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Montenegro for wine lovers

The magnificent turquoise Adriatic combined with the soaring limestone mountains and gaping gorges of the interior make Montenegro a rewarding and enigmatic destination.

Lying on the Balkan peninsula between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania, Montenegro has five national parks, highlighting its dramatic landscapes and unspoilt nature.

Through the millennia, its original inhabitants, the Illyrians, were joined by Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottoman Turks. While much of the coast was under Venice from 1392 to 1797, the mountainous interior came under the Ottoman Turks from 1496 to 1878. You’ll notice these influences in regional cuisine, architecture and dialects. Nowadays, tourism accounts for 25% of the country’s GDP – with the most popular destinations, Kotor and Budva, overlooking the Adriatic.

Montenegrin wines are little known abroad, as most are consumed at home. It’s believed the ancients already made wine here and celebrated the Dionysian cult. Regarding reds, the oldest known indigenous variety is Kratošija (very closely related to Primitivo / Zinfandel), recorded in the Budva Statute in the 15th century. But after the phylloxera epidemic in the early-20th century, the Vranac grape became more prominent, and now accounts for 70% of vines. Krstač is the dominant autochthonous variety for whites. Traditional methods are still highly respected, but recently several new family-run boutique wineries have opened, bringing modern techniques and flavours to the Montenegrin wine scene.

We begin our tour in Podgorica. It’s not generally regarded as a top destination, but being the capital, it’s well served by year-round international flights, and it lies near several outstanding wineries.

Podgorica

Krgović Arhonto vineyard

On the vast Zeta Plain, surrounded by limestone mountains, Podgorica straddles the Morača river. The city was bombed during WWII, so most of it today is modern – city life focuses on the main square, Trg Republike, approached via the central thoroughfare, Ulica Slobode. One sight worth visiting is the neo-Byzantine Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, decorated with golden mosaics and consecrated in 2013.

Montenegro’s biggest winery, producing 90% of the country’s wine, is state-owned Plantaže. Plantaže’s extensive vineyards stretch south of Podgorica as far as Lake Skadar, accounting for some 11.5 million vines, two-thirds of which are Vranac. At the Šipčanik wine cellar, occupying a hangar at a former military base, Plantaže’s standard one-hour tasting comprises the three main native varieties – Krstač, Kratošija and Vranac.

Plantaže took seven awards at Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) 2023, including a Silver medal for its red Pro Corde Vranac 2020. Pro Corde means ‘for the heart’ in Latin – apparently, it’s high in condensed tannins (believed to be health-promoting by some). It’s a reliable inexpensive buy, available at supermarkets throughout the country.

Driving north to the village of Rogami (where Kratošija is said to have originated), you’ll find several excellent family-run wineries. The biggest, producing 50,000 bottles annually, is Krgović Arhonto, founded in 2009 by Ljubiša Krgović, former governor of the Central Bank of Montenegro. At the winery, overlooking the ruins of the ancient Illyrian-Roman capital, Duklja (Doclea), be sure to taste Arhonto Kartošija (Primitivo di Montenegro) and Arhonto Vranac (70% Vranac, 30% mix of Kartošija and Cabernet). Note how Vranac is a full-bodied winter wine, high in tannins, as opposed to Kartošija, which is a little lighter and fruitier.

Nearby, Dragica Vučinić, Montenegro’s first female winemaker, runs the Zenta Vučinić winery. She learnt the art of viticulture from her parents and started commercial production in 2005. She’ll gladly show you the cellar, in a 25-metre-long tunnel, carved into the rocks below the house, and then take you up to the tasting room, with a wooden beamed ceiling and views over the vineyards. She makes seven different wines, all single-varietal, totalling 2,500 bottles annually, and explains that Kartošija can be drunk a little cooler than most reds, at 14°C, while Vranac is better at 18°C.

Northwest of Podgorica, in Novo Selo, on the road to Danilovgrad, Keković Estate welcomes visitors to wine and olive oil tasting upon reservation. At DWWA 2023, its fruity Sauvignon Blanc 2022 won a Bronze.

South of Podgorica, near Golubovci, on the way to Virpazar, the Knežević family produces wines under the Monte Grande label and welcomes guests daily, by appointment. Unusual for Montenegro, the estate specialises in whites – be sure to try the Chardonnay.

Lake Skadar National Park

Eco Resort Cermeniza

From Podgorica, a good fast road leads southwest to Virpazar, overlooking Lake Skadar National Park. The lake’s unique ecosystem attracts pelicans, cormorants and herons, and it’s on the Ramsar wetlands list. You can tour the lake, with its clusters of bamboo and water lilies, by boat or kayak, and try carp, either fresh or smoked and marinated – locals recommend drinking red Vranac with it as it’s rather fatty.

Virpazar is the centre of the Crmnica wine region, the original home of the Vranac grape. Viticulture has a long history here, and many family-run wineries preserve that tradition. You might sleep at Eco Resort & Winery Cermeniza, where the Đurišić family has been making wine for generations. Taste the appley white Krstač, and the Vranac and Vranac Barrique, both aged in oak. The team doesn’t add sulphites as it don’t sell its wines commercially.

Nearby, in the village of Donji Brčeli, the Kopitović winery cultivates Kratošija and Vranac to produce four robust reds. This family also has a long history here, and hosts tasting on request in its 300-year-old stone cellar, accompanied by platters of cheeses, cured meats and olives, and genuine old-fashioned hospitality.

North of Virpazar, on the Crnojevića river, close to the lake, Wine Gallery Bogojević offers another fine-tasting experience. Its red Bogdan 2017, made from Vranac, was awarded a Silver at DWWA 2023.

Budva Riviera

Credit: Svitlana Kuchina / Alamy Stock Photo

Montenegro’s best beaches lie along the 35-km Budva Riviera, running from Trsteno to Buljarica. It centres on Budva, where the Venetian-walled old town is a labyrinth of stone alleys. However, the surrounding high-rise development has somewhat spoilt Budva.

East of the town, in Bečići, you have a string of big modern resort hotels giving onto a sandy beach. Further southeast, Sveti Stefan is a romantic cluster of medieval stone cottages on a fortified islet, connected to the mainland by a causeway. It launched as the luxurious Aman Sveti Stefan in 2008 (see address book section for further details).

Kotor Bay

Savina winery in Herceg Novi, overlooking Kotor Bay

Often dubbed Europe’s southernmost fjord, Kotor Bay is a 28km-long meandering inlet. Rimmed by soaring mountains, its shores are dotted with centuries-old settlements – Herceg Novi, Risan, Perast, Dobrota, Kotor Town, Prčanj and Tivat – making it Montenegro’s top cultural destination. It’s ideally explored by boat or sea kayak – from the water, you get ever-changing perspectives of the bay and the surrounding rugged peaks.

Deep inside the bay lies Unesco-listed Kotor. Protected by Venetian-era fortifications, its pedestrian-only old town is a huddle of cobbled streets and noble Baroque buildings – visit the 12th-century Romanesque cathedral, on the main square, and the Maritime Museum, tracing Montenegro’s seafaring past.

Behind Kotor rises Mount Lovćen (1,749m), crowned by the monumental Njegoš Mausoleum, designed by sculptor Ivan Meštrović to celebrate the life of 19th-century Montenegrin Prince-Bishop Petar II Petrović-Njegoš. It’s approached up 461 steps, and affords magnificent sweeping panoramic views over the entire country. On the eastern edge of Lovćen National Park, lies Cetinje, Montenegro’s former royal capital.

Near the mouth of Kotor Bay, set amid hillside vineyards above Herceg Novi, is the Savina winery. Here the Obradović family hosts tasting in a lush garden with spectacular views back down to the bay. Savina’s Merlot 2018 won a Silver medal at DWWA 2023, and its Chardonnay frequently picks up prizes too.

Ulcinj

Ulcinj. Credit: Darko Vrcan / Alamy Stock Photo

Moving down the coast to the very south of the country, Ulcinj lies close to the border with Albania. The oldest part of town is contained within the walls of a sturdy medieval fortress, built on a small peninsula. Unlike other Montenegrin towns, it has lots of mosques and a sizeable Albanian population. Southeast of town, Velika Plaža (‘Long Beach’) is a 12km swathe of sand, much-loved by kite surfers.

Northeast of Ulcinj, in the hills of Briska Gora, Brano Milović grows Vranac. It does particularly well here and his robust red Status, Status Barrique and Status Reserve are highly sought after.


My perfect weekend in Kotor Bay

The shores of Kotor Bay offer a choice of classy hotels. Of these, I’d suggest the recently refurbished Hyatt Regency Kotor Bay, enjoying spectacular views across the water to the surrounding mountains, plus a beach, spa, health and wellbeing retreat, gourmet dining and superb rooms and suites.

Friday

Kotor Bay. Credit: Gordon Bell / Alamy Stock Photo

Book in at the hotel and have a late-afternoon swim from the beach. For millennia, Kotor Bay has offered shelter from the open sea to passing ships – bathing in these tranquil waters, it’s easy to see why.

Evening

Dine on the waterside terrace at Lighthouse Restaurant, specialising in fresh local fish. Ask your waiter to recommend the catch of the day, plus the best Montenegrin wine to accompany it.


Saturday

Perast. Credit: Sorin Colac / Alamy Stock Photo

Morning

After a buffet breakfast on the Blue Restaurant terrace, take a boat tour from the hotel, sailing across the bay to Perast, with its twin island churches, then out onto the open sea to visit the extraordinary Blue Cave.

Afternoon

Have a healthy salad for lunch at Bliss Pool Bar and swim at the green-tiled infinity pool. Then head for Spa Soul to indulge in a massage or skin rejuvenation treatment.

Evening

Take a boat transfer for an aperitif at Underwater Cellar Kraken‘s raft in Kotor Bay. Try the Muscat Barrique white wine, aged for one year at a depth of 20m under the sea. Then head into Kotor Town (which is more peaceful come evening, once the cruise ships have left), to wander its lovely stone alleys and squares, and see the hillside fortifications, floodlit after dark. Dine at Galion, overlooking the bay, offering a modern take on local favourites.


Sunday

Njeguš Mausoleum. Credit: Flavia Brilli / Alamy Stock Photo

Morning

Visit the Savina winery above Herceg Novi to taste Chardonnay and Merlot. You’ll need either a private transfer or a hire car – avoid traffic congestion by driving onto the Lepetane-Kamenari ferry at the narrowest part of the bay.

Afternoon

Drive up to Lovćen (via Tivat) to visit the Njeguš Mausoleum for spectacular panoramic views over Montenegro’s remarkable landscapes and out to sea.

Depart from either Podgorica or Tivat airport.


Your Montenegro address book

Restaurants

Lighthouse Restaurant, Hyatt Regency Kotor Bay

Waterside hotel restaurant specialising in fish – try the seafood platter, which combines saffron and prawn risotto, tuna steak and delightfully tender slow-cooked octopus.

Galion

Refined modern seafood restaurant, with a deck built over the water, just outside the walls of Kotor Town.

Tri Ribara (‘Three Fishermen’)

On the waterfront in Rafailovići, near Bečići on the Budva Riviera. Much loved by locals, this rustic eatery has been run by a family of fishermen since it opened in 1982. Fresh fish caught each morning and open all year.

Restoran Pelikan

In Virpazar, Pelikan serves traditional local specialities from Lake Skadar – carp, eel and trout. It also has boats and arranges cruises on the lake.

Accommodation

Hyatt Regency Kotor Bay

Big luxurious modern resort hotel in Donji Stoliv, overlooking Kotor Bay. Expect spacious rooms with marble bathrooms, a choice of bars and restaurants, a beach and two spas.

Palazzo Radomiri 

Heritage boutique hotel in Dobrota, overlooking Kotor Bay, a 20-minute walk from Kotor Town. There’s a garden restaurant and rooms are furnished with antiques.

Aman Sveti Stefan

The gorgeous island complex is shut, but you can still stay at the luxurious eight-suite Villa Miločer on the mainland, with its spa and beach.

Eco Resort & Winery Cermeniza

In a terraced garden with a pool, near Virpazar, Cermeniza has six cosy stone cottages with wooden beamed ceilings and kitchenettes. It offers wine tasting, homemade dinners, and bikes for guests’ use.

Hilton Podgorica

Right in the centre of Podgorica, the Hilton is best known for its rooftop Sky Bar, affording great views over the city. It also has a spa and indoor pool.

Wine shops and bars

Bucca Wine Bar

A chic bar serving quality local wines in Podgorica.

Salon Vina

Private wine tasting by appointment in Podgorica.

Underwater Cellar Kraken

Wine tasting on a raft in Kotor Bay.

How to get there

Fly to Podgorica or Tivat


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