Kosovo vineyards yield first taste of 'freedom vintage'

The wine was red and, though it was chilled, as Qamil Cena poured from the clear, unlabelled bottle its flavour leapt from the glass.

"This one is from 1992. It is made from the merlot grape," said Mr Cena. "It is one of our best wines."

The year 1992 may have been a good vintage for the wine-makers of southern Kosovo, but it was also the one in which Mr Cena, a trained agriculturist, was forced out of his job. Like many Kosovo Albanians, Mr Cena, 36, a manager with the state-owned Orvin wine company, struggled to make ends meet after the authorities filled senior positions with Serbs.

He returned to work last summer - seven years after the war started. Now, nine months on, Mr Cena and thousands of other Kosovo Albanians have been reinstated. In such circumstances the renamed winery is preparing to make what may be its most memorable vintage yet.

But asked whether there are plans to have any special name for the wine, Mr Cena said: "First we have to produce the grapes and then we can think about it. We don't plan to have any special name for the wine but that could come later."

The wine industry of southern Kosovo has always been important but the Orvin wines were considered the best. Before the war, 80 per cent of the wine they produced - including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and riesling - was exported.

But that was then. Although the Albanian workers regained control of the winery, renaming it the less-than-roundedAgricultural and Industrial Enterprise of Rahovec (NBI Rahoveci), the future is full of challenges.

Last year the entire crop was lost during one of the coldest winters in living memory and so people were not able to work the vines. They expect only 30 to 40 per cent of their vineyards - 3,500 hectares - to produce grapes for this year's pressing.

There is also a shortage of necessary materials. The 600 workers are short of fertiliser and herbicide. With the exception of the wine labels, which they produce themselves, everything else - the bottles, the corks, the barrels of oak in which the wine is aged for a minimum of two years - must be imported. To add to their difficulties, a small area of the vineyards still cannot be entered because landmines left by the Serb forces remain.

But the enterprise - its wage bill now being paid by the United Nations, the new owner of former state-owned firms - cannot afford to fail. While 600 people are employed directly by the plant, up to 30,000 people are involved in the region's wine industry.

Many of these are employed on an ad hoc basis - helping with the harvest in September and October. But others own the vineyards that make up two-thirds of the total acreage providing grapes for the plant.

Among these owners are the brothers Bahtiar and Gazmend Tara, who this spring are cutting back the dead wood on their three hectares of vines. Their family of 11 depends on the grapes and other produce they can grow.

"We don't really hope for much of a harvest," saidBahtiar, his fingers furiously working a pair of secateurs. "Everything was frozen this winter so we don't expect great results. We will have to wait until next year."

The Rahovec workers believe the future lies in restoring the export agreements that Orvin had with a number of European countries, particularly with Germany.

In the meantime, for the workers at the plant, spring is a busy time of year and they intend to go on doing what they have done for many years - growing grapes, making wine.

Comments