Sunday, December 13, 2015

WITNESS THEM -- The Wines of Macedonia

The national flag of Macedonia. Sunshine!

Some of my favorite wine tasting days involve sampling from countries whose wines I’ve not yet experienced. If you’ve followed this space for any length of time, you know we’ve bounced everywhere from Turkey to Thailand in our quest for good juice.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the EU, many Eastern European countries returned to their winemaking roots. Armed with more modern winemaking techniques, some of these countries, like Moldova, are starting to produce some quality wine. The Wine Fairy recently delivered some treats from another one of these former Soviet Republics to Vine HQ. This time, the wines of the Republic of Macedonia found their way to the tasting lineup. Macedonia has a winemaking history dating as far back at 800 BC. Macedonian wine was common on the dinner tables of Alexander the Great, and the country hopes that their wines will again find favor around the globe.

Before we get into the wines themselves, here’s a quick geography lesson. The Republic of Macedonia should not be confused with the identically-named northern region of Greece. The Republic of Macedonia was once part of Yugoslavia, which split in the early 1990’s – also creating the countries of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia, and Montenegro.

Wine grapes thrive in the terroir of Macedonia. There’s abundant sunshine (usually about 270 days per year) with a continental climate very much like what exists in parts of Italy, France, and Spain. Macedonia has over 61,000 acres of vineyards dotting its hillsides.

Long a part of the culture, many Macedonian families produce wines from their own personal vineyards. Each February 14th, as many Americans are scurrying about buying heart-shaped boxes of chocolates or trying to find last minute dinner reservations, Macedonia celebrates the Feast of Saint Trifun, the patron saint of wine and winemaking, which sounds like a much better time to me.

While winemaking has long been a part of Macedonian culture, the mass production of wine was slowed several times over the years– first by being a part of the Ottoman Empire, where wine production was largely kept alive in monasteries. After a brief resurgence, the rise of the Soviet Bloc placed all Yugoslavian winemaking under control of the state. After Macedonia declared independence in 1991, production began to pick up again – this time with more of an eye towards export. 85% of all Macedonian wine is now exported, making it an important part of the country’s economy.

Macedonia produces wines made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Merlot as well as indigenous varietals Smederevka (white),Temjanika (white), Vranec (red), and Kratosija (red). Because of the varied soils in Macedonia, the flavors and character of these wines vary widely. Thanks to Arielle at Colangelo, I had the good fortune to be able to try a few bottles from this new and interesting region. Here are my thoughts:

Bovin 2014 Chardonnay – As I imagine it, when the Macedonian winemakers started spreading their wings after the Yugoslavian breakup, they looked around the world to see what kinds of wines would go over well. My guess is that the winemakers at Bovin ended up drinking some Kendall Jackson or Meridian and tried to emulate it. The result, as the Sweet Partner in Crime put it, was “an Old World take on a 90’s California Chard,” in that there’s plenty of tropical fruit alongside a really strong oak presence. The old world slides in at the end with a crisp, flinty finish. Chardonnay is one of those grapes that really reflects the unique terroir of a region, and at $15, it’s a quality white to start your Macedonian explorations.

Macedon 2013 Pinot Noir – From the mountains in the southern Macedonia, this pinot noir is not a morning person. If you crack a bottle, expect that it will take a bit of air and time to loosen up. I decanted it for a couple of hours and it still needed a good, long spin in the old tasting glass. Until it gets enough air, it's a little grumpy, with some fairly rough tannins dominating. Once it's had a little time to face the day, it unlimbers itself and becomes quite pleasant, much like me in the a.m. The Macedon’s nose is light, floral, and cherryish. A solid earthy backbone gets wrapped in layers of smoke, plum, and leather. The finish is grippier than your average pinot and hangs around for a good long while. The pricetag is the kicker. I figured it would be solidly in the $25 range, but it's only $15. A killer value.

Bovin 2012 “Imperator” Vranec Red Wine – Unless you're the Wizard of Covington, you likely have no idea how excited I was to try this wine. I mean, I was stoked to be trying an indigenous varietal – the aforementioned Vranec (VRAH-netsch), whose name translates from Macedonian as “black stallion.”

While the Black Stallion grape is plenty cool in and of itself, my enthusiasm stems from my strongly-held opinion that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the great pieces of cinema in recent memory. You might recognize her here:

In my world, Furiosa is the Wine Fairy. I'll drink whatever she suggests.

Her character’s name is “Imperator Furiosa.” She’s an asskicker. Her namesake wine? Also an asskicker. 

As many in that film discovered, you do not mess with the Imperator. Approach gently and with caution.  At 15.5% ABV, the wine's as hot as Charlize,  so give it plenty of air. When I got her in a calm moment, I found a nose of vanilla, caramel, and menthol. I thought it very fruity and medium bodied, with powerful blueberry notes. There's not a ton of tannin to be found, surprisingly, in such a big structured wine, although they started peeking out as time went on. The finish is long and laced with cherry. I thought it tasted like a petit sirah and a pinot noir had a baby. A big, strong, kick you in the palate baby.  Alongside a spinach stuffed veal brasciole with a mushroom sauce, it sincerely shined. Holds up well overnight, if you have any left over. Like many indigenous varietals, the prices tend to get somewhat inflated on export. The price point on this one is $70.

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