Vranec is a big, bold and robust red wine grape from the Balkans. Although best known as Macedonia’s flagship grape, Vranec isn’t strictly indigenous to Macedonia. Nevertheless it is the flag bearer in the country’s quest for international recognition and is responsible for the majority of the best red wines. It is also widely planted across the Balkans, especially in Montenegro and Serbia, but it is in Macedonia where winemakers have fully embraced the variety’s potential to give bold black fruit flavours and forceful tannin and acidity.
Vranec translates as strong, black and powerful stallion. The word Vran also means raven, coloured or black, which is why this red wine is more colloquially known as black wine in the country.
This grape variety is believed to originate from Montenegro. According to the book Wine Grapes 2012 by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Dr. José Vouillamoz, the Vranec is a cross of the Tribidrag grape variety (aka Primitivo or Zinfandel) and another grape variety that remains unknown to date. In Macedonia it was introduced for the first time in 1950 by Professor Dragan Nastev who planted Vranec vines in the Skopje wine district to test its potential.
Nowadays, there is an ongoing clone selection of this variety in Macedonia and Vranec remains the most planted red grape variety in the country. Today, virtually every winery produces wine from this grape variety. As producers experiment both in the vineyards and the cellar, and recent plantings of vines start to yield complexity, a range of styles is evident.
Vranec has an exuberant grapevine, middle-sized clusters and dark blue berries with thick skins rich in anthocyanin. It generally ripens in the second half of September but Macedonia’s diverse climate and soils make this variable. The climate and soils also greatly affect the quality. It is a variety that requires a warm and dry climate, with only moderate rainfall. It does not stand low temperatures and easily suffers from freezing. When the temperatures in summer are too high, they adversely affect the vegetation of Vranec and may stop the maturation process. It is also sensitive to diseases.
Vranec demands light, drainy and warm soil. The Vranec variety from the Skopje vineyards is characterized with higher acidity which adds to its colour being more intensive and deep. The Vranec from the Tikveš district on the other hand, has more sugar, is rich in phenols and the wine is more rounded (full bodied). The type of aroma in Vranec depends on the climate and the technology used.
The Vranec variety is a variety abundant with possibilities to get wines of different styles, from fruity aroma of black fruits, to full and extractive wines with soft tannins and complex mineral and fruity aromas. Soil-wise, it is not very sensitive, but the moisture can have an influence. More humid and rainy conditions, and colder temperatures associated with higher altitudes, produce more fresh and fruity flavours and aromas, associated with cherries and dark forest fruits etc; while more arid and warm conditions give the end wine more caramelised, spicy and jam aromas and flavours.
Because the selection of vines in Macedonia is not always very consistent, different vineyards have been planted over a period of few decades, and there is a variation in the source of planting material and thus different clones of the variety. Besides this also the conditions and exposition (sun exposure) can make a difference. Once the veraison takes place, the acids start to transform and rapid growth of the sugar levels follows, which also influences the rise of the pH levels. It is essential in this period for these parameters to be closely followed, because in the warm climate of the Macedonian wine regions, the heat influences are significant and large transformations can happen overnight, and it is very easy to miss the requested sugar/acidity balance. Vranec variety has very big polyphenolic characteristics.
Studies made by the Agricultural Institute in Skopje have compared it with Cabernet Sauvignon, concluding that an average Vranec cluster has 20-40 percent more phenolic compounds. More common is to have Vranec with darker colours, black fruit aromas and less colour gradation then with lighter colours and red fruits. But this is if the Vranec is allowed to be fully matured both in sugar/acid levels as in color levels especially measured by its seed. When young, Vranec wines have an intense dark red colour with violet hue, aromas of forest fruits, plums, black currant and often hints of tobacco. The wines display firm tannin structure, remarkable crispy acidity and flavours of dark red berry fruits. With a year or two of ageing, the purple turns to a darker ruby colour and the nose develops a more complex aroma of ripe forest fruits, chocolate, cocoa, liquorice and sometimes even dry figs. The tannins become tamed and softer and the wine develops a longer and smoother finish. It is often used for blending with other grape varieties, most often with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Syrah, to enhance the colour of the wines. As it gives full bodied wine, it is often used to give body in blended wines.