Ben Aris in Tirana -
Albania has arguably been making wine longer than any other country in Europe, but its domestic wine industry is only just starting to find its feet. Fragmented land ownership makes Albania's vineyards mostly small family-run affairs, and a total lack of marketing means their unique wines from grapes grown nowhere else in the world remain virtually unknown to anyone outside the country. But that is starting to change.
Albanian wine used to be well known in the ancient world. The Roman diarist Pliny described vintages from what is today Albania as "very sweet or luscious", and refers to them as "[taking] the third rank among all the wines".
But the area was making wine long before the Romans arrived on the scene. An archaeological dig outside the capital Tirana found amphorae with traces of tannic acid (the bitter taste in wine) that date back 6,000 years – a full 1,000 years older than Georgia's claim to a 5,000-year-old viniculture.
Most of the famous strains of grape grow well such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Merlot, which actually originated in the region in ancient times before being exported to the rest of the world. In the communist-era the most famous Georgian grapes Saperavi were exported to Albania too. And Georgia has been successful in exporting its best wines, Saperavi and Mukuzani, which it is starting to market internationally.
Albania is also home to several grapes that are grown nowhere else, of which Kallmet and Shesh are the best, says Dashamir Elezi, president of Albania's sommelier association. Trained in Italy, Elezi is one of only 19 sommeliers in Albania and serves regularly on jury panels in France, Italy and elsewhere.
"Kallmet is one of the country's unique grapes from the Lezhe district in northwest Albania," he says, pouring a glass of the deep ruby red wine Kallmet into a glass and swirling it before testing its nose. "In communist times, all the best wine was exported, but following the collapse of communism domestic wine production more-or-less collapsed. It is only in the last few years that wine production has begun to grow again."
The wine is delicious. "The deep ruby colour shows the wine has aged well. It is very clear and the density is good," Elezi says, swirling the wine in the glass to demonstrate its 'legs' – the length of the trail of wine left on the side of the glass. "It has long legs so it has a good equilibrium, spicy and fresh."
Lack of scale
Despite the quality of the wines, developing the industry is proving hard. The main problem is that land ownership is fragmented, so it is impossible to create a vineyard that is big enough to attract commercial investors – a problem the country's entire agricultural sector faces.
"Only a few years ago the wine producers were selling their wine in bottles without labels. It is only recently they have begun to think about marketing their wines," says Elezi, who owns the Etnik restaurant that, unusually for a leading eatery in Tirana, carries almost exclusively domestic wines.
Production of wine over the last two years has doubled to reach 12m bottles in 2013, but this is still only a third of the amount of foreign wines that the country imports each year. Virtually all the domestically produced wine is drunk domestically. "Before we can attract investment and grow the domestic wine production, we first need to re-conquer our own market," says Elezi.
Another famous Albanian wine is Shesh, which comes in both white and red varieties and has a heavier, fruiter flavour with earthy undertones, so the sommelier says.
The first battle in building up the business has been to stabilise the quality of the wine production, which has improved enormously over the last few years. Elezi and his fellow sommeliers have been cooperating with the wine producers to encourage them to invest in new equipment from France and Italy, and package and label their wines more attractively.
The government is also interested in promoting the domestic viniculture and Elezi arrives at our lunch directly from meeting the deputy minister of agriculture. The state is offering grants to farmers who plant domestic varieties of grape, but it is still a long way from launching a formal effort to help sell Albanian wines on the international market like the Georgians have done.
"The plan is that when the production is ready, we will take and promote Albanian wines in those countries where there are large Albanian populations living, such as Italy, France, Germany and America. The diaspora miss home and will be happy to have a little piece of it in a glass," says Elezi. "We can build on that foundation."
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