Yasemen Kaner-White is the author of Lemon Compendium, editor of polo and lifestyle magazine; Fifth Chukker and a freelance journalist with select travel, foodie and wine publications.
A few months ago, while in Montenegro, a country that has been immensely growing in confidence since it gained independence in 2006, I was lucky enough to visit a few vineyards and sample the local wines. During the mid-19th century, Nikola Petrovic, the young Montenegrin Prince, established the local importance of viticulture, when he famously exclaimed “each soldier from the place where vine grows must plant 200 vines!” This was the beginning of a new era for Montenegrin wine. A century later, in the early 1970’s, the Workers' Council of the Agricultural Industrial Plant developed a significant proportion of land for the cultivation of wine grapes. Between 1977 and 1982 the barren soil of Cemovskou, near Lake Skadar in southern Montenegro, emerged as one of the top vineyard sites in the Balkans.
In Montenegro, there are three main areas noted for wine, Podgorica, Rogami and Crmnica, an area synonymous with small wine producers. Found within the vicinity is the town of Virpazar, an old Ottoman stomping ground, the name literally translates as “city around the spring.” Most local family businesses are either wine producers or fishmongers, due to proximity to the lake. The town is a tourist hub, known for its huge market selling artisan wine and local fish. The biggest tourist attraction takes place in September during the region’s festival of wine and fish.
Today the best wines come from the region of Crmnica, around Lake Skadar and I highly advocate a wine tour followed by a cruise along the Lake. Skadar is the largest lake in the Balkans. It boasts a variety of endangered bird species—most notably the Dalmatian pelican. I was lucky enough to spot five, which I am assured, is a rarity. Watching these precious creatures glide along the azure waters is mystical. There are also hundreds of wild grape varieties surrounding the Lake, which can only be found in that region. Historically and to date there are many small wine producers that can be discovered only by visiting the region. Very few export abroad keeping their produce for home use, sales within Montenegro or possibly for export to Russia, with whom they have strong trade links. The high mountains once hosted many a vineyard but during the Second World War, families left their villages for the city and abandoned many of the vines. Then in 1979, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake further damaged viticultural acreage. Today, however, local wine production is enjoying a period of unprecedented growth.
Not far from Virpazar is a small winery called Savina. Since Venetian times, the area has produced wine. Evidence of the local winemaking heritage is a rare cadastral map from 1758, with land plots around Savina Monastery and Meljine labeled as terra vignata (vineyards). Despite the long history, the family business at Savina was commercialized only two years ago.
The Obradović family welcomed me, gladly giving me a tour of their property. Olive and citrus trees intersperse their well-tended vineyard and the views are spectacular. They have come far in just two years. A Serbian oenologist was hired, “giving them confidence to take their family business to market.” Savina now supplies Belgrade and Montenegro’s top restaurants. “We wanted to bring the history of olive pressing and winemaking on our property through to the modern day.”
The most impressive vineyard I visited during this trip is also the largest vineyard in Europe. Plantaze is located thirty kilometers from the southern Adriatic coast. The vineyards thrive as a result of 290 days of sun per year and the chalky limestone soil contains large pebbles that retain the daytime heat and release it back to the vines at night, which contributes to a unique and optimal viticultural environment.
This idyllic, state-owned winery was founded in 1963. It started with just 200 hectares (500 acres) of vineyard, but following a 2 million euro investment, they now have 2310 hectares (5700 acres) under vine. Although it is technically state controlled, various private shareholders own forty-four percent. State involvement is actually a positive, however, because they assist with the huge marketing effort that drives tourism.
Among the olive groves, 85 hectares (210 acres) of peaches and an enormous fishpond that raises trout for export to California, lays the huge vineyard that contains 27 different grape varieties. These include Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the local Krstač and Vranac.
Plantaze is the only winery in the world producing Krstač. This ancient white variety is a Vitis Vinifera grape that can only be found only in Serbia and Montenegro, where it grows mainly in and around Podgorica, the capital city. It is a dry, rich, premium white wine that is filled with pear and peach notes. It has a a light yellow hue, floral notes and bright acidity. Many have tried unsuccessfully to cultivate the elliptical grape variety elsewhere but it appears to only thrive in the favorable Montenegrin climate, which has ideal humidity, limited rain and bucket loads of sunshine.
Fully 70% of the grapes grown in Plantaze are the full-bodied Vranac—which translates as black horse. Interestingly, you don’t hear the expression ‘red wine’ locally; instead they say ‘black wine’. Vranac has been winning awards for over a century, gaining its first accolade at the 1907 London Exhibition. Vranac grows in tiny clusters of berries, which have substantial sugar content. Plantaze sales constitute on average, 25% white wine, 10% brandy and 65% Vranac. 40% is sold within Montenegro, 35% in Serbia and the rest worldwide, including Russia, Australia, U.S, China and England. Plantaza’s impressive 3 wine cellars store 2 million litres of wine, producing 17 million wine and brandy bottles annually. Tourists come predominantly from Germany, Russia and Italy, but the biggest influx is from Scandinavia, along with many Montenegrins who didn’t previously know they lived in the country inhabiting the largest vineyard.
When eating out, you will notice meals usually commence with a shot of brandy, quince for the ladies and grape based Loza (which will knock you sideways) for the gents. With your meal, it is locally advocated that Vranac be served with ‘macaroni, beef curry or meatballs,’ I suggest you pair this big red with the locally famous ‘cheese in oil.’ This local speciality is made from mature dry cows-milk cheese, which is cubed and covered with olive oil and locally grown rosemary. The mixture is placed in glass jars, where it is left for several weeks. Another regional favorite served simply with bread, cheese and wine is the famous air-dried ham from the village of Njegusi. They say something magical happens in the curing process when the airs of the mountainous north and Adriatic Coast collide – definitely a purchase to take home in a vacuumed packet! Montenegro is well worth a culinary exploration, and if I had to narrow it down to two wines to try, or indeed buy, it would have to be those which are unique to the country; Vranac and Krstač, even handier it allows for one of each, a red and white.