Twenty years ago, Bosnia Herzegovina was recovering from the ravages of ethnic and religious strife that tore the former Yugoslavian republic apart. Today, it has become a major tourist destination and while its wine industry is still quite small and conventionally oriented, the wines from Brkić make me wonder if this nation of just 3.5 million people is rife with potential.
Located in Čitluk, a town in southern Herzegovina not far from the Croatian border, Brkić benefits from a Mediterranean climate that works equally well for its native white grape, Žilavka, and the red, Blatina. The area has been cultivated for a variety of crops for at least a couple of millennia. It has been over run by numerous invaders who imposed their mores, which during Islamic Ottoman rule resulted in a steep decline in wine production. As part of former Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina enjoyed more privileges of a free market economy than other Eastern European nations, but winemaking was still tightly regulated.
The Brkić family, who started making wine in 1979 (putting this into a historical and global wine context, that is the same year Tony Coturri made his first vintage), plodded on during the Bosnian War and released their first wine commercially in 1994, a year before the Dayton Agreement that eventually brought peace to the area. They started converting to organic and biodynamic viticulture in the mid-2000’s and while they are not certified, are ardent adherents to natural wine practices.
I’ve wanted to try Brkić’s wines for some time and finally had an opportunity a few weeks ago at a Blue Danube tasting in San Francisco. Given all the attention natural wines have received, I’ve been pretty shocked how little has been written about them. Maybe the SO2 levels are too high for some people, but personally, I find what they are doing much more compelling, unique and ultimately valuable than rushing to cover the latest 0/0 winemaker from France. It would be one thing if Brkić’s wines were terrible or even average, but that is far from the case. The four I tasted were striking, all for different reasons. They are facile and profound, rich and bright. You can drink them without food, but they could make a meal all the more enjoyable.
Through email and with the help of a friend who speaks Croatian I interviewed Josip Brkić. This is not the same as going to a place, seeing the land, smelling the air and shaking someone’s hand. It is not even close to having a phone conversation and listening to the tenor of a person’s voice, however, the wines speak for themselves and I feel as if I have at least a better understanding now of where they came from. Other than modifications to the way I asked a few questions and the addition of follow-up questions in subsequent emails, the interview is as translated.
PSB: I read that your father planted vineyards in the 70’s. Was your family involved in agriculture before that?
JB: During the 1960’s-70’s, my parents were running a restaurant business. That was their primary occupation and source of income. At the same time, they had a small vineyard, just for our personal family use (not as a business). In 1979, my father decided to close the restaurant and open a winery as the first modernized, private winery in BiH. Since that time, we have focused exclusively on wine production.
PSB: Has your family been in Čitluk for a long time?
JB: Our family is native to Čitluk ; to my knowledge, my family has lived here for 300 years.
PSB: When your father started making wine commercially, did he use a lot of chemicals? Were chemicals being pushed on wineries by the government?
JB: My father, like most people in the region, was growing grapes and making wine with some limited use of chemicals. That means he was not producing organic wine. But, he didn’t over do it with chemicals in his wine production. The government was not involved in private wine production and didn’t influence their use of chemicals.
PSB: Was it easier to start a winery in what is now Bosnia Herzegovina (and other former Yugoslavian states) than other Eastern European countries during the 70’s and 80’s because of the free market reforms under Tito?
JB: Under Tito’s government, our family was allowed to own and operate the winery, but we were not allowed to place a private family name label on the bottles. Since 1994, when BiH gained independence from the former Yugoslavia, we have the right to produce and label the wine under our own family name.
PSB: Why did you personally decide to get into winemaking? Did you go to school or train anywhere other than on your family estate?
JB: I didn’t have any formal winemaking education, but my whole life has been spent learning the necessary skills and training from my own father, who had a long family tradition of growing and producing wine. It was natural for me to take over our family’s winemaking business after my father passed away in 1989.
PSB: How large is your vineyard? Can you talk about its terroir, elevation, etc…?
JB: My family currently owns two hectares (five acres) of vineyards, which were planted from 1981-1982, and are currently at their top producing age. Our terroir is one of the best in BiH and is known for grape growing for two thousand years. The altitude is at approximately 250 meters (820 feet) above sea level.
PSB: What type of soil do you have in your vineyards? Is it one vineyard or several small plots? How do you decide where you will grow the different grapes?
JB: There are different types of soil in multiple small growing locations. We have marl-enriched soil, clay enriched and red soil. When we plant vineyards, we plant Žilavka in less enriched, thinner soil and Blatina in thicker soil.
PSB: What else do you need to take into consideration when working with Žilavka and Blatina both from a farming and winemaking standpoint?
JB: Žilavka and Blatina are indigenous varietals grown exclusively in BiH. Žilavka is strong and resistant to high temperatures and produces harmonic wines. Blatina is more sensitive and produces very elegant wines.
PSB: Do you work with other grapes now or have you in the past?
JB: For now, I’m working primarily with these two, but I’m also producing Vranac, which is a predecessor to Blatina. For Žilavka, the predecessors are Bena and Krkošija varietals.
PSB: Has the increase in temperatures over the last few years affected the grapes and wines and if so, how? Are you picking earlier than usual?
JB: There has been a rise in temperature over the past ten years, which affects an earlier harvest when we have warmer summers. The harvest is now in early September.
PSB: Why did you transition to organic and then biodynamic viticulture and winemaking?
JB: In 2006, I tasted for the first time a biodynamic wine and it was love at first sight! I committed myself from that time on I will only produce this type of wine, which is totally different from any others.
PSB: How did this transition affect your vineyards at first and in the long term?
JB: In the beginning, the switch was stressful for the vineyards since everything changed. But after a few years, the vineyards became accustomed to the new process. Everything is okay now…
PSB: In which ways was it stressful?
JB: For our vineyards, it was very stressful in the beginning since the plants had been treated with pesticides and herbicides. They were used to artificial protection and were unable to fight on their own. Once the switch was made to biodynamic production it took two to three years for the plants to strengthen on their own and develop self-protection. I think of this as like a drug addict who goes through withdrawal (stressful assault on the body) with eventual recovery.
PSB: How do you feel organic and biodynamic farming has made a difference in your wines?
JB: Even if you are unaware that you are drinking a biodynamic wine, you will notice a difference, with full, long lasting and richer flavor.
PSB: Why are there not more natural winemakers in Bosnia-Herzegovina?
JB: There are no other organic wine makers because of the risk to their production due to lack of knowledge and expertise in organically growing grapes.
PSB: Do you think this will change in the future?
JB: It’s my personal opinion that the agricultural world will adopt organic production as the future of agriculture.
PSB: Who helps you farm both throughout the year and during harvest?
JB: In our winery, we employ only family members, which is enough for our daily operations. In the vineyards, we seasonally employ workers.
PSB: Where do the seasonal workers come from? Are there a lot of immigrants?
JB: Seasonal workers are not immigrants. They are local residents of the Citluk region.
PSB: How was your land and production affected during the war in the 90’s?
JB: During the war in Bosnia we worked in the vineyards when not out fighting, which was dangerous because of being out in the open.
PSB: Were your vineyards affected at all during the war? Was there fighting nearby? I know this is a sensitive issue, but did you do any fighting during the war?
JB: During the war in Bosnia, the city of Citluk and my vineyards were not on the front line. Occasionally, a grenade would fall nearby. All those years (of war) we were working the vineyards and making wine. Up until 1994 we did not bottle and label our wine but we made and sold wine in bulk. Since 1994, we began bottling and labeling our wines. During the Bosnian war everyone 18 years and older were automatically enlisted into the army, including myself, since I did not leave Bosnia during the war.
PSB: Now, Bosnia Herzegovina has had tremendous growth and has become a tourist destination. Do you have a lot of wine tourism?
JB: Wine tourism is rising every year and we have more and more visitors to our winery. We are open for tours and wine tasting daily.
PSB: Do you sell most of your wine in Bosnia-Herzegovina or export it? What are your biggest markets?
JB: Our winery sells wine to both domestic consumers in BiH, and most exportation is to the U.S.
PSB: Finally, what do you foresee in your future as a winemaker?
JB: I hope in the future my three sons will continue our family tradition in wine making, in which they already show interest.
A very special thanks to Miralem Ovcina for translating.
2016 Brkić Žilavka ($18)
Josip supplements his production with fruit from his neighbors to make this wine. I’ve been told he has been pressuring them to use organic growing methods. Fermented and aged in stainless steel, this wine has ferocious acidity and minerality, with stone fruits and a long finish. It is an amazing value at $18.
18 ppm free SO2, 77 ppm total SO2, 12.11% alcohol
2016 Brkić Greda Žilavka ($25)
Partially skin fermented in large Croatian Slavonian oak (3000 liters), aged on its lees and unfiltered, Brkić has crafted a multi-layered wine here with apple spice, herbal and savory notes, and a Chassagne-Montrachet almond-like quality.
10 ppm free SO2, 70 ppm total SO2, 12% alcohol
2015 Brkić Mjesecar ($38)
Mjesecar translates to “moonwalker” in Bosnian and the name is an homage to the lunar cycles that are a huge part of biodynamic winemaking. It was skin fermented, aged on its lees in 225-liter Bosnian oak and bottled unfiltered. I think I can deduce that this is Brkić’s flagship wine. It is the one I kept going back to during the tasting as each sip revealed something new…Marvelously textured with stone fruits, spice, walnuts and oolong tea, I have no doubt this wine will age well for a couple of decades, maybe longer.
8 ppm free SO2, 41 ppm total SO2, 12.16% alcohol
2015 Brkić Plava Greda ($28)
Brkić’s one red wine is composed entirely of Blatina, the red companion grape to Žilavka in southern Herzegovina. It was fermented and aged in 225-liter Bosnian oak and bottled unfiltered. Brkić’s white wines so wowed me that I don’t think I paid enough attention to the red, but I certainly dug it enough to remember that it reminded me of the love child between a Côtes-du-Rhône and Zweigelt.
15 ppm free SO2, 77 ppm total SO2, 12.18% alcohol