There’s a BMW dealer in Novi Sad. I whisk out of Ilok early packed and filled, hoping they can replace and install the new bearings for my swing arm. The woman with a pretty smile and seductive eyes at the border of Serbia hardly looks at my passport. She doesn’t ask for any documentation on my motorcycle. Just like that, I’m in Serbia.
Thanks to Ivica in Ilok I have a few contacts to follow up with in Novi Sad and Belgrade. Mirjana Maksimovic in Novi Sad is an educator and founder of Women and Wine, a local organization devoted to education, promotion, and awareness of Serbian wine and wine-related tourism. Though its name says “women,” the organization benefits everyone—especially the wine scene in Serbia. I’ve reached out to her for her ideas and thoughts on my Serbian exploration. The other woman, Natasa, is an organizer and promoter of wine and food-related events. I’ve reached out to both and feel good and thrilled to get a primer on Serbian food and wine.
I cross the Danube and follow a busy two-lane road through an agricultural and industrial area until I spot the BMW sign for Radulovic Group. With a modern showroom and a modest sized service area, I pull around back and walk into the garage. It’s Friday, and there is one motorcycle inside the garage and just a couple of cars. I see no service staff, so I wander into a breakroom.
The service manager inspects the authorized BMW OEM parts but advises me he is short manpower today and cannot help me until next week. Moments later, an older gentlemen rides up on an older BMW R1200 C. He’s got long dark hair that falls past his shoulders and wears leather fingerless gloves studded with metal. They both admire my motorcycle, and though the long-haired rider doesn’t speak English, the service manager tells me the guy is a local mechanic, and he has time and can do the job. His garage is a couple of miles down the road.
I consider the option but feel funny. So I’m hesitant. Listening to my gut, I pass and tell them I’m heading to Belgrade and am in contact with the BMW dealer there. The receptionist for the dealer, which also sells BMW cars, offers me an espresso and the password to the dealership’s speedy WIFI. I take a seat on one of the comfortable chairs bask in the air conditioning and free-flowing espresso and spend the next couple hours catching up on the blog, organizing photos, and researching my next stop. I hear from Women & Wine founder Mirjana in Novi Sad. She’s happy to share her expertise, and we agree to meet this evening at a Wine Therapy, a wine bar on the main road next to the Danube.
Find a simple hotel downtown just off the pedestrian zone. Parking is tight, but I wedge Doc between a couple of cars, unload and cover the bike.
After regrouping I walk around, pull some Serbian dinar from an ATM, and stroll the wide promenade along the Danube. With the serenity of the flowing river, wide bike lanes, and large pedestrian walkways and sidewalks, Novi Sad feels peaceful, vibrant, and with youthful energy. There are almost more bicycles than cars.
Three bridges cross the Danube in Novi Sad. In 1999, the US-led Nato air strikes destroyed all. I walk past the first, Varadin Bridge, where two Serbian naval ships float below. I cross the street just before I get to the next, the Zezelj Bridge which just opened this week, nearly twenty years after the bombing.
Opened in December Wine Therapy is a retail shop and wine bar tucked into the bottom corner of a residential building. Inside I meet Mirjana and here in on my first day in the country, I begin my Serbian wine education.
With a warm smile and welcoming eyes, Mirjana is bright, organized, and professional and matter-of-fact as she explains. A gifted storyteller, and passionate about wine and history, she is an educator and teaches marketing and business at the local university. She also freelances for business and advertising agencies. It doesn’t take long to see that Mirjana is most passionate about her Women and Wine organization.
She explains there are three primary grape-growing regions in Serbia with about 400 registered wineries. We are sitting in the shadows of one of those regions, Vojvodina, and at the foot of Fruska Gora, one of its sub-regions known. The gently sloping hills that drop into the Danube mark the Fruska Gora wine region, span the border and are shared with the wineries tucked into the little notch of land here belonging to Croatia—Ilok. Vojvodina stretches north to across the Pannonian Plain to the border of Hungary.
Vojvodina and the other two regions, Central Serbia and Kosovo, are all divided into regions and subregions. In 2010 there were just over 20,000 hectares planted in vineyards. Today there are about 25,000 hectares of vines planted in Serbia. In the 1980s there were 100,000 hectares of vineyards. Though before World War II, there were many more.
Serbia, as part of the former and larger state of Yugoslavia, was once one of the largest wine producing countries in the world. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the communist and socialist government chose to focus on quantity, not quality.
Mirjana tells me there are few old vineyards in Serbia.
“There was a law,” Mirjana explains, “that all grape growers had to sell their crop to NAVIP (Nacionalni vinski podrum), the state-run national wine cellar. Grape growers could not produce their own wine.” The state company produced the wine and paid growers in bulk wine.
“This was terrible wine,” Mirjana says. “If they pay for your grapes with cash—that is good—but if they pay you with bad wine—that’s not good.” So many grape growers pulled up their vineyards and planted fruit and vegetables.
She explains the wine was so bad the people turned to beer or rakija, which is cheaper to drink. If they drank wine, to make it palatable, they mixed it with sparkling water. “They made ‘spritz’ or ‘spritzer” with it,” I tell her my first experience with such phenomena in Croatia where they call it gemist.
“The government prohibited growers from making their own wine,” she tells me, “So we lost a lot of history, a lot of grape varietals. We have many documents and books about these grapes, but we don’t have the vineyards.”
This is too bad as there have been over two millennia of wine history here. Sitting at the crossroads of an important trade route from Eurasia and the Black Sea to the Adriatic, the Roman Emperor Probus first planted vineyards here in the third century—breaking Roman law set by Domitian in AD 92 prohibiting the planting of new vineyards.
Mirjana is hopeful that the old varietals will be destroyed. She tells me that they have the botanical descriptions of these grapes and that the Serbian Institute for Genetics is working to revive them.
There is one small vineyard less than a hectare where they discovered a rare indigenous varietal. Nearly extinct, the family who owns the Šijački Winery discovered just 150 of the rare vines in an old vineyard in the village of Banoštor. The Institute of Viticulture in Sremski Karlovci verified the origin and history of the grape called Sedusa. To date, the family has painstakingly saved the varietal from extinction and today is the only winery in the world bottling wine from this rare grape. There are now more than 2,500 vines planted.
“It is a red wine grape,” Mirjana explains, “but unlike most red grape clusters that variably change color as they ripen, Zelenika Sremska Crna stays green until it’s ripe and ready to pick. Once it turns dark purple or black, it’s time to harvest.”
Another grape varietal that survived over the millennia and perhaps even planted by Probus is Smederevka. Indigenous to Serbia, it’s a white named after the medieval city Smedevero also on the Danube about fifty kilometers from Belgrade in eastern Serbia.
As Mirjana continues to deliver this off-the-cuff lecture on Serbian wine history, she asks our server, Milos, to pop the cork of our first bottle of the evening, and the first Serbian wine I will taste. And with a loud pop, he presents a 2014 Aleksic Biser, a bottle of elegant sparkling wine from the Central Serbian winery Aleksic.
Aleksic is a young winery headed up by three young women—all sisters. “They are thinking outside the box,” Mirjana explains, “You are tasting history, Allan. This is the first time anyone made a sparkling wine from Smederevka!”
Biser means ‘the pearl’ and this wine is crisp, bright, and with its tiny bubbles, refreshing, and clean. 2014 was a tough vintage in Serbia, with lots of rain, cold temperatures, and little sun. This means the grapes don’t ripen enough and you end up with too much acid and not enough sugar. Thus, the grape yield in 2014 is the lowest on record for Serbia in the last ten years.
“So these women are brave, the first to make sparkling wine and from a tough vintage. They turned trouble into treasure,” she says, smiling.
We toast and clink our glasses. “There are two ways to say like “cheers” in the Serbian language. We have Ziveli, which means to life. But also we have U zdravlje, which means to health. To your health is the proper way.”
“The wine culture in Serbia revitalized in the last ten years. The number of registered wineries is growing too.” She explains that when most of Europe’s vineyards suffered blight and destruction by the nasty root louse Phylloxera, two vineyards in Serbia survived. The vineyards are planted in sandy soil where the bug can kill a vine, but cannot move to another, and therefore dies. At the time in the late 1800s, one of those vineyards in Negotinska Krajina in Eastern Serbia exported wine to France. So for many years the French, whose wine industry was nearly wiped out, drank Serbian wine.
With passion and determination, Mirjana’s mission seems to let the world know about Serbian wine. She understands that to accomplish this, she must start with getting local Serbian people to recognize and develop an interest in the burgeoning wine scene. She knows this should begin with education. So to help raise money for her Women and Wine organization while also bringing awareness to wine appreciation and Serbian wines, she developed a Wine Diary.
“I have a gift for you,” she says as she drops the nearly inch-thick, spiral-bound notebook on the table. They offer two versions of the wine diary, one featuring a photograph of white grapes on the cover and the other with red. In designing the diary, Mirjana made it bilingual (English and Serbian) and divided it into three sections. In the front, there’s a yearly calendar which notes wine-related events scheduled in Serbia and a brief treatise on how to taste and appreciate wine. The middle section includes dozens of pages, each featuring a template form (in English that guides people to making notes about the wines they taste. The last part comprises more pages for unstructured notes.
With Mirjana’s help, I complete my first entry in my new Wine Diary with notes about the Aleksic sparkling wine. As we sip the sparkler, Milos chills down Mirjana’s next pick for our Serbian wine exploratory, a white wine from Sijacki, a local producer here in the Fruska Gora part of Syrmia the village of Banostor.
Milos brings more glasses to the table, and it’s getting crowded, so he takes the ashtray away. It still is odd to see ashtrays in restaurants and bars, but here in the Balkans, people smoke—a lot.
He pours two glasses of the 2016 Sijacki Neoplanta, a white wine hybrid varietal created by a professor from the Novi Sad Faculty of Agriculture. Officially recognized in 1970, Professor Dragoslav Milosavljević created Neoplanta by crossing the native Serbian Smederevka with Traminer(also known as Gewurztraminer). He did this to balance the often highly acidic Smederevka with the intense aromatics and low acidity of Gewurztraminer. Its name, Neoplanta stems from the Latin name of Novi Sad, which means New Orchard, or New Plantation.
Made by the same family dedicated to preserving the Sedusa grape varietal, the Neoplanta is pale yellow and gold revealing beautiful aromatics of jasmine, honey nut with orange blossom and a hint of tangerine zest. On the palate, it’s crisp, and balanced with mild acidity with flavors of green apple, peach, and a hint of banana. Not complex, but a perfect summer patio wine.
The label for the 2016 Sijacki Neoplanta is whimsical and features four handprints of four young children representing the grandchildren from the owner’s son and daughter. Mirjana tells me that the 2017 Neoplanta will have six handprints as there are two more grandchildren. This is à propos because the wine represents a new varietal and the label a new generation. In many ways, Neoplanta is a wine for the new generation here in Serbia—and the world.
Though Professor Milosavljević crossed these grapes to create a varietal for the unique terroir and terrain of Fruska Gora, Mirjana tells me that few vineyards in the area are planted with Neoplanta. She says that’s because Neoplanta is hard to grow and very sensitive to cold temperatures. This is strange to me because in creating Neoplanta it appears that Milosavljević didn’t account for the cold climate of the region. Though today the climate is changing. While the region was known and produced great white wines, warmer teperatures every year give Fruska gora great potential for red grapes.
The phone rings and Mirjana excuses herself, while I gaze out over the Danube, sip my crisp and clean Neoplanta. After a few words in Serbian on the phone, Mirjana tells me in a few moments we can expect another: her nine-year-old niece, Lenka. When Lenka shows up her eyes sparkle as she flashes a big smile when we shake hands. In one hand she is carrying an abacus and in the other a notebook and a colorful pencil. Though she does not yet speak English, she’s wearing a shirt sporting a word that transcends language: “Love.”
Lenka spends many weekends with her aunt Mirjana and most of the summer. She’s funny, smart, and goes to work on her homework as we continue our Serbian wine discovery. Opening her workbook, she attacks mathematical problems using an abacus. She times how long it takes for her to complete each equation using the stopwatch on Mirjana’s Samsung smartphone. I’m impressed. I haven’t seen anyone use an abacus in years—let alone a nine-year-old girl sitting in a wine bar in Novi Sad Serbia. Mirjana explains that the abacus isn’t used in public schools in Serbia, but Lenka attends a private school specifically for math where she learns mental arithmetic and how to calculate with the abacus. This helps students later to mentally calculate much faster by visualizing the abacus.
For our next wine, we turn to another new varietal created by the Faculty of Agriculture in Novi Sad—Probus. Named after the Roman Emperor born in nearby in Syrmia and who is credited for bringing viticulture and planting the first vineyards here along the Danube.
Professor Milosavljević, along with his colleagues Dragoslav Milisavljevic, Sima Lazic and Vlada Kovac at the Faculty of Agriculture, created several hybrids in the 1970s and 1980s. They set out to crossbreed local indigenous varietals with top quality Western European grape varietals to improve the grapes and vines increase its resistance to cold winter temperatures and fungal disease. The team also sought to improve the overall quality of the grape and therefore the wine. To create the modern Probus varietal, they crossbred the local Kadarka grape with Cabernet Sauvignon.
We order a snack plate of local cheeses, meats, spreads, and some bread. I particularly like the Kulen, a local specialty pork sausage that is first smoked for several months and then air dried for many months more. The spice and flavors come from hot paprika and garlic. Yum. Also on the table are is a hummus-like spread made from chickpeas and sesame seeds from local organic producer Patewski, and some olives, and cherry tomatoes. The Neoplanta with its mild acidity pairs beautifully with the sausage.
Milos pours us a glass of 2016 Deurić Probus 276 from Fruska Gora. As I lift the glass toward my nose, the aromatics leap from the glass. It’s dense, powerful, and fruit forward with aromas of blackberry, ripe plum, vanilla, and dark cherry and a hint of earthiness and leather. I swirl the glass, wrap another whiff of the seductive aroma, and sip. As I swirl the wine in my mouth, it tastes familiar and at the same time different. It packs the power of a cabernet, but the tannins are soft, silky, and resolved. There is a hint of wood on the palate, yet they never aged the wine in oak barrels. Instead, they used oak wood chips in the vinification process to bring a bit of structure.
The Deurić Probus 276 is fun and fruity with gobs of blackberry, cherry, butterscotch, and dark chocolate. This wine is a crowd pleaser, and at just 13.5% alcohol, it shows no heat and is an easy sipper, with or without food.
Mirjana tells me about another wine-related tourism project she is very excited about: The Constantinople Wine Route. She explains the Romans built the road in 33 AD and since has served as the primary trade route connecting Asia and Europe. For over a thousand years and especially during the middle ages armies, caravans, pilgrims, bandits, and nomads traveled the Constantinople road, then known as Via Militaris, from Istanbul (then Constantinople) to Belgrade and beyond.
“You will ride on it—Corridor Ten—as you go south to Nis,” she informs me.
“This is how they brought the first vine seeds to Europe,” she says.
Mirjana along with colleagues who are professors in tourism see the Constantinople Wine Route as a long-term project that will drive tourism in wine, gastronomy and culture and ecology. It will also bring economic opportunity to businesses and communities in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Turkey
Serving as a group tour operator, Mirjana will host the first organized Constantinople Wine Route trip with a group of Russians in Spring 2019. They will begin the journey in Istanbul and travel by luxury bus to Plovdiv and Sofia in Bulgaria, Nis, and Belgrade in Serbia. Along the way, they pass through many of the most famous wine regions in these countries and over fifty wineries.
She brims with excitement as she tells me the plan and showing me a map of the route on her phone. In May 2019 in Opatija Croatia with her colleagues, she will present a formal paper to the Fifth Annual International Scientific Conference on Tourism in Southern and Eastern Europe.
My mind spins with thoughts and ideas as she expresses her vision. This project is much bigger than a business opportunity for organized tours. The possibilities and opportunities for small communities along the route to bring economic opportunity while creating awareness of its history, culture, folklore, and arts.
An outline of the nine-day historical, gastronomical, and wine route tour is here. I love how the last evening of the tour includes a wine and culinary event where travelers sample culinary dishes from medieval times with wines from these modern times.
Our Wine Therapy discovery winds down as Milos prepares to close for the evening. Before we leave Lenka walks over to a shelf and pulls out a bottle of wine. She tells me it’s her favorite label. “Tri Roze Koze.” It means three orange goats. It’s fun, whimsical, and creative. Mirjana tells me the company behind the brand is marketing this to young people, and in doing so, doing its part in promoting wine and wine appreciation.
Tomorrow my Serbian wine exploration continues. Mirjana and Lenka invited me to join in a harvest party and event in Fruska Gora, on the other side of the Danube.
Mirjana drops me off at my hotel, but before calling it an evening, I walk around the pedestrian zone and then sit down one of the few places on the promenade. So I order a beer and watch the people walk by.
I like Novi Sad.