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‘Wine Vision’ Offers Taste of Open Balkans in Action

September’s celebration of the region’s wine and gastronomy was an opportunity to put some meat on the bones of the Open Balkan concept.

The Open Balkan initiative continues to arouse debate and often disagreement across the Western Balkan Six. Some see it as a substitute for ultimate membership of the European Union – a tacit admission that the accession path is permanently blocked and that alternatives must be sought. Others deem it unnecessary, given prior commitments to a common regional market and the principles embodied in the Berlin Process.

Many fear the initiative is a vehicle for stronger economies, such as Serbia’s, to exert influence over the weaker, opening up new markets where the benefits will not be equal to all. Comparisons with the former Yugoslavia can often be heard.

To date, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro sit on the sidelines, while Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia forge ahead. A raft of agreements intend to free up flows of capital, goods, and labour, although doubts remain about the extent and pace of implementation.

Wine Vision in Belgrade in early September was, therefore, an opportunity to put some meat on the bones of the Open Balkan concept through a celebration of the region’s wine and gastronomy.

Igor Luković, editor-in-chief of Vino & Fino magazine and coordinator of the Wine Vision competition, reflected: “Wine Vision by Open Balkan was the largest and most extravagant wine fair in the Balkans. In fact, in the words of my friend from Croatia, there is no similar fair like this from Belgrade to Dusseldorf.”

Serbia’s Chamber of Commerce estimates that more than 30,000 people attended Wine Vision over the four days, including wine merchants from developed markets. Lukovic explained: “The many deals with Balkan wineries are a particularly important part of the fair; 350 wineries presented, and many of their wines will be found on the markets of the US, Japan, Russia, China and other countries.”

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama (L), Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (C) and North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski (R) leave after the press conference after the Open Balkan economic Summit for regional cooperation in Belgrade, Serbia, 02 September 2022. EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC

But it is not simply about trade. Lukovic noted: “The event was extremely well covered by the media, which gave a great impulse to the popularization of wine culture in these areas and to better knowledge of the growing and very ambitious wine scene of all Balkan countries.” Shifting consumer tastes are gradually beginning to nibble away at the supremacy of beer and rakija in the region.

A fundamental part of this shift has been the emphasis placed on the region’s native grape varieties. Tomislav Ivanović, owner of Vinopedia and creator of Prokupac Day, told me: “This part of Europe has a distinct identity owing to numerous grape varieties. Visitors could delve into this ampelographic treasure trove and explore unique flavors and aromas of the Balkans.”

Ivanovic added that wine lovers “could taste Prokupac and Grašac from different producers and find their favourites. Vranac, Tamjanika, Plovdina, Kallmet, Stanušina, Black Tamjanika, Skadarka – all these varieties from Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania were introduced to the leading wine experts from Europe, including seven Masters of Wine.”

Caroline Gilby, one those Masters of Wine and a leading expert on wines from the Balkans, delivered a masterclass on the best that Serbia has to offer, including wines from noted producers, such as AleksandrovićDeurićMatijaševićVinumErdevikZvonko BogdanDojaIvanovićReljićMatalj and Bikicki. It was a rich and varied offering of native and international varieties.

An extensive program of masterclasses provided wine lovers with the opportunity to learn about new geographies and varieties. Aleksandar Marinković spoke about the hidden gems of Sumadija, whilst Zvonko Herceg delved into the Tikveš chateaux and domaines. Participants had the chance to learn about Vranec/Vranac, Furmint (from the inimitable Robert Gorjak), Prokupac, Tamjanika, Kadarka (thanks to Hungary’s Zoltán Gyorffy), Grašac, and Riesling (thanks to another Master of Wine, Thomas Curtius).

Saša Špiranec from Croatia spoke about the region’s outstanding red wines, whilst Master of Wine, Rod Smith, explored the themes of authenticity and modernity in the production of rosé.

A man walks past a mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin reading ‘Kosovo is Serbia’, in Belgrade, Serbia, 17 August 2022. Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbia’s President Aleksander Vucic will meet with top EU officials in Brussels, aiming to normalize relations between the two parties. EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC

For the winemakers themselves, it was an opportunity to share knowledge and insights with their counterparts from across the region. Devis Hasaj, a sommelier and assistant winemaker at Balaj Winery in Vlorë, Albania, explained how “an event like Wine Vision by Open Balkan is very important not only for the market and economy, but especially for the culture and the lifestyle wine can transmit. Wine is the best ambassador for every country, a message in a bottle which can describe and transmit emotions to everyone. Wine talks about terroir, climate, position; every wine maker is an artist who uses these ‘colours’ to create his paintings inside the bottle and even outside!”

The spectacle of Devis in passionate conversation with Oskar Maurer, one of Serbia’s natural wine pioneers, epitomized the irreplaceable value of such human ties. As Devis reflected, “we winemakers had possibilities to tell our stories of everyday life near to nature and to exchange a lot between producers. I meet for my first time winemakers like Maurer, Budimir, Ivanovic and had possibility to taste their wines”. With a note of optimism, Devis believes that though Balkan countries can’t offer quantity, “all together, we can offer to Europe a lot of emotions and quality with our wines”.

To mark its conclusion, the Open Balkan Wine Trophy was awarded. According to Igor, the international jury, which included five Masters of Wine, tasted more than 600 wines from Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia, among which many were awarded medals: 12 platinum, 85 gold, 187 silver and 163 bronze.

Nine trophies were given for the best-rated wines in individual categories, including Tikveš (Barovo Red 2019), Aleksandrović (Trijumf noir penušavo 2019 and Rodoslov Grand Reserve 2016), Vinarija Art et Vinum (Meduza Red 2021), Fruškogorski vinogradi (Tri Sunca Traminac Late Harvest 2016), Verkat (Grašac beli 4.0 2021), Chateau Kamnik (Orange Gewurztraminer 2019), Despotika (Nemir Rose 2021), VRT (Pesak Sivi Pinot Grigio 2021).

Wine Vision, which will be held again in Belgrade next year, will hopefully become a permanent fixture on the region’s wine calendar, with even more producers convening to share their wine and wisdom.

The event has demonstrated the value of pooling resources to showcase the best of what the Western Balkans has to offer; to project a fresh and positive image to an international audience, one of which the entire region can be proud.

Ian Bancroft is a writer and former diplomat. He is the author of ‘Dragon’s Teeth: tales from north Kosovo’. You can follow and contact the author via Twitter – @bancroftian.

Source: Balkan Insight