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Serbia: An ancient wine country reinventing itself for modern tastes

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With ancient origins and an exciting modern wine scene, Serbia has become a wine nation to watch. Warm summers, fresh mountain breezes and a range of terroirs are yielding a growing number of internationally recognised wines.

In partnership with Wine Vision by Open Balkan


Of all the new-but-old wine regions in the world, Serbia is probably one of the least well-known. But wines from this area were sold in the UK back in the early 1990s, when Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from this part of what was Yugoslavia were listed by a long-gone chain of wine shops. Since those days, there has been a complete wine revolution, with new and dynamic producers, new wines and new stories emerging, all built on ancient roots in a stunning green, hilly landscape.

Serbia has come from behind compared with some of its Balkan neighbours, but the country is quickly reinventing its wines for a new audience that wants quality not quantity. A raft of top medals and awards from global wine competitions, including the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA), shows that Serbian wineries are catching up fast. Grapevines grow all over the country, but this guide will explore three of the key regions, whose producers are at the forefront of this new quality movement.


Scroll down for Caroline Gilby MW’s 10 Serbian wines to try


Tri Morave

This is the largest wine-growing region in Serbia, covering the basin of the three Morava rivers of Central Serbia. It contains nine wine-growing districts including the most famous, Jagodina and Župa, plus Jovac, Kruševac, Levač, Paraćin, Ražanj, Temnić and Trstenik.

Tri Morave is best known for reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but also increasing plantings of local varieties – especially Prokupac (see below). Vines mostly grow on sloping sites, with diverse soils varying from the almost flat, alluvial river plains to foothills and even into the mountain zones at up to 650m. The climate is moderate-continental, with some Mediterranean influence giving mild winters and dry, sunny autumns which suit late-ripening varieties like Prokupac and Cabernet. Mountain breezes take the edge off the heat, keeping good freshness in the grapes.

Archaeological finds show that wine was important here in Roman times, though it was not until the 12th century that the first written references appeared.

Wine flourished until the Ottomans arrived in the region – they suppressed alcohol, though they did bring plums, which became Serbia’s national fruit. In the 20th century, collectivisation stopped the industry in its tracks for five decades, but the 21st century saw the emergence of a group of winemakers determined to restore Župa to its former glory. This helped to kickstart a new quality era and their momentum continues to build.

Tri Morave key producers: Bora, Braća Rajković, Budimir, Cilić, Čokot (also known as Radovan), Grabak, Ivanović, Jovac, Lastar, Rubin, Spasić, Stemina, Temet, Vila Vina


Local expression: Serbia’s fascinating main grapes

A glass of red wine being swirled

Prokupac can produce powerful, high-alcohol reds. Credit: Vino & Fino

Prokupac

From barely surviving to becoming Serbia’s flagship local red – this is the recent story of Prokupac. Its past reputation was for thin, rustic wine, and it was only preserved by a few dedicated growers in Župa. Today, plantings have recovered to 338ha (plus 170ha of young vines yet to come into production), according to official figures. It does require dedication in the vineyards – but then, so do grapes like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo. Growers need to curb its exuberant yields, plus it’s a late-ripener and is best on warm, poor, well-drained soils. Prokupac wines are typically medium-bodied with moderate colour, firm tannins and a lively backbone of acidity. Styles vary from young and fruity to complex, classy oak-aged wines with potential for ageing. There are also several impressive ‘super-Serbian’ blends in which Prokupac adds local personality alongside Bordeaux varieties.

Grašac

Grašac (pronounced ‘Gra-schatz’) is the 19th-century Serbian name for the great central European grape Welschriesling (Graševina, Olaszrizling, Laški Rizling). Grašac is the most planted grape variety in Serbia. It is no relation to Riesling and is stylistically very different, with more body and texture, and typical notes of ripe apple, poached pear and lemon. Sometimes also honey and almond. It was used for volume in the past, but with attention to low yields and good winemaking, it is making increasingly high-quality wines in styles from light and crisp to layered and complex.

Other local varieties

Smederevka is a Balkan white grape that is also widely grown in Bulgaria as Dimyat. In Serbia it is often made as a simple wine for spritzers, but a few growers are paying more attention to it. So far expect fresh, fruity, light-bodied wines, and keep an eye out for good sparkling versions. Morava is a relatively new and uniquely Serbian variety, named after the Serbian river Morava. It is showing real promise, producing bright, lively wines with a hint of Riesling-like acidity overlaid with some exotic fruitiness from its part-Traminer ancestry. Tamjanika (the local name for Muscat Blanc) is an extremely popular variety in Serbia. It is made in a dry, aromatic style and is especially famous from Župa.

White grape bunches on the vine

The Smederevka variety is indigenous to the Balkans

Probus is an inky, dark variety that is the surprising offspring of the light-bodied, pale Kadarka and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is one of the most promising varieties to emerge from the 1980s research program here, with genuine potential for dark but noble wines (Probus has even more pigment than its Cabernet parent) with generous blueberry and black cherry flavours and fine-grained tannin structure. Elegant Kadarka itself comes from the north, where the Tonković winery is a specialist.

The international varieties

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and blends

Cabernet Sauvignon is ubiquitous throughout Serbia and can offer great expressions of its different terroirs. For instance, Negotinska Krajina, in the east, is particularly favourable, producing wines that are full of fruit, freshness and elegance while also being deep and complex, often with minty, spicy notes. Matalj Winery from this region was a double Gold medal winner in the 2020 Decanter World Wine Awards with its Kremen Kamen wine (2016 and 2017 vintages). Good Cabernet is also made in Šumadija, Tri Morave, Fruška Gora and even in the far north, on the sands of Subotica, where Zvonko Bogdan winery impresses. Merlot particularly shines in Šumadija, though it can do well even in the far south around Niš. Bordeaux blends are popular everywhere.

Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay

The best Sauvignon Blancs (most notably from Šumadija) reflect the distinctive central European style which combines aromatic expression with generous fruit and freshness. Chardonnay appears in all Serbian regions, though it represents just 6% of the vineyard area. Most Serbian Chardonnays are aged in barrel and there is a noticeable trend towards more elegant use of oak. Some of the most successful wines come from Fruška Gora: Kovačević winery is noted as a benchmark producer of juicy, fresh Chardonnay. Erdevik’s DWWA 2020 Platinum-awarded Omnibus Lector Chardonnay 2015 also comes from Fruška Gora. Young, fruity Traminer and Pinot Gris can also be found.


Šumadija

The region where Serbia’s quality wine revolution began, Šumadija (pronounced ‘Shoo-mard-dee-ya’) lies in the geographical centre of Serbia, about 100km southeast of Belgrade, and is surrounded by rivers on all sides. It’s a moderately continental, undulating landscape of hills, ravines and shallow valleys, with warm summers but cooler nights thanks to breezes from the hills. Sunny days are frequent, especially running up to the harvest in September, which is also the driest month. Šumadija is the only Serbian region that has volcanic bedrock, while its great soil diversity dictates that micro-location is important.

The region’s ancient wine-growing history goes back at least to Roman times, while its modern history has a distinctly royal influence, beginning with Karađorđe, leader of the first Serbian uprising against the Ottomans (1804-1813), whose son dug a wine cellar in Oplenac hill. Love of wine continued down the generations, with King Petar I planting local grapes and King Aleksandar I bringing in international varieties in 1923. Nationalisation was a difficult time, but fortunes improved in the late 1990s, when a renaissance was led by producers Aleksandrović and Radovanović.

Šumadija is particularly well-known for whites, especially due to the revival of a wine called Trijumf based on a recipe sent back from America by the former royal cellarmaster. Today, the best wines strike a fine balance between complexity and vibrant acidity. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay can be particularly good. Pinot Noir can also do well, while in warmer, lower-lying areas, there have been classy results with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – alone or in blends – and, recently, good Prokupac.

Šumadija key producers: Aleksandrović, Arsenijević, Despotika, Djokovic, Matijašević, Radovanović, Stari Hrast, Tarpoš, Zmajevac

Rows of vines with mountains in the background

The vineyards of Kraljeva Vinarija (King’s Winery), just above the historic Oplenac hill in the town of Topola, Šumadija


My perfect weekend in Belgrade


Srem

This beautiful wine region surrounds the Fruška Gora mountain, which rises from the plains an hour’s drive north of Belgrade. The peak of the mountain is a national park of dense linden forests with fantastic wildlife and great hiking. Vines range from 90m-270m above sea level, on gently sloping plateaus close to the Danube river to the north and the Sava river to the south. The Danube is a strong moderating influence – the reflected sunshine promotes earlier ripening in vineyards close to the water, but the river also brings cooling breezes. There’s a mix of international and local varieties in this dynamic scene, which includes excellent classic wines, plus funky natural, orange and skin-contact styles. Notable among the local varieties is Grašac, which can really shine here (see above).

Roman Emperor Probus (276-282 AD) famously employed his off-duty soldiers to plant the first vines on Fruška Gora (it seems they were unhappy about this – they later murdered him). Later, under Austro-Hungarian rule, aristocratic families developed winemaking in the region. The recent discovery of the world’s second-oldest herbarium in Sremski Karlovci highlights the importance of viticulture here in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Records unveiled at the Museum of Vojvodina in Novi Sad in 2021 contained preserved samples of 55 pre-phylloxera grapevines, including Furmint (then called ‘silver grape’), and the earliest written mention of Grašac, in 1797.

Srem key producers: Belo Brdo, Bikicki, BT Winery, Chichateau, Deurić, Erdevik, Fruškogorski, Imperator, Komuna, Kovačević, Milanović, Veritas, Verkat, Vinčić, Vinum


Traditional and modern: Gilby’s taste of 10 from Serbia

Verkat, Grašac 4.0, Fruška Gora, Srem 2021

A crystal-bright, green-gold wine showcasing modern Grašac (Welschriesling). Inviting aromas of apple blossom, jasmine and green pear lead onto a graceful, silk-textured palate with poached pear, lime zest and acacia, and a precise, vibrant finish.
Drink 2023-2026 | Alcohol 13%

Radovanović, Selekcija Chardonnay, Great Morava, Šumadija 2019

A glowing golden wine with inviting aromas of creamy pineapple, white nectarine, lemon zest and classy oak. To taste, it’s sleek and supple with baked pineapple, lemon curd and fine vanilla backed by whistle-clean acidity. A really smart, sophisticated 100% Chardonnay.
Drink 2023-2026 | Alcohol 14%

Aleksandrović, Trijumf Gold, Oplenac, Great Morava, Šumadija 2022

Mostly Sauvignon Blanc with 5% each of Pinot Blanc and Riesling. A clear, green-yellow wine with inviting aromas of green papaya, passion fruit and crushed nettle. There’s a nicely textured mouthfeel with hints of tropical fruit and lime zest, and a fresh refined finish. A classic example of why Šumadija is great Sauvignon terroir.
Drink 2023-2027 | Alcohol 13.5%

Matijašević, Orange Smederevka, Great Morava, Šumadija 2020

Smederevka with 120 days on the skins produces this rich golden-yellow wine with salted lemon and Asian pear on the nose. It’s whistle-clean, bright and precise with hints of lemon zest and pith, yellow plum and appetising salinity.
Drink 2023-2026 | Alcohol 13%

Jovac, Stella Noir, Tri Morave 2020

A new start in an old winery and a kind of ‘super-Serbian’ blend, nearly half Cabernet Sauvignon with portions of Prokupac, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It’s ripe and inviting on the nose with cassis and blackberry cordial. Velvety and supple to taste with vibrant blackcurrant and mulberry notes, subtle vanilla scents and fine-grained tannins.
Drink 2023-2027 | Alcohol 14.5%

Erdevik, Stifler’s Mom Shiraz, Fruška Gora, Srem 2019

£52.50 (2017), Niko, Preston
Super-ripe, suave and polished Shiraz. Plenty of sweet bramble, kirsch and spicy black pepper overtones on the nose then flamboyant, lush blueberry and deep raspberry fruit, with subtle savoury hints and beautifully integrated oak. This is a big, bold wine but carries it gracefully, supported by a firm tannin backbone that promises a long life.
Drink 2025-2028 | Alcohol 16%

Radovan, Prokupac, Župa, Tri Morave 2020

A great example of what modern Prokupac is all about with its inviting bilberry, Morello cherry and bramble aromas, and a hint of clove. There’s delicious, bright, juicy loganberry and cherry fruit with typical crunchy tannins.
Drink 2023-2026 | Alcohol 14%

Deurić, Probus 276, Fruška Gora, Srem 2020

An inky, dark wine that shows generous crushed bilberry and loganberry fruit aromas. It’s still amazingly youthful, bright and succulent with mulberry and bramble notes, and a spine of firm but grainy tannins.
Drink 2023-2026 | Alcohol 14.5%

Lastar, Pinot Noir 2017

Pinot Noir can be tricky but Serbia has some great spots where cool mountain breezes give all-important freshness. Attractive ripe strawberry fruit with hints of black tea and tobacco leaf, supported by elegant tannins, a well-integrated hint of vanilla and good length.
Drink 2023-2025 | Alcohol 14%

Virtus, Prokupac 2018

£21.75, Humble Grape
A Prokupac wine made in a traditional style with medium body, showing plenty of dark chocolate, dried cherry and a savoury, plummy character, along with crunchy acidity. Give this a try if you’re keen on Chianti.
Drink 2023-2025 | Alcohol 13.5%


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