You might think it’s odd that someone would plant the largest single vineyard in Europe is one of its smallest countries.
I was curious. In my search for the unique autochthonous or indigenous grapevine varieties, I discovered that most of this vineyard is planted with Vranac, a unique grape found in the Balkan regions.
So at the suggestion of Goran Radevic at Radevic Estate wines, I contacted Vesna Maras, Ph.D. of Plantaze, the company behind the planting, management, and production of wine from this massive vineyard. Sadly, Dr. Maras was out of town, but she referred me to Anita Gazivoda and Jovana Raicevic who agreed to meet and share with me the story of Plantaze and the work they are doing with Vranac and other indigenous varietals.
Plantaze, translated is “plantation,” is also known as “13. Jul Plantaze” was established in 1963 and today is the largest viticultural and winery in Montenegro. In 1977 the government-owned company identified a large plot of land just south of the capital Podgorica, then named Titograd after the former Yugoslavia leader Josip Broz Tito. This plot would become the largest vineyard in a single location in all of Europe.
I meet Anita and Jovana at a gas station close to Plantaze’s administrative offices where I leave my motorcycle and riding gear and join the two women in their car as we head to the legendary vineyard.
Covering 2,310 hectares (about 9 square miles or 5,700 acres), Plantaze’s Cemovsko polje vineyard contains 28 different grape varieties, of which 70 percent is Vranac, which translates to “black horse,” a dark grape that yields an almost black red wine. So dark that Some Vranac wines are so dark black it’s impossible to see a powerful light shine through it.
Anita explains that “this was a desert of rocks” before the vineyard was established. It took five years and cost $62 million (in 1977 dollars) to plant 11 million vines. “The vines wouldn’t survive here without irrigation,” she tells me, “so 23 wells were drilled to a depth of 50 meters (164 feet). They slow drip irrigate most of the vineyard. The stony soil is composed of 95 percent limestone and 5 percent fine pebbles and rocks. Vines here benefit from 10-12 hours of sun every day.
As I’ve wandered through the vineyards of the Balkans so far, I’ve focused on smaller boutique wineries. But here, with an annual production of some 15 million bottles of wine and brandy, Plantaze hardly fits that mold. However, what attracted me to the massive operation that employs some 700 people full-time and more during harvest, is the research and development project headed up by Dr. Maras.
In 2011 Plantaze established a department that is licensed to develop and research national and international projects designed to bring appreciation to local indigenous grapevine varieties.
One landmark uncovered by this research is proof that the true origin of Montenegro’s most important varietal, Vranac, stems from the ancient varietal of Kratosija. Kratosija has the same DNA profile as Italian Primitivo, American Zinfandel, and Croatian Crljenak Kaštelanski. Through extensive testing and analysis of thousands of grape varieties, the Plantaze team found that Kratosija is the father of Vranac.
But it gets better. The research spans more than a decade, including working with research partners from leading viticulture institutions in Italy and Spain. Not only did they discover that Vranac is a direct decedent (offspring or “father”) of Kratosija, but that Kratosija originates in Montenegro.
This could be a blow to the head of Italians and Croatians who over the years have claimed to be the origin of “Zinfandel”, but in fact, this grape crossed borders and seas from the vineyards of Montenegro. In fact, the first published information on the Kratosija grape, from The Medieval Statute of Budva, dates back to Medieval times between 1426, and 1431. Budva is a port town south of Kotor in Montenegro. This medieval document devotes 20 chapters to viticulture, grapes, and wine. Originally written in Latin, The Budva Statue has been translated into Italian and Montenegrin.
I’m sitting in the front seat with my camera bag in my lap, my audio recorder in hand and listening to these two women, both scientists and ampelographers (field of botany for identification and classification of grape varieties through its leaves and berries), and my head is spinning with all this history. We cruise and tour the vineyards while they continue to enlighten me about Montenegro and it’s history through viticulture and winemaking.
While you can find Vranac in Macedonia, Serbia and elsewhere in the Balkans, it’s a native Montenegrin red wine grape. Another indigenous grape is the white varietal Krstač, named because the grape clusters are shaped like a cross.
You may be reading this and going cross-eyed, but stick with me. Remember, Montenegro is a small country. It’s smaller than the state of Connecticut, where I grew up. Even so, Montenegro exhibits some of the highest diversity of unique and autochthonous wine grapes in the Balkans.
We stop by the banks of the Cijevna River which forms one boundary of the large vineyard. Here I get a close view of the limestone and rocky soil. As these women talk in tandem, clarifying and enhancing each other as they reveal their passion and the fruits of years of research.
While owners and winemakers of small boutique wineries ooze passion when discussion their wine, vineyards and work, the passion these women exude is in their research and discoveries. They are like treasure hunters wandering the small country looking for riches in its vines— native vines.
The only way they could do this is with the resources and money of a large organization. Over a period of some five years, they scoured the wine-growing regions of Montenegro searching for grapevines—any grape vines. They would put their ampelography skills to work analyzing the DNA and identifying, classifying and cataloging the plants.
Over the years that found 512 vines and working with the Wine Institute in La Rioja in Spain, they added these to an existing database of 4,000 grapevine varieties—the most comprehensive in the world. After an extensive analysis, they discovered that 63 grapevines (genotypes) did not exist.
They found 63 grapevines that are unique and only found in Montenegro. This means that Dr. Maras’s and Plantaze’s years-long treasure hunt yielded important riches for the country’s national heritage. Not only did they discover Vranac was first grown here, but another 63 varieties are not grown anywhere else in the world. Imagine finding 63 new types of animals not found anywhere else. These women are expressive and passionate as they share this info with me.
We continue our drive through the vineyards until we come to a four-story building that probably hasn’t seen new paint or any renovation since the vineyard was planted over 40 years ago and climb to a viewpoint on the roof where we gaze over the expansive vineyards.
“We can only see about 70 percent of the vineyard,” Jovana tells me. “Over here are some of the original plantings.” She points to a block of vines with thick trunks yet thin of leaves. “We are replanting many of the old vines.”
We wind our way through more of the vast vineyard, and soon we’re driving down a wide road, lined with young olive trees. “They built this as an airport runway,” Anita explains as we drive toward Šipčanik Wine Cellar, one of Plantaze’s three wine production facilities and cellars.
We stop alongside a block of wines.
“This is the national collection,” Jovana explains. “We’ve propagated and grafted the 63 new varietals and planted them here.” Plantaze also has about 40 hectares dedicated to growing and testing rootstocks and grafts.
“We saved them from disappearing,” she smiles.
I realize this work is beyond the business of growing grapes, making wine and marketing it around the world. Again, this is something only a large organization with money and resources could manage. Plantaze is not just the biggest winery and viticulture operation in Montenegro, but it is also majority owned by the Montenegrin government, along with two other minority investors.
They explain that currently they are not planting larger plots or planning to make wine from any of the 63 new varietals, but they are evaluating the plants and hope to consider new types of wine in the future.
We drive past a security gate and a long tourist train that reminds me of Disneyland. It ushers visitors through tours of the vineyards. I’m happy to be in this car with two of the scientists that are not only driving me around Plantaze but are also driving the preservation of Montenegro’s viticulture heritage.
We roll up to the Šipčanik Wine Cellar, a massive subterranean cave that was built as an underground aircraft hanger for the Yugoslav People’s Army. Our voices and sounds of our shoes stepping echo in the cavernous space. We pass a small retail shop and then dozens of large oak barrels.
We are more than 30 meters (100 feet) underground. The cave is 365 meters long (a quarter of a mile), 70 meters wide (230 feet), and 20 meters high (65 feet). They store and age two million liters of wine in Šipčanik, in bottles and barrels comprising about 80 percent French oak, 15 percent American oak, and about 5 percent Croatian oak.
There are dozens of tables made from oak barrels, and a tastefully decorated tasting room with a kitchen can accommodate about 50 people. We belly up to one of the barrel tables and taste Plantaze’s entry-level wines, beginning with Krstač, a clean, aromatic white wine with lovely fruit and minerality. It’s also a grape that isn’t grown anywhere else—only in Montenegro.
Then I’m offered a Pinot Blanc that has more structure and viscosity, and the final white is a Chardonnay that is as good as any entry level I’ve tried in California.
I taste two reds, a Cabernet Sauvignon and the pride of Montenegro, the Vranac, Plantaze’s Pro Corde brand. Anita explains that in their research they have identified seven natural clones—the best of Montenegrin Vranac, and these are now certified. This is a substantial step to protecting the heritage and quality of Vranac and also against fraudulent vines.
All the wines are well made, but what surprises me, even more, is that none of these wines cost more than five Euros or less than six dollars. Wines of this quality cost more than twice as much in the United States.
After we hop back in the car, retrieve my motorcycle and travel to the other side of Podgorica to the oldest wine cellar of Plantaze. Known as Ljeskopolje Wine Cellar, it is quite a contrast to Šipčanik. Not only does it have a smaller capacity, about 400,000 liters, but I can also feel history clinging to its dusty cellars and brick walls. It’s here I meet another Plantaze colleague, Vesna Kodzulovic, the chief technologist at Plantaze’s historic Ljeskopolje Wine Cellar
Here at Ljeskopolje, Plantaze vinifies its premium brands including the Stari Podrum, the flagship of Plantaze’s wines. They also make experimental and trial wines. Set a small neighborhood down a narrow street, Ljeskopolje is three levels, one in the basement and two above ground. There are stainless steel and concrete fermentation tanks that haven’t been used in some 40 years. There are massive oak barrels with 10,000-liter capacities lining a room that also houses dozens of barrique barrels.
In the basement, behind a locked iron door is a library archive of 19,000 bottles dating back to Plantaze’s early history, many bottled years before Plantaze planted the Cemovsko polje vineyard. They show me a bottle of 1979 Vranac that is delicately wrapped in cellophane. “We have wines dating back to 1974 here, but we discovered 6,000 bottles of the 1979. It’s a special bottle and people can buy it.”
I’m treated to a handful of barrel samples collected into nondescript bottles without labels, only a small sticker identifies the wine inside each bottle.
Here they produce three white wines and six red wines. Most of the wines are from very low yielding vineyards, some less than six tons per hectare. Today I get to try 2012 and 2013 red wines that have yet to be bottled.
A Petite Verdot made with a soft touch that is inky black, and a unique French varietal known as Marselan. It’s the first time I’ve sampled wine made from a new grape varietal created in the French town of Marseillan in the 1960s by enologist, Paul Truel. He crossed Cabernet Sauvignon with Grenache to create it.
I’ve never seen a Marselan, but some wineries from Languedoc in France offer it, and in 2007 the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) certified for labeling and sale as a varietal wine in the USA.
I like Plantaze’s Marselan. It’s well rounded, refined tannins, and a very long finish with flavors of black cry, mocha, and spice. I also try the 2012 Stari Podrum Cabernet Sauvignon, which is layered with gobs of black fruit, berry, coffee, and spice.
Next up is the yet to be released 2013 Stari Podrum Vranac. The current release of Cabernet Sauvignon received a Gold Medal from Decanter Magazine while the Vranac received gold for the 2011 vintage.
Finally, I’m treated to a barrel sample of Kratosija, the father of Vranac and the same grape as Primitivo, Zinfandel, and the Croatian Crljenak Kaštelanski. With brighter fruit, a hint of spiced herbs, and strawberry compote, it’s lighter than the others but packs a punch that satisfies—especially after the line up I’ve sampled.
The wines are young and crafted for aging, but I’m seduced and fascinated by the quality of all the wines from Plantaze. Vranac will age for 15 years, so I imagine how all these wines will evolve. From the entry level to these ultra-premium wines made in the old Ljeskopolje cellar, the company offers quality wine at strategic price points. But I’m also thinking about the ride back to Becici, where I’m staying one more night before heading to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As we bid our farewells, they hand me the bottle of Vranac, filled with a few ounces of Petite Verdot to keep the bottle fresh and full as I ride over the mountains. It’s always a sad day when I say goodbye, but the road calls me, and these women have vital work to continue. So it’s goodbye until the next time.