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Sleeping Beauty (aka The Lost Vines of Europe): In Serbia with Cyrille and Estelle Bongiraud

Images courtesy of Francuska Vinarija
Once upon a time in Serbia

Look, it’s a long story but it is one well worth telling, and anyway, it is one we are compelled to tell in order to give the remarkable wines below their proper context. So please indulge us. Once upon a time... there was a European wine region with limestone rich soils and a continental climate that made such delicious wines – in both colours - that Napoléon III ordered a railway to be built directly from its vineyards. A wine region that became so highly regarded that the Austro-Hungarian Empire opened a consular office there in order to better facilitate the trade of its wine. Surely we must be talking of Burgundy? Or of somewhere in the Loire Valley? Our heading has given it away, we are of course talking about the once bustling vineyards of the Timok Valley in Serbia, a region that has suffered such a momentous decline in fortunes over the last century that it had become completely lost to the international wine trade. At the height of its popularity, this wine region boasted some 2000-hectares of vines, and three of its villages (one being Rogljevo where we will visit below), were home to some 300 cellars. From these wine cellars, carved out of the limestone bedrock that dominates the soils in this area, wine bound for Western Europe and Russia was made in serious volumes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These wines were widely praised and won regular awards, even scooping gold at the London Exhibition in 1907. It is a fascinating history that we cannot do justice to here (head to the project's website or click on the link to the Decanter article quoted above for more information), but let’s just say that, WW1, WW2, communism and the Yugoslavian wars of the ‘90s, wiped this area from the fine wine map.

Sleeping Beauty

We pick up the story in 2006 when renowned soil scientist, Cyrille Bongiraud and his wife Estelle née Germain (an experienced grower from a distinguished Burgundian family in Chorey-les-Beaune) stumbled across this long forgotten terroir in the northeast of Serbia. Quite literally, their car broke down in Rogljevo. But they were there for a reason. Having spent a number of years fruitlessly searching for an exceptional, unique terroir in a place where they could afford to start their own project, Rogljevo was a sight for sore eyes. Finding this this "Sleeping Beauty" as Bongiraud puts it, “… was like like arriving in a museum where everything of value had been preserved for us…” Cyrille Bongiraud was at this time one of France’s most revered vineyard consultants, servicing such iconic Domaines as Comtes Lafon, Domaine de la Romanee Conti and Zind Humbrechet amongst many other names we could drop. What the Bongirauds found in Rogljevo astounded them. Beautifully maintained, old vineyards with deep root systems on limestone soils. Artisanal, organic methods of cultivation and winemaking that had been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. A range of indigenous varieties such as Vranac, Tamjanika, Graševina, and local cultivars of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay ‘a Petits Grains’, the high quality ‘lost clone’ that is related to, but not the same as the vast majority of Gamay we find in Beaujolais today. And finally, a history that suggested that all of these elements were indeed capable of producing world class, European wines.

Francuska Vinarija, The French Winery is born
After several years combining their work in Burgundy with regular trips to Serbia, the Bongirauds gave up their work in Burgundy in 2007 and headed to Serbia in order to pour all of their energy into the project they now called Francuska Vinarija (which fittingly translates as ‘French Winery’). Of Rogljevo’s remaining sixty hectares, Francuska Vinarija today work with seven. These vineyards are planted mostly to red grape varieties, with 30% of the vines producing white varieties. The Bongirauds do not own any of the old vineyards, opting instead to work collectively alongside a group of five local families who have owned and worked the land for centuries. “If we bought their land…” notes Cyrille, “the families would leave the village.” Instead the couple has sought to preserve the integrity of this proud and ancient region by lending their experienced, no frills version of Burgundian nouse to the vineyard work, and of course to the winemaking and commercial side of the venture. Although they made a conscious decision not to purchase existing vineyards, the Bongirauds did recently purchase a small parcel of bare land that they have planted to 20,000 vines per hectare - Vranac and Zaćinjak on Burgundian rootstock.
Cyrille Bongiraud is keen to point out that he found the viticulture in need of very little upgrading; the artisanal cultivation and low yields (thanks to the lack of irrigation) were already there. In the cellars, the natural yeast winemaking he found had also hardly been touched by modernity. Obviously there were some aspects of the vineyard work and certainly the winemaking, where a little refinement was required, and today several of those ancient Pimnice (stone cellars) are now stocked with some basic fermentation equipment and used barrels shipped over from Burgundy. A reduction in the amount of sulphur used (now a very low 25mg/lt) is another small modification.

It’s a small world
We first heard about Francuska Vinarija’s wines in the Loire Valley after chatting with Jo Landron and Romain Guiberteau’s Chicago importer who was waxing lyrical about a French émigré’s start up project in the backwoods of rural Serbia. After speaking to Cyrille Bongiraud and tracking down some samples, I ended up tasting the wines for the first time in Champagne with a grower noted for his love of the road less travelled (Jérôme Prévost). What we found together was a truly striking, and extraordinarily original set of wines; wonderfully expressive, beautifully pure and delicious, complex and earthy, and buzzing with energy and character. We were equally captivated. There is certainly a low-sulphur, unrestrained nature to the wines, yet the quality and precision of the winemaking is undeniable. Most, if not all of the wines below improve after a long decant and really blossom in the glass. Come day two, better still. No leap of faith needed—these are exciting and delicious (organic) wines - by any measure. Besides, you don’t get on the wine list at The Ledbury or Le Chateaubriand just by turning up to the party. Welcome to the New Serbia!

To view the wines from our first shipment, please visit our trade website.