputed producing country. 59 percent of bottled wines are drunk in the states formerly united under Yugoslavia. Three percent go to Germany, two to the United States and seven to other countries. It is precisely these proportions that one would naturally like to change in order to find international recognition with wines of increasing quality.
Large-scale machine harvesting
Every tenth job in North Macedonia depends on wine. The industry's €50 million in sales account for up to 20 percent of the gross national product. But "labour is an issue," complains Radosh. Local “harvesters go to Montenegro or Piedmont. They earn more and sometimes stay there.” Moreover, in North Macedonia wages don’t match those paid to harvesters from Mexico, Poland or Morocco in other countries. Therefore the labour availability is very short.
The economic strength of the country of two million is far from developing its full potential. Over the past 15 years an estimated one in seven Macedonians has emigrated to an EU country, the United States or elsewhere. The young country does not yet have much to counter the income gap and offer better career opportunities. Due to the lack of harvesting labour force, large companies are planning for automation in the vineyard. Numbers of up to two million euros per 100 hectares circulate. But those who can afford the investment, certainly want to do it. The country´s general context allows it to produce very good medium-quality wines at competitive prices. These are in high demand in many export markets.
Another gem is the country's cuisine, strongly influenced by Turkish food culture with lots of vegetables and fine cheese. Even during socialism, it was a class of its own. Large wineries therefore often run restaurants whose chefs have experience in starred gastronomy in France or the USA. With dramatic landscapes, occasional castle ruins and enchanted villages where time stands still, the country is a perfect destination for (wine) travellers who like to stay away from mass tourism without flying to the end of the world. You just need to be in the know.
There are still development opportunities in wine. Rhône varieties such as Grenache and Syrah, which will gain relevance in the medium term, are bringing good results. The Georgian Rkatsiteli delivers wines with complex aromas of almonds and flowers. It matures well and has become internationally popular among consumer-aware buyers.
The local white grape varieties are Smederevka (usually a summer wine), Zhilavka (lush white) and Zupjanka (new variety with more malic than tartaric acid). Of the reds, Stanushina (ageworthy, rich in extracts) was close to extinction, as was ancient Kratoshia (genetically identical to Primitivo / Zinfandel). What they all have in common is that their quality potential has not yet been fully explored and there is still too much bad cloning material. However, the industry is determined to establish itself and stand out in the long term. One can therefore expect evolution when it comes to local grape material as well.
The better-known Vranec carries genetic parts of Primitivo itself and is an exceptional variety in some respects. The seeds contain a great deal of tannin and “the highest rate of colouring anthocyanins,” praises Professor Bileski. Vranec copes well with heat, and delivers deep and dark fine wines provided it is processed very cleanly. Stems can quickly bring in too much bitter components. Red wines reds were traditionally harvested ripe, aged in oak barrels, coming out with a lot of alcohol and residual sweetness, for a long life full of Christmas cake and spice aromas.
For more modern approaches, "the time of harvest is crucial," says Radosh. Not too late. With reduced maceration time, Vranec has medium body and can become highly complex. Its aromas include blackberry, cinnamon, chocolate, mint, liquorice, pomegranate, intense coffee and tobacco. Soft tannins make the deep dark pours recognizable in the best possible way. With ageing, the fleshy body and high alcohol content somehow reshape, and the wine clearly gains finesse.
Interesting and lovable are the few smallholders who interpret Vranec in their own way, for example without residual sugar, handled in stainless steel and/or fermented with wild yeasts. One wishes the North Macedonians produce more in this vein. Almost every successful region has achieved fame and glory through the work of stubborn idiosyncratic winemakers.
A golden day for the gold reserve
Blends give Vranec complexity and structure without making the wine loose character. Especially in markets that do not know the variety, a first appearance alongside friends like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon often opens doors. Vranec is the oenological gold reserve of North Macedonia. The first "World Vranec Day" was celebrated in Skopje in October 2019. Overlooked by Kale Castle, the capital exudes charm. History, museums and mosques mix with a touch of modern capitalism and cozy provinciality.
A larger-than-life statue towers over the Square of Macedonia. The sculpture, that references Alexander the Great riding his black horse Bukephalos, holds out the sword to the billboards on the roofs above the classicist facades. Vranec literally means "black stallion".
President Stevo Pendarovski took part of the “World Vranec Day” with a video message raving about the variety as “a vital part of North Macedonia´s culture”. Minister of Agriculture Tandimski also praised the “event of national rank” and promised subsidies for exports with the aim of further increasing the share of bottled (vs. bulk), current at 50 percent. Some people in the hall want to see action first. But there is a general spirit of optimism.
In the evening, the winegrowers once again poured their wines at a tasting on the top floor of the elegant Hilton Hotel. Rado Brzanow, with his imposing broad shoulders, is wearing a thick flannel shirt. He has set up about a dozen bottles on the tasting table in front of him, which he offers in increasing alcohol content, starting at a good 15 percent. The wines are full of wood notes, ripe plums and Amarone aromas, but are coherent in themselves. His top drop, of which he is particularly proud of has 18 percent alcohol. It also has a sumptuous sweetness, just like the wines that have traditionally been enjoyed and prized in the country.
International style? Oh well, people will love his wines once they have tried them. North Macedonia could still be primed for a few surprises.