Reclaiming a Lost Tradition | Albania / by Karen Murdarasi

Karen Murdarasi is an author of both fiction and non-fiction works and most often covers historical topics. Karen most recent work, How to Get Published, is now available in Kindle and paperback formats.

Mount Tomor looms over the town of Berat.

Mount Tomor looms over the town of Berat.

 

It’s been almost thirty years, but Albania is still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of communism. Pill-box bunkers peep out from fields of wheat, and at the edge of every town the crumbling shells of abandoned factories line the roads.

The wine industry was one of the victims of regime change. After the trauma of the World Wars, the communist government rebuilt and improved Albania’s wine industry. Private winemaking was illegal, but collectivized wine production thrived. When the regime fell, land was redistributed with scrupulous equality, but most people who were given vineyards immediately pulled up the vines; you can’t feed a family on grapes. Meanwhile, most state wineries were damaged beyond use by those who saw them as symbols of oppression.

But in this small country that has produced wine for thousands of years, Albanians are starting to rebuild their lost heritage. From small family vineyards to ex-industrial wineries, Albania’s wineries are putting quality wine back on the national menu.

Berat, ‘the White City’

The best-known wine region in Albania is Berat. At the edge of Albania’s central plain, higgledy-piggledy streets of white Ottoman-era houses perch on a hill above the River Osum, giving the city its old Slavic name: Belagrita, the white city. Beyond this UNESCO world heritage site looms Mount Tomor. Its foothills and lower slopes are the perfect environment for growing local grape varieties.

Just off the main road into Berat is the Çobo Winery, and right next door, the family home where four generations of Çobos live together.

A narrow street in old Berat.

A narrow street in old Berat.

Signage for Cobo Winery.

Signage for Cobo Winery.

Bottles of wine displayed in Cobo Winery.

Bottles of wine displayed in Cobo Winery.

“It was my great-great-grandfather who started producing wine,” says Edmira Çobo, “and it’s been handed down from generation to generation.” Although barely out of school, Edmira talks knowledgable about their grape varieties. She has been drinking wine, she jokes, “since I was in my mother’s tummy!”

The Çobos lost their vineyards when the industry was collectivized in the 1940s, but despite an interruption of almost 50 years, they never lost their passion. Muharrem Çobo travelled to Italy in 1992 to study viticulture, sending money back to plant new vineyards. His parents and his brother Petrit tended the vines, and in 1998 they were able to launch their own label.

Çobo specializes in local grape varieties. Shesh i bardh (white) and shesh i zi (red) are found throughout Albania, but some grapes are specific to Berat. Puls, which produces a light, acidic white wine, grows only between 300m and 600m above sea level on the slopes of Mount Tomor, and there are so far only two hectares of mature vines of the local red, vlosh.

Shesh i bardhe and puls (Berat white), Çobo

Shesh i bardhe and puls (Berat white), Çobo

The standout Çobo wine is shendeverë, a sparkling wine made from puls that is traditionally opened with a sword at their annual harvest festival. The name describes that feeling of happiness and good health that you get after a glass or two, and it won silver in the 2018 Concours Mondial de Bruxelles.

A selection of wines at Luani Winery.

A selection of wines at Luani Winery.

The Çobo family also claims responsibility for introducing the concept of the wine tour to Albania. For 15 euros,  travelers can try a number of local wines accompanied by Berat’s famous olives and some of the best white cheese to be found outside Greece.

Only a couple of miles down the road is Luani Winery, covering three hectares on the outskirts of Berat. Pëllumb Berberi bought the state-owned Berat Alcohol Factory in 1993, and Luani now grows mostly foreign varieties such as chardonnay, cabernet franc and trebianno, along with the ubiquitous shesh i bardh and zi.

With its high production, Luani one of the best-known wine names in Albania; its chardonnay can be found in every supermarket in Albania, while 20 percent of its wine goes overseas as ‘Kabernet Mediterranean’.

The Zadrima Valley

Far to the north west, near the border with Montenegro, lies the Zadrima Valley. The largest valley in Albania, it stretches between the regions of Shkoder and Lezhe. Its name is inextricably linked with the variety kallmet, sometimes called “the king of northern wines”, a red with a low yield but a high quality.

In the close-knit village of Hajmel, local farmers pulled together to save their vineyards when land was redistributed. With a bit of community spirit, and the odd incentive changing hands, Zef Pashuku persuaded his fellow villagers to leave the mature shesh i bardh vines in place, and so Zadrima Community Winery was born.

Shesh i bardh grapes in the Zadrima vineyards.

Shesh i bardh grapes in the Zadrima vineyards.

Zef Pashuku indicates the shesh i bardh vines that were saved from destruction.

Zef Pashuku indicates the shesh i bardh vines that were saved from destruction.

Zadrima winery’s simply tasting salon, with Albanian national heroine Mother Teresa over the hearth.

Zadrima winery’s simply tasting salon, with Albanian national heroine Mother Teresa over the hearth.

Zef, who grew up in Hajmel, is a man who understands the value of good wine, and of community. “These vines are more than 40 years old,” he says, almost with reverence. When many Albanians were pouring money into fancy new houses, Zef chose to invest in his vineyards, planting kallmet to complement the shesh. In 2005, with the help of Oxfam and a small amount of government investment, Zadrima launched its own label.

But Zef, who has travelled throughout Europe to learn about viticulture, is not interested in wine merely for its own sake. “What I’m most interested in,” he says, “is for every family to have an understanding of viticulture.” Zadrima Winery hosts seminars where experts offer training to local farmers. In the modest tasting room next to the family house, one wall is covered with certificates of gratitude, prizes their wine has won, and curling photographs of famous visitors to the facility.

The contrast with Gjergj Kastriot Skënderbeu Winery could hardly be greater. The biggest and oldest winery in Albania, it sits in the large coastal city of Durrës. It opened in 1933 as a simple “wine factory” in the village of Sukth, but after nationalization, a new location was opened inside the city. With the help of Russian experts, the state built a 20,000-hectolitre processing facility, expanding it to 40,000 hectolitres in the ‘80s. Most of the wine, and the famous Skënderbeu brandy, was exported to other communist countries, but one special brandy was reserved exclusively for the use of dictator Enver Hoxha.

Bust of Gjergj Kastriot Skenderbeu, Albania’s national hero.jpg
Oak barrels, Skenderbeu.jpg

“Students came from all over Albania to learn oenology and the cultivation of vines,” says administrator Ernesta Aslliu. “There were 300 staff.”

These days there are only 70 permanent staff, but the winery, which was privatized in 2001, is still expanding, this time into tourism. The facility in Durrës attracts almost 9,000 visitors per year, mostly from former communist countries.

“Most of them come because they have tried Skenderbeu brandy and want to see where it’s produced,” explains Ernesta. 

However, with a new resort due to open this year in Arapaj, where most of their vineyards are located, Skenderbeu hopes to capitalize on the new phenomenon of Albanian wine tourism. Tourists will eat, sleep, dine and swim within sight of the vines.

Vinea resort, Arapaj, Durrës. Skënderbeu

Vinea resort, Arapaj, Durrës. Skënderbeu

Most of the varieties the tourists will see are Italian. At the time of privatization, Skenderbeu had only shesh vines, but soon imported major varieties such as Primitivo, Montepulciano and Cabernet Sauvignon, along with an Italian oenologist. Their insistence on Italian standards has paid off: it won gold in 2019 from the Albanian Sommeliers’ Organization (OSSH) for a cabernet with an impressive depth of flavor, velvety texture and hints of summer fruits.

Albanian wine has also started to win international prizes once again. “The quality of Albanian products is constantly improving,” says Dashamir Elezi, President of OSHH, “and the future is autochthonous. Albanian wine will not just be appreciated by tourists; it will take its place in the cellars of the most important restaurants in the world. The potential is amazing!”

After decades of difficulty, it looks as though Albania is once again ready to share its wine heritage with the world.