The fall sun glints off my glass as I follow the instructions to examine the “legs” on this particular Cabernet Sauvignon. Through the glass, I can see not only the wine’s viscosity but also the rolling vineyards in the distance and legion of wine tasters milling from booth to booth. Behind me, I can hear a guitar tuning in preparation for the evening’s entertainment. When my gaze lands back on the bottle before me, with Albanian script, I’m reminded that I am not at a wine festival in Napa, but rather the 15th annual Hardh Fest in Rahovec, Kosovo.
Kosovo, located on the Balkan Peninsula in Southeastern Europe, has a storied wine tradition that dates back centuries. The tombstone of an Illyrian soldier from 28 B.C. covered in grape carvings is proudly displayed at the Rahovec sufi tekke (or lodge) as evidence of the region’s historic connection to the potent beverage. At its peak in 1989, Kosovo boasted 9,000 hectares of vineyards and a major export business (40 million liters that year to Germany alone). Like many industries here, wine production suffered through the 1990s, but was revitalized by a symposium held in Rahovec in 1997 that initiated an annual festival to celebrate the grape harvest and the region’s wine producers.
Today, the country has some 3,000 hectares of vineyards and 15 wineries that range in size from formerly state-owned behemoths to small family wineries. Even if you are able to be in Kosovo for the September harvest festival, make sure you indulge in some of the country’s famed hospitality with a visit to these five standout wineries when you treat yourself with a visit to this unheralded corner of Europe.
1. Bodrumi i Vjetër (Old Cellar)
One of the aforementioned behemoths, the aptly named Bodrumi i Vjetër (Albanian for “old cellar”) is the country’s oldest functioning wine cellar. Established by the Yugoslav government in 1953, the winery was privatized and sold to the local Haxhijaha family in 2006, who have since painstakingly restored its original stone structure. Though the building is now lined with stainless steel tanks, a tour deeper into the cellar reveals some of the wooden barrels still displaying their 1958 socialist enterprise emblem (now used for tourist intrigue, not for storing wine).
A pre-arranged tasting costs about $10 to $15 depending on the number of wines and amount of food desired. Make sure to try the award-winning 2014 Elephant Chardonnay, which comes with a light, crisp flavor and a great story: the Elephant line is named after a Bronze Age elephant figurine unearthed during the cellar’s construction in 1950.
2. Daka Winery
Gazmend Daka’s earliest memories are of his father, Gani, walking door to door selling grape brandy, or rakija. “We learned early that you never waste a grape,” he laughs. Gazmend carried on his father’s tradition by registering the family winery in 2008 and expanding production. Gani’s image still adorns each bottle. While the family’s production is still relatively small (about 35,000 liters per year), their wine regularly finishes among the top three selected at each year’s Hardh Fest. This year’s Cabernet Sauvignon placed second and has inspired Gazmend to attempt to barrel-age his wine for the first time. If you stop by this cozy winery (email first: email@example.com), be sure to try their best-selling Vranac: a rich, fruity grape native to the Balkans.
3. Decani Monastery and Velika Hoca
Just outside of Rahovec is the scenic Serbian village of Velika Hoca, known for having 13 churches for its 120 residents, and as the place where the monks of western Kosovo’s Decani Monastery have been producing wine since the 15th century. For the past 15 years, Father Marko Diklic has regularly made the 30-mile trek to tend the vineyards and ferment wine for sale at the monastery and select locations in northern Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia. The monks keep it simple—making red wine and white wine—but it offers some of the purest flavor you will find in Kosovo. While the winery doesn’t accept regular visitors, neighboring Petrovic Winery is a great alternative if you are in the area. If you are lucky, owner Srdjan Petrovic will show you the license his ancestors procured to re-start wine production, after 500 years of Ottoman rule, in the early 20th century.
4. Stone Castle
The region’s other formerly state-owned winery, Stone Castle, is by far its largest, with a capacity to produce up to 30 million liters per year. Purchased in 2006 by two Albanian-American businessmen, Stone Castle maintains 600 hectares of its own vineyards, but also plays a significant role in supporting the local economy by purchasing from the area’s farmers. The tasting takes place in the winery’s impressive storage vault, where you will sip a recent vintage surrounded by massive oak barrels aging 50-million liters of wine and brandy. The winery’s grizzled yet charming winemaker will single out the ladies in your group to taste the refreshing Rosé, but don’t leave without tasting Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, arguably Kosovo’s best wine.
5. Sefa Wine
Sefa Wine is a new boutique winery that has a refreshing take on what the Kosovo terroir has to offer. Named for their grandfather Sefa, who first started producing wine in 1917, brothers Blerim and Labinot Shulina launched the winery in 2011 and have since honed their craft in preparation for export. With a production of 60,000 liters per year, the brothers have first set their sights on neighboring Albania. The key to achieving premium wine quality, as winemaker Labinot will tell you, is tending to each vine by hand throughout their life cycle. The 2012 Kulla Sefa Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are testament to that care.
Kosovo’s international airport in Pristina has daily connections to several major cities in Western Europe as well as Istanbul. The one-hour journey to Rahovec can either be done by taxi (around 15 euros) or by taking a bus from Pristina’s central station. A rental car is a great option for the brave and can be acquired at the airport starting from 23 euros a day.
Where to Stay
While the hotel options in Rahovec are rather limited, you can get the traditional homestay experience at one of four bed and breakfasts in nearby Velika Hoca (book through Bojan +377 44 412674). The cozy and well-appointed Hotel Çarshia e Jupave 30 minutes away in the western city of Gjakova is another great option in the region.
Breathtaking Balkans columnist Bridget Nurre Jennions is an Emmy-winning TV journalist and an international development specialist in Kosovo. Follow her travels on her blog, Bridgekrieg.