‘Our strongest weapon is hospitality’. Flori Uka, founder of Uka Winery in Tirana, brandishes a bottle adorned with a large sword and, for a second, I feel unsettled as images of black-bearded Albanian brigands coming down from the mountains flash through my mind. The table is laden with more food than I could reasonably eat in a week and we are into our twentieth tasting sample. Yes, hospitality can be almost overwhelming in Albania but it’s always sincere.
I spent a week in the country looking for good wine and it was a fascinating task. The glitzy wine shops that pop up in the country’s main cities often offer no local wine at all, focusing instead on premium Italian brands such as Gaja and Sassicaia. In supermarkets, lone bottles of Albanian Merlot and Chardonnay gather dust on the lowest shelf, while the core offer is again made of Pinot Grigio and Primitivo imported from across the Ionian Sea. Wine is everywhere but often in the form of homemade fermented grape juice sold at street stalls in refilled plastic bottles.
Don’t be fooled by appearances, however. Vinous Albania – like everything else in this dynamic country – is improving in leaps and bounds. There are now an estimated 150 wineries for a total of 11,000 hectares of vines and Albania just became the 50th member of the OIV this year, marking a major achievement for such a young industry.
Albania’s wine production dates back to the mysterious pre-Roman Illyrian civilisation and flourished during the Byzantine Empire before being curtailed by the Ottomans, who encouraged olive farming instead. During the paranoid communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, the country was essentially closed to foreigners, private enterprise was prohibited and all winemaking was controlled by the state. In 1991, an era of expansive capitalism began, based on imported models. For wine, this meant planting international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which now make up over 60% of the hectarage.
Vinous Albania – like everything else in this dynamic country – is improving in leaps and bounds
Quality is still a mixed bag. Many Albanian wines suffer from hygiene problems, with brett ubiquitous in reds, whites often coarse and low on fruit. The strong influence of Italian culture translates into old-fashioned oxidative profiles from excessive time in oak. Premium bottlings, on the other hand, are often over-extracted and drowned in new oak. Labelling is chaotic, with Albanian ‘Tokai’ and ‘Amarone’ sold alongside the imported authentic products.
But quality pioneers are making their mark. The Çobo winery was established by brothers Muharram and Petrit after working in Trentino. Releasing their first wine in 1998, they became the country’s trailblazer, notably with the Supertuscan-inspired Kashmër Reserve, which blends Cabernet and Merlot with 70% of the Albanian workhorse variety, Shesh i Zi.
Çobo also opened the first wine-tourism destination in Albania, attracting day trips from the nearby historical town of Berat, and has gradually added polish to its red wines. The real change came in the last few years, with a stronger bet on local cultivars. The racy Puls (aka Pulës or Pulëz) was crafted into a traditional method sparkling wine that is making a sensation in Tirana; the full-bodied Vlosh was named one of the best foreign reds by an Italian magazine, the ultimate accolade for a country that has always looked up to Italy.
As the dust settles after the (over-)enthusiastic modernisation of the 1990s, Albanian wine is searching for its identity. It is finding it in the countless native grape varieties that are being rediscovered throughout the country’s various regions. Uka, who maintains what he calls a ‘repository’ of many of those varieties on his urban farm in Tirana, sources his Kallmet in the northern region of Shkodër, around the eponymous lake. During Communist times, Kallmet supplied the wine of the people, a pale Clairet from heroically cropped vines (20kg was not uncommon). With more conscientious viticulture, it can deliver a deliciously fresh, cherry-scented Balkan Chianti, perhaps Albania’s most serious red-wine proposition today.
Genetically similar to Hungary’s Kadarka grape, Kallmet is believed by some experts to be an import from the north but Albanians consider it native, and etymology seems to support that: the word Kadarka is derived from Skadar, the Slavic name for Shkodër, while a synonym, Törökszőlő, ‘Turkish grape’, also reflects an origin from Ottoman-dominated Albania. Another cradle of indigenous rarities is the town of Pogradec on Lake Ohrid. At altitude of 700m, Ersol Caco grows Pamid and the ultra-rare Gems. Further south, the Nurellari Winery has championed white and black Debina (reportedly different from the Debina of Greek Epirus over the mountains) and the dark-skinned, spicy Serina, seen by many as the next big thing.
The real change came in the last few years, with a stronger bet on local cultivars
But Albania wouldn’t be Albania if it didn’t throw even more colour and spice into this mix. The next level of quirkiness is represented by Hardalli, a traditional grape potion with fermentation stopped by the addition of ground mustard. A staple in Albanian homes, some producers, like Uka, are now looking to relaunch Hardalli as a commercial product. And Uka has another ambitious project now: safeguarding Ceruja, a historic grapevine that climbs on mulberry trees in the remote valleys in the Mat region east of Tirana. Harvest is on ladders and Uka negotiates with local families to get a few crates of the fruit from each. The resulting wine blends a quincy crunchiness with a salty Margarita-like kick. Exhilaratingly original, it is the quintessence of Albania.
Five of the best Albanian wines
Çobo, Brut Nature Shendeverë Silver 2019
Çobo’s groundbreaking traditional method sparkling wines uses Puls, a pithy, green-appley variety from central Albania. After 24 months on the lees (there is also a Gold label with 48), the result is an enticing mix of yeasty richness, salty minerality, and subtle fruitiness. No wonder it’s so popular with the Albanian cognoscenti.
Uka, Ceruja 2018
Albania’s craziest project, harvested from heirloom grapevines grown on mulberry trees like millennia ago, this is a hefty, structured white where the neutral profile (think green apple skins) provides the perfect canvas for a stunning display of crushed stone minerality. Rustic in its unabated expression but clean and moreish.
Uka, Kallmet Reservë 2019
Shesh i Zi might be Albania’s most widespread local dark grape but Kallmet obviously has better potential. The styles vary widely, from crisp, unoaked red-fruity to darker, more wholesome, black cherry-driven examples like this ambitious interpretation by Uka, Albania’s leading boutique winery. There is no comparison with Hungarian Kadarka; rather, we are in the realm of Nero d’Avola, with its plush texture allied with vivid freshness. An accomplished wine that will get even better when bottled sooner.
Caco, Sekret 2019
Amarone seems to represent the ideal of serious red wine for Albanians, so no wonder many winemakers try to emulate the style, with varying results. Ersol Caco blends Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with the mysterious indigenous Gems, obtaining a supremely rich, voluptuously textured red with fine aromatic detail. More importantly, any excess of alcohol, ripeness, or oak is carefully avoided, so while unashamedly heavy, Sekret is not overbearing.
Çobo, Vlosh 2019
Berat is likely Albania’s most picturesque urban destination, featuring, notably, a museum of master icon painter Onufri. He was notorious for his use of purple colour, for which he allegedly mixed pigment and blood. Both the deep colour and the savoury, iron-y sensation are alluded to in this blockbuster from Çobo, made from a monopole indigenous grape aged three years in oak. Super ripe and muscular, this is a study of omnipotent but ultimately polished tannins: Tannat meets Sagrantino. The depth of black cherry fruit is astounding and given its mighty structure, the wine will improve over many years.