Balkan beauty - Montenegro wines uncovered

By Fiona Sims

Balkan beauty - Montenegro wines uncovered

It seems entirely appropriate that the wine I’m drinking while watching superyachts slide in and out of Porto Montenegro is called Status. It’s good, too (particularly with the region’s burek – meat and cheese pies). Made by Vinarija Milovic from Vranac grapes grown in the southern coastal region, near Ulcinj, within sight of the Albanian border.

Montenegro? Yup, I had to check on a map before I went, too. It’s a small, mountainous country with a population of 620,029 that was once part of the former Yugoslavia and borders Croatia and Albania, and is just up the coast from Greece.

Before the war erupted, which tore the region apart in the nineties. Montenegro was a magnet for the rich and famous. Luxury island resort Sveti Stefan, which was reopened in 2011 by Aman Hotels, once hosted the likes of Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Margaret.

But in 2006 Montenegro gained independence from Serbia and over the last decade it has become a holiday hotspot once more, courting the world’s elite – most notably at the Aman Sveti Stefan, and at the newly opened superyacht marina and development at Porto Montenegro, with its elegant Regent hotel, and soon at the One & Only Resort in Portonovi, which will open opposite next year.

Vranac? It’s the dominant local grape variety, pronounced ‘vrah-natz’. It is Montenegro’s biggest success story, and unlike many other grapes in the region (for example, Croatia’s Plavac Mali, which is the same family as Italy’s Primitivo and USA’s Zinfandel) Vranac is quite unique. It’s a thick-skinned dark grape, which can be quite tannic, so often benefits from some prolonged ageing - so don’t be surprised if you see older vintages on the shelves here.

Plantaže is the name you will see most often – it’s the largest producer and owner of one of Europe’s biggest single vineyards. If the wines don’t always reach the heights that some independent producers can achieve in the best vintages, these wines are consistently good and offer excellent value (look out for its Vranac Barrique).

The best Montenegrin wines, though, are being made by smaller Montenegrin producers, with retail prices ranging from €15 up to €50. Names to watch include Vinarija Krgovic, with wines sold under the Arhonto brand, and Vinarija Vucinic, with its Zenta wines, both with vineyards near the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, and the wines from Sjekloca in the Crmnica district (Caroline Gilby MW is a fan) and then there’s that bottle of Status - €45 from Porto Montenegro wine shop, Crush Wine Station.

Wine folk can be rather dismissive of the local white, Krstac (pronounced – kris-tatch), though I happily downed a few bottles of it made by Plantaže in Montenegro’s konobas (trattorias), where it’s herby, preserved lemon fruit and bracing acidity paired well the garlicky flavours.

Some Montenegrin producers are also experimenting with international varietals, but with limited success, admits Porto Montenegro wine shop owner Mike Shore. “Many of these varietals don’t thrive in this terroir and you can find some pretty flabby Sauvignon and Chardonnay.”

He believes the only really successful producer of international varietals in Montenegro is Castel Savina, located on the northern coast near Herceg Novi. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful properties in the country, with many of the vineyards surrounding a monastery, in case you’re planning a visit.

The vineyards were originally planted by the Venetians, and the winery displays old maps showing their location and what was planted. Castel Savina makes Chardonnay, a rosé from Grenache and a Merlot-Cabernet blend. “The vines are still young, but the wines show excellent potential,” suggests Shore.

Bit more background on Montenegrin wine

Montenegro has actually been making wine since Roman times. Its wine regions lie between 41.5 and 42.5N, with altitudes reaching 600m and a Mediterranean climate. Montenegro had 4,512ha/11,150 acres of vineyards in 2012 divided into the coastal zone and Lake Skadar basin (including the better known sub-regions of Podgorica and Crmnica). The national register records 380 grape growers, with 44 of these being family wine producers.

Red wines rule, with white grapes accounting for only 20% of plantings. Local varieties Vranac and Kratošija (Zinfandel) account for 70% of red wine grapes, along with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Syrah and Marselan. Indigenous varieties Krstac and Žižak are the most important whites with Chardonnay, Rkatsiteli, Sauvignon and Pinot Blanc also grown.

Want to try and buy?

Not much Montenegrin wine is brought into the UK, but Pero Drljevic imports a few bottles, contact him at Dimark on 01753 880726. Alternatively, fly Ryanair to Podgorica or Easyjet to Tivat and sample it for yourself. For more information go to Visit Montenegro.