It’s brisk and sunny when I roll out of the Hotel Majestic garage. I’m heading south and will explore some of Serbia’s central wine region, then spend a day in Zupa in the south, before ending up in Nis, Serbia’s third-largest city.
After about thirty minutes of riding the main A1 toll road, I dip off onto a country road. The pastoral countryside is peaceful and settling. I drift and dream while steady on the throttle. I’m startled by a slow-moving tractor just ahead; I better watch my daydreaming.
I don’t see many grapevines, but the smell of harvest of other vegetables permeates my helmet. I pass several more tractors towing trailers filled with crops. After about thirty minutes, I pull off the road onto the pebbly driveway of Vinarija Despotika—or Despotika Winery and ride up a hill between vineyards to the winery.
Sitting on a hill overlooking the road and valley below, the modern winery is an awesome site — several flags touting the winery’s logo ripple in the wind atop tall shiny flag poles. Blending glass, natural wood, concrete, and other materials, they designed the modern building to be efficient both in the winemaking production, but also in its energy consumption.
I meet Despotika enologist and winemaker Miloš Nikolić. While there’s much activity from the outdoor production area, there is nobody else but Milos in the tasting room, retail space, or administration offices. It startles him when he sees me wandering down the corridor. He apologizes for his English and tells me he has lots of work.
I apologize for arriving midst harvest, and promise I won’t take much time. We sit down in a conference room dominated by two long tables each with sixteen cushioned chairs. Award certificates from various publications and events line the walls along with sketches and artwork created by the Dragan Despotović, the brother of the owner.
With about fifteen hectares of vineyards total between those here in Šumadija and to the north near Belgrade, Despotika Winery was founded in 2010 and completed its first harvest in 2011. They completed the first harvest in this new winery in 2012. Production is about 60,000 bottles, though they have the capacity and aim to grow to approximately 250,000 bottles.
Miloš tells me they produce an array of wines from both indigenous and international varieties. “Morava and Prokupac are the two local varieties,” he explains. “Prokupac is a true ancient varietal, but Morava is a new variety created by scientists at the University in Novi Sad twenty or thirty years ago.”
He tells me that Despotika aims to make the highest quality wines at reasonable prices. “People are driving much more wine today than ten or fifteen years ago. Because now Serbia is making quality wines.”
“The quality and the wine starts in the vineyard. We work first in the vineyard—it always comes first.” He tells me they now have better equipment, including tanks and presses, but he admits they are getting better.”
“The quality is much higher because we have more experience—we are learning every year from our mistakes.”
He tells me that of their white wines, Morava and Tamjanika sell most and for red it’s Cabernet Sauvignon.” The average price for Despotika wines is between five and ten euros.
“Younger people recognize and love quality wine. They may not drink this every day, but they maybe drink one or two bottles per week.”
Despotika exports to Greece, Holland, Montenegro, China, and other markets, but not to the United States. “The China market is big, and they drink more wine than they did ten years ago.”
He pours me a taste of the Morava. It’s low in acidity, yet crisp and clean. I see this wine as a great summer on the porch wine. There are aromas of fruit and dried herbs and on the palate. I taste ripe pear and green apple. It’s easy drinking with good balance and decent length and clocks in at just12.5% alcohol.
When I ask him what he sees as the biggest challenge for Despotika and the Serbian wine industry, he sees two problems and admits these are opportunities, too. “We have to challenge ourselves,” he explains. “There are many steps to the future, and we have to continue to learn and progress.” He also recognizes that the wine business in Serbia is young, and there is also a need for more awareness and marketing.
Just walking around the winery, it’s clear that Despotika founder and owner Veselin Despotović has is optimistic vision and a knack for marketing. Though parts of the winery still seem under construction, Milos walks me to the back of the winery where they created a wine museum. Even a work in progress, Milos tells me next year they will finish. With displays of antique vineyard tools, wine laboratory equipment, old presses, barrels, and baskets, it is impressive. On a multi-tiered glass table, there is a display of old documents, books, and pamphlets. The entire space attests to a long history of winemaking in Serbia. Yet today, the wine industry is re-emerging.
THE DESPOTIKA MUSEUM DEDECIATED TO SERBIAN WINE HISTORY
We continue walking down and descend to the Despotika wine cellar some 12 meters below the building. I get a sense of smart design. The lighting is classy, as are the bottle and barrel displays. Milos translates the Cyrillic on a few of the barrels: “These are 2017 Prokupac.”
We have about four-hundred barrels,” he tells me. He points to an opening in the wall. “Soon, we will have an elevator to make it easy to move the barrels up and down.” He then leads me to a room in the cellar that is the archive or place for library wines. Though there is plenty of room for more bottles, Milos says, “We are young,” he says “but this room is also for groups of friends can come here to taste and drink our wines.” We walk past
Back upstairs, I wander around the retail store where barrels fitted with glass tops serve as tables for groups to taste. Award and medal certificates line one wall, most prominent are those from UK-based Decanter Magazin.
DESPOTIKA: SERIOUS ABOUT WINE TOURISM
The vision for Despotika goes beyond the wine museum and the well-appointed tasting areas, barrel rooms, and outdoor terrace. Milos tells me that Despotika will open a fine-dining restaurant with seating for about sixty people. They are also putting finishing touches on vineyard-view apartments.
“This is a wine destination. We have a good story, and you can come here drink wine, eat food, and if you’re tired or feel you had too much to drink, you can enjoy the grounds, walk the vineyard, and stay in the winery.”
“We see a great future in wine tourism,” he says,” We get lots of guests now, but we believe in the future we will serve many more guests.” It’s also important to note that Despotika Winery is an important stop along the Constantinople Wine Route being promoted by Mirjana of Women and Wine and her partners.
Back in the conference room, he pours me a glass of Prokupac. It’s medium to full-bodied, good extraction, cherry and berry fruits on the nose, with a slight spice and coffee surrounded dark fruits on the palate.
“I’m riding my motorcycle,” I tell him as I swirl the glass, “but I cannot pour out the rest of this out. I’ll be careful.” It’s lovely and priced at just six euros; it’s a steal.
“We want people to try wine. We price it good, so they don’t think about it. It’s important for us to popularize the pine—Prokupac and Despotika.” He tells me they will engage in International Prokupac Day (October 14th).
Serbia, as a wine producing country has many challenges. I tell Milos about a guy from the Netherlands a few weeks ago. When I shared with him my eagerness to go to Serbia and try the wines, he told me don’t bother insisting he knew that Serbia wines were not good.
“We have work to do,” Milos admits. But also other larger wineries are helping and earning awards. I tell him my first taste of Serbian wine came at the suggestion of Goran at the Old Winery in Kotor, Montenegro— the Trijumf from Vinarija Aleksandrović, one of the first private wineries in Serbia. The wine is well regarded. The increase in quality is a significant step to gaining recognition on the world wine stage. It also takes more people like Goran outside Serbia will take a chance by offering different wines by the glass. And it takes openness on the customer—something that perhaps my friend from the Netherlands needs.
Here at the Despotika Winery, I find people open to trying new things, investing in the future, and offering a full wine country experience. With more and, more Serbians pushing quality and developing projects like Despotika, Serbia will continue to see a surge in interest and consumption. We all hope the rest of the world will take notice.
Before leaving, Milos hands me a bottle of Prokupac, insisting I introduce the wine to somebody new. I agree and thank him for his generosity.
Walking to my bike, I pass a sculpture made of old grapevines, another art piece created by Dragan Despotović. It’s of Prince Marko, considered a hero and legend among Serbs. He’s seated high on his talking horse and trusty companion Sarac. A short-lived King from the late 14th century, legend has it that Marko always share half of his wine with the horse. Perhaps this is how the horse could jump three spear lengths high and four spear lengths forward.
Like Sarac, it is clear to me that Despotika sees the future and is aiming to reach new heights and jumping forward—and with that vision is accepting the challenge and taking a chance.
11423 Vlaški Do