Breaking Borders & Riding Bending Roads to Bosnia

For the past two nights, I laid my head to rest in the town of Becici, south of Budva on the southern coast of Montenegro. It’s been fun sharing stories, beer, and good Montenegrin wine with my new friends at the Hotel Swiss Holiday—they went out of the way to find me secure parking—even moving one of their cars to make room.

I’ve enjoyed Montenegro; however today I must crash the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina. With the great connections I’ve made along this journey, I spend more time in each country or city than I thought. That’s okay. This isn’t checklist tourism. No, it’s important to take the time to learn, understanding and connect.

There’s one last stop I must make, however, in Montenegro: The Ostrog Monastery. This is the most important Christian site in the Balkans. It attracts over one million pilgrims every year. Locals tell me it’s just a few kilometers off the main road to Niksic and the Bosnian border.

That’s an understatement.

Perhaps I should have researched the route before taking off. However, I remember seeing signs for it when I took the long way around to meet Goran Redevic at the Redevic Estate Winery.

I pull off the main road and follow the signs, it’s confusing, and the road is narrow, one lane wide in parts, and it twists and turns up the side of the mountain. After 20 minutes, I wonder if I made a wrong turn. If this place attracts so many visitors, where are the busses and cars? I’m alone, and when I see a car, it’s a tight squeeze.

There are few roads around here. So I keep climbing. Soon I’m winding through hairpin switchbacks, often cards make wide sweeping turns coming downhill. They breach my lane, causing me to correct my turn. It’s maddening, but I putt, go slow, up the bill.

I come to a large parking lot next to what is the lower monastery, but I do not stop as the real jewel is still a dozen or more switchbacks up the road. After another two kilometers, I come to a gate and a guard. I idle and look at him. He lifts the gate and waves me in. So I park just 30 meters from the upper monastery.

The sun blazes down, it’s hot.

The upper monastery clings to the near vertical mountainside. It glows bright white in the midday sun. It seems to defy gravity and construction engineering as it is set on the sheer face of a massive rock.

The striking and gravity-defying Ostrog Monestary in northern Montenegro.

In the early 17th century, as the Ottoman’s were wreaking havoc in the Balkans, Christians fled to the mountains to seek solace and hide. Built by Vasilije, Bishop of Herzegovina and later the St. Vasilije of Ostrog—or St. Basil of Ostrog. They enshrined his body in a tomb and set it within the walls of the cavelike church.

As with many of these important Christian shrines, stories of miracles spread throughout the Balkans and beyond. Since not only Orthodox Christian pilgrims come here, but Catholics, and Muslims too. Traditionally, many pilgrims climb the steps in bare feet, or even on their knees.

There’s a long line waiting to climb steps to go inside. I’m in my boots, riding pants, and jacket. In the sun, I feel like I’m in a sauna.

So I step into a tiny cave-like room next to the ticket window. It’s hotter in here because of the one hundred candles burning in tubs of water on both sides of the room. It’s a Serbian Orthodox tradition to choose a candle, kiss it, light and place it on either side—one side is to honor the living, the other side for the dead. One man does neither. He sifts the melted wax floating on water, collecting it in large plastic bags outside.

Bags of melted wax from just one-half day from candles burning in the cave-like chapel at Ostrog Monastery.

I wait in line, but after 45 minutes I moved only 3 meters. The line stretches up over 100 meters. I notice a shortcut, women with infant children may bypass most of the line. That will not work for me.

This is the wrong day to explore the Ostrog Monastery, the most important in the Balkans,

I struggle with the decision I must make. Stay and wait, or move on. I want to be in Sarajevo by nightfall—preferably earlier. I play a game with the line. A guy is wearing a red hat 25 meters ahead of me. If he makes it to the second set of steps in 20 minutes, then I stay. If he does, I figure I will be at the entrance in just over an hour.

After twenty minutes the red hat moved only five feet.

I cannot wait. I wind down another long stretch of hairpin switchbacks to the north, as I head to the border. After Niksic, the road gets narrower and the hills greener. I’m now heading into the mountains. After an hour, nature calls and I pull over to take care of business and examine the map.

Some two million people visit Ostrog Monastery every year, I think half of them showed up the day I wanted to explore the legendary memorial to St. Basil.

In the distance, I hear the distinctive roar of a two-stroke engine. Soon two motorcycles and a car pull over and greet me. The three kids are all from the Czech Republic. On is riding a 1960 Jawa, a Czech built motorcycle from the days of U.S.S.R. The other is a 1970 CZ, also Czech. Their body is driving a car, a 1972 Skoda—also Czech. The Skoda has been overheating they tell me. So they must stop now and again to cool down. The CZ and Jawa are struggling on the modest inclines of these mountains. So they must run full throttle or be bogged down.

The guys are all twenty-one and twenty-two years old. They have been on the road for eight days and got as far south as Albania after exploring the Croatian coast. The Czechs tell me Croatia is no fun—just filled with tourists and too many cars. I agree when they tell me they loved Albania. It is their first road trip—first every trip—outside their country. I can sense the energy and glow of new discoveries and adventures. They will do this often, I’m sure.

These young Czech bikers prefer classic Czech-built machines from the USSR era. A 1960 Jawa and a 1970 CZ. They rode these from the Czech Republic to Albania and on their way back when we connected on the roadside.

These three Czech guys are on their first-ever trip outside the Check republic. The 1972 Czech-built Skoda car serves as the pack mule for the two-bikers.

Czech built bikes from the old days of USSR, a Jawa, and a CZ.

This ’72 Skoda overheated constantly, challenging the Czech adventurers with every kilometer

We joke about racing up the next hill. The guy on the Jawa, with its torquey two-stroke, roars up the road. I stick with him, but roll off the throttle and let him ahead. The CZ struggles behind me, so I let him catch up. Just then the Skoda rounds a corner and pulls over. More overheating.

After some cooling, we all move on again—toward the Bosnia Herzegovina border. When we come to a gas station, the honk, wave, and pull in to work on their old vehicles. Classic.

In about twenty minutes I’m winding around the beautiful aquamarine colored Piva Lake—which is a reservoir created by. I pass through about twenty tunnels, carved in the rock around the lake, and through Piva Canyon. It’s the highest artificial lake in the world—created by Mratinje Dam,  built in the 1970s.

Beautiful Piva Lake in northern Montenegro.

Riding around Piva Lake and Gorge, I passed through more than a dozen tunnels, many crudely carved like this one.

What a beautiful day to be riding a motorcycle through Montenegro.

When I get to the Border of Bosnia, the border guard refuses to let me pass. He sees that my EU Green Card insurance papers exclude Bosnia and Herzegovina. I ask him if I can buy insurance.

“No, you go back to Podgorica,” he suggests that I ride back three hours to get insurance.

Yeah, right! Stingy with much more than handing me back my documents and holding traffic up so I can turn around. I ask him again, pointing to all my flags. “Are you sure you don’t want me to visit your country?”

“Go to Corridor Ex, in Montenegro,” he says. “At border, you find.”

So you CAN buy the insurance. I feel this is all a scam, but I go to the Montenegro border control, park my bike because I don’t want to go through Montenegro immigration again. Then look for a corridor marked X, and wander into a room with two men staring at computers. I thought this was the corridor. I’m wrong. It’s up the road 100 meters.

So I hike up the 100 meters in my jacket, sweating when I wander into a small restaurant and campground. It’s called “Coridor X” and is also a camp for rafters taking trips down the Piva River.

It’s here I run into another group of six Czech travelers, the youngest is about 15 and the oldest in his sixties—all guys. They are riding a wacky collection of home-modified vehicles, including a three-wheel CZ. I tell them about the group of three Czechs I saw an hour before and suggested they connect. They take pictures of me and my bike.

Another group of Czech men who prefer old technology and, in this case, three-wheeled custom conversions also running CZ and Jawa engines.

Here at Coridor X, I pay thirty euros, get the paper and ride back over the bridge and to Bosnia immigration. The old man lets me in.

I’m in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the road from the border sucks. Hours later, after finding a better road and winding through another canyon and around beautiful mountains, I arrive in Sarajevo.

Now I need a room and a beer.

The View & Look From The Largest Vineyard In Europe

Drone shot of the Plantaze Vineyard, the largest single vineyard in Europe. Photo courtesy of 13-Jul Plantaze

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.

Scientists and researchers Anita Gazivoda and Jovana Raicevic of 13-Jul Plantaze take me on a tour and history lessons of indigenous Montenegrin grapes and the current state of affairs in the viticultural and winemaking world at the largest vineyard in 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.

The rocky and harsh soil conditions are perfect for growing grapes at Plantaze in Montenegro.

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.

A map of the huge Plantaze vineyard operation.

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.

A peek at the soil and rock composition of the Plantaze vineyard.

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.

A vine from Plantaze’s National Collection, a vineyard designed to protect the viticultural heritage of Montenegro and its indigenous wines. Some of these grapes may never make it to a bottle of wine, but I have been assured some others will. Stay tuned for more history as Montenegro and Plantaze continue to study, research, and experiment.

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.

Everything is big at Plantaze—the flagship grape Vranac, translated as Dark Horse, yields a full-bodied, near black wine with great character and structure.

These cork and barrel themed tram ride takes visitors through the vast vineyards of Plantaze in Montenegro.

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.

The tasting areas of Plantaze’s Šipčanik Wine Cellar are designed to handle large groups in an attractive setting. Yes, there is wine in all those large casks.

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.

 

 

The massive doors of Plantaze’s Ljeskopolje old wine cellar creek loudly as they are opened and are crafted with wine-themed carvings.

The old key that takes you into the Stari Podrum Barrique Room is featured on the bottles of Plantaze’s ultra premium wines: The Stari Podrum Vranac, Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Vranac (photo courtesy of Plantaze)

One of the oldest archive wines available at Plantaze is the 1979 Vranac.

More than 19,000 bottles are in the library archive at Plantaze Ljeskopolje Cellar.

This old bottle reveals the origin and history of Plantaze as a state-owned company. Here the label states first, it’s wine made in Titograd, the name of the Podgorica before independence, and that it’s a product of Yugoslavia.

From the Archive Library at Ljeskopolje, Vesna shows me a 1979 bottle of Vranac that was designed and labeled for export to the United Kingdom as Monte Cheval Vranac.

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.

I’m treated to barrel samples of some wines that still are not offered by Plantaze, but the company is experimenting with.

Deep in the cellars of Ljeskopolje, I taste wines the Jovana and Vesna—thanks to Anita for the photos!

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.

Onward!

Anita, Vesna, and Jovana join for one last photo before our long goodbyes! Thanks for a great lesson and tasting in Montenegro and Plantaze!

History, Passion, and Generations of Spirit & Wine in Montenegro

The view of Lake Slano from above and the road that twists and turns through the mountains between the Bay of Kotor and Niksic in northern Montenegro.

My plan is to meet Goran Radevic at the Radevic Estate Winery at 2:30. I carry all my bags down the steps from my Admiral Apartments in Perast. There’s an ice cream delivery truck blocking my bike. It’s a sign I should sit and have an espresso, or two, and enjoy the view before heading toward the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.

I go the long way instead of riding through Budva or taking the tunnel. The views of the northern part of the Bay of Kotor are stunning and reveal hidden bays and other towns clinging to the hillsides. There are few cars, and with sweeping turns and perfect tarmac, it’s a joy to be riding.

I wind my way toward Niksic, and as I descend into the eastern valley, I am treated with views of Lake Slano, and the many dark green islands that dot the landscape. The lake isn’t natural, but that doesn’t diminish its beauty. It was formed in 1950 as a result of a recently constructed dam and the Perucica hydroelectric power station.

I love stopping by roadside stands where enterprising and very patient locals wait for passersby to stop and buy the locally grown and made treats. Here above Lake Slano the funny and gregarious merchant doesn’t speak English but has plenty of passion and a smile to go with!

About 15 kilometers north of Podgorica, just as the dark clouds hovering above leak drops of rain on Doc and me, my GPS guides me off the main road, through a few tiny towns, and winds me around a massive corn processing plant. I guess I must be close. I’m happy that I’ll be at the winery before the drops turn into a rainstorm.

The road follows along narrow-gauge railroad tracks, and the foliage grows denser while the road narrows. Corn fields rise above me, and my gut tells me I should either be on the other side of the river which runs to the west, or the railroad tracks to the right. I feel like I’m entering more rural countryside rather than the outskirts of the capital. So I stop at a minuscule store and ask for help. Nobody knows Radevic, but they agree I’m on the right road.

Ten minutes later my GPS tells me I’ve arrived. I notice vines outside a house along the river, but it hardly looks like the photos on the Radevic website. So I call Goran for help. I follow his directions but get lost again. He tells me to ride past the corn processing plant, and soon I’m back at that tiny store. Goran meets me there, and I follow him to the real Radevic Estate.

We cross over railroad tracks and ride up a gravel road for about 300 meters. An automatic gate opens as I drive onto the estate which consists of three or four structures situated around a large stone estate, the building that graces the label of the estate wines.

Goran Redevic exudes passion and quality as he takes me through the meticulous and clean Radevic Estate Winery & Cellar.

“For three years I have waited for the permit for the sign,” Goran tells me. I sense he’s annoyed that people have a hard time finding the property “It’s already made,” he asserts swiping through a few photos of it on his phone.

He apologizes and tells me that “the roads are not nice, traffic is horrible, there’s all this trash—and this is the first impression of Montenegro—but this is not really Montenegro.”

Thunder booms and crackles as we talk outside the wine cellar and winery.

The Radevic family, or clan, lived on this property dating back to 1604.

But Goran left the area after completing one year of mandatory military service. He studied medicine in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia republic. Trained as a trauma and emergency room (ER) doctor, he first moved to China where he continued his education in acupuncture and neuroscience while learning to write and speak Chinese.

Radevic Estate is a gorgeous home built of stone and like the great estates of Bordeaux, a drawing of it graces the label of Radevic Estate wines.

“Like you, Allan,” he relates, “I wanted to travel the world.” He moved to South Africa where for four years he worked as an emergency doctor. He then started the first emergency trauma center in Oman before settling down and serving Her Majesty’s Service as a doctor on the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. During the eight years, he lived on the Cayman’s he met fell in love and married Renee, an American living in the Caymans, the second marriage for both.

“I was on a treadmill,” Goran reveals. Explaining his belief if something didn’t change he’d burn out or the stress would kill him.

In the fall of 2005, Hurricane Ivan nearly destroyed the Cayman Islands. The storm demolished his home. Devastated and with two young children from the new marriage, Goran didn’t abandon patients and those injured in the hurricane. Instead, he stayed several months and provided medical care for the locals.

Later, the couple moved to the United States and then to Goran’s homeland in Montenegro where he tended to old vines and planted new on property outside the Montenegro capital, Podgorica that has been in the family to 1604.

“We are the 26th generation on this land,” he tells me.

The hillside estate vineyard gently slopes down to the new wine cellar completed in 2013, and next to the estate home that is featured on the Radevic wine label.

When Goran and Renee moved to Montenegro, there were centuries-old buildings on the property. It wasn’t feasible to restore them. So the first building Goran built was a garage with a small apartment above. It was in this garage in 2009 that Goran made the first vintage of Radevic Estate wines. He jokes, “yes, for three years I made garage wine right here.”

“I had ten bins,” Goran explains. “They were 1,000 liters each, and I had to punch down with the hands. To break the cake,” he says referring the cap, or the skins that rise to the top of the juice during fermentation.

Goran tells me that he learned to make wine from his grandfather, a priest and who lived on this land until he was 103 years old. “My grampa.” Goran explains, “is responsible for my love of grapes and winemaking.” Goran was grafting grape vines before he could read and write. This passion for wine followed him through the years.

To find relief and peace from the stress of his job as an emergency room and trauma doctor, Goran would dream of living on land with a small vineyard and a small house and spend days working in the vineyards. For vacations, he would always travel to the famous wine regions of the world. He would ask questions, observe winemaking techniques, and taste wine.

Today Radevic Estate harvests 45 tons of grapes which produce about 24,000 bottles of wine They also bottles a small production of port, brandies and soon a cognac-inspired brandy that will spend five years in the barrel and bottled in an elegant Chanel-inspired bottle without a label—only etched.

A beautiful “cognac” from Radevic Estate will be released next year in this elegant bottle—sadly the first bottling is completely sold out by pre-orders.

Later, he hands me a glass of the “cognac” from the barrel. It’s graceful and smooth; pure, and clean, one of the best tasting cognacs I’ve had.

As I snap pictures, and the clouds move to the distant sounds of thunder, Goran explains his philosophy for his wine—and his life.

“No chemicals is rule number one,” he insists “Look around here, there are no weeds. We will not rape this land. No herbicides. No pesticides.”

He points to the vineyard just 20 meters away from where we stand.

“My ancestors spilled blood on this land, I will not destroy it with these poisons,” his voice dips to a whisper, with passionate expressiveness.

“My grandma, Janica died in 1999,” Goran shares more of the story of this land, “She gave birth to nine children and buried all of them. They were part of the resistance.”

When the communists came to get her to sign papers to expropriate her property to the state, she met them with a gun. She refused to sign the documents and told the soldiers if you kill me I’ll kill you. When the state began restoring property rights to previous owners, it stunned them to discover the deed to the Radevic property was never signed over.

Is it Ivan or is it Goran who had the idea to ask visitors to wear antispectic medical-grade booties before entering the winery? Hmmmmm?

I can see a bit of his grandmother’s toughness and insistence in Goran as he guides me through the wine cellar, fermentation and barrel rooms. But first, he hands me a pair of light blue booties, the kind that surgeons wear in the operating room. “It has been raining, and there are a lot of sheep droppings around here,” he explains and then blames his enologist and consulting winemaker for the insistence, though after spending so much quality time with him, I’m betting that is just his story— he’s the insistent one here.

Goran is like a proud father as he walks me through the meticulously clean winery with towering sparkling stainless steel fermentation tanks, explaining the details and decisions involving winemaking, equipment choice, and environmental controls of his cellar.

Goran tells me that the products he chooses to use in his winery are like the United Colors of Benetton: Bulgarian craftsmanship, computers from Italy, bottles from Italy, corks from France, corkwood from Spain, American Oak, and stainless steel from Finland.

A boutique shop packed with great wine, brandies, and locally crafted products available at Radevic Estate.

As we walk through the winery, with its state-of-the-art equipment, efficient design, and organization I can see Goran has invested significantly in his passion and dream. There’s a lot of love here, too.

“My wife is allergic to sulfites,” Goran tells me. “We don’t use sulfur or sulfites in our wine.”

Renee Radevic is a beekeeper and through a small store on the estate she sells natural honey, oils, and health, beauty and handmade products made by neighbors and others in the community.

He shows me a few old bottles of wine that are dusty and with mold. “There are three types of mold: black, red and white,” I feel like I’m in a science lesson as he pinches a bit of white from the lip of one bottle. “White mold is very desirable. In France,” he explains, “in some cellars, the white mold clings to bottles like a beard on an old man,” he hesitates, looks at me, “Let the mold grow.”

Good mold is white. “Let the mold grow!”

Tucked into the back of the winery is a small humidifier with additional measurement instruments. It’s obvious this guy is serious about controlling the environment. This perfection and passion with such a low production could define what makes for a true artisanal and boutique winery.

“My mouth is dry, it’s time to drink.”

Before we taste wine, we must taste grappa—brandy—lovely!

We walk into an alcove in the cellar designed for relaxing and tasting. As we pass a long row of barrels, stacked two high Goran points to the information that’s burned into the heads, or covers, of the barrels. “These are number eleven,” referring to the profile of the barrel, or the amount of toast or oakiness that results from curing (burning) the barrels during the coopering process. He tells me that one (1) is the most toast or oak, and ten (10) is the least amount. It’s the toast that can impart flavor to wines during the barrel aging process.

“I asked them to create a new profile for me—eleven (11).” He points to the number 11 burned into the barrel. Radevic uses only American oak for aging its wines.

We sit down at a circular table, and in the center is an elevated tray containing several bottles of brandies, also known as grappas, rake, or schnapps. Radevic makes all its brandies from pure fruit: grapes, apples, plum, quince, and pomegranate.

“My wife is a wine lover, I love brandy—grappa,” he asks me which I’d like to try first.

It takes a lot of fruit to make just a few bottles of brandy. He sources the wild fruit from all over Montenegro, explaining that 2,500 kilograms of fruit  (just under 3 tons) yield only 60 liters (15 gallons) of brandy.

I try the apple, quince, and pear. He uses wild pomegranate to make a liquor which clocks in at about 22% alcohol while the others are about 42%.

In addition to the six fruit brandies, Radevic Estate bottles two white wines, a rose, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Vranac, two ports and soon that cognac.

I love the family recipe and homemade pepper sauce/salsa!

Goran shares a beautiful cheese and charcuterie plate made of all local products to pair with his excellent wines.

 

The bottle and label of Radevic exudes quality and class.

Custom-designed stemware made from lead-free crystal in Slovenia.

We move to a bar area that overlooks the barrel room as he pulls a tray of charcuterie, cheese, olives, bread and a delicious sauce or puree made from roasted peppers. We taste his wines from lead-free crystal glasses that are specially designed and manufactured for him in Slovenia.

He pours me tastes of the wine but not for him. “Today my limit is three brandies,” he explains. The chardonnay is young and elegant. I’m most interested in the Vranac, which is an indigenous grape to Montenegro and the Balkan peninsula. It’s creamy, thick, and with lots of black fruit, berry, and spice and with a deep dark ruby color.

I explain I’m fascinated by the indigenous varietals and am pleased to find so many winemakers respecting the heritage of the farms, fields, and varieties.

They export many of the Radevic wines to Europe and the USA.

Goran explains that he took an early vintage of Radevic Estate to New York where a sommelier enjoyed the wine but suggested he upgrade the bottle and label. Goran hands me the original bottle and then the current bottle. The new bottle weighs more than twice the original and is embossed with the Radevic emblem, similar to the bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Everything is first-class at Radevic. And it shows.

He shows me a special bottle of Vranac that is packaged in a wooden box. It’s a co-branded bottle that is exclusively sold at the Aman resort on the Sveti Štefan islet on the coast. Aman resorts are beyond five-star and cater to uber-wealthy, jet set, and celebrity clientele. With resorts all over the world, each location chooses a local product and packages it under the Aman brand name—everywhere except in Montenegro where the Aman name is shared with Radevic Estate.

Aman Resorts, the uber-luxury resort group chose Radevic Estate Vranac as the ideal product to represent the culture of Montenegro.

“They wanted my Vranac,” Goran explains, “but they didn’t want to use my name or logo. I refused. I won’t give up my brand—this is my life savings.” For two years the Aman lawyers battled with Goran and his lawyer. Radevic held strong, to its conviction. After all of this negotiation, Goran got his way. He points to the RR logo near the base of the bottle.

It’s a testament to Goran’s investment, philosophy, and passion that a five-star, high-quality brand chooses Radevic Estate Vranac as the ideal local Montenegrin product to showcase Montenegro.

As we share stories, sip wine and brandy, I learn that a horrific accident that almost took Goran’s life just a few years ago.

“How many people you know survived after getting hit by a train?” Goran asks.

He picked up his daughter from flute lessons on a Saturday afternoon in 2014 when his car stalled on the railroad tracks just down the driveway when a train plowed into the car. The same railroad tracks we crossed just a few hours ago.

“I used to be a heavy smoker,” he divulges. His right lung was crushed, was bleeding in the brain, broke all his ribs, his sternum, and his right arm was paralyzed. For eighteen days he was in a coma. His daughter, who was also in the car came out with just a cut and eighteen stitches.

Today his right-hand shakes as he holds it up to show me.

“I came back,” he explains the dangerous surgery that brought him back to life.

We toast. “This is life, Allan,” he looks at me, smiles. “Enjoying life, the life. Life is to short to be wasted on stupid politics and stupid people.”

“I live with beautiful land, beautiful nature. People around here worry—they want to be in the EU. I would rather be Switzerland, on our own.”

“After this accident, I really see life is too short,” the conversation turns serious and then philosophical.

“What is important, Allan is health. You cannot buy it, yet you start appreciating it only when you start losing it.” he continues.

“The second thing, that’s important, is family happiness. Number three is having a few friends to share—that’s all you need—to share good and bad things.” We toast again.

“That is what is important, the rest is bullshit.”

 

Doc and me outside the estate before Goran guides me to a nearby hotel and local restaurant in the capital, Podgorica.

Thinking Of The Past in Perast

At the suggestion of Goran, I pull my roots from Kotor and motor north, rounding the bay and leaving the stop and go traffic behind. I pull off the road, and a parking guard lifts the gate that keeps most vehicular traffic out of the tiny bayside fisherman village of Perast. There is one street, it’s a stony concrete path barely wide enough for a car and motorcycle to pass. The bay kisses the path where people in bathing suits stroll. Many cafés sit on the water, and guest houses line the other side.

A courtyard with an old church and clock tower sits halfway down the two-kilometer stretch of this town. The first two hotels I try to stay are fully booked, another has an apartment. She says it’s just above the place near the church. Excellent. I’ll take it. An older woman joins us as we all carry some of my bags up the steep steps to the apartment. The spunky young woman giggles when I suggest after climbing the 50th step up, “Are we going back to Kotor?”

The cozy and recently renovated digs, the Admiral Apartments, sit on the top floor or a 19th century stone building. My host is quick to show me the view from the roof, where I find a small table and chairs surrounded by loosely spaced bare rods of protruding rebar. I see these often in developing countries. Some call them prayer rods, where people pray they can expand their homes. They’re planning more rooms.

There’s not much to do in Perast. And that’s the point. It’s quiet, there are just a handful of restaurants. Most people lounge on the rocks, swim or take boat tours to see the tiny islet Our Lady of the Rocks which was handmade of loose stones. As they tell the story, in 1452 seafaring sailors spotted the icon of Madonna and Child on a rock at sea. So they made an oath that after returning from each voyage the tossed a rock into the water. Over the years, the islet sprouted from the sea.

On the left is St. George, a natural Island with a Benedictine monastery. On the right is Lady of the Rock which over 200 years locals created this island by tossing rocks into the water. 

The timing doesn’t work for me to go out the island. I’m disappointed now I didn’t take the time, but I wondered about the elderly women walking up and down the path along Perast with lovely lace and embroidery fabric and clothes draped over their arms.

Another legend of the island is of a local woman, Jacinta Kunić-Mijović, who took 25 years to embroider a tapestry using strands of her hair among the gold and silver threads. She did this while waiting for her sweetheart to return from a long journey at sea. She went blind making it as he never returned. The tapestry is featured among other artwork in the church. Today, local women carry on the tradition of handmade embroidery with religious motifs and sell them along the seaside.

I enjoy fresh seafood at Conte Restaurant while waiting for my seaside table I enjoy a glass of local sparkling wine. Raw oysters followed by grilled octopus all paired with a nice bottle of Vrnac, the local grape that defines the best and future of Montenegro’s wine identity.

After dinner, I meet the owner’s son, who now manages the excellent restaurant and beautiful boutique hotel. He tells me that in high school (2001) he lived in Lake Elsinore, California as an exchange student, and confides that the cultural shock of being away at a young age made him bitter and reserved while in California. In retrospect, he wishes he took more advantage of the experience, though still says it was one of the best of his life.

Cat on a hot roof in Perast. She gets great views!

My apartment gives me the best view of Perast!

He tells me that the nationalism rampant in the Balkan states and especially in his own country is destroying culture and happiness in the local people. As one large Yugoslavia, he tells me, the former republic had more strength and commanded more respect on the national stage. Today, little Montenegro has no power in its own economy. He feels the split of the country into small states creates a false sense of nationalism and pride.

“I’m afraid what will happen,” his face falls as he ponders this thought. “Today the World Monetary Fund tells us to accept foreign investment—but all the money goes out of Montenegro.”

I see I’ve struck a sour chord in my host as he continues to express his doubts for the future of these states. His family is thriving and their business— the hotel and restaurant—are the priciest and highest rated in this small town. Yet it does not fulfill him, hinting at there’s more to happiness and success.

“The whole notion of business is to make a profit,’ he tells me. ‘But how much does one person need?” he asks. “I can make so much money and buy a boat, but my employees cannot buy new clothes or take their families out to dinner,” his saddening eyes reveal his compassion. “ This is not right.”

He tells me that Montenegro makes good wine, but Croatian wine is much better. His mom is Croatian, and dad is from Montenegro. He insists he’ll show me, and pours me a glass of 2006 White Riesling, explaining it was rated as the best wine in the world.

I imagine a time that the wine he poured was not Croatian; instead it could or would be Yugoslavian.

Travel Details
Leave Kotor at 12 noon
Arrive at Perast at 12:30
Mileage: 9

 

More Medieval Meandering in Montenegro

It’s pushing over 100 degrees when I arrive at the border between Montenegro and Albania. There is a massive line of cars waiting, to get into Albania. I join a handful of motorcycles that weave closer to the control point, but we still have to wait.

I take off my jacket and helmet, and as the cars move ahead, I push my bike forward. I’m hanging with a couple from the Czech Republic who don’t speak English, but yet we manage to chat about motorcycles, Prague, and more.

On my way to the coast, I pass through sweeping valleys with charming small towns.

At the immigration and customs checkpoint, the officials stamp my passport and ask for the bike documentation. I keep this in a waterproof Ortlieb envelope pouch. I keep this in my tank panniers, but the documents stick to the plastic which makes it difficult to pull them out or file them back in the pouch. I struggle to pull the documents out, and the Montenegrin official just waves me on. That was easy.

The roads are decent, but there is a lot of traffic. I head to the coast, and as I climb and twist over the mountains, I round a long and tight turn and pulling out of it I’m treated with a grand view of the Adriatic Sea and the tiny island of Sveti Stefan, and the sprawling coastal resort of Budva.

Looking down on the town of Bečići, just south of Budva with gorgeous Svet Stepan in the distance.

Winding down the hill I get caught in crazy Budva traffic, and soon find myself behind a Mini Cooper convertible with New Jersey plates. I wonder how he got here.

By the time I get checked into my hotel in Kotor and explore the old town behind the city walls, I find myself swallowed by swarms of tourists. The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is beautifully kept, but no matter where I turn, I find crowds.

St. Luke’s Church was built in 1195 and rebuilt over the years featuring both Roman and Byzantine architectural features

With expanding tourism, I find more and more families with children wandering these streets.

You can find jewels in Kotor, like this feisty cat who wasn’t so happy when I woke him up to take his picture, swatting at me and strongly suggesting I let him sleep.

Until now, I have been lucky to travel a bit off the tourist track. Today, that changed.  Kotor is a small stone medieval town tucked into a hidden part of the Bay of Kotor. Built between the 12 and 14th century, the walls of the city crawl up the steep craggy mountain that wedges this town between the hills to the east and the crystal blue waters of the bay.

Cozy cafes, outdoor restaurants, live music, venues, and dozens of ice cream stands dot the cobblestone plazas and walkways. Today I find a craft beer festival, but I prefer the local light beer, Niksicko made by the Trebjesa Brewery in Niksic, a small town nestled in a valley in the mountains and known for fresh mountain spring water—the perfect ingredient for brewing beer.

I sit down in a small plaza outside a Romanesque church at a jazz bar that is playing a long set of music from the recently passed Aretha Franklin, celebrating her life and projecting a picture of her on the stone walls of the cafe.

Cats are very present in Kotor, they date back to the towns maritime heyday where they would stow and escape from ships all over the world.

The tiny wedge-shaped old town crawls up the craggy mountain and is surrounded by a wall.

Even with these crowds, I can find solace and take time to reflect on the history of this town. A maritime museum pays tribute to those seafaring locals who walked these streets some hundreds of years ago. Today, seagoing tourists disembark massive cruise ships that sail the Adriatic coast. Yet tucked into the hillside the few locals who live here year-round go about life, playing cards in their courtyards, hanging laundry, and giggling kids play in the streets.

I wander into the Old Winery, the small patio is packed. The waiter sits me down with another guy to share a table. It’s Goran, the owner. He takes me on a brief tour of Montenegrin wines and gives me tips for places to explore. He also sets me up with a massive plate of cured meats, cheese, and vegetables. “This is the small plate,” he tells me.

After a few glasses of wine and a journey through Montenegrin cheese and prosciutto, I head back to my hotel.

The fortress high above Montenegro offers incredible views of the Bay of Kotor and old town. It’s quite a hike, especially in these temperatures. I take about 45 minutes to climb the crazy and often maligned, and inconsistent stone steps, but once atop the reward is fantastic. Towering cliffs surround the bay, and tiny villages dot the shoreline, nestled in and climbing up the rock. Sailboats, cruise yachts, and liners move in an out.

Ahh, the rooftops and steeples of Kotor.

Montenegro hopes to be admitted to the EU, but there are issues lingering from its troubled past and relationships with its neighbors such as Serbia and Bosnia Herzogovina

 

I love the rooftops of medieval cities, here some new and others with history provides a birds eye view of the towns past.

The following night I’m guided to another wine bar and restaurant outside the city walls, Ladovina Kitchen & Wine Bar, near my hotel. The food is outstanding, and I sample wines from Plantaze, one of the largest producers in Montenegro, but find that though this place touts itself as a wine bar, and includes the Plantaze branded barrique wine barrels used as cocktail tables, the red wine is much too hot. Here room temperature is pushing 80 degrees. The waiter is apologetic and defensive. “We don’t have room,” he tells me. I don’t believe it. If they can store the wine, they could have a chiller. The white and rose wines are sitting in tubs of ice. There is a way.

 

Make no haste with waste, create art. I found this fish tucked into an alley in Kotor, it’s made entirely of discarded plastic bottles.

 

Not as attractive as the plastic bottle fish sculpture above, but instead of letting the wind blow the plastic bags strewn about the top of Kotor’s fortress, creative passersby tie them to this plant, making a statement and an art piece.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kotor has strict rules, so all the windows have green shutters, I love the look and the weathered bricks and stones.

Albania to Montenegro—with riding Vlog (video)

It’s with regret and sadness that my time in Albania nears the end. From Sarande to Tirana the history, people, food, and wine excelled and beyond expectations. Only the thrill of discovery, something new helps to cure the sadness of long goodbyes. So it’s the open arms and welcome of Montenegro and the promises of connecting with my Albanian friends in the future that give me the energy and drive me to travel.

Even filling up “Doc” with petrol is a fun experience in Albania.

Before crossing the border into Montenegro, I stay one more night in Shkodra another ancient city built around a castle—the Rozafa Fortress. I tuck in at a little hotel that surrounds a cozy courtyard with a restaurant. It’s where I sort out my plans for Montenegro and beyond and enjoy my last Albanian meal, Mish Cereme me Kerpudha te Egra, a traditional dish of beef and wild mushrooms oven roasted in a clay pot and served bubbling over hot coals. It’s here at Hotel Tradita that I have my last glass of Albanian wine for some time, I’m sure.

The lovely Hotel Tradita has the right idea

Cheese plate at Hotel Tradita in Skoder.

You might think this little shack is “shit” and wonder why someone tagged it as such. The first time I saw this “SHITET” it was crudely spray-painted on an old beater car that did look like a piece of “sh•t” — but alas, this means “For Sale” and in some cases, like this shack and that car, probably have been for sale for years.

The ride to the border winds around Lake Shkodra which Albania shares with Montenegro. It’s hot, and the middle of the day when I arrive to a long line of cars, all heading the same way. I meet several motorcyclists, a couple from the Czech Republic, guys from Slovenia, Australia, and Italy. All of us shed our riding gear and push our bikes toward the border officials after each car ahead of us clears. It’s slow, humid, and the brutal sun bakes our bikes and faces.

A couple from the Czech Republic wait with me at the border of Montenegro from Albania

It’s hot and a long wait getting into Montenegro.

I now close this last post from Albania with a short video blog or VLOG including commentary as I rode Albania from border to border of Greece to Albania and now to Montenegro.