Dejan Živkoski, President of the Serbian Sommelier Association (SERSA):

The Future Is In Autochthonous Varieties

The advantage of Serbian viticulture is the region – its geographical position, the composition of the land, the climatic influences and man, while the future lies in autochthonous varieties that have the potential to create “great wines”

Despite active work being undertaken to popularise the wine culture in Serbia, and a wine offer that is diverse and rich, facts show that annual consumption of wine in Serbia is only four to five litres per capita, which is 10 times less than in some European countries.

How would you explain this statistic?

This information, unfortunately, is correct. Belgrade and Novi Sad are the most important wine consumers in Serbia. They are followed by Kragujevac, Niš and a few tourist destinations. In many parts of our country, wine is very rarely consumed – in some places only as part of religious ceremonies. Raising the wine culture is a process that’s underway and it is necessary to work on it for another 10 to 15 years, in order to approach the goals set for wine consumption in Serbia.

Autochthonous grape varieties provide the basis for penetrating the international market. Do our varieties have the potential to be made into “great wines”?

Indigenous varieties, yes! The potential lies everywhere, but it needs to be recognised, nurtured, advanced, preserved and presented, all in the right way. This year saw the Serbian Sommelier Association – SERSA present Serbian wines at the planet’s largest wine fair, Vinexpo, Bordeaux, in a hall filled with visitors from New York to Tokyo, from Cape Town to Reykjavik. The reactions to our autochthonous varieties were exceptional, and after the lecture and tasting we stayed for an hour beyond the allotted slot to answer all the questions of the participants. This tells us that there is space for our wines in the world.

Prokupac won Balkan gold, and that’s no coincidence. This award is the crowning glory of 15 years of sweat and pain working on Prokupac. Quality is no longer an option for Serbian viticulture; quality is an everyday reality

If you had to single out a common characteristic of Serbian wines, what would that characteristic be?

It is impossible to find a single word that would describe the common characteristic of our wines. I’ll try it this way: stubbornness, tradition, luck-misfortune, persistence, stuff happens, pride, love, perseverance, copy-paste … and the key one: a can-do attitude!

Which wines are most commonly consumed in Serbia and how much is the average consumer ready to set aside for good wine?

When it comes to people surrounding the Serbian Sommelier Association, those are wines of “small” wineries, 30 to 40 of them (I would remind readers that Serbia has around 369 registered wineries). But if we expand the story to encompass the wider public, we reach wineries with large production capacities (exceeding a million litres), while further expanding the sample brings us to wines made by cousins, neighbours or friends. In the majority of cases, wine is rarely consumed… For example, during training that we conducted in Pirot, we came to the realisation that the vast majority of those present only consumed wine before crossing themselves during family saints’ day celebrations.

Does the quality of Serbian wines justify the price, and is their price competitive with imported wines?

When we compare Serbian wines (here I’m talking about the 30-40 most popular wineries on the wine lists of restaurants and the wineries with which SERSA works closely), we see that prices vary very little. Then, if we compare the wines from Serbian wineries and similar wineries in another European region, we reach the conclusion that prices are similar and there are no major fluctuations. Finally, when we look at the situation from the perspective of the average Serbian consumer, the usual place where prices are compared is the local shop, where European wines from wineries producing tens of millions of litres are compared to our wines that are produced in the thousands of litres. That, you will admit, is not quite comparable. To conclude, if wine is good and the price is appropriate for you, everything is as it should be.

Some pretty serious medals have arrived in Serbia for wines made from our indigenous prokupac variety. Which awards in the past year left the greatest mark on Serbian winemaking?

As it is in sports, so it is when wines are concerned; we have grown quite spoiled and with every appearance at a foreign wine review we expect a handful of medals, and to our happiness and joy that actually happens. We experience every medal awarded for our wines very personally; we are proud because SERSA has been part of the country’s new modern viticulture and winemaking since the start. Prokupac won Balkan gold, which is excellent. I’m not saying this is coincidental – it is the crowning glory of sweat and pain during the past 15 years of working on Prokupac, but I don’t think it’s enough; we must and can do much more by all working together. Every award leaves its mark, and the biggest task of all of us – from growers, via sommeliers to the state – is to increase the consumption of wines in households and significantly increase exports of mid-priced Serbian wines.

When it comes to the quality of local wines, how can one recognise and select wine from a rich offer without extensive knowledge of wine?

Very easily! Follow your personal taste, which is the correct and only recipe for satisfying your senses. But if you want to go beyond your usual limits, to go a step further, to challenge your senses and put them to the test, come to one of the training sessions organised by SERSA, where you will be taken care of by the highest quality team of experts in the field of wine education, with a combined total of more than a century of experience in the best hospitality establishments.

In your opinion, what are the biggest problems and greatest advantages of Serbian wines? What sets us apart and where does the future of Serbian winemaking lie?

The advantage of Serbian viticulture is the region – its geographical position, the composition of the land, the climatic influences and man. We have a lot of young people in the wine industry, which is excellent, but there is a lack of more serious state support that would enable them to gain professional training and attend seminars elsewhere in the world.

This period ahead of us is very important, crucial for further raising quality and expanding the area covered by vines. Let’s recall that at the end of the 1980s Serbia had about 100,000 hectares of vineyards, while today it has barely 25,000ha. State support is essential… The future is in indigenous varieties.

China and some other major markets are showing interest in Serbian wines, while some indications suggest that the Chinese market could “down” all Serbian wines? How do you position Serbian wine as a brand and what is your performance strategy? What potential does Serbian wine have on the European and world markets?

The Chinese market is very large and all wine-producing countries are battling for it, including Serbia. I’m certain that our strategy shouldn’t be to sell large quantities of cheap wine to China. The strategy I would implement would be to introduce the Chinese market to our region, potential and quality, and when the first significant quantities of top, high-quality wines start to flow, they will be followed immediately by huge quantities of table wine. We have the potential and the product for both the Chinese and European markets, and for all other markets worldwide, and the Serbian Sommelier Association invests, and will continue to invest, all of its energy into promoting Serbia and Serbian wine.