June 8, 2015 / 11:02 AM / 2 years ago

Tipple of Roman emperors, Serbian wines make a comeback

SREMSKI KARLOVCI, Serbia, June 8 (Reuters) - Legend has it that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus never let his soldiers sit idle, so in peacetime he put them to work planting vineyards in the rolling hills of Alma Mons, present-day Fruska Gora in northern Serbia.

Over the centuries, winemaking became a noble and lucrative business across the western Balkans. Two world wars, communist-era neglect and a decade of turbulence at the close of the 20th century devastated the industry, but in Serbia there are green shoots of revival.

Exports of award-winning Serbian wines are soaring. State-run cooperatives that produced huge quantities of poor-quality wine in the communist era have improved and private vineyards growing indigenous grape varieties have increased.

"Serbian wines are returning to markets. In the past 10 or 15 years we made big steps forward in production and quality," said Miroslav Kovacevic, 47, a portly, third-generation winemaker from the northern town of Irig, where his family vineyards employ around 120 people.

Between 2006 and 2014, exports of wines and other grape-based alcoholic drinks had more than doubled to 17 million euros ($18.84 million), Serbia's Statistics Office said, despite floods and poor weather that damaged last year's grapes.

Last year master sommeliers at the Decanter World Wine Awards competitions in London awarded Serbian wines 25 medals and recommendations, up from two in 2008.

It's a hard-won success after years of war devastated the industry. When Serbia finally emerged from the ashes of Yugoslavia with the fall of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, the country had lost three-quarters of its vineyards.

Reformists who replaced Milosevic introduced grants of 12,000 euros per hectare of new vineyard, favourable loans and subsidies.

Winemaking is now one of the fastest growing branches of Serbian agriculture, employing around 100,000 households in the country of 7.3 million people.

Rare trades associated with wine are being revived, like making wine barrels, said Dejan Zivkoski, head of Serbia's Association of Sommeliers.

"A decade ago you could hardly find a cooper (barrel-maker)in Serbia; now there are more and more," he said.

But winemakers still import most of their needs including bottles, corks, stainless-steel machinery and vessels. Taxes and duties on wine and land remain too high, he said.

LACKING IN CONFIDENCE

Serbian winemakers need to promote themselves more to grab a bigger slice of a global market estimated at $292 billion, said Marko Babsek, a Belgrade-born New York sommelier who created a portfolio of wines for export called The Balkan Wine Project.

He said Serbian producers could find a niche in international markets if they focused on domestic grape varieties that set them apart from Western competitors.

"An indigenous Serbian grape variety would definitely be tougher to market initially, requiring lots of market work, support and education," he said. "However, in the long run it offers more room for growth in the market."

"Serbia should be more confident in the ability of ... Serbian wines to hold their own in the wine world." ($1 = 0.9024 euros) (Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Matt Robinson, Michael Roddy and Katharine Houreld)

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