Walking Through Some Of The Oldest Vineyards In Serbia—Vinarija Vujic

Riding through the bucolic Serbian countryside, crossing rivers, flanking mountains, and drifting across valleys, it takes just over two hours to ride to Aleksandrovac. The small city is nestled into the hills which today are showing beautiful fall colors of orange, yellow and red.

As I get closer to the city center, I smell the unmistakable aromas of harvest; the pressing of wine and the resulting must. I see several trucks loaded with grapes, and others with empty bins, likely heading into the hills where vineyards are ripe for picking.

I am meeting the vineyard manager from Vinarija Vujic, a small boutique winery outside of town. Because it’s difficult to find and is not yet set up as a tourist destination like Virtus and Depotika, we arranged to meet by a statue of a vineyard harvest worker somewhere on the plaza in Aleksandrovac’s pedestrian promenade.

The city and surrounding Zupa wine region is tucked into surrounding hills in southwestern Serbia. There are no major roads that lead here, and the quiet city counts just over about six thousand residents. “People don’t ever pass by Aleksandrovac,” says Vinopedia founder Tomislav Ivanovic, “you must choose to  come.” Tomislav made that choice for me when he showed me photographs of gnarly vines from some of the oldest vineyards in Serbia.

I find a statue, but it’s a World War II memorial, so I ask a group of men sitting by the figure if they know where the harvest statue is. They greet me with blank stares. Nobody speaks English. I pull out my phone and show them the photo of the statue Tomislav sent me. In unison, they point down the sidewalk.

I walk down, and in moments two men and a boy greet me. It’s the vineyard manager, Bora, his thirteen-year-old son Andreja, and Dusan a local who offered to translate since neither Bora or Andreja speak English. Before riding the few kilometers to the vineyard and old wine cellar, we enjoy a coffee and chat at a sidewalk cafe.

Bora explains that the vineyards belong to his wife’s family and date back eighty or one hundred years. He says it’s difficult to know exactly how old they are, but they know his wife’s grandfather first planted them around the time of World War II. Gmitar, the grandfather, fought along the Salonica Front, (Thessaloniki), and later died at the young age of thirty-six years old.

He left the vineyard to his children who all but Bora’s father-in-law showed no interest in the vineyard. The grandfather passed down the vineyard to his children, who all took a small parcel. Now divided into small plots, the father-in-law set out the painstaking process to purchase the vineyard from his siblings. He then took over and maintained the vineyards. In the old cellar dating back to 1875, he also found barrels of Tamjanika. He acknowledges that his father-in-law kept the cellar intact and saved the old vines from destruction.

Enjoying coffee and conversation on the plaza in downtown Aleksandrovac in southwestern Serbia in the midst of the Zupa Valley.

During the time of socialist Yugoslavia, the state set out to replant and replace indigenous varietals with easier growing and higher yielding international varietals. Because of its remote location and steep and rocky terrain, the government didn’t interfere here in Aleksandrovac. That’s how these vineyards survived socialism.

At the time, the grandfather planted the vineyards in ancient varietals including ha red grape, Prokupac grape, and a white, Tamjanika. Anywhere else in Serbia, vineyards planted with these grapes are just twenty or thirty years old.

Because of the rarity and age of the family’s vineyard, the government now registers and lists the vineyard as protected and an essential part of Serbia’s cultural and agricultural heritage.

Though just a few years ago Bora admits he and his wife considered pulling out the old vines and planting something else. In 2014 when his father-in-law died, Bora lived in Slovenia and worked for a winery. They returned to Aleksandrovac, inspected the vineyards, and that year decided to keep the vines, cellar and make wine.

They soon continued the legacy of the family and set out to tend to the wild vineyard. Bora tells me that with its south facing position and rocky soil, it’s ideal for Prokupac. “The vines prefer rock and stone over soil and dirt,” he says.

As we talk, a cat walks by. Excited to express my limited Serbian vocabulary, I blurt out, pointing at the feline, “Mačka!” Everyone laughs. I then say in Serbian, not a dog, it’s a cat. Bora is still laughing. I show him photos of my cat, Dar, who has a bit of Instagram fame. Soon Bora is showing me pictures of a black cat in his family.

There is a vibrant wine culture in this town and Zupa. The biggest event here is a wine harvest festival, Zupska berba, where local wineries and businesses set up booths along the pedestrian path we’re sitting. It’s called ‘wine street.’ Nearby, during the festival, they fill a fountain with wine. Young girls dressed as wine goddesses pour wine from the “wine fountain” to all.

The statue of the grape picker stands proudly between the World War II memorial I first encountered here and another memorial dedicated to those like Bora’s grandfather-in-law who fought in World War I.

“I think it tells a story that the vineyard worker stands between the two wars,” remarks Dusan, the translator. “Wine is peace, and it connects us.”

I follow the three to the vineyard and the old cellar, just a few kilometers up in the hills. The last 500 meters are so are on a dirt road, and then up a steep driveway. I park next to the cellar and a farmhouse.

Bora and his wife Radica live in a smaller village about eight kilometers from Aleksandrovac. They both work in the vineyard every day. They do everything by hand, using no herbicides, pesticides, or machinery.

Bora proudly shows me the plaque presented to them by the government proclaiming the protected status of the vineyard. It states, “The Republic of Serbia Ministry of Agriculture, Forests, and Waters. The Vineyard is Protected Under the Protection of the Republic and Ministry.”

With the late afternoon sunlight casting an orange glow over the hills, we take a hike through the vineyards to see the old vines. We pass Bora’s wife Radica, who is picking grapes from a row of younger vines near the farmhouse. The path is rocky and steep and gets narrower as we walk. We then hike up several meters, pass a large tree, all the while passing old vines—but not THE old vines.

“You climb up and down these hills every day?” I ask Bora. He laughs, and I remark how good shape he is in. There’s no need for this guy to go to the gym, the vineyard is his fitness center.

The vineyard is not terraced like others that sit on steep slopes like these. Careful not to lose our footing, we slide down a steep part and land in the oldest part of the vineyard. They seem to have planted the vines all over the entire vineyard in a random array, with no order or reason. In front of me, I snap photos of vines, gnarly, thick, and with character. All the grape leaves have changed to beautiful fall colors of deep yellow, dark red, and amber.

Bora’s wife Radica harvesting some of the family’s younger vines while we go hiking through the old vineyard.

Look at the soil, it’s chalky white. Doesn’t look so good but for Prokupac it’s perfect!


It’s Bora’s passion to take care of these ancient vines. Unfortunately, due to time, I will not have a chance to meet the winemaker, Dejan Vujic—but we’ve connected on Facebook and Instagram. Bora leads me to one vine, plant nearby and pushing back some leaves shows me a small red line that the government inspectors painted to mark as one of the oldest and under protection. We hike down further and see more vines with the red mark.

I’ve seen nothing like this in all my years of visiting vineyards, wine regions, and wineries. These are definitely wild vines—and my tour guide Bora is the master who tames them, and at the same time, lets them be free.

I go crazy with my camera, taking picture after picture. Yet I believe none of my photographs can capture the location and the vines. I look to the hills on the other side of the valley. Also painted with the colors of fall, across the valley I see vineyards falling into clefts in the hillside. Some hills have no vines at all.

Bora points to a grove of trees just on the other side of the road where we came in. He plans to level the area and build a parking lot. And in the hundred-year-old houses dotting the vineyards, most dilapidated and crumbling, he tells me he will convert into a hotel and guesthouses.

Bora has a vision and big plans for his little slide of Zupa. From my view here high in the old vineyard, it looks like he has a lot of work ahead.

Vujic Winery vineyard manager Bora Pribanovic points to an ID tag that marks the oldest vines in the family’s protected vineyard outside Aleksandrovac in the Zupa valley in southwestern Serbia.

We hike back to the farmhouse and the old cellar where we step down and cram inside among barrels and bottles. Bora asks me which wine I would like to taste.

Vinarija Vujic produces just two wines, the white Tamjanika, and a red, Prokupac. Total production for the small winery is a paltry 10,000 liters (15,000 bottles or 1,200 cases per year). I’m standing in the 150-year-old cellar of an authentic Serbian boutique winery. Looking around, there is no fancy tasting room or glossy brochures. And Vinarija Vujic doesn’t even have a website, save its Facebook page and an Instagram feed. The entire place feels genuine and like a museum. And the vines outside are part of Serbia’s winemaking heritage.

 

With a pop, he pulls the cork out of a bottle of 2017 Tamjanika. He shows me he doesn’t use a capsule to seal and cover the top of the bottle. Instead, he seals the cork with a small dot of a wax-like material. “You can eat this,” he tells me and points out proof from laboratory tests and certification by both the Swiss and Serbian governments.

He uses one-hundred percent natural yeast, and the wines go through spontaneous fermentation, requiring him to manually punch down the wine three times every day. It’s a risky but natural approach—though he filters the wine.


Tasting Wine In the old (circa 1875) Cellar at Vujic Winery


“We do not expect to get rich money or famous from our wines,” he tells me. “My ambition is just to do the business right and make the wine naturally, so our customers and wine lovers taste and enjoy a wine pure and fresh as possible.”

“I do everything myself, and I learn, and every year I will progress, and every year, I hope the wine will be higher quality than the previous.

The Tamjanika is crisp, showing aromas of citrus and sour apple. On the palate, it shows some weight with tree fruit flavors and a hint of orange zest and pineapple. He aged the wine entirely in stainless steel, never touching oak. Yet it has the structure, and power oak often gives to white varietals. Bora tells me it still needs another six months of rest in the bottle.

“I like it Bora, but I don’t think I can wait,” he laughs.

He calls his son, Atzo. “I thought his name was Andreja?” Dusan tells me Atzo is a nickname for most anyone whose name begins with the letter “A.” He asks Atzo to fetch his business card, so we swap cards and email addresses, and I promise to send him all the photos.

He next pulls the cork on a bottle of Prokupac. I’m surprised at the dark purple color, staining the glass. I wonder if it looks so dark because we’re in the cellar, so I step into the doorway and look in the light. It’s opaque purple. Wow.

It’s incredibly aromatic with notes of ripe cherry and blackberries. On the palate, it is a cherry bomb around a core of spice, white pepper, and plum. It’s more concentrated than any Prokupac I’ve tasted to date. I feel I can taste its wildness—the wilderness and this place. The tannins are powerful yet smooth, and the wine is well structured and yet with good balance.

Bora smiles as I talk about the wine. I feel he understand what I’m saying. He never stops smiling, and his infectious laugh is deep and throaty. He is very proud and tells me happy that I’ve come to his vineyard and taste his wine.

Before I leave, Andreja wants to take a picture of my motorcycle—so I take a few pictures of him next to it. Then Bora hands me two bottles of wine—one each of the Prokupac and Tamjanika as a gift. I’m humbled and thrilled I made the journey to this remote part of Serbia. We take more photos by the motorcycle. They invite me and hope I return next year for the “Fountain of Wine” at the Zupska Berba harvest festival.

Yes, it’s a long goodbye at Vinarija Vujic. But with the sun setting and the long drive to Nis, I fire up the engine, kick Doc into first gear and wave backward as I ride down the steep driveway.

As I head down the dirt road, I look to the left, grabbing one more glance at the wild old vineyard and think about Bora’s late father-in-law and how he too, like the other Serbian winemakers I met so far, must also have had a vision—to work so hard to keep the vineyard in the family.

 


Vinarija Vujic
Velja Glava, Aleksandrovac
+381 62 47 28 77

Follow Vujic on Instagram

 

Riding Footage With Commentary From Virtus to Vujic on worldrider.tv

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