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Protecting Biodiversity in Macedonian Vineyards

A new Slow Food project for the Stanushina grape
by Mariusz Rybak

Stanushina is a red grape variety indigenous to the Republic of Macedonia, and more precisely, to the Tikvesh wine district in the south of the country. It is probably the best-known wine-growing district of Macedonia and boasts over 260 days of annual sunshine and 12,000 hectares of vineyards, which account for around one-third of the country’s viticulture.


Tikvesh is certainly not the rainiest corner of Europe, and the air is scented with aromatic herb oils that waft over the hills. The area produces excellent red wines, though they are all rather boisterous, opulent and muscular. Unlike the majority of the red grape varieties popular here, Stanushina has a light, intriguing character with a vibrant color and juvenile, svelte fruitiness.


Jordan Trajkov, the owner of the Popova Kula winery says that the name comes from stranishte, a word describing a hill of finer soil, perfect for grapes but less so for other crops. A common native variety grown in such places was called Stranushina, but with time the “r” was dropped, which is typical for the local dialect. In fact, Stanushina might have survived the long period of decline in wine production under the Ottoman Empire precisely because of these hills, which were rather unsuitable for the tobacco plantations promoted at the time.


While traditional wine-producing areas generally boast hundreds upon hundreds of indigenous varieties, the majority of these are now endangered, like Stanushina. As these varieties represent both the cultural heritage of these lands, as well as a treasure of biodiversity, Stanushina is in the process of becoming a Slow Food Presidium, a project that engages a network of producers, activists, chefs, retailers, scientists, and conscious consumers to promote the production and consumption of the product in order to save it from extinction. It will join 12 other wines and grape varieties currently the focus of Presidia projects.


Stanushina is highly resistant to pests, frost and drought, and can be cultivated without irrigation. The regional vineyards, situated at altitudes between 110 and 650 meters above sea level, are partly protected by mountains and fall on the boundary of the Mediterranean and continental climates, where the viticulture is subject to warm winters, hot summers and frequently insufficient rainfall. At the same time, the natural ventilation and relatively low humidity allow for a reduction in chemical treatments of the grapes, which makes organic production both possible and welcome.


There are currently only a few wineries in the region growing Stanushina, which though considered robust in the vineyard is more demanding in cellar. The leader in this regard is the aforementioned Popova Kula, which vinifies Stanushina as red, rosé and even white wine, exploring the whole spectrum of its personality. The winery is located close to the Greek border in the village of Demir Kapija, once home to the royal winery of the Yugoslav King Alexander I.


In the nearby village of Begnishte there is the family-owned Brusani Winery, whose 77 year-old Stanushina vines are well known locally for their exceptional quality. Meanwhile, the Imako Vino Winery in Shtip pursues winemaking harmony by uniting the contradictory but complementary forces of the graceful Stanushina with the more muscular Vranec (which means black stallion).


In the Tikvesh wine district, Stanushina grapes ripen in late September and October. They are rich in extract but rather pale in color, with a high level of acidity. This promises, in good and attentive hands, a wine of exciting freshness, elegancy and red berry flavors. Ivana Simjanovska speaks of it as “very fruity, with aromas of raspberries, red currants, a taste that is refined and follows the nose in the same manner, with notes of sour cherries, strawberries and additional hints of dry forest herbs. It offers a lovely streak of acidity and quite a long aftertaste. Its affinity to oak is relatively good, though it is better if there is only a touch of it, to enhance the body of the wine but not too much as it might overlap with the fruitiness.”


Slow Food is working to secure the future of these grapes, which represent both the preservation of cultural wealth and of biodiversity. So let us drink what we want to save!