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Trebinje seems to be an exceptional piece of earth, hot and dry, but giving balanced and elegant wines, although usually quite heavy and rich. Beautiful as a town, close to such touristic attractions like Dubrovnik, Mostar and Kotor, it surely deserves more attention – especially from wine lovers.

By Mariusz Rybak

Trebinje is a small town, lost in the dry mountains of the southern edge of Herzegovina; hidden in a deep valley that resembles the end of the world upon entering. But I knew that there are some experienced producers of quality wine there and my trip to this town did not disappoint at all. What’s more, I couldn’t stop marvelling at the assets that Trebinje possesses and enjoys.

As lost as it may appear, it is not difficult to reach – situated in the corner between Croatia and Montenegro. It is a short drive from Dubrovnik or Herceg Novi, both highly-touristic spots of the eastern Adriatic coast. But you need a car, which I don’t have. I do not drive. Americans will feel shocked, Europeans less surprised. Using public transportation, I made quite a nice circle to reach the town. I came from Montenegro, via Dubrovnik in Croatia, and went to Mostar – to see one of the most famous bridges in the world, and to spend a night before continuing my journey. I could just have well have stayed in Dubrovnik, but a young traveller’s budget is not adapted to this terrifyingly commercialized, UNESCO-protected Disneyland.

Mostar is the historic capital of Herzegovina, inhabited mostly by Catholic Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). The 16th century bridge is what connects the two communities, both virtually and symbolically. Destroyed during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it was rebuilt in its original form soon after. On the primarily Bosniak side, just a few meters from the bridge, there is a Serbian café, which I discovered on the very first evening. It was a prelude to my trip to Trebinje. The café offered exclusively wines from the Monastery of Tvrdoš – one of my destinations. So – of course – I had a glass.

To be precise, it was a glass of the monastery’s Cabernet, called ‘Hum’, named after the medieval principality in this region. It was a pleasantly cool evening, with the Neretva resoundingly weaving its way through the rocks of its bed. The 2007 ‘Hum’, kept for two years in French oak, possessed those very minerals, giving it a smell of blood. Subtle spices, forest fruits and a bitter herbal notes were developing in contact with the air.

It was the evening of the next day when I arrived to Trebinje. The town is situated in Republika Srpska, which should not be confused with the Republic of Serbia. The former is a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, within its patchwork-like postwar political and administrative system. Bosnia’s people owe this mess to the Dayton Agreement, which whilst bringing peace also trapped them into a dysfunctional system that impedes economic development. In fact, during the time I stayed there, students were protesting throughout the country against this inconvenient political construct that offers them little in the way of a future.

Trebinje

Staying in the centrally-situated Hotel Platani, the small historical center surrounded me, with the old famous plane trees above, after which the hotel was named. Tired, I went to the first nice-looking restaurant, ‘Tarana’, where I ordered half a litre of their house wine and a plate of Herzegovinian prosciutto (‘pršuta’ in Serbian) and hard cheese marinated in olive oil (sir iz ulja). This is one of the places where ‘vino de casa’ is not worse than any other sold by bottle – their white is Žilavka from Anđelić, another great producer I was going to visit in Trebinje. This was divine food and, as I discovered later, only a modest beginning. The aforementioned Žilavka got a medal from Decanter magazine – a dry but fruity wine, of a golden-green coloir, elegant in its structure and so different from many rich, strong whites of the Mediterranean climate.

The next day was a Sunday and I took a cab to the Monastery of Tvrdoš, which is – I guess – not more than 5 km from the town center. The typically small Orthodox church is from the very beginning of the 16th century, constructed on the ruins of older temples, the earliest of which dates back to the 4th century. The main part of the winery is, however, rather new.

The monastery has a long wine-making tradition; one which suffered under the Ottoman Empire, and later from the two World Wars, Communism, and the war in Yugoslavia. As a matter of fact, they started their quality wine production only in the early-2000s. In the cellars I was warmly-received and the long talk I enjoyed with one of the cellar workers was only briefly-disturbed by groups of tourists coming to visit the church and sample their wines and spirits.

The monastery has seven wine and three spirit labels, with the spirits all being produced from grapes. As every respectful producer of the region, they have their Žilavka, an autochthonous variety, appreciated much by the Austrian-Hungarian emperors who sourced it from a Hungarian producer in Lastva, a village to the south of Trebinje.

Tvrdoš’ Žilavka was a beautifully balanced white, minerally and with refreshing acidity. The strong sun, additionally reflected by limestone, makes the wines strong, with this one containing 13,7% of alcohol. The vines grow on stony, dry and poor soil with their roots reaching deep into the rock. It is not unlikely that the name could be traced from the word ‘žilavost’, meaning tenacity and strength.

I’ve heard once that, genetically, Žilavka is not that far from Riesling. Indeed, whoever loves German and Austrian Rieslings will most probably appreciate Herzegovina’s tenacious whites. Also the Chardonnay, ‘Oros’ (Greek for ‘mount’), proved to be an elegant wine – with its fruity and honey notes and spiciness.

My first red was a Merlot, blended from two vintages: 2008 and 2009. It’s called ‘Izba’ – an old Slavic word for cellar or pit-dwelling. In medieval times, the monks kept their wines in such an ‘izba’. This light, plummy wine was beautifully rounded by oak, its exciting herbal notes (mint and sage?) underlined.

A good start before the 2007 Cabernet ‘Hum’, which I mentioned before. There are very few Cabs that I don’t find tasting like all others; myself being only a moderate fan of this variety. In this one, I love its fresh acidity, forest berries – first of all European blueberries (bilberries) – and bitter herbal accents.

Tvrdos_Vineyards

But Tvrdoš’ champion is Vranac, my bottle being from 2010. The harshness and fruitiness are mixed in a lovely tradition of this part of the world. Vranac gives wild and strong wines, acidic and heavy, particularly in its most prominent terroirs around Lake Skadar in Montenegro. In Serbia and Herzegovina, producers try to make it rather modern, tame it and achieve more elegant creations. This one is even sweetish in aftertaste, revealing caramel-like, cherry and dried cranberry notes. The monks also manage to produce a quality sweet red – a drinkable and virtuous sacramental Cabernet Sauvignon.

For a late lunch, I went to a restaurant that was recommended by virtually everyone I asked. I won’t keep its name secret, although maybe I should. Still, I’m aware that the mountains of Herzegovina will remain a barrier to quick and exaggerated commercialization, and thus the destruction of tradition (see Dubrovnik).

In Konoba Studenac I had fresh trout, the restaurant being situated at the Trebišnjica river. The owner also raises fish in a pool in the middle of the garden, with fresh water from Trebišnjica. I took also grilled red bell peppers, which are marinated with garlic and herbs – an all-Balkan tradition, and French fries – freshly done, not frozen, from a bag, as it sometimes happens.

The wine I had was again Žilavka from Anđelić’s cellars. The river simmered, the wine simmered – I felt like a dessert, and it had to be happiness, because otherwise I was full after all that fish they served me. Dessert was very Balkan – a huge portion (because here small portions are almost offending) of tulumbe pastries. The incredible part of the meal was not only quality, but also the price – I paid for all of that not more than $15.

On Monday, I started my week in the Vukoje winery, which is considered one of the best wineries in the whole of Southeastern Europe, their tasting room wallpapered with medals and prizes. The producer has even more labels than Tvrdoš, so this time I tried only some wines, selected by my host.

We started with the 2007 ‘Zlatna Vukoje Selekcija Bijela’ – produced from a selection of the best Chardonnay (60%) and Žilavka (40%) grapes. They call this cuvee a golden selection, and indeed there is the sun and aromatic herbs inside, so typical for the local whites. The wine is oaked for 12 months, and enchants drinker with notes of almond, dry figs and quince.

Vukoje_BosniaHerzegovina

The second glass was filled with 2007 Cabernet ‘Tribunia'; Tribunia being the ancient name of Trebinje, which designates a varietal wine series from international grapes. This elegant Cab seduced me by its forest fruit and tobacco (?) notes. Its sweet and tart notes, as well as tannins, are well-balanced. Oak was used only to its advantage. It has the potential for ageing, satisfying with the increased complexity of its fruity bouquet.

We also had the chance to compare the Vranac ‘Rezerva’ from 2006 and 2008. The former is not available on the market anymore – what a pity. Its smell – alluring honey, sour cherry, chocolate and tobacco notes, becomes richer every time your nose is diving into the glass…pepper, cinnamon. There was the original wildness of Vranac visible, reemerging with age.

The younger Vranac was less acidic, with notes underlined by more assertive oak. Its original wildness was tamed and hasn’t reappeared yet. There was something like honey acidity – a kind of modern character but with tradition. Personally, I preferred the older one, but I strongly believe in the potential of the younger.

In the afternoon, I went to Vukoje’s restaurant, which was very much in keeping with the Slow Food spirit. They source the majority of their ingredients from local organic producers, offering exceptional olive oil, cheese or ham. My plan was to try here some dish containing raštan – a sort of cabbage used in regional cuisine. However, I begun with a ‘Herzegovinian plate’ – a mix of several delicious starters, for example, hard goat cheese aged in olive oil, two or three kinds of pršuta (Balkan type of prosciutto ham), cheese and herb pita (more like burek than pita bread from the Middle East). All this was served with freshly baked bread.

My aperitivo was a glass of travarica – grape rakija with several herbs, rosemary being the most important one. The main dish – chicken breast fillet, stuffed with collard leaves (Serbian: raštan, Croatian: raštika), with slices of ham and in creamy mushroom sauce – was served with wine – Vukoje’s Žilavka. This was an excellent combination, although afterwards I came to the conclusion that a glass of Pinot Noir would have been an even better pick.

Then a waiter brought a glass of bitter on the house – a mix of almost 60 herbs pleased my already satisfied stomach. No problems with digestion were even thinkable. The owner also gave me a bottle of their Syrah – a new label created for the 30th anniversary of the winery and restaurant, celebrated last year. Later I spent my last evening in Trebinje with this wine, reaching a state of serenity so characteristic of the town. The Syrah proved to be a fruity wine, with intense aromas of blackberries and black currant; black also by colour.

From the restaurant I took a taxi to the Anđelić’s cellars. I was lucky to arrive just as they were about to close. Here, like in the other two wineries, they were expanding their production and facilities for visitors – an impressive growth in this hardly known part of Europe. Still, every year Trebinje has more visitors. The producer told me that just in the last few weeks he had plenty of tourists from Norway, Poland, Russia, and Sweden.

Since I knew their Žilavka, I started with Chardonnay ‘Žirado’, which provided a shock. This aromatic, buttery but fresh wine, with a scent of ripe apple, was dry but tasted semi-sweet; what’s more, it tasted like ‘Jagoda’ from the winery of Botunjac in Serbia. However, Jagoda is a unique variety in the Župa region, so how does this Chardonnay give a wine with such an impressively similar aroma and character?

Funnily, the producer said that it perfectly goes with štrudla cake. So does the ‘Jagoda!’ Confused, I grabbed the glass of Rosé from Merlot, called ‘Lira’. It had an interesting copper colour, like diluted port wine. The smell was intense; a kind of cooked strawberry. Astonishingly, this was the strongest wine of the cellar – 14,5% of alcohol.

The first red was a cuvee of Vranac, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot called ‘Tribun’ – a very subtle and balanced wine of beautiful colour. The pure Vranac, also from 2009, had of course more temperament; yet, it had a delicate aroma of bilberry and something earthy. They also produce ‘Mičevac’ – a barrique version of ‘Tribun’. Unfortunately I had no time to try this wine, which along with Žilavka received medals from Decanter magazine. Afterwards I got a drive to the center and my wine trip to Trebinje was basically finished, my bag full of notes, my head full of memories.

Trebinje seems to be an exceptional piece of earth, hot and dry, but giving balanced and elegant wines, although usually quite heavy and rich. Beautiful as a town, close to such touristic attractions like Dubrovnik, Mostar and Kotor, it surely deserves more attention – especially from wine lovers.

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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