In ancient times, the Illyrians controlled the entire Balkan Peninsula just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. Evidence of winemaking there goes back well over 2,000 years. They were known by the Romans and the Greeks to be fierce warriors. Thousands of years later, Indira Bayer, with that same fighting spirit, is doing what she can to boost her homeland’s economy.
In 1996, Indira Bayer immigrated to the United States from her native Bosnia and Herzegovina, a former part of the Communist Republic of Yugoslavia, not speaking a word of English. In less than ten years, she learned a new language, obtained an additional undergraduate and master’s degree, and worked her way up to Assistant Vice President for Bank of America’s Small Business Banking Division.
In 2007, she worked as an employee of the US Department of State and returned to her native country, focused on coordinating the money that the US was providing to help rebuild Bosnia’s economy. Through her work, she attempted to combat high unemployment rates (43 percent and as high as 67 percent among the nation’s youth) and a brain drain of young talent leaving the country to pursue their careers in countries with more perceived opportunity.
After trying to convince young people to stay in Bosnia and start their own companies to no avail, she left her cushy government job to start her own business, Wines of Illyria, focused on exporting Bosnian-made goods back to the United States to provide much-needed job opportunities. At the time, the choices for export in those days were potatoes (Hello…Idaho?), honey (high quality but not enough quantity), and wine. It is here that Indira doubled down and sought out high-quality producers in the Neretva River Valley just south of the town of Mostar, with a desire to bring the unique indigenous grape varieties of the Balkan Peninsula to the American wine market.
The world of wine is a big place, and it’s important to encourage wine drinkers to expand their palates by drinking new regions and new varieties. The issues with this can be that:
- Most American wine stores do not even have a Balkan wine section.
- 99.9 percent of American wine drinkers would never venture there if they did.
- Even if they did, they’d be intimidated by the names and unwilling to take a chance on these wines.
Like them or not, some of the best wines are tasted through studying a new region and trying things. In a world where travel is limited due to a global pandemic, sipping these wines will afford you a taste of this region and its culture.
2018 Stone Cuvee
The Stone Cuvee is a blend of 90 percent Žilavka (ZHE-lahv-kah) and 10 percent Bena (BEN-uh) grown on rocky soils. The aromas provide notes of lemon curd, honey, and an almond-like nuttiness reminiscent of great Vermentino from the island of Sardegna. On the palate, this wine presents itself differently, with much more weight and density, like a Rhône Valley white blend of Marsanne and Roussanne. It has some heat as well, but a touch of saltiness or almond bitterness cuts through the creamy texture. The Bena adds a bit of acidity and nicely rounds out the finish. Drinkers of full-bodied Northern Rhône whites will want to seek this out.
2015 Blatina (BLAH-tee-nah)
Blatina is a unique grape that grows in only a small part of this region. Interestingly, it only has female flowers and requires other varieties to be planted close by to allow pollination to occur. Usually, vineyard managers plant Merlot, Alicante Bouschet or another native grape, Trnjak (more on that later), all of which flower at about the same time. However, Blatina is known to flower for as short a window as three days, so there are many years where heavy rains or other conditions do not allow for pollination or any fruit production.
Vineyard managers are under constant pressure to rip Blatina out and replace it with more predictable and lucrative varieties. Luckily, there are still many who are committed to cultivating this grape. Make no mistake; if a wine this hard to make were grown in a more well-known region, it would fetch three to four times what Blatina costs.
This Blatina has a bright nose, with lifted florals and a slight eucalyptus note. There is also a spiciness here, somewhat like Blaufränkisch. It is a soft wine, with tart, red fruit, and bright acidity. Here again, Blaufränkisch comes to mind, or perhaps Gamay, or other cooler-climate red wines such as Zweigelt or Teroldego. Indira says this wine reminds her of the plum jelly her grandmother used to make after the kids picked the fruit from the farm. But this is no jammy wine—it’s on the underripe plum side; fresh and light on its feet.
2015 Vranac (Vrah NATZ)
This is a kingpin grape of the region and is grown all over the Balkan Peninsula. It is a thick-skinned grape, giving the wine more color. It has higher sugar levels than Blatina leading to higher potential alcohol levels. This 2015 is only 13 percent, but it smells and tastes hotter. Notes of pen ink, petrichor, sage and garrigue lead one to think they are smelling a Southern Rhône, Grenache-based blend. The palate confirms the same with cranberry, red currant, elderberry, and notes of sage, pepper, and herbs on the finish. Long story short, if you like Grenache, you’ll like Vranac.
Plavac Mali (PLAH-vatz MAH-lee)
Dr. Carole Meredith is a grape geneticist who discovered the genetic equivalent of what we know as Zinfandel. In the 1990s, Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills winery told Dr. Meredith that Zinfandel reminded him of the Plavac Mali grape grown throughout the islands of the Dalmatian coast in his native home of Croatia. He suggested she check it out.
Dr. Meredith spent years working alongside other grape geneticists from the University of Zagreb and found that Plavac Mali was close, but not identical to Zinfandel. After years of searching, they discovered an obscure ancient variety called Crljenak Kaštelanski, which proved to be the exact genetic equivalent of Zinfandel. This grape, along with another ancient variety Dobričić, are the parents of the more widely-known Plavac Mali.
The 2015 offers up notes of damp earth, dried flowers, and dusty cherry reminiscent of Sangiovese. It is drier than the previous two wines with present but well-integrated tannins and continuous notes of dried cherries and leather. Its notable acidity makes this a great replacement for Chianti with your next Italian meal.
Trnjak is native to Bosnia and Herzegovina and is one of the primary varieties used to plant alongside Blatina to assist with its pollination. Winemakers here tend to treat this grape like old-vine Zinfandel, limiting the vine to one shoot to maximize flavor concentration in the resulting fruit set. The results are evident. On day one, this wine gave up chalky mineral notes reminiscent of Aglianico, but with more ripe fruit notes. By day two and beyond, the wine picked up clear black currant, vanilla, and clove notes similar to a ripe California Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Final Word
With hard-to-pronounce names and little marketing to identify the Balkan Peninsula as a place to seek out high-quality wines, these products often go unnoticed. The good news is that they provide Old-World wines made in regions with thousands of years of winemaking history at a fraction of the price of other more known wine-producing areas.
The Wines of Illyria labels tasted for this piece are widely distributed throughout the United States and can be found at www.winesofillyria.com. Seek these out, or other examples of these indigenous varieties. With all these wines ranging in price from $15 to $30, they offer an affordable way to sample the taste of an undiscovered region.