This article is part of a sponsored Decanter guide produced in cooperation with the National Tourism Organization of Serbia, Association of Winemakers and Winegrowers of Serbia and Vino & Fino magazine.
Today, Serbia has some 20,100ha of vineyards, of which close to 60% are for white wines. The country grows as many as 200 varieties, though the top 10 account for more than two-thirds of plantings.
The old state wineries have virtually disappeared, to be replaced by about 500 private registered wineries, producing wine in all styles from sparkling to classic whites and reds, with a smattering of natural and skin contact wines.
As yet, relatively few Serbian wines make it to Western markets such as the UK or US, so you will have to hunt them down through specialists, or make use of this guide and explore the country in person.
Serbian wine has a long history, giving it truly authentic roots. Roman records show grapevines flourishing in Serbian lands until Emperor Domitian prohibited wine production outside Italy.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus overturned this ruling around 280AD and used his off-duty soldiers to plant grapes on Fruška Gora (they may not have been impressed – he was later murdered by his own troops).
Later, the 11th-14th centuries were a golden age for wine in Serbia, as the Slavs had converted to Christianity. Emperor Dušan the Mighty (1331-1355) made possibly the earliest laws in Europe concerning geographical indications and wine quality.
Sadly, the 16th-19th centuries were difficult in Serbia, as Ottoman invaders destroyed vineyards, although the invaders did bring the plum, Serbia’s national fruit, particularly noted for being distilled into slivovitz. Around this time, some Serbs fled north with their vines, to the Pannonian plain, which flourished after joining the Habsburg Empire in 1699.
The importance of viticulture in the 18th and 19th centuries is shown by the recent discovery of the world’s second-oldest herbarium in Sremski Karlovci. Records from 1797-1801 contain preserved samples of 55 pre-phylloxera grapevines, along with the first written mention of the Grašac grape (otherwise known as Welschriesling).
‘The pace of change has been rapid, and Serbia continues to evolve into one of the most dynamic wine countries in this part of Europe’
Today’s industry has had to withstand and recover from the devastation of phylloxera (from the late 19th century), the turbulence of two world wars and decades of socialist neglect, but the new millennium was also a turning point for Serbia’s privatised wine industry.
It may have been later off the starting blocks than its neighbours, but the pace of change has been rapid, and it continues to evolve into one of the most dynamic wine countries in this part of Europe.
Snapshot: 15 wineries to visit
Around the regions
Serbia officially has 22 wine regions incorporating 77 wine districts, but many are still unimportant for quality wines, so this guide will focus on the most important, going from north to south.
This region is 180km north of Belgrade, close to Hungary. There are three wine districts – the largest is Palić on the shores of lake Palić, with rich black soils overlying deep, well-drained sand. Grapes grown are a mix of some very good international varieties, plus some indigenous Kadarka and Hungarian grapes such as Ezerjó, Kövidinka and Bakator.
The Art Nouveau city of Subotica is well worth a visit and offers plenty of choices – Boss restaurant is the most famous.
There’s Hungarian influence in numerous chardas (Hungarian-style tavernas), and also kafanas (Balkan-style tavernas) offering typical dishes: goulash, fish stews, pörkölt (Hungarian beef stew), grills and roasts.
Lake Palić’s shore is dotted with comfortable hotels and holiday houses. The impressive, award-winning wines of Zvonko Bogdan can be tasted in its dramatic Art Nouveau-style winery.
Nearby is Tonković winery, in a traditional Pannonian house in the middle of its vineyards, with a unique focus on Kadarka in all styles. For lovers of natural wines, try Oszkar Maurer, especially Kadarka from vines planted from 1880.
Wineries to try: Tonković, Zvonko Bogdan
Serbia’s second largest city, Novi Sad, is just 65km northwest of Belgrade. It’s worth a visit in its own right but is also the gateway to the distinctive Fruška Gora wine region.
Vines grow on the slopes of the mountain that rises dramatically from the plains north of Belgrade, between the Danube and Sava rivers.
The summit of this long mountain is a national park, dominated by rare linden forests, offering great walks in nature. The region is moderately continental with plenty of breezes keeping grapes healthy and wines fresh.
Wine has been an important part of daily life here since Roman times, though it has faced difficult periods. Today, a group of pioneering winemakers is determined to return Srem to its former glory, experimenting with all styles from excellent classic wines to pét-nat, skin contact and orange wines.
Don’t miss the charming historic town of Sremski Karlovci. Try Kovačević Wine House in Irig for modern interpretations of local dishes, along with comfortable rooms. At the western end of Fruška Gora, Erdevik Winery’s Gastro Chalet offers fine dining from seasonal local ingredients.
Deurić winery is another popular option (best to pre-book) for excellent wines and a good restaurant and garden terrace. Vrdnik is the tourist centre of Fruška Gora, with options for spas.
Wineries to try: Belo Brdo, Bikicki, Deurić, Erdevik, Fruškogorski vinogradi, Imperator, Komuna, Kovačević, Milanović, Verkat, Veritas, Vinčić, Vinum.
The geographical centre of Serbia is also at the forefront of the Serbian wine revival and its important town, Topola, is just 80km south of Belgrade.
Rivers surround the region on all sides, and vines grow on an undulating landscape of shallow valleys based on ancient volcanic bedrock, with mountain breezes bringing cool nights.
There has been wine here since the time of the Romans, but the region experienced mixed fortunes until a royal cellar was constructed in Oplenac by Karađorđe (leader of the first Serbian uprising from 1804-1813).
Royal connections continued into the 1920s when King Alexander I brought in international varieties. A difficult period of nationalisation followed, but then fortunes improved in the late 1990s when a renaissance was led by Aleksandrović and Radovanović.
This region is particularly known for its white wines, thanks especially to the revival of a wine called Trijumf based on details that the former royal cellarmaster sent back from America. It’s also a good region for classy Merlot, Bordeaux blends and recently some good Prokupac.
Despotika winery is recommended for wine, food and a small museum. The pioneering Aleksandrović winery and restaurant is also a must-visit. Don’t miss the typical Šumadija pork spit-roast in rustic taverns Mali Hrast (see Facebook) and Poštara (+381 63 618 360) or try Tarpoš winery for fine dining in Aranđelovac.
Wineries to try: Aleksandrović, Arsenijević, Despotika, Djoković, Matijašević, Radovanović, Stari Hrast, Tarpoš, Zmajevac.
This region is a treasure trove of modern Serbian wine. It’s 300km from Belgrade, in the east, close to Bulgaria and Romania, and is surrounded by the mighty Danube on one side and the Deli Jovan mountain to the other.
It’s a warm, sunny region and vineyards slope towards the river where the sun reflects off the water. It’s one of the best regions for Cabernet Sauvignon, but there are also old vineyards with rare ancient vine varieties being rediscovered.
On Bukovo hill, near Negotin, it’s easy to visit three top wineries in one day. Matalj is renowned for great Cabernet Sauvignons along with Prokupac and rare Bagrina, and has a cosy modern restaurant.
A must-visit is the unique village of Rajačke Pivnice – it’s full of traditional wine cellars, though most now offer tourist-based experiences, rather than wine.
Wineries to try: Aglaja, Bukovo monastery, Matalj, Raj
This large region in central Serbia encompasses the river basins of three Morava rivers. It lies about 230km southeast of Belgrade.
Župa is the most important of nine wine districts, especially being the homeland of Prokupac, whose revival has been led by producer Ivanović.
Vineyards are hilly and the climate is mild with long, sunny autumns, so grape-growing has been known here for centuries.
The charming town of Vrnjačka Banja is an ideal base for the whole region. In the north, try Temet winery in Jagodina for its impressive modern design, and equally impressive wines.
In central Župa, go to Ivanović winery, to enjoy its signature wines with homemade food. It’s a region for local cooking – try Salus Restaurant for fresh trout, and Skačak tavern on Rasina river for lamb.
Wineries to try: Braća Rajković, Budimir, Cilić, Čokot, Grabak, Ivanović, Lastar, Temet
The Toplica region is rooted in a long wine tradition, but the wine revival is not yet in full swing – even so, the few wineries are worth the 250km trip south.
Most significant is Doja, surrounded by its own breezy vineyards on the foothills of Jastrebac mountain: its Prokupac is often judged the best in the country. Prokupac is also the story of the Kostić family winery with its 100-year-old vineyards.
Wineries to try: Doja, Kostić
Other wineries to try:
- Janko – Belgrade region
- Virtus – Mlava, southeast of Belgrade
- Aleksić – Vranje, in the far south