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North Macedonia: A wine nation at the crossroads

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With its deeply rooted wine culture, distinctive grape varieties and diverse terroirs, North Macedonia is now emerging as a hotbed of forward-thinking producers for whom quality is paramount.

In partnership with Wine Vision by Open Balkan

A country at the crossroads, North Macedonia lies at the meeting point of Mediterranean and continental climates, where Eastern and Western cultures converge at the junction of historic trade routes. Its wine industry has recently reached a crossing point, too, switching from producing bulk wines to quality bottled wines with their own distinctive regional personalities.

Wine is incredibly important in North Macedonia, providing 20% of the agricultural GDP and a living for about 20,000 registered grape-growers, and 74 wineries, from its 28,000ha of wine-variety vineyards. Increasingly it’s about much more than economics, however, and involves capturing the climate, soils, weather, grapes and culture in a glass. It is summed up in a local proverb that says: ‘If you want to get to know a nation well, sit at their table and drink their wine.’

Scroll down for Caroline Gilby MW’s pick of 10 wines from North Macedonia

From ancient roots

North Macedonia has been shaped by diverse cultures over the centuries, including Roman, Byzantine, Slavic and Turkish influences. At one time, the kingdom of Macedonia was the most powerful state in the world, first under Philip II of Macedon (359-336 BC), then under his son, Alexander the Great (336-323 BC), until his early death. The stories say that both rewarded their soldiers with wine from this region to celebrate victories and to commiserate after rare defeats. The ancient kingdom covered a large land area that is now shared with Bulgaria and Greece, but North Macedonia sees itself as the spiritual descendant of this historic empire.

Wine in North Macedonia is even older – archaeological evidence goes back to the cult of Dionysus in the 13th century BC. Wine continued to be important in ancient Roman times when this land was famous for its rich, powerful wines – vines are depicted in the fabulous mosaics at the Stobi archaeological site. This continued through the arrival of Christianity and the Byzantine era. The Ottomans ruled for five centuries, suppressing wine, but then a revival of organised winemaking began around the region of Tikveš in 1885.

Rows of vines stretching into the distance

The vineyards of Stobi Winery, close to the Vardar river and the ancient city of Stobi, Tikveš region

After World War II, Macedonia joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, then became part of Yugoslavia. During this era, North Macedonia was the driver of volume wine production in the republic. This was a time when high yields of up to 40 tonnes per hectare were common – famously, one year the harvest was so large it had to be stored in the town swimming pool in Kavadarci, in the Tikveš region. The break-up of Yugoslavia and the advent of North Macedonia’s independence in 1991 marked the beginning of a new era. The country’s first private winery, Bovin, was founded in 1998 and many more followed.

Dramatic landscape

North Macedonia is a landlocked country at the heart of the Balkan peninsula. Everywhere you turn there is a backdrop of dramatic towering mountains, with the snow-capped peaks of the Šar and Osogovo-Belasica ranges. It has three national parks, 34 mountains over 2,000m and 53 lakes, including the UNESCO-listed lake Ohrid, which is believed to be one of the oldest lakes in the world and is home to many rare endemic species. The country is dominated by the central valley of the Vardar river. This region is seismically active, so volcanic soils are not uncommon, but there are also alluvial soils near the river along with outcrops of sand, clay and limestone.

The climate is largely warm Mediterranean, moderated by the influence of the Black Sea. The northern and western parts of the country are more continental, especially where the southern mountain ranges block hot air masses from the south and, at the same time, the Šar mountains in the northwest limit cold northerly winds. Summer daytime temperatures in the valleys can hit more than 40°C and about 270 sunny days a year is typical. North Macedonia lies between the latitudes of 40°N-43°N and rainfall is low to moderate with a mostly dry growing season – a factor in its naturally low levels of disease pressure. This means relatively little spraying in the vineyards, which are often bountiful with wildlife – butterflies, birds, lizards; and who doesn’t love a place where tortoises wander among the vines?

Skopje: A wine and food lover’s guide

The wine regions

Of three main wine regions, the central Vardar River Valley (also known as Povardarie) is North Macedonia’s main wine artery, flowing from north to south and passing through seven wine districts that mark their wines with distinct personalities. Ancient artefacts found here show a long tradition of winemaking; even a rare wild Vitis sylvestris vine has been discovered in the Demir Kapija canyon in the heart of the valley.

This region covers 24,664ha and nearly 90% of the country’s vines, while the Western Region, or Pelagonia-Polog, covers 1,817ha; the eastern region, or Pchinja-Osogovo, is smallest at 1,733ha.

The wine district of Tikveš is by far the most famous zone in the Vardar River Valley thanks to its warm-hearted, flavourful wines. This region grows 40% of all the country’s wine grapevines. The river basin is surrounded by mountains and vineyards often stretch into the foothills, rising as high as 700m, where cooler mountain breezes work their magic. Soils are varied, including alluvial, limestone (for instance at the Lepovo micro-location) and volcanic (at Barovo).

Rows of vines with hills in the background

Vineyards of Tikveš Winery at Barovo in the Tikveš wine region, southeast of Skopje. Credit: Caroline Gilby MW

This region is home to many of the country’s top producers, including the largest, Tikveš Winery, along with Bovin, Ezimit, Imako, Movino, Puklavec Family Wines, Popov, Popova Kula, Stobi and Venec. There are also a number of small boutique wineries such as Chateau Kamnik and Lazar. Unusually, it’s the large wineries that are leading the quality charge, supporting research into better winemaking and understanding of the fine details of soil and micro-location, while recently a new generation of family micro-wineries has popped up in the area, adding interest and variety to the scene.

Grapes to look for

Vranec (the spelling here, rather than ‘Vranac’) has become quite the flagship for North Macedonia and is the most important grape in the country with 10,800ha planted. It is of Balkan origin – it is believed to have arisen in Montenegro – and North Macedonia grows far more than any other country in the world. Its name derives from vran, meaning ‘raven-coloured’ or ‘black’, and it is often compared to the power and wildness of a black stallion. A crossing of Primitivo and a local red grape called Duljenga, it has more anthocyanins and polyphenols (colouring matter) than Cabernet Sauvignon and gives deep, dark, densely coloured ‘black’ wines with intense fruit flavours and body, but importantly also good freshness.

Vranec arrived in the country as recently as the 1950s but spread rapidly. It needs a warm place to grow, as it is not cold- or disease-tolerant, so North Macedonia’s dry and sunny climate suits it well. In the previous era, it was usefully prolific, but it also turns out to be capable of producing extremely high-quality wines which are able to reflect their place of origin. It allows winemakers lots of choices – to pick earlier and vinify in steel to show its fresh, juicy side, or to pick later and age in oak for depth, layered complexity and ageing potential. There are even versions made from super-concentrated, raisined grapes – almost Amarone-like with a local twist.

Vranec can also bring a sense of North Macedonian identity to blends – it works well in a Bordeaux blend, for example, where it can fill out the palate of Cabernet Sauvignon and freshen the body of Merlot. To taste, Vranec offers juicy fruit notes of black or red cherry, pomegranate, bilberry and blackberry, adding notes of spice, dark chocolate and leather as it matures. It tends to have a big body, plenty of structure and generous alcohol, but this is always balanced by its ability to retain good acidity.

Red grape bunches being harvested from the vines

Vranec has become North Macedonia’s signature variety

There are few genuinely indigenous grape varieties in commercial production in North Macedonia – most are shared with neighbours or are international. Stanušina is one. Its name derives from a word meaning ‘steep slopes’ or ‘hard-to-reach place’, suggesting how it survived. It is noted for lighter-bodied red wines with cornelian cherry and raspberry notes, and supple tannins. It’s perhaps best known and most commercially successful as a delicate, appetising rosé (look for examples from Popovi, Paradzik and even a good white version from Popova Kula), though there are red versions. The Balkan grape Kratošija (Primitivo/Zinfandel) is also worth a mention. Believed to be of Montenegrin origin, it has long been widespread in the vineyards of North Macedonia, where it produces intense but supple, plush wines – try those from Venec, Kamnik, Popov and Lazar.

Of the whites, Chardonnay can produce good wines in a rather ripe style and Grenache Blanc is well suited to the climate. Sauvignon Blanc is inclined to lack aromatic expression unless grown at altitude. More promising are the Balkan varieties, particularly Žilavka and Temjanika (the latter is a local selection of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), as well as Smederevka and Župljanka for simple wines.

For an off-the-beaten-track wine experience, North Macedonia has a lot to offer in its rich, warm-hearted wine scene, especially through its flagship Vranec.

Gilby’s pick: 10 wine discoveries from North Macedonia

Domaine Lepovo, Chardonnay, Tikveš, Povardarie 2021

£19.95, Tikveš London
Wild-fermented Chardonnay from the Lepovo microlocation. This is a good Chardonnay by anyone’s standards with its fine, creamy apple and lemon nose. Then there’s concentrated yet elegant fruit with subtle lemon and candied pineapple flavours, good length and a touch of appetising salinity on the finish.
Drink 2023-2026 | Alcohol 14%

Dalvina, Dioniz Syrah Barrique, Radoviš/Strumica 2016

A Decanter World Wine Awards Gold medal winner in 2019 and still in great shape today. There’s a spicy nose with dark berry fruit, herbs, lots of black pepper and just a hint of tobacco. It’s ripe and generous but still youthful and surprisingly fresh, showing damson and loganberry fruit overlaid with spice and pepper. Wonderful harmony, fine oak and great length.
Drink 2023-2028 | Alcohol 15%

Tikveš, Barovo Red, Tikveš, Povardarie 2019

£26-£32.50 Hallgarten Wines, Hay Wines, Lekker Wines, Noble Green, Novel Wines, NY Wines, Shelved Wine, Strictly Wine, The Leamington Wine Co, The Wine Library, Thorne Wines
A field blend of 65% Kratošija and 35% Vranec from old vines in a stunning but isolated spot nearly 700m up in the mountains. It’s plush, generous and inviting with masses of bilberry and wild raspberry, hints of black cherry and scents of cloves and vanilla. Good length and ageing potential, too.
Drink 2023-2030 | Alcohol 15.5%

Venec, Cuvee 56 Reserva, Povardarie 2018

A stylish, multi-layered blend of North Macedonia meets Bordeaux varieties: 55% Vranec, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot. Wild blueberry and maraschino cherry from Vranec meets classic cassis, dark plum and cedar from Cabernet and Merlot to create a complex, ageworthy blend.
Drink 2023-2030 | Alcohol 15%

Kamnik, Cuvée de Prestige, Veles, Povardarie 2018

£25.20 Hedonism
A ripe, richly complex blend of 43% Merlot, 38% Vranec and 19% Cabernet Franc. Very well made in its big, bold and generous style. It shows cassis and Morello cherry fruit notes, plus hints of cedar and tobacco with a touch of spicy oak and a backbone of fine-grained tannins. Long finish.
Drink 2023-2030 | Alcohol 15%

Lazar, Erigon Kratošija, Tikveš, Povardarie 2017

£27 Humble Grape
The 25-year-old vines give real depth to this inviting red cherry, woodland berry and lightly vanilla-scented wine from a tiny garage winery. The fruit is succulent with mellow, grainy tannins and balancing freshness. This is a great example of why this particular grape is gaining more attention.
Drink 2023-2026 | Alcohol 15.5%

Popov, Reserve Kratošija, Tikveš, Povardarie 2021

The ancient Balkan grape Kratošija is more widely known as Primitivo or Zinfandel, but is enjoying a revival in North Macedonia. This version from local cuttings is deeply coloured and vivid with inviting aromas of black cherry, kirsch, bramble and a touch of sweet spice. It has bags of juicy, appealing forest fruit with lovely balance and polished tannins.
Drink 2023-2028 | Alcohol 15.2%

Imako, Constellation Cuvée Red, Povardarie 2019

Hand-harvested grapes from a selected vineyard at 260m-350m go into this harmonious wine. It shows how Vranec (50%) can provide generous black cherry and blueberry notes backed by the classic structure of Cabernet (30%) and the velvety mid-palate texture of plummy Merlot (20%). It should repay keeping for a year or several.
Drink 2023-2030 | Alcohol 14%

Puklavec Family Wines, Instinct Vranec, Tikveš, Povardarie 2019

£13.49-£14.90 Culinaris, North & South Wines, The Fine Wine Co
An inviting bouquet of black cherry, violets and roast coffee bean lead onto a full-bodied, juicy bramble, kirsch and plum palate. Plenty of body and grainy tannins complete the picture – offers a lot at the price point.
Drink 2023-2025 | Alcohol 15%

Stobi, Vranec, Tikveš, Povardarie 2020

£9.95 Tanners
Hand-harvested grapes from Stobi’s own vineyards. Very typical Vranec with its deep ruby-black colour, cherries, damsons and a touch of green tea. The fruit is juicy with forest berry notes. Weighty but not heavy, with bright freshness – a good introduction to Vranec.
Drink 2023-2026 | Alcohol 14.5%

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