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Žilavka Mostar 2010 – “golden and slightly greenish at the same time, full of light, fresh morning light of the mountains…the taste and aroma were those of mountains too. It was dry like the white limestone rocks rising over the Dalmatian coast, and the same fragrant of wood raisin.”

By Mariusz Rybak

I had my first Žilavka around five years ago, on the sunny terrace of some Croatian restaurant in the old town of Munich. It was a hot August day and we were a small but very international group looking for some light Mediterranean food and refreshment. We ordered calamari fritti and scampi, plus some white wine – completely unknown to us – by the glass, so not even seeing the label. And refreshment is what we got, and how! I got excited about the bone dry and still aromatic wine – my first from Bosnia – and tried to find this kind of exotic delicacy in Berlin.

It was all a fruitless effort, although there was some decent Žilavka in Berlin’s Balkan shops. But the old Ottoman kismet had mercy on me and recently I rediscovered my Žilavka in Belgrade, in the lovely Café-Gallery ‘Priča’, close to my apartment. As soon as I got to know the name of the wine, I ran to the next wine shop, just to discover that here it’s a very popular wine, to be found just about everywhere in Belgrade; plus its very good value for money. This only confirms that many good wines rarely leave their countries of origin – and here I treat Yugoslavia as a still existent entity. This is both not true and highly politically incorrect, but justified from an economic point of view when considering that traditional trade relations make these markets extraordinarily integrated. This is not least a result of the similar preference structures of the consumers, too.

So I grabbed a bottle and paid to my surprise around $6.40 (550 dinars). But I’m not impatient. The bottle waited until the next evening – Santa pazienza! – when I could finally pour into my glass the wine, golden and slightly greenish at the same time, full of light, fresh morning light of the mountains. And the taste and aroma were those of mountains too. It was dry like the white limestone rocks rising over the Dalmatian coast, and the same fragrant of wood raisin. This is the smell of hot days in the region, due to pines, junipers and all those herbal plants rich in aromatic oils, green embroidery on the limestone. But the wine was still far from some opulent fragrance one could expect after this description and the sun they have in Herzegovina.

Zilavka - Bosnia

No, it was rather raisin and something like nutmeg – a bitter, nutty character. There was also something green to be tasted; a simple, raw and vegetal note. I had to think of this Žilavka as a very simple but handsome wine, a strapping and strong one, somehow even hesitant but self-confident. For some reason, it is easier to describe it as a person than just with the modern wine vocabulary of jams, berries, tobacco and chocolate. Indeed, Žilavka is much like men of Herzegovina (or the Western Balkans in general) who are among the tallest in Europe, and in the world – allegedly 186 cm on average. So would it be a perfect case of wine expressing the character of the area? Think of the old bridge in Mostar, too! Men, stones, woods…

Well, on the other hand, the once more popular classification of wines as masculine or feminine seems to me ideologically unacceptable in the times of advancing gender equality. The women of Belgrade or Zagreb are far from any simply definable type either: strong and self-confident, and still so girlish and graceful! Maybe Žilavka is indeed a Balkan female wine, as its name could suggest?

Čitluk’s Žilavka Mostar is a cuvee consisting of three autochthonous white varieties: 85% of Žilavka and 15% of Bene and Krkošija. It contains 12,5% of alcohol and the taste is much more pronounced that we could expect from this value: it is the dryness and light bitter note that kick. The exceptional wines of the community (Žilavka?) were already mentioned in the documents about the visit of Ban Tvrtko in 1353.

The producer recommends drinking the wine cooled to a temperature of 10°C, with freshwater or sea fish, I would add: white one. Also pork and poultry would match the wine well, although less when in a heavy sweetish sauce. I can imagine meat prepared with lemon and rosemary as resembling the character of Čitluk’s Žilavka with its notes from the local woods.

It’s definitely not a very noble wine, but still beautiful in its authenticity and I love it as such. Or maybe it’s about those heart-warming memories from the sunny Munich?

Mariusz Rybak is currently researching Serbian wine culture and the notion of wine as a cultural good. His musings on such topics can be read on his blog, Kawa and Vino.

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