This morning Natalija and I stroll through the city center to the Niš Fortress where we find a table under the trees at Caffe Pozornica near the amphitheater. It’s sunny, breezy and more and more people shuffle into the outdoor cafe as we sip our coffees.
Moments later Predrag Jankovic joins us. Predrag owns this cafe, makes wine under his Vinarija Barrique label, owns Barrique Wine & Fine Club, the best wine store in Nis, and organizes the annual Naissus Wine & Fine Festival. Again, thanks to Natalija and her polished English skills, we can talk about wine, history, and Niš.
To aid in our conversation and since it’s too early to taste wine, Predrag places three glasses and a bottle of Rakija on the table. In Serbia and Nis, yes, it’s always time to drink Rakija.
The wine festival in Niš is now in its tenth year. It runs several days during the Nišville Jazz Festival here inside the fortress. Every year a few more wineries participate, but Predrag prefers to invite the smaller boutique wineries so they can grow. Though he gets support from the four or five of the largest wineries in Serbia too. This year about fifty Serbian wineries will take part in the festival.
His Barrique Winery is one of those boutique wineries. The grapes come from old vineyards sitting on a rocky hillside outside of Nis at about 600 or 700 meters in elevation. Though he admits the best Prokupac in Serbia comes from the Zupa Valley where I visited a few days ago, he says here they are working with several indigenous varietals including Black Plovdina, Prokupac, and a white grape I’ve never heard of called Jagoda.
“Right now there are only two wineries making wine from Jagoda,” he tells me. I’m curious and am eager to hear more about the story.
Just fifty meters from the cafe past the amphitheater, Predrag leads me to a small cellar inside the fortress structure. It’s here in this little space Predrag makes his Vinarja Barrique wines. At one end of the cellar, he has a large oak cask and a stainless steel tank. Tucked to the side are a couple of oak barrique barrels, and on the other side, there’s a counter work surface. Stacked in back, he has about 150 bottles aging.
After our tour of his cozy cellar, we have one more glass of Rakija and head out to the vineyards. Before we leave the city, we must stop by one of Nis’s top attractions—Skull Tower.
Skull Tower-Ćele Kula—Niš
The barbaric practice of building towers from the skulls of adversaries was a favorite scare tactic of warlords for hundreds of years. The Ottoman Turks who occupied most of the ex-Yugoslavia including modern-day Serbia for roughly five-hundred years were notorious for skinning and decapitating its enemies. Sultans and Pashas often rewarded soldiers who brought them to Istanbul.
During the first Serbian Uprising against the Ottomans, in May 1809 Serbian commander Stevan Sindelic and his band of about 3,000 rebels came under attack by a force of some 36,000 Turkish imperial guards just outside Nis. Refusing to surrender, Sindelic led an ill-fated last stand digging themselves into trenches on Čegar Hill and waited for the Turks.
Outnumbered and facing annihilation, out of desperation, Sindelic fired his gun into a large gunpowder magazine in the entrenchment. The detonation caused a massive explosion that killed him, all of his soldiers and thousands of the invading Turks, many already in the trenches.
Furious because he lost so many soldiers, Turkish General, and Grand Vizier Hurshid Pasha ordered the beheading of the dead rebels and sent the skins to Istanbul as proof of victory. To teach the Rebels a lesson and to warn anyone entering the city, he ordered his soldiers to construct a tower from the skulls of the fallen rebels. Standing tall at the entrance of Nis, Skull Tower is fifteen feet high, thirteen feet wide, and contains stones and originally 952 skulls with seventeen skulls embedded in each of fifty-six rows on all four sides. The Turks topped the tower with the skull of Sinđelic.
It’s a bit eerie and morbid, yet walking into the chapel the Serbs built in 1892 to cover and protect the tower, I feel a sense of disbelief, especially considering the Turks made this just two-hundred years ago. After its construction, many families of the dead rebels took several of the skulls so they could honor them with proper funerals. So, today there are just fifty-eight skulls embedded in the tower, and Sinđelić’s skull sits in a glass display case.
Following The Nisava River In Search of Lost Vineyards
With the images of two-hundred-year-old skulls emblazoned in my mind, Predrag navigates his car along the Nišava River east of Niš where after about thirty minutes we turn off the main road just past what Predrag tells me was once a big state-owned winery. The now abandoned complex spanned both sides of the road, and several large storage tanks towered some three or four stories high. The road gets narrower as we climb up to a viewpoint near the tiny village of Sićevo. Hopping out of the car, we cross a soccer field, climb over a few rocks until we come to an incredible panorama of the Nišava River winding through the Sićevo Gorge. We also get a birds-eye view of the 1908 Sićevo hydro-electric plant that still operates and delivers power to Niš today.
It’s up here high on the slopes between the Svrljiske Planine and Suva Planina mountains, Predrag explains, that because of its elevation and proximity, the climate here is a unique mix between Mediterranean and Continental, making the slopes ideally suited for growing wine grapes that favor both climates.
After gazing upon the beautiful gorge, we continue climbing higher up the mountain. We must be careful as we share the narrow road with locals walking down the hill. We pass a small vineyard next to a house with a blanket of ivy covering its roof. It’s quiet save the occasional sound of a tractor and the fall colors or yellow and rust paint a quaint picture as we continue to climb.
Approaching another vineyard on one side of the road, this one with newly planted vines, we pass a small graveyard where old photos grace the tombstones on the other side. We pass small farms with fields planted in tomatoes squash, and other vegetables. There are several, abandon houses where the windows have no glass, and rotting wood doors hang precariously.
We stop the car near where the hill crests. Gnarly wild vines climb up the hill behind and tumble down the hill in front. We hike down. Predrag figures the vines are all between fifty and one-hundred years old. It’s steep and south facing. The soil is stony and porous. Behind us, way above the vineyard shapely karst rocks line the ridge.
The vines aren’t as thick and leafy as those I saw in Zupa, but they are struggling, and that’s how you get the best fruit for quality wine. I wonder who tends to these vineyards. On some vines, I see signs of phylloxera or some other disease. Predrag points to an old vine and tells me it’s Black Plovdina, then to another, that’s Prokupac. He points out that they harvest these vineyards all together creating field blends of the two or more grapes. He also remarks that throughout the hills and mountains are many caves where thousands of bats live. Long ago the villagers recognized how effective bat excrement, or guano, was for fertilizing the farms and vineyards. So while the soil is rocky and loose, the use of guano helps the vines survive.
He says they don’t pick the grapes on top of the vines, those getting more sun, because they want the birds to eat them and not the more desirable grapes below the canopy. These vineyards are gnarly, the vines twist and turn and look old and frail. A yellow butterfly drafts by and then turns around and circles me before disappearing below. I reason that this is clearly one of those lost vineyards I’ve been looking for, and maybe around those abandoned houses are forgotten farms. Yet it’s clear that Predrag harvest grapes from up here, and I’m sure others stake out these vineyards too.
After climbing our way down, stopping to see the Orthodox Church Sv. Dimitrije u Pasjaci in Pasjača, we wind our way to the other side of the mountains where we meet one employee of the Malca Winery. She leads us through a large farm and up a hill to explore some of their newly planted vineyards.
Malca embarked on an ambitious project when they set out to plant vines on its fifty-hectare plot on top of this hill and in the shadow of what looks like pine trees. To date, they’ve planted ten hectares to several domestic and international varietals including Italian Riesling, Merlot, Frankovka, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Black Tamjanika a unique varietal nearly extinct. A monastery in Eastern Serbia is one of the few known locations it survived. The monastery offered cuttings and vines to anyone interested in revising the ancient varietal. The Malca Winery in Nis took them up on this offer. It produces a low alcohol sweet wine suitable for pairing with desserts and cheeses.
For the remaining forty acres the Malca Winery harvests apples and Aronia, the blueberry-esque fruit I first encountered in Bela Krainja in Slovenia. High in antioxidants, the berries are sour, and Malca uses them to make jams, jellies, teas, and juice.
After visiting Malca’s new vineyards, we make our way to the winery which sits on the banks of Nisava River about fifteen kilometers from Nis. Once we drive through the Malca gate between two stone pillars and I, get the feel of a well organized and professionally run facility.
To be sure, Vinski Podrum Malca or Malca Wine Cellars is much more than a winery. On the extensive property that the state had owned during the time of Yugoslavia and socialism, you can find a fine dining restaurant, food market, a wine store, lovely landscaping, and a living museum that traces the history of winemaking from Roman times to the present.
To help visitors navigate the complex, there is a large map outside the main building. They offer tours, tasting, and the restaurant serves a variety of cuisines and wine pairing lunches and dinners. The staff is helpful and eager to guide you if you find yourself lost.
Natalija and I meet Malca Winery founder and owner Bora Jovic in what they refer to as the Roman wine house. Bora tells us we will travel through time as we explore the winery and wines of Malca. There’s a long history of winemaking in Niš, and the Malca Winery is determined to preserve that heritage and tell the story. As in northwestern Serbia, it was the Romans who first planted vines in Niš. He says we can find evidence of winemaking history and its importance to the region in Roman ruins inside the Niš Fortress. There are several stone carvings of grapes and the amphora vessels in which they made wine.
While grape growing and winemaking continued to grow after the Roman period, vast vineyards disappeared during the nearly five-hundred years of Ottoman rule because they forbid drinking wine and alcohol in their religion. Nonetheless, many families through the region still farmed small vineyards and made wine in their own caves and homes.
After its liberation from the Turks and through the start of World War II, vineyards and winemaking increased throughout the country. And here in the hills outside Niš, quality winemaking thrived. In fact, in 1881 Judges at the International Wine Exposition in Bordeaux recognized the quality of Serbian wines with its first international wine award.
However, by the time of socialism and communism after World War II the state altered the history of winemaking by focusing on quantity, rather than quality, often ripping out important indigenous grape varietals and replanting with easier to grow and more vigorous international varieties. During all these times, individuals and their families still made wine from grapes grown in their modest vineyards, it was only for personal use as they could not bottle or sell it.
The local community built what is now Malca Winery in 1920 as a cooperative. After the war, the state took over the cooperative, and in 2012 Bora bought the winery and set about to continue and change its course in history.
Though we can only see the lids, here in the Roman wine house we stand in front of four large terra-cotta amphora wine vessels, each with a capacity of 2,000 liters and buried two meters deep in the ground. They have four additional amphoras elsewhere in the winery with a total capacity of about 16,000 liters. Bora brought the amphoras from Georgia where it’s said that winemaking began and done by burying these clay amphoras in the ground.
Malca produces two wines from the amphoras, a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot called “Constatine The Great” and a single varietal white from Italian Riesling called “Queen Jelena.” For these wines, Malca only uses organic grapes, and instead of pressing the grapes, they gently squeeze them. Bora tells us that in other vessels, the wine typically ferments in two to three weeks, but in these Amphoras, fermentations lasts two to four months. Plus, because of the extended time the wine is in contact with the grape skins, wines made in these amphoras are highly extracted, resulting in a complex wine suitable for aging. He struggles for the word to describe the taste you get from the red when I realize he’s trying to say, “They make very chewy wines, with complexity and structure.”
I learn that here in Nis at an archaeological site we passed on our way to the winery, archaeologists excavated wine-related artifacts including amphoras. So it’s fitting and not just a gimmick that Malca Winery produces wine in the same type of vessels the Romans did here two thousand years ago.
So here in the Roman wine house, with various Roman artifacts, symbols and busts of emperors lining the walls and shelves, it’s clear that Bora has a knack for marketing, but he also sees using his winery to educate customers about wine while giving them a unique tourist experience. There are costumes, including Roman helmets, swords, and flags. He tells us that for tourists groups and business meetings, they entertain guests with period performances with actors in full costume.
As we continue to travel through time, we walk out of the Roman room, across a courtyard and into a larger building and the central part of the production winery. We climb a long flight of stairs and into a room lined with large wooden casks. We are now standing in a room celebrating winemaking from medieval times. Bora welcomes us to the wine house of the Nemanjic dynasty, the most celebrated Serbian dynasty of the middle ages, at the time when they established the orthodox Serbian church.
During the time of King Stefan Nemanjić, when Nis became part of Serbia, they made wine in large wooden casks like those lining this room. Bora says when you read old Serbian texts and poems when they mention drinking wine, it’s only red or rose wine. So it’s fitting, he says while pouring us a glass of the Malca Rose made from Frankovka, that we drink rose and think back to medieval times.
There are sixteen casks here each with a capacity from four to seven tons. Unlike the amphoras, wooden casks allow the wine stored in them to slowly oxidize by air seeping through the pores of the wood, allowing the wine to breathe while subtle adding character. When he tells us that only half of the large barrels are filled with wine, I point to one where the door is ajar and suggest, “and this one is for sleeping,” because it’s that big. They laugh.
We continue our exploration and time shift to the Serbian wine house where we see and taste the wine produced using mid-20th-century production techniques, including storing wine in large concrete tanks as they did here in this winery between 1930 and 1980. We stand on top of the large square concrete vessels. Bora explains that they do not use these types of vessels for producing quality wine. Yet they still can produce good wine. After World War II, when Yugoslavia was on its way to becoming the fifth largest exporter of bulk wine in the world, the state planted massive vineyards all over the country. By 1980 there were over 5,000 hectares of vineyards planted around Niš. To accommodate the over two million liters of wine from grapes grown in these vineyards, they had to build these large concrete tanks.
As we taste the Italian Riesling that Malca produces from these tanks, Bora explains that they don’t bottle this wine under the Malca brand. Instead, they sell these wines all over Serbia under the Status brand for less than two euros per bottle.
Before getting into the wine business, Bora tells me he worked for a large company that exported healing herbs and mushrooms. When I ask him how long he expects until his investment in this operation will pay off, he smiles and laughs. “We will invest in this life, and in our next life we will count the money.”
He owns another winery where he markets lower cost wines and other food products. Vinarija Status markets and sells about one million bottles of lower quality wine. I’m sure this helps finance what Bora seems most passionate about the quality wines made here at Malca. Today Malca produces about 22,000 bottles, and over the next few years, he hopes to increase production to more than double to 50,000 bottles. Interestingly, the wine is only available and sold directly to consumers here at the winery.
On our way to the next time stop, we climb down a long flight of metal grated stairs, passing a massive copper tank that towers above and falls way below. It’s the coolest industrial-age antique I’ve ever seen. Complete with analog dials, gauges, handles, doors, and pipes.
It’s a distilling device built in the late 1960s by the Yugoslavia government. Like the concrete tanks from the Serbian wine house we just visited, the amount of wine they produced was more than they could sell. So instead of disposing of the unused wine, they build this massive copper still to turn wine into brandy or Rakija — Brandy Vinjac. The oddly beautiful still stretches five stories high, three stories above and two stories below the ground. It uses steam to heat the wine, and through the various levels of the towering still, the liquid is distilled up to seventy times—making for a clearer and cleaner brandy. I’m fascinated and take more pictures of this machine than anything else in the winery.
We continue our journey through time and come to the fourth and final stop to the Malca modern winery where they produce and store wine in stainless steel tanks (INOX). Today stainless steel tanks are standard in wineries all over the world. Bora explains that they are easier to clean and maintain, but most importantly, they incorporate technology that allows strict control of temperature and raising of yeast during fermentation. Typically wines produced through stainless tanks are fresher and brighter—which we taste through the lovely Malca Sauvignon Blanc he pours for us.
We return to the retail store before dining in the restaurant. Before leaving, he gives us each a gift of Malca Wine to share with family and friends. For me, he gives a bottle of the Constantine the Great, the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend from the Amphora. They bottle this in a unique amphora shaped bottle complete with the ring handles.
In the restaurant Natalija and start with a plate of cured ham, olives, and Serbian cheeses. We then share two different salads, grilled vegetables, and for me, a dish of roasted lamb with grilled eggplant, peppers, and potatoes. We enjoy the delicious meal with a bottle of that Constantine the Great, red blend which the servers are kind enough to decant for us. It’s rich, viscous, and packed with dark fruits and yet on the palate, it has a good balance of acid and fruit with surprisingly soft and silky tannins.
There’s a group of cardiologists from Austria enjoying dinner in the adjacent dining room. A group of Serbian folk dancers entertains them by twirling, kicking up their feet, and holding hands joining each other in line and in circles.
My experience at the Malca Wine Cellars is further evidence that the effort to craft quality wine while investing in technology, infrastructure, and tourist-oriented experiences is strong. Sure, the per capita consumption of wine in Serbia is perhaps the lowest in all the former Yugoslavia republics, but efforts by Bora Jovic along with Despotika, Virtus, and Women and Wine, and Vinopedia, that will change soon. For now, exploring gastronomy and wine in Serbia is like a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered by the other Balkan countries and the rest of the world. I’m glad I am experiencing it now. And I will keep coming back.
Letnja Pozornica Tvrdjava
+381 18 4150160
Barrique Wine & Fine Club
Koste Stamenkovica 9
+381 18 255984
Malca Winery | Vinski Podrum Malca
E-771, Malča 18207
+381 62 8015745