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Kratošija, Vranec and Republic of Macedonia are not names usually associated with world-class wines – until now....

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Tikveš Winery: A beacon of Balkan excellence

Tikveš Winery’s superb 2015 Barovo single-vineyard red picked up a well-deserved platinum medal and 97 points at Decanter World Wine Awards 2018. Caroline Gilby MW went to take a look at the fascinating story behind this gorgeous wine.

The tale of Tikveš Barovo is of passionate people and a stunning landscape at the crossroads of east and west. Grape-growing has a long history in this region, with Neolithic evidence of grape remains, while both Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great were renowned drinkers of the local wine and Romans traded wine from this region. Tikveš itself was the first winery of the modern era, founded in 1885, but quality wine largely disappeared in socialist times, when this area produced up to two-thirds of Yugoslavia’s wine.

Tikveš may be one of the biggest wineries in the whole Balkan region, but when the M6 Investment group invested fifteen years ago, company president Svetozar Janevski took the brave decision to switch focus to quality wines only. “We have a passion for perfection, we wanted to change market standards and even our cheaper wines are the best they can be,” he says. In 2010, he brought in a French consultant named Philippe Cambie whose roots are in the southern warmth of the Rhone Valley – useful in understanding Macedonia’s sunny vineyards, where the sun shines 270 days each year. And back in 2005, Dr Klemen Lisjak from Slovenia started his still ongoing research programmes at Tikveš, looking at climate and soils; how best to manage the local grape varieties; and controlling oxidation.

To illustrate how attitudes have changed, 20 years ago growers won prizes for growing the biggest crop – even up to 35 tonnes/ha. Today they earn a premium for smaller yields, handpicking into crates and using drip irrigation.

Head winemaker Marko Stojaković had been a key figure at the winery. He is rooted in the region, born in Serbia, but grew up and studied in France at Bordeaux and Montpellier. A protégée of Cambie’s, he arrived at the winery aged just 27 in 2010, seeing a real opportunity to make a difference on a significant scale. He explains that though this is a big company, it feels like family and they are open and progressive. He manages a team of 12 oenologists who travel regularly to New Zealand, South Africa and Australia to learn more, an unusually open attitude in this region.

Head winemaker Marko Stojaković

Barovo red is a unique vineyard blend of two local grape varieties, picked and vinified together. Kratošija is one the oldest varieties in the Balkans. Betterknown as Primitivo or Zinfandel, it was a volume workhorse in the past but has great quality potential and is also usefully drought-tolerant. Vranec, whose name means “black stallion”, is a powerful, inky dark grape richer in colour and tannin than even Cabernet Sauvignon. In the Barovo vineyard, the vines are properly old, aged up to 42 years and all the work in this beautiful and isolated spot is done by hand. The vineyard lies on the border between Mediterranean and continental climates but its altitude of 600 to 700 metres makes all the difference, giving cool nights that protect freshness in the grapes. It’s everyone’s favourite location for its stunning views and bountiful wildlife – butterflies, birds, lizards and even tortoises wander among the vines.

It’s also one of the few spots in the country where irrigation is not required and the grapes are really healthy so there’s minimal spraying. Marko explains, “We don’t have to interfere, we just respect the fruit. On the other hand, our winemaking is very precise and about purity. We aim to show the terroir and not mask the wine with tannins, we want to show just what the vineyard and nature give.” The grapes are cooled and then vinified in concrete tanks before finishing in French-coopered oak which Marko reckons gives him the best results. “This is my wine,” says Marko says with pride, adding, “Barovo is our best red wine for sure, for real people not just for wine critics and we are all really proud of the 97 points and Decanter award for this wine.”

Company President Svetozar Janevski

The winery takes its role in the community very seriously. CEO Radoš Vukicevic explains that Tikveš buys from more than 2,000 families so it’s important to pay fairly and give them a stable future. The winery is also committed to sustainability in this clean green land, reducing water use, investing in solar panels and planning to use winery waste for biomass.

Another initiative is the recent founding of a cookery school, with Nikola Stojaković bringing his French three- Michelin-starred cooking skills to Macedonia. While the country produces one of the highest volumes of wine per capita wine in Europe, wine drinking is among Europe’s lowest. At the same time, it is hard to develop fine wine without a food culture to match. A wine school is also on the cards with training for growers, winemakers and sommeliers. Wine is one of the most important economic sectors here, with vines covering 4% of all cultivated land, though as Janevski points out, “Although we stand at the crossroads of wine making over many centuries, our country is still not recognized as a world wine region, particularly for fine wines. Our mission is to change this awareness and move the region far from its image as a bulk wine source.”

Asked what the Decanter award means Janevski says, “It’s like the sunrise, seeing the light, recognising the region and showing that we can be in the sky with any wine producer in Europe.”