I take nearly three hours to ride from Gjirokastлr to Cobo winery, just outside the village of Berat. I still fight with Google Maps, and once inside the town of Fier, I pull over at a roundabout to look at my phone to make sure I don’t miss a turn. Two men drinking coffee at a cafe just 20 feet from me wave at me, then shrugging their shoulders. It’s sign language for “do you need help” or “are you lost?”
I flip up my helmet and say hello. “Berat?” I say, likely too loud because I’ve still got my earplugs in. They point right and wave their hands up and down—straight there. I thank them and motor on.
Albanians are friendly.
The road gets rough. I’m in an industrial part of the city, heading toward tall mountains. I cruise through another roundabout and now have second thoughts. Was I supposed to turn? I pull over in the shady parking area of a tire store and pull out the phone. Two men emerge from the store and confirm, I’m on the right road. I joke with them, “can you check my tires?” They do and give me a thumbs up.
The road gets worse. The worse I’ve traveled to date. Massive potholes, buckling and cracks, so much so that cars coming from the opposite direction weave and skirt about trying to avoid the defects. It’s slow and hot. Just five kilometers from Cobo, the road improves.
The sign for Cobo Winery is easy to spot, but once inside the complex of three buildings, it’s not clear which is the winery. I park the bike, and a man guides me to the building, the third and furthest from the road.
I am hot, sweaty and tired. The owner and winemaker, Muharrem Cobo tells me to get comfortable. I change out of my riding gear and put on civilian clothes. It seems like I’ll be here a while. Muharren tends to a small group of Italians tasting wines and pairing them with olives and cheeses.
When the Italians leave, they purchase two cases of wine. I imagine if the restaurants on the coast saw this perhaps they would list more Albanian wines for sale. The Albanian wine is good enough for these Italians.
I tell Muharrem that the road from Fier was rough. He asks which way I traveled. He laughs and tells me I went the hard way. The other way is longer in kilometers, he explains, but the road is better and faster. Oh well, I guess my gut was right—I was on the wrong road, but also the right way as far as locals go.
“Even people from Fier, don’t use that road,” he says.
Beginning in the early 1900’s, Muharrem’s grandfather had a vineyard and made wine, but under the communist regime after World War II, all personal property appropriated to the state, and they discouraged winemaking.
In 1991, the communist regime toppled, and property returned to Albanian families. The Cobo family received about 1.5 hectares where they planted grapes in 1993. Muharrem and his brother lived in Italy at the time, but returned for one-month to harvest and make wine in 1998 and 1999 before moving back indefinitely in 2000.
As Muharrem guides me through the winery, showing me the fermentation room with some 30 sparkling stainless steel fermentation tanks, then opening a large wooden door revealing the barrel room and cellar. “We don’t have bottles dating back to 1998 and 1999 because then we only sold open wine,” he explains showing me the library wines in the cellar. The 2000 vintage was the first that Cobo bottled.
With a focus on quality and indigenous varietals, he convinced one of Tirana’s best restaurants to sell his wine, and with this success in 2003, the family secured a loan to build the winery, which they completed in 2006.
The tasting room has high ceilings with massive wood beams, and plenty of wine fills four large oval cask-shaped. Original artwork–paintings—from the 1970’s and 80’s is displayed throughout the tasting room. And displayed on a large wooden credenza at the front of the room is a golden plate proudly commemorating Cobo’s “Award of Excellence.” Two separate rooms with lower tiled roofs are tucked into the corners and serve as a kitchen and office. Up a small flight of stairs is a wine cellar.
Muharrem brings me a glass of his new love, a sparkling wine made from a unique Albanian varietal known as Pulës, that he named Shendevere. He is proud of this wine and shows me a video he produced to announce the first vintage, just last year. Now in the second vintage, he explains that the word Shendevere comes from two Albanian words, ‘shende,’ which means health, and ‘vere’ which means wine. Yet, together the words form an old Albanian saying which means “full of joy, happiness.” He explains that when you are feeling great, or you see someone who makes you feel great, you feel “Shendevere.” I sense that Muharrem has a knack for marketing and branding. He tells me it is just instinctual and natural to him.
The sparkling Shendevere is crisp, fragrant and with tiny bubbles, but I sense Muharrem is unhappy. He asks me, “You like?” I tell him, yes, and he says, “but it is better.” He tells me someone opened this bottle yesterday and while it’s drinkable, it doesn’t have the life he expects. He returns with another glass.
Wow. Now I am drinking an altogether different wine and one of the best sparkling wines I’ve tasted in some time. He shares with me his plan to eventually make and offer for sale everything that can be produced from grapes. This sparkling wine is his newest passion. He then shows me three barrels of brandy he’s made from grapes that have been aging in these barrels for five years. “I think next year, I will bottle.”
Later he lets me taste the brandy, and it’s creamy, complex, and while still resolving in the barrel, it exudes quality and balance. Smooth.
“You want to taste everything?” he asks. I do, but I’m riding a motorcycle. He knows, and I explain I must be careful so I might spit the wine after tasting. He looks at me funny.
“You stay in Berat?” he asks referring to the Ottoman town tucked under a Byzantine fortress just down the road. I am, but as always on these long journeys, I haven’t made a hotel reservation.
“Ah,” he smirks, “just 12km down the road!” he laughs, “You only spit if you don’t like the wine.” Now I feel I’m under pressure and don’t want to offend him. So I taste—and drink, but he brings me a dump bucket, so I am not obliged to drink all of the wine.
We taste two white wines, a Pulës, and a Bardha e Beratit, both are clean, balanced and smooth, but the Pulës stands out with good acidity, lots of pear, pineapple and a weightiness that reminds me of Viognier.
He pours me two reds, a Shesh i Zi, from grapes in southern Albania and a wine made from E Kuqja e Beratit, or the red wine of Berat. Neither of these wines has touched any oak, and yet they have structure, good acidity, and lovely fruit. They are elegant and showing distinct flavors that come from the terroir of their origin.
He then pours the big guns. First, he pours me the Cobo Kashmer a blend of Shesh i Zi, Cabernet and Merlot, and then a reserve wine based on the same blend.
Muharrem explains that he created Kashmer so to convince locals to try Albanian wines. He explains that if he used the varietal name on the wine, that most locals would brush it aside as a cheap Albanian wine. So he blended the first syllables as well as the wine from the grapes to produce and brand the wine. Cabernet (Ka) Shesh i Zi (She), and Merlot (Mer) — Kashmer. Once again relying on his gut to promote and market quality wine to an audience predisposed to judge Albanian wine as cheap house wine that should cost no more than €3 for 500ml.
Later, I’m treated a special barrel tasting of another varietal unique to Albania, Vlush — a dark, thick-skinned grape, that is intensely aromatic and full-bodied, yet with a light brick red color that is deceiving considering its complexity and structure.
I’m impressed by all the wines at Cobo. But the Vlush and reserve blend positively opened my eyes and my palate to Albanian wines, and I wonder why those restaurants on the Albanian Riviera in Sarande aren’t promoting them.
“They make more money on Italian wines,” Muharrem tells me. “They can mark-up Italian wines three maybe four times, Albanian maybe one and a half or two.”
After the tasting Muharrem drives me to a new plot of vineyards, he is in the process of planting. It’s a 15-kilometer drive to a tiny dirt road, and then we climb some 400 meters in elevation to a terraced hillside vineyard with chalky soil where panoramic views at the top show the stunning landscape of the mountains in the distance, and to the villages nestled along the river winding below. Today, the oldest wines here are about three years old, so the fruit from these vineyards will not be ready for two or three years.
We meet one farmer working and helping Muharrem realize his dream to plant the 27-hectare vineyard with indigenous Albanian varietals. He hands me a grape from a vine of Vlush, then takes a handful and squeezes them until the dark red juice stains his hand.
But Muharrem has another dream: to build a unique eco-guesthouse among the vineyards. But he has bigger plans. He will plant vegetables, fruit and tend to goats and other farm animals. His idea is to create an experience where everything comes from the land—visitors and guests will taste and experience everything from this land—there will be fish, of course, he tells me, but it will come from the nearby sea.
Lighting flashes and the dark black clouds open and rain begins to pelt us. Back at the winery, we arrive in a blackout, no power. Today, the storm is especially precarious as a wedding at the winery didn’t allow for a contingency plan. It’s a cousin of Muharram who is getting married.
The rain stops and later the power comes back on. The bride is happy, and the party continues.
It’s a grand vision, and in Muharram, I sense a passion and desire to create, build, and promote an Albania that is sincere, deep, and seducing. No wonder, as it’s these words, he uses to explain Cobo, the family, the wine, and the experience.
It’s exciting to discover here in a country that just over 25 years ago was under one of the most brutal dictatorships (think like North Korea) people like Muharrem and his family who are changing the face of Albania and are bringing new ideas that everyone in the country—and the world—should stand up and say “Bravo”.
Oh, and that’s what I hear from most everyone I meet in Albania, “Bravo.” The Italian influence here in Albania is hard to ignore. This is Albania, people, wine, and dreams.