It has always struck me that the southern Balkan red wine variety Vranac has great potential. Even the most commonly available example, that made in quantity by Plantaže at their winery called '13 July' in what was Titograd in Montenegro, is impressive – although I assume it is blended from many different sources, or possibly from their massive vineyard that extends for more than 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres). DNA profiling suggests strongly that it is indigenous to Montenegro, and has one of those famous parent–offspring relationships (see Wine Grapes) with Zinfandel (known as Kratošija in Montenegro) – although I find it much more savoury than most Zinfandels.
I had also been reasonably impressed by examples of the variety made over the border in the Republic of Macedonia, where it is known as Vranec. My fellow Master of Wine Caroline Gilby, for instance, a specialist in this part of the world, has blended a couple of commericially competent Vranec varietals from the Tikveš region for Stobi, one of Macedonia's most active wine exporters. And I had come across the variety in the odd Kosovan blend.
On the basis of all this I have long been curious to taste Vranac made on a more artisanal scale from a single, well-sited vineyard and have to thank UK importer Pero Drljevic of www.dimark.co.uk, who provided me with samples of the wines of Milenko Sjekloća. The Sjekloća family make only a few thousand bottles a year, all from their own vineyard in the Crmnica Valley near Lake Skadar, which extends into Albania to the south. A third of their vines are apparently over one hundred years old and it tastes like it. Vineyards are only 30-40 metres above sea level but they are remarkably and naturally fresh – perhaps thanks to the influence of the nearby Adriatic. Vines are apparently routinely netted, not just against hail but to mitigate the prevailing high summer temperatures. Such meticulous care seems to have paid off.
These wines have done well in the Decanter World Wine Awards, apparently, and I can see why. I tasted both the 2005 family reserve bottling (Rezerva Familije Sjekloća 2005) that costs €40 a bottle ex-cellars, and the 2008 regular Vranac priced at €18 ex-cellars. They certainly aren't cheap but I do believe they are fine wines by any measure – especially the 2005. Here is my note on the 2005:
'Dark crimson. Headily sweet without being over alcoholic. Prunes on the nose but sufficient freshness of fruit on the palate to suggest that the grapes did not get overripe. Beautiful balance and luscious fruit with a twist. There's a balsamic/medicinal twist to this. Sort of macerated bay leaves. Beautiful point in its evolution to drink now. Not to be contemplated without food. This does prove what I have always suspected: that small-production Vranac can be a truly great wine. (So far I had tasted only bigger volume stuff – already good but hinting at greater-ness.) Very complete. Something very slightly dusty. It's clearly from a hot place but has SO much character! '
The Vranac 2008 is a bit simpler but still impressive and is already at its peak. I'd drink it over the next three years whereas I think the 2005 will keep going until 2020.Those who like quantification might like to know that I gave them scores of 17.5 and 17 respectively.
Alas they are not easy to find, but presumably Pero Drljevic can provide some clues for those in the UK, and the winery's excellent website has an English version with contact details. And should you by any chance be exploring the recently glamorised Montenegro, look out for these wines on wine lists. I jolly well hope they are available at the luxurious Aman Sveti Stefan resort.
I hope to encounter other top-quality producers of Vranac or Vranec.