Ana Jordanova of Stobi explains Macedonian wine

Macedonia which is located in the middle of Balkan Peninsula (bordering Albania, Serbia and Greece) has been making wines since ancient times. There are artifacts from 4,000 years ago that prove wine was a central part of the Macedonian culture. Wine flourished during the times of Alexander the Great as well as through Roman times only going into a period of stagnation during the Ottoman rule from the 14th to 20th Century. 

While part of Yugoslavia, Macedonia was a major regional producer of wine. During the 1980s, it accounted for around two-thirds of the Yugoslav wine production. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Macedonian wine production decreased by 75%. Today a new wave of private producers are attempting to focus on quality wine production and indigenous grapes such as Vranec and Žilavka

Grape Collective talks to Ana Jordanova of the Stobi winery about the evolution of Macedonian wine.

StobiChristopher Barnes:  Ana, tell us a little bit about the wine culture in Macedonia.

Ana Jordanova: We are a country that revolves around grape production and winemaking since the ancient times. So a lot of families have privately owned vineyards and they make homemade wine.

Tikveš, which is the biggest wine producer, has been around since the time of ex-Yugoslavia. So wine has been a central aspect of the Macedonian economy and culture for a while. Maybe not economically as much as the culture.

So the wine is a part of the Macedonian tradition. It's part of the folklore. It's really...the whole culture revolves quite a bit around the winemaking process and around these indigenous varieties that we are presenting.

For example, one of the wines is Vranec, which is truly part of the history. The name of the wine means black stallion and it's a truly unique taste and flavor that is only available in the Balkans. Our ancestors sang songs about the color of the wine and about the powerful inspirational capabilities of this type of red wine.

I know with other ex-Yugoslavian countries, there was a long tradition of winemaking prior to Yugoslavia. And then when Yugoslavia was created, there was this whole system of cooperatives that kind of really diluted the quality of the wine and since the countries have become free-market countries there has been a revival. Is this also the case in Macedonia?

Yes we have switched like that. Our winery is based out of one of those old cooperatives. It was the biggest one in Macedonia.

They used to pay less attention to quality than quantity and what we've done as a new private producer is what you said. We are more geared now towards producing higher quality wines. We are developing the indigenous varieties whereas, back in the day, it was either bulk production of these local varieties or they were doing Merlot and Cabernet, all the classic varieties, but again, on a much lower level. So yes, there is this whole production being geared towards a higher quality wine. Smaller producers, but also big producers like us, we have a huge range.

So we do produce a value range, but traditional styled and traditional quality wines. But we also go into the private reserve, which are barrel-aged and handpicked and selected. So we try to adapt to the market. Whereas, again, you still need to still work the traditional, you need to still cover the traditional market because we still do a lot of sales locally and it's still all these traditional varieties. So you have to keep that up. But then again, you have to turn the eyes towards the world and get an adaptive kind of system that's gonna work both ways.

MacedoniaAnd talk a little bit about your estate and how it started and kind of the progression of winemaking over time.

We were based out of this huge cooperative, which used to work on this communist kind of way. When my father first purchased it, the idea was...and we were truly the first winery in Macedonia that started producing wine from our own grapes.

So the main thing is that there is this quality control from grapevine to bottle and that was a big rarity in Macedonia. There have been several wineries, again, I'm talking our size that have been doing it now in the past several years, but our production had always been geared towards this quality approach.

We picked grapes manually. And there's these little trucks that go up and down and we never allow wild fermentation, so there's a lot of attention paid whereas it's a huge winery. We have  six hundred acres of grapes. So it's a humongous part of land that we need to look after whereas, again, it's split into two different wine regions. So we need to do this balance. And our winemaker is a great guy. He's local, he's young, and he is very well-aware of all the possibilities that we have with the land that surrounds us. Again, it's 600 acres. It's a lot.

So what we do is we really concentrate on this maintaining this quality of grape-picking and of delivering and then once it gets to the winery, there's a total switch towards a new aged system of accepting the grapes and the press, so we go from a kind of handmade traditional on land then once we get into the winery, we get very techy.

The temperatures, at the time of harvest, can get up to 40 degrees Celsius. So it gets very, very warm. We have special systems that cool the grapes down in seconds.

So there's a lot of mix between traditional and modern that we try to maintain in order to facilitate the production that we are undergoing right now.

And talk a little bit about the terroir, the soils and the climate.

We are located in the central part of Macedonia, the Tikveš wine region. The most popular wine region for Macedonia for growing and producing the grape. The most popular wineries in Macedonia are all located in this region.

The climate condition, we have a lot of sunny days. More than 280 days are sunny. We have a very hot summer. Tikveš wine region is a mix of Mediterranean and continental climates. So this is the mix that is coming from Adriatic sea from Greece and from Serbia. During the summer there is an easy wind which protects the grapes from the disease.

The land and the vineyards are located at 700 meters. We have some on the 700 meters, we have some on the 400 meters, depending on the grape variety. So we have very good vineyards, that they're all 40 years old, or 25 years depending on the grape.

StobiWhat kind of soils do you have?

Clay. And we have parts where there is a loose soil.

Talk a little bit about some of the indigenous varietals that you work with.

I'm gonna mention Vranec. It is a central point of our culture and the winemaking. It's a dark red, grape variety. Absolutely robust. 

And what we're having on the other side of the spectrum is the Žilavka, for example, which is a very traditional variety. It has been a little bit neglected, I would say. I mean, our example, we've been exporting Žilavka to the States for several years until the Washington Post, I believe, named it in 2015, named it one of the wines to watch for that summer.

And once that came out, we did a PR announcement in Macedonia, people went crazy and started demanding Žilavka. 

So we kind of started putting back the accent on the local varieties in Macedonia. Whereas again, in the U.S. and Europe, journalists are very interested in these local varieties. We have some Smederevka, which's kind of like the Macedonian or the Balkan Chardonnay, it's a very popular grape variety. Again, a neglected one and it's a very interesting one.

Rkatsiteli, which is maybe not an indigenous variety, it's a Georgian grape, but it's been around in Macedonia for more than 70 years. So Rkatsiteli, coming from Macedonia gets a completely different character than what you would expect.

We tried a New York state Rkatsiteli last night. It has nothing to do's a totally different flavor experience.

From the Finger Lakes?

Yes. Exactly.

So these are varieties that are very famous and popular locally, but are highly unknown in the U.S. and Europe.

And what sort of foods do you have in Macedonia that you would eat with your local wines?

Yes. We're big, big eaters. The whole culture revolves around drinking and eating. One of the main dominating things that we always combine, and this is something our company also produces, is sheep's milk, yellow cheese and white cheese. This is a staple, which you will find on any table in Macedonia. Every family has this. Some people make it like homemade cheese.

We have a milkery, about 10,000 sheep. They spend about three months of their life eating on pastures which are about 1,800 meters above sea level in a mountain town called Galičica. It's only accessible to people three months a year because it just gets snowed in and there's about two people living up there when there's nobody there.

There's these huge valleys, which are filled with herbs, flavorful herbs. There's like Rosemary and all kinds...Saint John's Wart. There's a lot, I just forget the names in English. So you can smell these herbs and these sheep eat that herb, so that gets into the milk and it gets a very specific flavor. These are fatty cheeses, highly, highly fatty. Very salty. So it's a phenomenal combination with food.

And then the second thing is always going to be meat. Beef. Pork. Fatty stuff. Slow-cooked with lots of veggies. And definitely vegetable-wise, tomatoes and peppers are totally the definition of Macedonian culture. So these four, five things are something that are always being on...served on the table and always combined with wine definitely.

StobiAnd is there a philosophy of winemaking at Stobi?

Yes. Yes. I would say there is. We are not currently in the, let's say, second stage of the development of the winery. The first stage was, of course, the beginning, when my father was still central and our older wine-maker, who was retired right now, who's the definition of Macedonian winemaking. He's 75.

The guy's like a computer. He would go on the grapevines. He'd pick a grape and he'd taste it and he'd be like, 'Okay, with this process, we can do this for this grape, and this type of wine, so he was like a human computer.

Now it's more central around my philosophy right now. So my father has pulled back a little bit. 

So what we do now with our new winemaker, or young wine maker, Zandon, and I call him my alchemist is we do a lot of experimentation on a technical level. Whereas we's never done to change the flavor of wine whereas to actually make some kind of improvement and we will try one of those experiments right now.

What we did three years ago is, I kind of made him, I love Sauvignon Blanc, it's my go to white wine, but Macedonia's way too warm. Several wineries produce it, I don't think it's a good representation of what a Sauvignon Blanc should be. So I challenged Zandon, and what he did was he decided to make Rkatsiteli grapes and take the technology to make Sauvignon Blanc.

So the yeasts and the whole technological process and he combined the two and Rkatsiteli was born. Rkatsiteli 2015, 16, and 17. The 15 and 16 have gotten silver medals two years in a row. So I think that's a consistency of quality that we see.

And to me is a phenomenal combination, because you have all the aromas of a Sauvignon, everything that a Sauvignon brings, but then you've got the backbone of Rkatsiteli so it has a lot of body. It stays in your mouth for a long, long time. And last, but not least, it ages great. The 2015 now is quite drinkable and if we try the 17 or the 15, the change you see in the wine in the two years that it ages in bottle is just absolutely phenomenal. So that's what we do in the new generation. We try to upgrade the existing varieties and flavors that we have.

So we don't touch the good stuff. We just kind of tweak it, make it better.