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WITH A LITTLE HELP, KOSOVO’S WINE INDUSTRY BEGINS TO RIPEN

December 11th, 2009 61 comments

Written by Joe Linstroth

Photography by Evan Martin

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RAHOVEC, KOSOVO – In any discussion of the world’s emerging wine-producing regions, Kosovo’s Rahovec Valley rarely garners a mention, and with good reason. For the last fifty years, the wines produced here have offered little to talk about and, with the exception of Germany, have rarely found their way outside the Balkans. But ten years have passed since the war with Serbia, and the winemakers in this agricultural town of about 25,000 have begun the long rebuilding process with the hope to one day carve out a little piece of the international wine market and enjoy the respect that comes with it.

With just 2 million people, Kosovo will never be able to compete with the big boys in terms of production. Nor does it have the name recognition to keep afloat in the massive international “wine lake” by producing the same old varietals like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. But what Kosovo does have in abundance is pristine terroir and indigenous grape varietals – two ingredients that make Kosovo’s goal far less unrealistic than it may seem.

“I’ve never seen better conditions for growing grapes than I have in this valley,” says David Rowe, who, as a former editor of Decanter wine magazine and now an international wine consultant based in Bordeaux, has seen his share of the world’s vineyards. Rowe has been coming to Rahovec for years as a consultant winemaker for Stone Castle Vineyards, the region’s largest winery.

Rahovec was once the crown jewel of wine production in the former Yugoslavia. It was also the scene of some of the worst fighting during the 1999 war. While the turbulent history is never far from the surface, the winemakers in Rahovec, with significant help from the German government, are dedicated to finding a way to extract the enormous potential nature has bestowed them.

Diving Headfirst

On the northern ridge of the Rahovec Valley, just outside of town, the locals gather at the community pool, seeking relief from the intense summer heat. Teenagers jackknife off a rusty platform just 100 yards from the edge of a vineyard. But this is Kosovo, where even a cool dip can come with a reminder of the still delicate situation here. On the days when NATO’s German contingent is conducting an exercise at the nearby firing range, the staccato bursts of machine-gun fire blend with the slapping water and youthful laughter to form an eerie racket more akin to a sound installation in a postmodern art gallery than a poolside picnic with the family.

The view on the other hand is a reminder that Mother Nature has no politics. The hills roll on for miles, all coifed with thousands of rows of vines, their round scalps seemingly parted in every direction by a thick-toothed comb. The valley is entirely surrounded by mountains, a geographic rarity that has created a microclimate ideal for growing grapes. The region has more than 200 days of sunshine and rainfall is optimal. The continental climate’s harsh winters induce the dormancy needed for a healthy grapevine’s annual life cycle.

From afar, everything a wine region needs seems in place. But a trudge through the vineyards and a tour of a local winery reveal a dizzying array of problems.

“Although on the plus side the climatic conditions are almost perfect for viticulture,” says Rowe, “on the minus side there is a lack of professionalism.”

The first challenge has been to figure out where to even begin. Does it start with the winemakers, who lack knowledge of international wine standards? In the vineyards, which suffer from neglect and poor maintenance practices? Or at the administrative level, which must overcome a dearth of resources to implement policies — not just a window-dressing wine institute — that will ensure a reliable product necessary for the highly competitive international wine market? So far, the answer has been all of the above.

Humble Beginnings

A sour odor of sweat blankets the cramped, narrow room in Kosovo’s Wine Institute. The tiny air conditioner, when switched on, struggles in vain to counter the scorching July heat and the radiating bodies of twenty-five local winemakers, oenologists and government representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Development. All the major players in Kosovo’s struggling but proud wine industry have gathered here for a two-day training led by Carsten Heinemeyer, an international wine consultant based in Germany. Speaking in short spurts so his ethnic Albanian translator can keep up, Heinemeyer starts from the beginning. Empty wine glasses line the edge of the U-shaped table. They lie in wait until after lunch, when Heinemeyer will conduct a blind tasting with local, regional and international wines side by side — a liquid dessert of humble pie.

Most of the winemakers at the training, despite decades of experience, are getting their first introduction to international wine standards; their first exposure to detailed descriptions of common mistakes in winemaking; and their first lessons on ways to avoid and correct them. It’s a delicate task.

“When it’s about problems with the wine, this is always very difficult to talk about because to talk about the mistakes in their wine is the same as talking about the beauty of their daughter,” says Marcel Schwickert, head of the German Technical Cooperation’s (GTZ) Program for Economy and Employment Promotion, which is funded by the German government.

“They say, ‘She’s the most beautiful one,’ and my question is always, ‘Okay, she’s the most beautiful one but have you already been able to marry this daughter to somebody?’”

Germany is alone when it comes to providing international aid to the Rahovec wine industry. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the territory’s other major international contributor to private sector development, commissioned an extensive study of the industry in 2006, but in an email response, officials said the wine sector lacked the potential to benefit from short-term investment.

Schwickert sees the long-term potential in Rahovec. This is partly because Germans have a long history here. Since 1957, they have been the largest consumers of Kosovar wine, importing millions of liters a year from the state-owned factory that is now Stone Castle and selling it at rock-bottom prices under the Amselfelder label. GTZ has been involved in Kosovo’s wine sector for the last three years, says Schwickert, mostly helping to establish the Wine Institute and surround it with an administrative framework. Schwickert has brought Heinemeyer to Kosovo to begin the next phase, which will last an additional four years and focus exclusively on the wine producers.

Off Notes

After visiting many of the area’s wineries, Heinemeyer complements the moderate alcohol levels and high acidity of Rahovec wines. Yet nearly all of them, he says, exhibit at least one, if not several, obvious faults, such as oxidation and excessive sulfur dioxide. He maintains, however, that with education and dedication, these faults are correctable.

“The wineries don’t need hardware. What they need is software,” he says, pointing to his head.

Flaws can be difficult for the local winemakers to spot because it is how they have been making wine in Rahovec for decades. Unfamiliarity with international wines and winemaking practices is problematic, especially when the ultimate goal is to compete in the highly competitive international market, where critics and connoisseurs await with a quiver full of semantic arrows that can kill a wine region’s reputation faster than a viticulturist can say phylloxera.

“Our message was: ‘When you start fishing, the fish has to like the worm, not the fisherman,’” says Schwickert.

The former Communist mentality that measured success in liters still remains. Most growers in the region aim for producing as many grapes as possible, and with the current system in which the fruit is purchased by the kilogram, there is little incentive for the farmers to alter their methods. But in the delicate art of winemaking more is not better.

Efforts are underway to encourage grape producers to limit their yields through practices such as “green harvesting.” When the green berries appear, farmers selectively trim some bunches away, concentrating the vine’s energy into fewer grapes, elevating their color and flavor. With thousands of grape farmers in the Rahovec region, implementing this practice is a daunting challenge.

Schwickert says he plans to bring in more international experts to help wineries identify the problems in the vineyards and assist in the drafting of standardized parameters that will form the basis of long-term contracts between the wineries and growers – a necessary first step toward revitalizing the vineyards in Rahovec.

Solo Artists

The wine industry in Kosovo was privatized in 2006. At the same time, the provisional government passed a series of regulations, collectively known as the Wine Law. A year later, it established the Wine Institute in Rahovec to implement the new policies. This process, at times chaotic, has resulted in two tiers of wine production, one with seven licensed wineries and the other consisting of independent winemakers, like Faik Vuciterna, who operate with little to no government oversight.

Vuciterna works his family’s hectare of vines with his two adult sons. Knowledge of his craft comes from his father and grandfather, and during the winter months, he supplements the old ways with modern techniques taken from books written by French and Italian experts. Last year, Vuciterna managed to squeeze 3,000 liters of wine out of a winery the size of a vaulted two-car garage. During fermentation, he says he sleeps on the room’s bare concrete floor, listening for the gurgling mash to hit the right pitch. He bottles the finished product himself and sells it to restaurants in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, and in neighboring Albania. The budget is so tight that he cannot afford to hold any wine back for further aging.

“Maybe we work in a primitive way,” says Vuciterna, standing amidst the long shadows of vines perched atop a hill adjacent to the town’s center. He points to a circular scar in the earth where he says the Serb military used his land for a strategic bunker ten years ago.

“They destroyed the whole city. We couldn’t work for two years in our vineyards and had to start over,” he explains.

Now, as the Rahovec region reassembles the pieces, thirty to fifty winemakers like Vuciterna operate outside the legal framework because the benefits of official recognition have yet to materialize. The government offers no subsidies; the only exporting they can realistically consider is to Albania, which many already do anyway; and, domestically, they avoid the government’s high excise tax.

“I’m a small fish. There are big fish and they can do more,” Vuciterna says.

By far the biggest fish in Rahovec is Stone Castle. Purchased in 2006 by two Albanian-American real estate developers from New York, the behemoth, with its vast underground cellar and rows of 50-foot fermentation silos, was once a dominant state-owned wine factory in the former Yugoslavia. Today it is one of the largest privately-owned wineries in the world, with a capacity to produce 50 million liters of wine, though, if Rowe has his way, it will never hum at full throttle.

“Stone Castle has been built with industrial-scale winemaking in mind,” Rowe says. “My idea is to start developing a winery within a winery, a smaller-scale operation for the top-quality wines coming from the new vineyards.”

According to GTZ studies, Stone Castle dominates the market, growing or purchasing over 85 percent of the grapes in Rahovec. There is one medium-sized company, Haxhijaha, with a five percent market share. Five smaller wineries split the remainder.

The seven licensed wineries are subject to the regulations laid out in the Wine Law. They include annual laboratory analysis, quality rankings by a five-member panel appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture, and a domestic excise tax. Many agree that the government’s role in the wine sector, though in need of improvement, has built a strong foundation.

“For the first time there is an institute that has to take care of the activities and the needs of the sector from the government side,” says Schwickert.

Kosovo Needs a Mondavi

The Rahovec wine industry is still in the early phases of rebuilding. So far, the focus has been on pruning vineyards, modernizing winemaking techniques and sharpening government policies. These efforts all point eventually to the creation of a cohesive strategy for the export market. Kosovo’s slow pace of development has had one advantage. It has allowed the industry here to learn from the errors made by others in the Balkan region.

“They should definitely not make the same mistakes as the Bulgarians, who aimed at the lowest price point in the export market,” says Rowe, who consulted for a Bulgarian winery ten years ago. “Once you establish a very low price point it becomes almost impossible to get out of that.”

Among the local winemakers, there is no consensus on which varietals deserve the most attention. Few mention native Balkan varietals like prokupe (also known as prokupec in Serbia) and vranac (vranc), both reds, and the white grape, smederevka. More often, international varietals like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay attract the winemakers’ attention. But the international market is already overflowing with more established regions producing these varietals, and many sophisticated wine drinkers have developed chardonnay and cabernet fatigue.

“People do get tired of these same eight grape varieties that everyone produces,” Rowe says. “People who know a bit more about wine are looking for something different, and countries like Kosovo can provide for that gap in the market.”

Heinemeyer notes prokupe could produce excellent results. But he resists describing the grape’s flavor profile, stressing that it will change with improved knowledge and winemaking practices.

Discussing the potential of vranac, Rowe is quick to highlight a future role for the Wine Institute.

“I think the priority for the Institute is to work on clonal selection,” he says. “It may be that there is only one clone of vranac, but I suspect there are many different clones in fact, and it’s only by identifying and selecting the most appropriate clones that we can get the best out of that and other grape varieties.”

In addition to clonal selection, Heinemeyer and Rowe say a thorough and professional cadastral study of the region will help. In the past, due to the government’s heavy production demands, vines were planted without careful consideration of soil-type. GTZ plans to help the government begin the arduous, but necessary, process next year.

To consolidate all of the new information, the winemakers at the training recently formed an association that they hope will develop a way forward. They have committed resources to help offset some of the costs, including footing the bill for Heinemeyer’s accommodations. As the association matures, it will eventually be asking for more help from the fledgling Kosovo government, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008. It remains unclear what sort of assistance the foundation will receive.

“If we want to do something, we must have a strategy for the wine sector,” says Bekim Hoxha, chief of the permanent secretary office in the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Development. “But we’re not ready yet.”

Heinemeyer stresses patience. “We need leaders, pulling forces, people who can be a reference – the avant garde.” In other words, someone to do for the Rahovec region what Robert Mondavi did for Napa Valley and Nicholas Catena has recently done for Argentina.

The stakes are high. More than 4,000 grape growers in the Rahovec region rely on wine production for their livelihood, according to a government study conducted last year. Others here estimate the number is much greater. Kosovo is a mostly rural territory that depends heavily on agricultural production and establishing a robust export wine industry is crucial. With these stakes in mind, the Rahovec wine community is putting its collective nose in a wine glass and taking on the challenges that lie ahead.

“We cannot produce planes or automobiles, but we have all the natural resources to make wine,” says Bashkim Koronica, a longtime professor of viticulture and oenology at Kosovo’s main university in Pristina.

A healthy wine industry could also do more than boost a beleaguered economy in which unemployment has hovered above 40 percent for years. Producing great wine instills pride in a country and culture in ways that a spicy pepper or a dense potato cannot. In the words of Hemingway: “Wine is the most civilized thing in the world.” After years of receiving international support, producing great wine is a way for Kosovo to present itself in full regalia to the world and, much more simply, to give a little something back.

Toasting the Future

After lunch, the winemakers file back into the steamy room for a blind tasting. Heinemeyer fills the glasses in front of them and then asks each person to rank the wines, encouraging them to think about the flaws mentioned during the morning’s presentation. Fejzullah Berisha is quick to offer his comments, as he has been throughout the day. Berisha is Stone Castle’s chief winemaker and thus the elder statesman in the room. It’s a bold move. Everyone is aware that their wines are mixed in with their international competitors, and silence is the predominating response to Heinemeyer’s prodding. Number Two is the worst and Number Five has a significant flaw, Berisha says. The consultant removes the sleeves revealing the wines Berisha singled out are both from Stone Castle. With a genuine smile on his face, the winemaker throws his hands up in the air. The room gasps with laughter.

“Of course it’s always difficult to convince the big boss he has to learn something, but they are willing,” says Schwickert. “It’s promising.”

At the training’s conclusion, Berisha is the first to stand and offer a toast to Heinemeyer and Schwickert. For the last two days, some of Kosovo’s best and brightest in the wine industry have been knocked down a few pegs. This is a rare moment when Kosovo’s past has been a blessing, for bloated egos are difficult to come by in a place that has seen so much turmoil and is in need of so much rebuilding. Amidst the idle conversation as everyone sips sparkling wine, it is as clear as the blue Rahovec sky in the window that they are prepared to pull their weight. Success is not preordained; nor will a fine Rahovec wine purify all of the vinegary notes from the past. It could, however, allow the rest of the world to taste a hint of Kosovo’s pride.