CARIGRADSKI VINSKI DRUM: Wine Tourism’s New Frontier

Carigrad in Serbian means literally “Emperor’s city”, Constantinople in fact.

Carigradski drum was the road connecting Kalemegdan Stambol’s gate, in Belgrade, with Istanbul in Ottoman’s time. The present day European “Corridor 10” connects the same regions. From Belgrade it goes to Niš, Dimitrovgrad, then in Bulgaria Sofia and Plovdiv until the Bosphorus.

With the exception of some mountainous parts of Bulgaria, climate conditions are suitable for the production of quality wine.  From these considerations the idea of Women and Wine Association, of joining history, culture and oenogastronomy in one itinerary. The inauguration of the Serbian part of the wine road took place the 1st and 2nd of March this year in almost Arctic conditions, due to the cold snap which involved the whole continent. The Serbian Carigradski Vinski Drum is Y shaped. On our way South we mostly followed the motorway, stopping at Vinarija Despotika in Šumadija and the boutique winery Izba Jovanovic, near Niš, on our way back we took a more Western route, stopping in another boutique winery in the Tri Morave region, Mala Vinarija Časa vina i priča, and the multi-awarded Vinarija Virtus. I had already been at Despotika last October in much more favorable weather conditions but this time we were less nervous  and the management had time to explain more about wine making and the history of the place.

There is historical evidence that Despot Stefan Lazarevic , the ruler of Serbia who succeded Czar Lazar, had his hunting ground on the site where the present time winery is located, that’s the reason of the name. It was very beautiful to see especially the barrique’s cave, where the reds are aged in Serbian oak barrels. On its walls the shapes of the vines are carved.

We also saw the cave where the whites are kept in steel tanks and  the place where the wines have a final rest in bottle before being released. We had the opportunity to taste five of Despotika’s wines at lunch, or banquet I’d rather say. As for the white I could appreciate the Sauvignon Blanc, the most cultivated white variety in Šumadija, a nice wine with vegetal notes (aromatic herbs) and good minerality, and the Morava, an indigenous variety, less aromatic but more structured, very floral (daisy mostly). In recent times I have started to like a lot those white which show their best while in mouth and are not too expressive on the nose.

Then came the rose 2016, a Cabernet Sauvignon, nice red fruit and a certain tannicity, mouth filling and long, yum, remembering that wine my mouth goes wet now, to give an idea how seriously rose wines are considered in the Balkans and at Despotika’s particularly, our hosts paired it with the main course: roasted pork! A marriage in Heaven, trust me. The Prokupac 2015 followed, I had it several times last October, now it was more mature, starting to show the nobility of the variety: the black pepper of its youth is now turning white and cloves are starting to show, once again (I have previously made some comments on Social Media) Despotika’s Prokupac project is very interesting, once the new bush vines will get a little bit older, one can expect wonders from this winery. Finally we had the red Cabernet Sauvignon, a good, solid red, pretty much fruit driven, a “New world style” Cab Sauv, lacking the, for my taste, negative vanilla+coconut presence which can sometimes be annoying in the wines from across the Atlantic. We couldn’t taste the whole production, but I can tell that Despotika makes an excellent Pinot Blanc/Rhine Riesling blend and an also very good pure Rhine Riesling.

From Smederevska Palanka, the municipality where Despotika is located, to Izba Jovanovic, it took about two hours of traveling, so we got there when it was dark, but it was nice because it started to snow and Jovanovic’s detached village house gave a Nordic impression, in fact, when I got in, I took my shoes off as if I were in Finland. Andrijana and Ivan Jovanovic are Music teachers. Their vineyards cover a surface of less than two hectares and they are uniquely planted with Merlot. We had several samples, the 2017 from the tank can even surpass the already wonderful 2015, the barrel sample of what is going to be their premium wine, also a 2017, shows something which is hard to believe for such a young winery: I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some critics will give 100 pts once it will be on the market. Again a banquet as a supper and the food was as gorgeous as the wine. We traveled then to Ribarska Banja, straight to sleep: the second day will be more touristic.

On March 2nd we started with the visit of the historical spa of Ribarska Banja, a big, but stylish complex, developed mostly just before The First World War, but in the spa proper, there is an original dome built by the ottomans. Then came the visit of two monasteries, the first a nuns’ one: The Monastery of the Veil of the Holy Mother, rather recent still very beautiful, take your time when you’ll visit it because there’s a lot to see, a short trip from there, another one, much older, dedicated to Saint Roman, there is still a part dating back to the 12th century, where the Saint is buried. We were treated with traditional cafe, homemade brandy and an herbal tea whose recipe is a secret.

We then arrived at Mala Vinarija Časa vina i priča (Small winery a glass of wine and a story), again a banquet, I have particularly liked their Panonia, a white wine derived by the crossing of several varieties, 4.5% of its DNA doesn’t even belong to vitis vinifera, but to wild species, and the Prokupac 2017, from vines planted in 1915, an immense wine, with an incredible length. The Prokupac isn’t bottled because they make only 120 liters of it, they simply offer it to their guests, but is really impressive. The Merlot is also very good, given the very limited space they have, they cannot use barrels, so the reds may lack a bit of finesse, but they have a real vitality.

About 100km to the North, we made our last visit: Vinarija Virtus. It’s a big property for Serbian standards and they make many different wines. Their Brut rose Method Traditional has an excellent value. I’m in love with the Pinot Gris, the best to my taste among those vinified in white. Good young Prokupac, a beautiful Marsellan, also very good value, lovely also their Pinot Noir 2014, a debut for them, in a very complicated year. Great the Traminac (Gewürztraminer), dry without the opulence typical of its Western European versions, elegance, minerality and length: a really lovely white!

At Salon Monte Vino, last weekend, I have tasted the new release of the Pinot Noir 2015. Really powerful, an immense ageing potential, a pity to drink it now, top wines can “talk”, its voice told unintelligible words (too young still) except one: “Chambertin”.

I also tried the red Credo: a blend of Marsellan, Prokupac, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon: amazing stuff, a Superserbian!

One more thing: at Virtus the winery is on the top of a hill, the 360 degrees panorama is breathtaking.

It took an hour to reach Belgrade to a bunch of tired but happy people.

Serbia isn’t a big country. With your own car you can make some detours to add some holiday feeling to Carigradski Vinski Drum. I know I will do it next time.

Gian Luca Garattoni