Home / Country / Serbia / Serbia’s Negotin region – wine in ancient stone cellars

 

“There are several autochthonous grape varieties in the Negotin region, mostly very rare. Only in recent years have some been rediscovered…Noteworthy are Bagrina and Black Tamjanika.”

By Mariusz Rybak

Find on a map the point where Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria meet and you’ll see what area we are talking about. Negotin is situated close to where the Timok river joins the waters of the Danube. The valley of the former river has for centuries been planted with vineyards. Its picturesque character stands in stark contract to the town of Negotin itself, founded on a perfectly flat terrain. The town is known rather for its music festival, ‘The Days of Mokranjac,’ or in graceful Serbian, ‘Mokranjčevi dani.’ The Negotin-born Stevan Stojanović Mokranjac is probably the best-known Serbian composer, mostly of choral music.

For wine lovers, the most important name is Rajac, merely a small village, some 25 km from Negotin. In the Serbian appellation system, which is still in its introductory phase, the area we are talking about is called ‘Krajinski podrejon’; that is the subregion of ‘Krajina’ or ‘Borderland’, forming part of the ‘Timočki rejon’ or ‘Timok river region’. One can hear also the term ‘Timočka krajina,’ as the whole valley of Timok is borderland.

Rajac2_Serbia (800x533)

 

There are several autochthonous grape varieties in the region, mostly very rare. Only in recent years have some been rediscovered, with new and exciting wines gradually entering the market. Noteworthy are Bagrina and Black Tamjanika. The former smells like the flowers of robinia (Robinia pseudoacacia) and thus is named after them, ‘bagrem’ being their Serbian name. The latter gives wines rich in extract, low in acidity, with an intense aroma of different berries. A glass of this speciality is perfect to finish a meal.

My Italian friend, Aldo, and I arrived in Negotin from Belgrade by bus. It was the very end of April – Serbian hills and mountains drowned in the fresh green of young leaves and intense colours of blossom – from the white of late fruit trees to the purple of lilac. At the market square we had our Turkish coffee, called also Serbian or domestic (in Serbian, ‘domaća kafa’), and two huge doughnuts.

Rajac3_Serbia

Safe from low blood sugar, we took the small local train heading for Rajac. Just two cars, a friendly, relaxed conductor from whom one can also buy a ticket, and people returning to their villages, engaged in discussions, about an inevitably better past, hard present and unsure future. After several kilometers the first hills spring up from the plain. They become higher, covered with broadleaf forest, orchards and vineyards. In the valley, the fields were mostly brown – intense from freshly ploughed soil, or greyish from last-year weed stalks if abandoned. The air was scented with flowers and etheric oils released by the strong spring sun from the first leaves of aromatic herbs.

The train station in Rajac was abandoned and ruined. The village itself was once a rich wine-producing community and you can still admire the tasteful stone arches over the gates, quite Byzantine in their style. Now, many houses are empty and there are very few young people left. The children of many wine-producing families moved to the big cities and are little interested in the continuation of the great traditions of Rajac.

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There are no hotels there and you can stay in private rooms – fortunately, I would add. In a few days we learned a lot about Serbian culture. We started every day with slatko and water, coffee and a glass rakija. Our host was a wine producer himself. He and his mother, an older charming lady with always smiling light blue eyes, booked us dinners in a small inn uphill, where the ancient cellars are situated. The wine cellars are uninhabited stone buildings on the top of the hill, while their owners live in the village in the Timok valley. In the small inn of ‘Sveti Trifun’ (‘Saint Tryphon’, the patron saint of winegrowers), my Italian friend could try all traditional Serbian products. For dinner, the owner filled our table with different types of bread – pogača, proja, kifle; with with sudžuk sausage, pršuta ham, kajmak, ajvar, several type of cheese, and much more. From time to time, he or his wife appeared with small bowls of prebranac, a kind of bean stew, or veal soup (‘teleća čorba’). All this was accompanied by homemade wine, rakija and brandy (‘vinjak’).

The cellars, in one of which is the inn, are still waiting to join the great family of UNESCO-protected cultural heritage objects. There is no doubt that they are unique – an old colony of houses, created for wine storage. Usually on weekends the owners open the small cellars to visitors and you can go and try the wines. Only the wine brought out is to be paid; abundant degustation is free. Few stroll down the hill on their way back without singing, swaying and cheerfully commenting the beauty of the nature they finally notice.

The wines are often rustic, a little bit old-fashioned; giving the idea how wine was before. There are also modern producers, notably the Matalj winery, and the ‘French winery’ (Francuska Vinarija) in Rogljevo, where a French family of Bongiraud discovered their perfect terroir. Interestingly, one of the varieties that give best results here is Gamay.

The old autochthonous varieties need to be reintroduced after the communist period, when they were not supported by the government. The first wine growers return to Black TamjanikaBagrinaProkupac, or Začinak. On the other side of the border, in Bulgaria, there is another Balkan variety gaining in popularity – Gamza, known to most of us under the name of Kadarka. In Serbia, this variety experiences its revival rather in the northern part of the country, in Vojvodina.

We returned to Belgrade with as much wine as we were able to carry. Do you need any other words of recommendation?

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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