Tag Archives: AMA Waterways

First sips of Belgrade

 

On an AMA Waterways River Cruise from Budapest to Bucharest, I find myself in Belgrade, Serbia, learning about plum brandy at the Quburich distillery. As we drive the bus to the quaint neighborhood location of a family-owned plum brandy tasting room, we pass by lawns covered in Syrians camping out while awaiting a bus to illegally cross from Hungary to France, Switzerland or Sweden. It is heartbreaking, and we are told that 5,000 people from Syria come to Belgrade daily.

The neighborhood’s pyramid-shaped roofs were fashioned from the Nazi bunkers of WWII in order to allow the bombs to slide off.

Yes, this is a destination of disarray, but there is much beauty among the ruins, such as the Avala Mountain to the south, and the rolling hills and fruit growing region of along the Balkan peninsula. The fruits include raspberries, blueberries, pears and apricots for exportation. The most popular fruit is the plum, which is the key ingredient to a brandy. Second only to this plum brandy is apricot brandy schnapps.

 

Before I sip on a series of brandy’s, some 30 years old, I enjoy a glass of elderberry juice.

#1 – We begin with a brandy-soaked cherry, which tastes refreshing as we begin our tasting education. We learn that fermentation begins with a 12% distillation. The secret is in the fire and wood is chopped and added to the fire every 7-11 minutes to keep the temperatures high.

The final product is bottled in hand-blown glass referred to as Chockanchi, so each is unique. The shape of the glass is said to enable you to drink from the bottle while rocking out on the dance floor. The amber color of the plum brandy is colored only by the fruit.

Geevoleel! (long live!) We toast and sip.

That first sip burns all the way down, but is easier with the following sip. We nosh on sausage, hams and cheeses, cheese pie… in what is referred to as a Greek mezza (a mess), with Turkish caviar of vegetables.

 

 

 

 

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If it’s Wednesday we must be in Vukovar

In Hollywood films, “the bad guys are always Russian and named Elias,” says our AMA Waterways tour guide in a mixed tone of defeat and humor. Our tour begins in Croatia, within its 88,000 square kilometers along the Adriatic Sea. We are off the beaten tourist path except for the beauty of paprika farms that we drive past.

Our bus rides alongside sunflower fields of beauty in juxtaposition of the bullet-riddled buildings we passed far East of Croatia. We are headed to Ilok, to the city for wine tasting, coincidentally on a national holiday – August 5 – a day commemorating the Yugoslav Civil War of 1991-92. You can still see the effects of the bombed buildings, as with each election, empty promises of repair are meant to lure voters to what is commonly known as a corrupt government. Vukovar’s Baroque architecture is a promise of a rebuild of a city, and it is clear that this renovation is ongoing.

Symbols of resistance are everywhere we turn: Hiding places where there are ground-level doors, the water tower, a symbol of resistance. Graffiti on a yellow building in Serbia showcases an image of an angry man. The heaviest fighting took place in Vukovar. A war-ravaged neighborhood where on a drive you see many homes decorated with bullet holes.

The Croats arrived in the 7th century and by the 12th century, the state entered with Hungary. The Ottoman invasion of Europe in the 16th century claimed almost all of Croatia, and by the 17th century, the Austrians liberated Croatia. By the end of World War I, Croatia was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Enter the dark period, also known as World War II, when Croatia declared its independence by committing bad deeds to the Serbs in a Nazi collaboration. By 1945 Croatia was socialist and the red star was its symbol of resistance in the fight against Nazi’s and Fascism.

Ilok & Vukovar - county of Vukovar-Sirmium Statue

In this city, a statue symbolizes the first democratic elections. In 1991 the war began  in the republic of Serbia; Croatia fell under UN protection and later liberated on August 5, thanks to Operation Desert Storm.

Today, Croatia is a parliamentary democracy with a prime minister and president that serves two terms of five years each. Today there is a woman president with no jurisdiction; basically she is a “floor plant in the office,” our tour guide admits.

Unlike its wine, the politics of Croatia are hard to swallow; luckily I am here to taste wine that began thanks to the Roman, Marcus Aurelias, who wanted to plant grapes here. Croatia’s region began with 80% grasevina – and Italian reisling.

The wines I taste in a 15th century castle’s hand-built cellars at Ilok (Nikolar Ilok) are crisp in minerality and the whites in particular are enjoyable on this late summer day. Aged in 7 years young Slovenian oak barrels grown in Venice, Italy, much of this wine was destroyed during the 7 years of war when Serb’s occupied Ilok.

 

But the wine is so tasty that even Queen Elizabeth has a few boxes of 1947 Croatian wine in her cellar. She got these bottles only because the wine bottles were hidden behind brick walls, as pictured, below.

DSC01865

 

My tasting notes at Ilocki in Croatia, where a bottle of Podrumi is $5.

#1 – Gratavina (Italian Riesling) 2014

A dry-greenish to hay color, definitely a summer wine that surprises with its buttery flavor.

12% alcohol

#2 – Traminac 2014 has a color more golden than the Gratavina, with a strong floral bouquet of roses. This wine is so delicious it is like sipping honeysuckle, jasmine and rose. It offers a longer finish than the Gratavina. I’m sold, if only I knew where to purchase a bottle in the U.S.

12.5% alcohol

 

#3 Kapistran CRNI 2013 is made from grapes that grow in a region where hunters flock. This is a cabernet sauvignon Frankoka with a dark, very dark, in fact, ruby red color and aroma of berries and currant. This wine is best served with Gouda cheese, wild boar, deer meat and Hungarian Goulash.

12.5% alcohol

 

 

 

It is difficult to swallow the hard history of Croatia, but its wine production goes down easy and with a pleasant, lingering finish.

 

More than Goulash, Hungary has Boar’s Blood?

Although quite tasty, there is more to Hungary than Goulash. For one, there is a huge wine production, but this isn’t new. And neither is the communication of Hungarian wine, still referred to as boar’s blood, or at least blended wines. In the U.S. we typically hear the same blends referred to as “table wine”, “Meritage”, or “Bordeaux blend”.

Historically, wine has been the favored choice over water for hydration, so it’s no surprise that the 3,000 Celtic people who lived in Hungary made wine. Most of the Hungary-wine produced was white, at least before the mid-19th century. In fact, 1686 marked the time when the Turks left and Bosnia monks arrived. German-speaking settlers brought white grapes, but over time, the Serbs switched to red.

To put things in perspective on Hungarian wines and their prestige, know this…Queen Elizabeth drinks Cabernet Sauvignon from Villany. I found this out while on an AMA Waterways River Cruise from Budapest to Bucharest. Tasting in Villany, I had the great pleasure to taste foreign wines in a cave. The first chardonnay comes from a village outside of Villany. This white wine was a favorite of mine —un-oaked and made in stainless-steel tanks.

Wine tasting in Villany surprised me, with its 22 historical wine-producing regions. These fun facts satiated my curiosity almost as much as the wines tantalized my palate. For instance, in the northern region of Hungary, the Tokaj wines are made from white grapes discovered by the French King… from a 15-million-year-old leaf!

Yes, the history of wine production is long in Hungary.

I hadn’t known that the second best known wines hail from nearby Belgrade, Serbia, and that in the 19th century, the Phylloxera outbreak left the majority of vineyards dead. From the point of re-planting, red grapes began to grow in this area…Oporto to be exact, which is the Portuguese wine in Villany.

When the Turks tried to seize Hungary for 25 days, the Hungarians thought they were gonners – they could live or die. So, on their last day, they were happy when their women brought good red wine from the cellars, from barrels to buckets.

The Turks saw the wine trickling down on the Hungarian beards and white shirts. These Hungarians drank too much, and as a result, felt strong — strong enough to fight. The Turks thought they drank boar’s blood and they ran away.

Moral of this story: drink wine in fight or flight.

While tasting, I discovered the 2014 rose would have tasted best mixed with soda water. With an aroma of strawberries and its coppery rose color, this wine seemed to have gone into secondary fermentation – a bit fizzy. It’s blend of 3 sources, including blue cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon did not impress.

Finally I tasted the first of four reds, a ruby color that made me feel regal. It had a faint aroma of currants, a very good tannin structure and medium finish. It proved a medium to light bodied wine, “real blood of Villany Hills” —  an Oporto from 2013.

The second red – again a ruby color – offered a deeper berry aroma and still light, definitely a pinot noir. It was an enjoyable medium bodied wine, a 2011 blue francish with 14% alcohol, originally from Austrian region – Nazi days – when payment was made with blue francs.

Our third wine had the same ruby color – with high alcohol and low acidity – so its shelf-life is less. I got the aroma of a band-aid and obviously disliked this 2011 blend of 40% Oporto, 40% blue francish – seed of sour cherry – and 20% cabernet sauvignon.

Here’s toasting to Attila the Hun and history.