I ride just over an hour, and after crossing the great Morava River, I get closer to my next destination Virtus Winery outside the town of Svilajnac, southeast of Despotika, near Vitezevo, a small village named after the medieval knights who there prepared to battle the Ottoman Turks—Vitez is the Serbian word for knight. I’m here at the suggestion of Women and Wine founder Mirjana, to meet Virtus winemaker Milorad Halavanja.
My GPS guides me to make a sharp twenty degree turn down a dirt road. I see no vineyards, but high brush flanks the road. I stop, check the GPS thinking I might have missed a turn, but no this looks right. So I motor down the road and in just a few hundred meters I come to a tall crush pad next to a modern building both surrounding a bright green grassy courtyard. At first, I see no one. After a moment a guy shows up wearing tall rubber farmers’ boots and sporting a smile. He looks at the bike, smiles, and gives me a thumbs up.
Wearing a ball cap and a Nike shirt, he’s from France but speaks no English. I have no command of the French language, and lacking in Serbian, but manage to ask him if Milorad is around. He’s not. So I call him. It turns out he left the vineyard, forgetting I was coming. He had to help his wife as his daughter got sick and had to leave school early. He suggested I stay the evening in town and meet in the morning. I’ve got to be in Aleksandrovac tomorrow by two o’clock, a two-hour ride if I don’t get lost. He books me a room at the Talija, and we agree to meet tomorrow at 10 AM.
Before leaving my French friend asks if I would like coffee. I slip into a small room with a stove top, a refrigerator, and a table. Two other women workers are sitting in the room. And a few moments later Radisa, another vineyard worker, shows up. He also speaks no English, but we manage to communicate. Before In my finish my coffee he’s guiding me down to the Virtus cellar and tasting room.
The first thing I notice as my new friend show in the wine portfolio of Virtus is a bottle of Marselan. The only other time I have seen Marselan was at the Stari Podrum at Plantaze in Montenegro. Created by crossbreeding Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, France had recognized it since the 1960s when they created it, and in 2007 it became legal to bottle and sell it as a single varietal. The next thing I notice is quite a few new barrels of American Oak.
After I make my way back to Svilajnac a large town that sits in Central Serbia along the Great Morava river and surrounded by natural and pastoral beauty. Nearby there are medieval monasteries and natural resources such as spring waters and waterfalls. It doesn’t take long to find the Talija Guest House and Restaurant. The manager guides me to a parking space in front of the guest house where there’s a camera, and it will be in full view of the night security watch.
Inside the restaurant, which also serves as a reception and check in, I find an old BMW inside the front door. The restaurant is large and loaded with memorabilia and kitsch. After unpacking and refreshing, I settle in at a table and order a beer. A quick review of the wine list I realize it’s light on local varietals. So I ask the bartender and the server if they have any Prokupac. I’m greeted with silence and a shrug.
“What?” They both speak good English.
“Prokupac?” I explain this is an indigenous varietal, but I feel this falls on deaf ears. Then I remember I have a bottle on my bike. Milos told me to introduce and share Prokupac with someone who had yet to try it. So I pull the bottle off my bike and ask them to open it.
“It’s strong,” the waiter says.
The bartender says, “It’s very dry, but I like it.” They are curious and ponder the label. They’ve never heard of Despotika. So I ask them about Virtus. They don’t know Milorad’s wines either. I couple with two children sitting nearby are curious. They ask if it’s my motorcycle parked outside. So I share a glass of Prokupac with them. They like it.
I guess I’m doing my job to spread the word of Prokupac and quality Serbian wine. I’m sure Tomislav would approve.
I make the sharp turn and roll down the dirt road and park my car next to the crush pad at Virtus Winery. Deja Vu. I meet the winemaker Milorad Halavanja. In his mid to late thirties, with a shaved head and wearing a vest over a grey hoodie. Speaking excellent English, he is self-assured, and as my questions evolve into a discussion, he reveals a sincere and certain humbleness when discussing the history of his winery.
Milorad started Virtus with its first harvest in 2013. To date, they have about fifteen acres under vine that are mature and producing wine today. “We harvest about six tons of grapes per hectare or about one and a half kilograms per vine. This is our philosophy. Like others, we believe quality wine starts in the vineyard.”
He chose the Latin word “Virtus” as the name because it means courage. He admits that “We needed a lot of courage to get into this business.”
“We are still learning from every year,” he admits. “I came here as a young winemaker, and I didn’t know too much.” In the early stages of Virtus, he had mentors and brought in consultants from other wine producing countries.
“Today we have carved out a small place in the Serbia wine business, some people recognize us,” he says proudly. “But they do not recognize us as a top winery; we do not that big of a name, or brand.
I tell him they surprised me that not only did the Talija restaurant not have any Virtus wines on its list, but the servers did not know what Prokupac was. He admits he forgot to tell me to go to a different restaurant, but oh well. It’s okay.
“We are only beginning our wine renaissance here in Serbia,” he reflects and ponders the work and opportunity ahead. “In Serbia, everything comes late. Fashion and music. But wine is an ancient thing, one of the oldest in civilization.”
Contemplating Serbia’s past, he understands that Serbia does “have a nice winemaking story. Fifty years ago we had over 100,000 hectares of vineyards. Today we have less than twenty-five percent of that. We had problems with wars and politics. This created huge economic problems, and everything was destroyed.”
Seeing possibilities for Serbia rather than more problems, he speaks confidently. “We have enormous potential for not only wine but for growing food, too.”
He acknowledges fellow wineries Radovanović, Aleksandrovic, and Kovačević ushered in the Serbian wine renaissance as the first to focus on the production of quality wine. “We have older wineries here, but those are low price, low quality. The real renaissance started about twenty-five years ago.”
Milorad explains that these three are also the wineries with the most production of quality wines. “These guys paved the way for new wineries,” he says. These wineries proved that there is profit potential in the wine business. “It’s one of the noblest production businesses, so by showing it works, they encouraged others to get into the wine business.”
Over the years, more and more people with capital invested in the wine business. “Everyone can make a profit, but it’s difficult. Today we have about sixty wineries with production capacities from thirty thousand to a half-million liters. They all making quality wine.” He names several wineries so fast I cannot catch all of them; Matalj, Janko, Jeremic, Temet, and others.
I ask him what the most difficult challenges in his business are. “We are a poor country. And every year we have to take a big bit of cake,” he says, “we must import everything including corks, bottles, tanks, and barrels.” Even the Serbian oak barrels are made in other countries from wood exported from Serbia. “It’s hard to find good people to work.”
Serbia is a small country, so as wineries increase production, they must find other markets. “We must export, but Serbia is not a big brand in the world of wine. So it’s harder to export premium quality wine at a higher price. It’s a tough business.”
Every year Serbia wineries garner more and more awards. Decanter Magazine has awarded Virtus with a number medals, along with several other Serbian Wineries. “This is the most important competition because it’s regarded as the best in all of Europe,” he says. “This is just a start to getting people to realize Serbia can make fine wine.”
Of all the countries from the former Yugoslavia, Milorad feels Croatia and Slovenia are in the best position to grow its wine industry. “Croatia is in a good position because they have more indigenous varietals, which can tell a different story.” He feels Slovenia has a rich tradition and culture of drinking wine. “Slovenians drink thirty to forty liters of wine per capita. In Serbia, we drink between ten and twelve.”
Wine consumption is growing in Serbia, but Milorad feels the young people are not buying higher quality wine. “Maybe five liters of that is good wine, the rest they buy cheap wine on the shelf for one or two euros and take home. But when they are out at dinner, they buy the quality wine because they want to their friends and colleagues to see them drinking good wine.”
To change this, Milorad insists that the Serbian wine industry must continue to progress and educate people on how to understand and appreciate wine. “We are not here just to produce wine,” he shares with me more of his philosophy. “I want to develop wine tourism. Later, we walk around the winery. He points to his landscaping, the terrace view over the vineyard, and the tasting room that’s tucked into the hillside and features floor to ceiling glass looking toward the vineyard. “This is different and original in Serbia.”
We walk upstairs to the crush pad, along the way, pointing to another part of the winery where he plans to build comfortable apartments. A green tractor pulling a trailer full of grapes whisks by below us as we walk. In the crush pad, the sound of pumps, hoses dragging against the floor, and the muted sound of Serbian language drown our conversation. It’s all the sound of harvest, and the workers line up, asking questions, and looking for direction.
Afterward, we retreat to the terrace where our conversation evolves to the wines of Virtus.
“When we started it’s hard okay everyone told us we need to produce something local,” he says. “Sure, I can show you something local, but I don’t have too many choices.”
“In Serbia, we are not fortunate enough to have many indigenous varietals. For white, we have Smederevska, and there is Tamjanika. For red, we have Prokupac, an ancient varietal, especially from Zupa.” He is quick to point out that in Novi Sad scientists at the university have developed a number of new Serbian varietals such as Morava and Sila as well as Probus and Neoplanta which I had a chance to taste a few days ago.
“We need to have a story, something unique,” he concedes.
Today Virtus produces wine from just seven different varietals: Gerwurtztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Prokupac, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and Marselan. How he came to decide on those was through calculated reasoning and planning and not only a whim or what the market wants.”
“We wanted something exotic. Sure, Pinot Grigio might not be exotic, but in Serbia it is. And we thought about Tamjanika, but there is a lot of it planted in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. Lots of competition. So from a commercial view we planted Gewurztraminer, it’s an aromatic varietal and not widely planted here, and we thought it would be exciting.”
I taste the Virtus Gerwurtztraminer. It has nice viscosity, beautiful aromatics and on the palate, it is dry with the sweetness I typically get from Gerwurtztraminer. “For us, it has to be dry, and we have maybe just a few grams of residual sugar. But we want to make that surprise moment for the consumer. It smells sweet, but when you taste it, it is dry. Surprise!”
When he tells me the bottle was opened five days ago, I’m blown away. I’m particularly sensitive to oxidation from wines open even just one day before, regardless of any effort to suck the air out of the bottle by pumping or use of inert gasses. This is my surprise.
He tells me that the idea of Marselan came from one of his mentor consultants who felt the climate and soil were ideal here, so he took a chance. “With Marselan, I think we may have hit a bullseye,” he smiles as he pours me a taste of the Virtus Marselan.
I swirl the glass, indulge in the aromas of black cherry, milk chocolate, and a hint of vanilla. I sip and swoosh the wine around my mouth. It’s medium bodied with silky smooth tannins. I taste black cherry, butterscotch, and a hint of herb and spice and scarcely any oakiness.
Milorad tells me the Marselan is well received in Serbia. It’s priced well at less than ten euro, and it has a deep ruby red color yet is balanced with medium tannins. “I age the wine for twelve months in oak. We use a blend of American, French, and Serbian Oak.”
He says over the past few years he’s found the ideal recipe for his Marselan. He blends the different oaks because each offers a different character. “We take something from each oak. The American oak helps the wine mature faster while giving it nice vanilla notes. He uses the lighter medium toast on the American oak to control the smokiness. The French oak contributes to its structure and keeps the varietal aromas intact. And the Serbian oak fits in-between.”
Overall, Milorad aims to let the expression of the varietal exhibit its very best while still showing the character of this location and terroir. Virtus, he envisions will have a single vineyard Prokupac in the future. While he has fifteen acres planted, he tells me they have thirty more acres ready to plant. “It’s difficult to predict what will work in twenty years. But if we plant or try something new, we must wait at least five years after planting to see the results.” Again, he shows his analytical mind calculating.
Other than the single varietal wines Virtus produces, he also makes a red blend and a white blend. “We call them ‘Credo,’ which is Latin for “believe.” The white is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and a little Gerwurtztraminer. The red blend “Credo” is a premium blend of Prokupac 30%, Marselan 30%, Cabernet Sauvignon 30% and Pinot Noir 10%, and he bottles Credo only in the best vintages.
It’s early in the morning, and I’ve got a long ride today, so I will not taste more wine. But I want to. The Virtus wines are, and I appreciate the calculated thinking. Milorad has two young children, and I sense he’s building a wine future for them and their children.
“The Serbian wine renaissance is now. We must have patience. It will not happen overnight. Not even ten years,” he tells me. “Last year I visited some France chateaus, and the first thing I noticed was the smell of tradition—We don’t have that, yet. But we will have for future generations. It’s not a job for us; it’s a job for our children.”
I glance at my phone. It’s almost noon. I’ve got a long ride, as Tomislav already told me, to the middle of nowhere. I gotta move.
I’ll be back. Virtus is on the leading edge. Watch them!
12374 Žabari, Serbia
+381 35 283003
Guest House Talija
Dimitrija Katića bb
vilajnac 35210 Serbia
+381 35 8815050