From Banker to Blogger: The Challenge & Opportunity For Serbian Wine (and it’s good)

Leaving is always tough. There’s ever the fear I missed something. I wonder about Novi Sad. Sadly, I cannot see and experience all the possibilities. Instead, I relish the memories and new friends made here in Novi Sad and move on—promising and intending to stay connected with all. I like this town.

Tonight in Belgrade I will meet one of the top wine bloggers in all of Serbia. Ivica’s contact Natasa is busy coordinating an event outside Belgrade, so she referred me to Tomislav Ivanovic. Mirjana also connected me with Tomislav. The wine community in Serbia is a tight-knit group of passionate and friendly people.

The just over an hour ride from Novi Sad to Belgrade takes me over the Žeželj Bridge and through the countryside and into the city and traffic. Relying on my iPhone GPS to get me to my hotel, I after circling for fifteen minutes downtown, I discover that because it’s on the pedestrian zone there’s no way to ride there. Instead, it directs me to a multilevel parking garage. This won’t work for me, so I regroup and search for another option.

I end up at the Hotel Majestic, which is also on the pedestrian mall, but it has a small garage accessible by riding on a lower pedestrian zone. I must negotiate past closely-spaced bollards and ride about one hundred meters down the wide promenade. Tomorrow, the local BMW dealer, Radulovic expects to see me and my motorcycle Doc tomorrow morning. I’ve been carrying a bagful of parts for my swing arm, including new bearings. After riding 160,000 kilometers (100,000 miles) on Doc, it’s just time for another Balkan bike maintenance day.

Tomislav meets me at my hotel, and we walk fifty meters down the promenade to the Wine Lab wine bar. It’s narrow, cozy with a rustic feel thanks to an exposed brick wall on one side yet with modern furnishings and ambient lighting gives the space and air of sophistication. We grab a table toward the back, and it’s not long before our server pours us a glass of a Serbian sparkling wine.

Tomislav explains the sparkler we’re drinking is from a local white grape, Tamjanika, which is a clone of Muscat Blanc а Petits Grains. “This is a typical Mediterranean grape,” he says, “but it’s usually made in a sweet or semi-sweet style.” In Serbia, he tells me, it’s made bone dry and is popular in Serbia. Serbian wine drinkers don’t drink much sweet wine. He knows of just a few wineries that made a sweet wine as an experiment, but for only one vintage. “Tamjanika made in the dry style is typical Serbia. It’s a great entree into wine; it’s low alcohol and easy drinking.”

Our conversation shifts to the history of winemaking in Serbia where after World War II large cooperatives took over all wine production. “They wanted easy to grow grapes, so they replaced indigenous grapes with international varietals like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc, and they wanted large plantations.”

During the time of socialism, under the Yugoslavia federation comprised six republics, it was the fifth largest producer and exporter of bulk wine in the world. “Serbia produced one-third of that wine, the most of any other republic.”

You can tell by his shirt (in English too) that Tomislav Ivanovic is serious about wine. His story and ambition are an inspiration.

“We lost a lot of varietals,” he says. Though Tamjanika is not indigenous to Serbia, several old vineyards survived. “In Župa in the south of Serbia, where the rugged and hilly terrain is not so suitable for large plantation style vineyards, the government didn’t take the land from the farmers and rip up the small vineyard plots.

“Župa is in the middle of nowhere. You never drop by Župa because of its isolation. And thanks to that, these vineyards survived.” In this region, they have many traditional houses with wine cellars from the19th century. Now they are protected by the State for cultural heritage.” He says many of these are dilapidated, but people are investing and starting wineries.

It’s here we can now find hundred-year-old vines planted in Tamjanika and Prokupac, a red wine varietal indigenous to Serbia. This is how they saved those grapes. Tamjanika and Prokupac survived socialism

He finds it unfortunate that most people think of Slovenia and Croatia as wine growing countries, while Serbia remains mostly below the radar. Yet unlike Croatia where the vineyards are along with the coast or on the islands, with limited space for further vineyard expansion, all areas of Serbia are potentially suitable for expansion of vineyards.

The wine scene is young and vibrant in Serbia, and it’s growing. When Tomislav first blogged about Serbian and Balkan wine in 2009, wine consumption of Serbian people was about four to five liters a year per capita. “Today we drink twelve and a half liters per capita. We’ve nearly tripled in less than ten years. The progress is impressive.”

The number of wineries bottling wine is growing too. He explains that in the 1990s there were only three registered private wineries and a couple of large cooperatives left over from socialism. “Today we have almost four-hundred registered wineries. This is a big change.”

Tomislav admits that after the fall of communism, when Eastern Europe opened up, those received immense foreign investment from large wine companies in France, Italy, Germany, and Austria. They bought and converted all the large cooperatives in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania.

Our nearly three-hour conversation drifts from travel to politics and of course wine and the future for Serbia on the world’s wine stage.

“For example, in Romania, you have Antinori from Italy, and in Hungary Millésimes from Bordeaux all bought and invested in Eastern Europe. In the early nineties, Milosevic was still in power, and we were subject to sanctions—so nobody could invest in Serbia.”

Taking another sip of Tamjanika, Tomislav pauses for a moment, seeming to gather his thoughts. “This was difficult. We didn’t have big players with large budgets for promotion and technology.” Tomislav believes this created an opportunity for smaller and family wineries.

The first three families officially-recognized as registered wineries in Serbia are Podrum Radovanović, Vinarija Aleksandrovic, and Vinarija Kovačević. “They all experienced organic growth,” explains Tomislav. “They started with just a few hectares, maybe three or four. Now twenty years later, Aleksandrovic, for example, has about seventy hectares.”

“This is natural growth, year after year they slowly built their businesses. They never had big marketing budgets. It was all word of mouth. I like this because small wineries and their winemakers had the opportunity to find their spot on the market.”

Tomislav’s built his business and reputation in the wine business through his Vinopedia, and along the way has done his part to spread the word of Serbian wines all over the world.

“It’s a funny story,” he tells me how Vinopedia came about. “I was working at a bank.” I look at Tomislav and interrupt him, “Wait. You don’t seem like a bank guy.”

He says, “I agree.”

At the time a friend from Switzerland who was dating a Serbian woman and spending most weekends in Belgrade consulted him about moving to Belgrade and starting a business. He liked how Belgrade was everything Switzerland wasn’t. Instead of order and organization, Belgrade was free, open, and wild. “Many call Belgrade the new Berlin,” he says.

“I told him to learn Serbian, first.” Then after Tomislav shot down his plan of selling insurance, because the State controls all the pricing and insurance plans, his friend challenged him.
“Imagine what you would do if you didn’t work in a bank?”

For Tomislav, the answer was easy. “I would have a vineyard, live in the countryside, and enjoy the beautiful weather.”

His friend then had a big idea. “We should do something together. Maybe we should export Serbian wine to Switzerland.” Realizing that nobody in Switzerland, or elsewhere, knew anything about Serbian wine. No website or blog was covering Serbian wine existed at the time, so he suggested that Tomislav start a blog.

“You start the blog, and after three years, you become a famous blogger, and we build an online wine shop specializing in Serbian wine.”

So in 2009, Tomislav built a website and blogged about Serbian wine. To build credibility, he completed a sommelier course and then studied and earned a Wine & Spirit and Education Trust (WSET3) certificate. After four years, Tomislav becomes one of the most recognized and famous wine bloggers in Serbia.

Tomislav laughs about it today. He still worked at the bank when his Swiss buddy broke up with his Serbian girlfriend. “It would be stupid to stop writing. We never opened the online wine shop, but I continued blogging. In 2016, I took the chance to make the Vinopedia blog my profession.”

“I said to myself now it’s the moment to either continue working in the bank and keep Vinopedia as my hobby and forever stay silent. Or, I can give it a try to make it my profession.” He admits it was a significant risk. “I promised to try for two years. I could always go back to core banking, but I have to see if I can make this work.”

“We don’t have a lot of bloggers in Serbia, so if you’re diligent and serious, there is a chance to build credibility and become a top blogger.” The work and the risk paid off. In 2016, Vinopedia received the Best European Blog from the Millesima Blog Awards in Bordeaux. That same year he won the Best Wine Personality Award in Serbia. Today, Tomislav is among the top five wine bloggers and journalists in the Balkans.

The future of Serbia and its wine industry is being propelled by wine journalists and bloggers Tomislav, Mirjana, and to a degree Dusan. The rest is up to the winemakers and wineries.

Back to the sparkling wine bubbling in front of us, he tells me they produce only a few hundred bottles. I’m surprised at the low production and feel this is a rare wine.

“Production probably matches the market. In Serbia, we do not have a tradition of drinking sparkling wine—or Champagne. If you want sparkling wine in Central Europe, then you drink Spritz, “he explains, referring to the tradition of mixing low-quality white wine with sparkling water as I first experienced in Croatia.

“Most people don’t order a bottle of sparkling wine. They will make Spritz. It makes sense, especially in the summer where in the hot weather you can drink more and still work. The sparkling water gives freshness.”

We move on to another white wine crisp white made from Furmint, the grape grown in Hungary used to make Tokaj, but also grown in Serbia and made into a dry white wine. I tell him how my first ever bottle of dry non-Tokaj Furmint inspired my new project and curiosity about Eastern European wines. Even crazier, I had that bottle of Hungarian Furmint at a restaurant in Latvia.

Made by a Hungarian winemaker living in northern Serbia, the 2015 Dukay-Sagmeister comes from Furmint grapes he planted in Fruska Gora near Novi Sad. The wine is crisp, clean, and shows floral notes, peaches, and honey on the nose, and pleasant acidity, balance and tropical fruits on the palate. I wish I could find this in California.

The exciting thing for Tomislav is watching the next generation winemakers experimenting and trying new things. He recognizes there is much opportunity for Serbian wine, but there are also many challenges. The good news is wine consumption in Serbia grew nearly 300% (12.5L per capita) in the past ten years, but still pales compared to nearby Hungary (30L), and Croatia (30L), though Croatia’s massive tourist trade might skew its numbers.

“Young people are drinking wine,” he says, “beer is struggling here and elsewhere in Europe. They are trying to bring wine culture to beer with craft beer.”

He also feels the Serbian government now recognizes the economic and tourist potential of the wine business. “They now see that wine business is growing as an industry of Serbia and they are beginning to support winemakers with marketing and promotion, where in the past they only helped with equipment and infrastructure.”

In 2019, the Serbian government will sponsor, for the first time, organized presentations at ProWein, the largest international trade show the wine and spirits industry. During the presentation of Serbian wineries at Vinitech Fair, Tomislav presented a master class on Serbian wine at the Wine Museum in Bordeaux,

I pose the question as I have for many countries and regions I travel about a national identity grape. What grape or wine can the world potentially identify with Serbia? New Zealand built a reputation around Sauvignon Blanc, Argentina with Malbec, Australia with Shiraz, and to a degree, Chile with Carmenere.

“This is difficult,” he says. “We are a very vertical country with a cooler climate in the north and more Mediterranean in the south.” Like most winemakers, Tomislav is unwilling to commit; fearing that choosing a varietal would be at the expense of other varietals. While he has a point, I try to explain that just getting known for anything would bring awareness to Serbia as a wine-growing region.

Though he’s hesitant, I think Tomislav has already chosen without knowing. One of the red grape varietals that survived Yugoslavia socialism and its nearly fifty-year push for bulk industry wine is Prokupac. Fascinated by gnarly old vineyards in the southern region of Župa, and the creative winemakers work in producing elegant and quality wines from the grape, he created a day dedicated to the grape. “International Prokupac Day” began as an idea in 2016 when, together with a friend as part of Wine Identity initiative, he convinced a mixed group of about forty wineries, wine bars, restaurants, and retailers to promote the indigenous varietal by offering specials, discounts, and pairings.

Our server brings us two glasses of 2015 Prokupac from Vinogradi Nikolic from Aleksandrovac in the Župa valley in Southern Serbia. It’s nose of sour cherry, cassis, and blackberry is seductively aromatic, while on the palate it’s medium-bodied, balanced with good acidity and soft tannins.

“So I started Prokupac Day thinking what would be a flagship grape—something you can only find here in Serbia—and that’s Prokupac.”

“Prokupac is a vigorous grape, so it needs poor soil like rocky or limestone,” he explains. If the plant gets too much water, the berries get too big, and the wine loses its acidity. He tells me that for many Serbians, Prokupac still has an identity problem. Since Yugoslavia time, they used Prokupac for making bulk wine and spirits. Many used it to make a version of a high-alcohol Serbian cognac or rakija.

“Prokupac is a late ripening varietal,” Tomislav explains. “if you don’t let it ripen enough, it gets an undesirable green aroma, and the wine is unpleasantly tannic.” We sip the Prokupac in front of us. This one is hardly green and tannic. It’s balanced and elegant.

“Four of five years ago you would never find Prokupac on a wine list or by the glass at a wine bar.”

“The problem with Prokupac is that it was used for quantity, not quality. This image had to change. With more winemakers experiencing and making quality wine from Prokupac, people are changing.”

“The winemakers from Župa are getting better and experimenting with old vines,” Tomislav’s face lights up as he shows me pictures of fifty and hundred-year-old Prokupac vineyards, They don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen. There are no trellises or groomed rows. They are bush vines, growing wild. The closest thing I can compare it too is a head-pruned old zinfandel vine—but these are thicker, more primitive, and bigger.

“You must go to Župa and see,” he tells me. This time my eyes light up when he tells me he will refer me to some people who can take me to old vineyards.

Even with just forty participants, the first Prokupac Day succeeded. By the time he organized Prokupac Day 2017, he found it much easier to convince businesses to get involved. They invited some forty bloggers from all over the world to attend and write about it. A conference featured several speakers, notably Balkan and Eastern Europe wine expert and Master of wine Caroline Gilby.

Now people get it, he tells me. “People hear about it and want to help. This year he has recruited several bars and restaurants outside Serbia in Berlin, Budapest, Zagreb, Sofia and elsewhere. Every year there has to be something new and different in order to keep the wine-loving crowd interested and to keep the buzz about Prokupac.”

“When we talk about Prokupac, we talk about a wine that is not mine, but ours,” Tomislav explains how he convinced media support for International Prokupac Day. “This is the trick, and if we are talking about one or two wineries, they will look at that as promotion and want to be paid. But when we talk about Prokupac in general, this includes everyone.”

We try one more glass of Prokupac. Also from 2015, the Epigenia Prokupac from Toplicki Vinogradi in Prokuplje pack more power, but still is soft. I get a hint of oak in the mid-palate along with lots of blackberries, black cherry, and some spice and cinnamon. It’s slightly more tannic than the Nikolic.

Some winemakers use smaller 225-liter barrique barrels for aging Prokupac, but Tomislav feels the wine is more suitable for large barrels. He feels the grape is more sensitive to oak than Vranac or Cabernet.

As for the future of Serbian wine on the world stage, Tomislav feels that the United States can be a niche market. Not only are there Serbian communities in Chicago and California, he believes that Americans are more open to new or different varietal wines.

“People in France are conservative, and they don’t like to risk to taste new things,” he thinks. “But the problem with Serbia is we don’t produce large quantities of wine. We have only 25,000 hectares,” he laughs, thinking about it. “In Italy, some regions have more than that.”

Tomislav is a wealth of information and a passionate wine professional. We enjoyed an intense conversation and I know it will not be our first. Look for him on an upcoming WorldRider Podcast

As we close down Wine Lab, it occurs to me that the future for Serbian wine is more about the people than it is about production. In the past, the country poured its bulk wine all over the world. But that was crap. What I have tasted in the last two days shows there is more potential. Even more, the young energy I find in Tomislav and Mirjana combined with Serbia’s own openness to experimenting and trying new things, I believe Serbia as a country could be a boutique producer of wines—not just a few wineries—but maybe Serbia is a Boutique Country.

For now, though, I’m thrilled to be in what feels like the ground floor of a swelling movement. It’s clear here in Serbia. But other countries too. After being frozen in time because of the politics of socialism and communism, the Balkans and Eastern Europe are coming of age, and it’s exciting to watch and experience it as it matures.

 


WINE LAB Wine Bar
Obilićev venac 27
Beograd 11000, Serbia
+381 60 5112978

Majestic Hotel
Obilićev venac 28
Beograd 11000, Serbia
+381 11 3285777

Dukay-Sagmeister
Nikole Tesle 13
Kanjiža 24420, Serbia
+381 62 779664

Vinogradi Nikolic
Vitkovo 169
37230 Aleksandrovac Župski
+381 63 777 0633

Toplicki Vinogradi
Gojinovac BB,
18424, Prokuplje, Serbia
+381 27 8150092

 

 

 

 

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.