Wine is arguably the single-most important substance in the history of Europe. Evidence of early winemaking during the Neolithic exists abundantly, not only in Europe but throughout the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean world. It is mentioned in the Bible 233 times, and has permeated the literature of every Indo-European language. Serbian folk songs celebrate it, folk belief venerates it, and it follows a Serb through every moment of life.
The grapevine is called loza in Serbian; its etymology is in Slavonic verbs laziti, lesti – to crawl, or lie down. Loza is reserved for Vitis vinifera, the species that yields sweet grapes and wine. The wild vine, Vitis sylvestris, is called greshlja or greshika, a word with roots in the Latin agresta, sour or bitter. Indeed its sour fruit, known as vinika, is only used for the making of vinegar.
Only in the Balkans, where grape growing and winemaking conditions are suitable, has the word loza come to be associated strictly with the grape vine; vinova loza. Other vines are simply puzavice, from puzati – to crawl. (A similar thing happens with the word orah,- specifically walnut, but generally any nut)
The grapevine is considered a mystical plant. One should not sleep at night beneath one, but should one fear being pursued by some supernatural creature, then the vineyard is a safe refuge – werewolves (vukodlaci) won’t go in there, for that’s where “Holy Blood” (communion wine) originates. Vines were often planted on graves, and folklore speaks of vines spontaneously sprouting from them. One actual example of this is the Holy Vine of St. Simeon at the Serbian monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos. The vine sprouted directly from the tomb, located in a back right chapel of the main church, and still lives, green and thriving and producing grapes, 800 years later. Childless couples worldwide write to the monastery for raisins dried from the grapes, and the saint never fails to grant them descendants through this fruit. It has only failed to produce grapes twice, as far as the monastery has recorded: on the eve of both World Wars. The monks neither tend, nor spray, nor water the vine, yet it thrives. I have seen this personally and can attest to its vigour, beauty and powerful presence.
The place where grapevines grow is known in Serbian as vinograd, from vino + gradina = wine garden. Interestingly, in Russian, the same word simply means grape. Loza can be an enumerative unit in describing vineyards, eg. vinograd od tristo loza (a vineyard of three hundred vines), but the word for the trunk of the vine, čokot, is also used eg. posadio je pedeset čokota loze vinove (he planted fifty trunks of grapevine), or in Christ’s words, “Ja sam pravi čokot, i Otac je moj vinogradar” – “I am the True Vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1)
The chronicler Vasa Pelagić considered that vines could be planted virtually anywhere where there is sufficient warm sunlight. This might certainly be the case in the Balkans, where wild vines abound and productive vines originated; it was all he knew, of course. He did suggest that the stumps of mature vines be dug out, surrounded by sand, and then covered again with soil, as a preventive of phylloxera. In this, he was ahead of his time. He states that in selecting a spot for a vineyard, farmers seek out a place where:
“Најбоље је место за виноград оне, где сунце најдуже и навећма греје, а то је где снег прво окопни, где трава и друо дивље биље најпре озелени. Обично је то јужна страна од брда, особито од источног ветра”
“The sun warms the soil longest and most directly, where snow first melts, where grass and other wild plants first appear in the spring. Usually this will be a south-facing slope, especially where an eastern wind prevails”
Vines take root very easily in the warm Balkan soil, and often pruned twigs were simply pushed into the soil in order to begin vine stock. In a mature vineyard, vines were propped up by forked rods called taklje, trklje, rozge or vilice. These were connected by willow rods, ropes or later wires, allowing the tendrils (brk, or stržaja) to wrap and crawl along them, aerating the vine and reducing the incidence of disease and rot.
The Serbs grow grapes and produce wine throughout every ethnocultural zone that they inhabit. These major areas include:
- Fruška Gora, Vršac hills, Slavonian plain, Danube valley in the Pannonian zone
- Dalmatia, Boka, Hercegovina, Montenegro, Metohija in the Dinaric zone
- South Morava, Kosovo, Povardarje, Osogovo in the Vardar/South Morava zone
- Aleksandrovac Župa, Kruševac, Negotin Krajina, Šumadija in the Central Balkan zone
Varieties of grapes today include all of the popular modern varietals, such as merlot and chardonnay, and classics like riesling and muscat, but there are many native varieties of grape that are still widely grown and enjoyed. They have wonderfully evocative names, like tamjanika (incense grape), začinka (spice grape), žilavka (strong or persistent vine), ćilibarka (amber grape), vranac (dark horse), babica (granny), and lisica (fox). Thankfully, many of them are experiencing a revival.
A Serb’s connection to wine begins at birth. Firstborn sons were traditionally bathed in wine, and wine was brought as a gift to women who had just given birth. Naturally, it was consumed liberally by family and friends in that important first week of the newborn’s life, the babine or “midwife’s days”. It is believed that during this week there must be someone awake at all times, and three glasses of wine are poured and left to sit on a table in order to appease the sudjenice, the three Fates who would hopefully more positively inclined to grant the baby good fortune.
Every step leading toward a wedding is marked with wine, in one way or another. Agreements and engagements, invitation of guests, drinking from a common cup during the Orthodox wedding ceremony, and many festive folk traditions. In Srem’s Fruška Gora hills, a groom, having claimed his bride at her natal home, must drink a glass of wine in which a coin has been placed by his father in law. He must drink the wine all at once, after which each bridal family member repeats this. The coins are a gift to the newlyweds. In Banat, smashing a glass before heading to the church for the marriage ceremony is meant to break curses and scare off evil. Arriving at her new home, a Serbian bride is typically welcomed with some domestic symbols. These vary from region to region but almost all of them include bread and wine, which the bride must carry into the home. And, of course, what’s a wedding without toasts? Traditional Serbian toasts, or zdravice, were ordered according to theme and orator, and always ended with either “Da Bog da!” (May God grant it!) or “U slavu i čest!” (In [a saint’s] glory and honour).
Wine, vines and grapes play a huge role in the celebration of many holidays. On Christmas eve (Badnje veče), the yule log or badnjak is place on the hearth, gently nudged forward (to ensure progress, moving forward – napredak, in the new year) and then anointed with honey and wine. In Serbia’s northwest Bačka region, the Christmas Eve meal begins with a glass of varenik, wine that has been mulled with spices and dried fruits. A glass of wine is, in some regions, set out at each meal during the Christmas season, for one’s ancestors. Ancestral cult places wine in the customs of slava, where it is used to bless bread and wheat, and in funerary and memorial customs, where coffins and graves have wine poured over them as a final act or offering. Wine is left at grave sites, but also buried in cornerstones or foundations of homes, to appease ancestors and entice them to come to the new abode.
The first among holy days for grapes and wine is certainly Preobraženje, the Feast of the Transfiguration. On this day, grapes are blessed in church and shared by all. Consumption of grapes before this holiday in late August (Aug. 19) is, in some regions, taboo. In wine growing regions, celebrations on the eve of Transfiguration include festivities in the vineyards, with music, food and bonfires. Interestingly, similar customs and beliefs exist among the Catholic Southern Slavs, with the focus shifted to the feast of St. Claire, Sveta Klara. It is said that “Sveta Klara grozđe šara” – “Saint Claire is painting the grapes”, meaning that her feast, Aug. 11, marks the beginning of the ripening of grapes.
Another very important date is the feast of St. Trifun (Tryphon), Feb. 14. He is considered patron of vintners, taverners, wine growers, gardeners, and protector of vineyards. In his icons he is often shown holding a grapevine twig or even a pruning knife because of this. His feast day comes in the winter, though, so instead of involving grapes the customs generally focus on the vines, which must be pruned at that time of year. This is why the saint is often called “Trifun Orezač” (Trifun the Pruner); other variants of the nickname include Zarezan, Zarizoj, Orizoj, Zarizolj…. Even if it was terribly cold, every vintner made sure to prune at least a few vines that day. In eastern regions the celebrations were more festive and communal, while in central Serbia and western regions it was simply marked by practicing particular customs. In Šumadija, around the Oplenac wine district, it was a day when people rested – no work was done. It was believed that by resting, it would ensure that the birds would be calm and not consume too many grapes that summer. In Velika Plana, families with vineyards observed St. Trifun as their second slava, or preslava. Customs reflecting the approach of spring also abound, but pruning customs are universal wherever Serbs lived. Pruning was done as a shared task by villagers, and was one of the first major agricultural tasks after a long winter. Pruned twigs were used for fuel, thatching roofs, or making baskets (only green branches were ever used for ritual wreaths). In Leskovac, a few twigs were brought home and placed with the family icon. Twigs not put to any of these uses were burned in vineyard bonfires, the ashes later scattered among the vine stumps – a useful fertilizer, and a soil enhancer, increasing alkalinity.
Consumption of grapes is also part of customs surrounding the feast of Usekovanje (Beheading of St. John, Sept. 11) and Krstovdan (Holy Cross day, Sept. 27); the latter traditionally marks the beginning of the grape harvest, also. Grapes were harvested in the afternoons and evenings, to avoid any traces of dew which might cause mildew or rot if grapes are stored prior to wine-making. The Czech artist Vladislav Titelbach, a remarkable documenter of Serbian folk life, has left us a charming image of the grape harvest, part of his series of illustrations of the four seasons in the Serbian countryside. This iconic image is shown below, and it is so full of snapshots of every step of the harvest and early wine-making process that it warrants a closer explanation.
If you look to the upper right, you see a man standing alone in the vineyard, holding something aloft in one hand. It is a čegrtaljka, a wooden noisemaker that when spun made a loud, harsh sound. He’s scaring off birds. Clockwise from him, we see people picking the grapes, probably singing the harvest work songs, or grojzoberske pesme. Beside them is an ox cart with a massive barrel, waiting to receive the juice or must produced that day. Continuing clockwise, along the bottom of the painting, Titelbach has cleverly included examples of various methods and tools for processing grapes. As a girl walks by with a čabar (a wooden bucket for grape juice), men are crushing grapes with wooden hand tools, which had various regional names: gnječilo, gnječka, mečka, mežgalj, muljalo, greštalica, etc. Other men are trampling grapes in large wooden basins called kopanje, vučije, maštela, stuble or badnići. Notice that one man holds a burlap sack while another refills it with grapes. A second man is holding up a sack from which juice is draining. Foot stamping was often done with the grapes in sacks in order to keep the juice as clear as possible. (The collected skins, pulp and seeds were bound for the still, to produce potent grape alcohol, lozovača). Continuing along the bottom left, there are processing tools on the ground – the hand-held wooden gnječilo resembling a plunger or churn, and large screened sieve, which can be seen in use by the two women in the lower left corner. These women are crushing grapes by hand in a trough, korito, with a porous bottom; the juice passes through the sieve and into the tub. Just beyond them there is a young man using a stone press (presa), something that came into use only at the late 18th century onward. Two girls have selected some of the best grapes to string into clusters for drying. Near these girls, town folk are enjoying lunch while a gajdaš (bagpipe player) entertains them. In the far background, an ox cart laden with fresh must heads back to the village.
Titelbach has chronicled the process in excellent detail, but by no means was it possible that all of these tasks took place simultaneously, nor were they always immediately near the vineyard. In two of the most productive wine regions of Serbia, the locals would build simple but durable stone structures, called pivnice or pimnice in Timok Krajina, northeast Serbia, or podrum and poljana in the Aleksandrovac-Kruševac wine region. Here, the tools for wine making were stored, to facilitate quick processing of the grapes into must. The buildings also served as wine cellars for the fermentation and storage of wine, and housed workers and vineyard keepers during the summer and fall. These types of buildings were more numerous in the past, prior to the massive collapse of European vineyards after the great Phylloxera epidemic in the late nineteenth century. Today, these pimnice and podrumi are still used by small producers, and are experiencing a renaissance of sorts with the increased popularity of agro- and eco-tourism. The best preserved wine settlement today is in Rajac, a village near Negotin.
Outside of Serbia itself, the Serbs living in Hercegovina, Montenegro and Dalmatia also produced wines in similar fashion, using similar tools. The pressing of grapes was referred to as gnječiti (crush), mleti (grind), mečiti, maštiti (to transform to must), greštati, muljati (mush). The fermentation process was expressed using verbs related to cooking or boiling: uzvreti, variti, kipjeti/kipiti. In these western regions, wine was fermented or aged in barrels (bačve, burad) or glass and wicker vessels called domižani (demijohn, from Italian demigianno) These were in turn kept in cellars located on the ground level of the sturdy stone houses built in this region. These cellars, called konobe, kept temperatures even year round and varied in size depending on the family’s needs and production. My grandfather, Spasoje Dukić, had a ground-floor konoba at his house in Knin, northern Dalmatia, and a second at his vineyard, called Ivanovac, in the village of Orlić just outside of Knin in the microregion known as “Dalmatinsko Kosovo” – Dalmatian Kosovo, from the origins of its Serbian population. In cities such as Zadar, Šibenik or Dubrovnik, large konobe served not only as warehouses but also as gathering places, shops, and taverns.
Drinking wine, in Serbian culture, had certain conventions. While there were traditional zdravice, long poetic toasts for slava and weddings, the general toast of “Živeli” (Long life) or “Na zdravlje” (To your health) must be made with eye contact. There was no strict etiquette for pairing wine with foods. This is partly due to history, since prior to the nineteenth century production of red wine vastly outstripped that of white. Where there were western influences, dessert wines developed, such as the delicious Dalmatian prošek, produced from grapes partially dried in the shade, to concentrate the sugars. It is still common to dilute red wine with water, either still or sparkling. Grapes and wine were considered medicinal for anemia and lethargy (malokrvnost, malaksalost) Wine was considered widely medicinal for general health and vigour, but mulled wine was particularly consumed for throat ailments and colds. Mutual consumption of wine was part of the various rituals for bratimljenje, blood-brotherhood; shared wine was shared blood, hence brotherhood or sisterhood resulted. Besides its ritual role as a symbolic replacement for blood, it was considered that wine consumed somehow converted into blood, and gave the drinker strength and health. The colour red in general was associated with life, fire and the sun – the intensity of red in a spring rainbow was taken as a sign of what to expect of that year’s grape harvest and wine yield.
Wine drinking is a frequent formula in South Slavic epic poetry, an easy mnemonic for the guslar, the gusle bard, and generally associated with epic heroes. The formula begins with “Vino pije…” or “Vino piju…” ((s)he/they were drinking wine…), and usually continues with a place and a companion, either of which can be historic or mythic. Here are just a few, from many different regions:
Vino pije Sibinjanin Janko, u Sibinju na bijeloj kuli
Vino pije Starina Novače, u prostranoj gori Romaniji, s njime pije brate Radivoje,
Vino pije Musiću Stefane, u Majdanu čisto srebrnome
Vino pije Banović Strahinja, u Jugovcu, gradu bijelome, u svog tasta Jugović-Bogdana
Vino piju trideset serdara, iz Krajine krvavih Kotara, a u dvore Janković Stojana
Vino piju trides’t kapetana, u bijelom gradu Šibeniku, medu njima Jeriniću Vuče
Vino pije Musa Arbanase, u Stambolu u krčmi bijeloj
Vino pije Boičić Alija, sa ujakom Glumac Osman-Agom…
Vino piju tri dobra junaka, prvi ti je Marko Kraljeviću, drugi ti je Miloš Obiliću, a treći je Relja od Pazara…
Vino pije Mijat harambaša, u visokoj gori Kunovici…
Vino pije silan Car Stjepane, u Prizrenu gradu bijelome, vino služi veran sluga Lazo…
Pod šatorom delija devojka, vino pije ni brige je nije…
Karlovkinje rumene k’o ruže, vino piju na ljude se tuže…
Vino pije Marko Kraljeviću, sa staricom Jevrosimom majkom…
Thus, wine has been firmly established as the noble drink of heroes and heroines, in Serbian folk poetry. In the folk epic “Marko pije uz Ramazan vino“, when Marko Kraljević defies Sultan Suleyman’s edict banning the drinking of wine during Ramadan, Marko replies:
“Ако пијем уз рамазан вино, Ако пијем, вера ми доноси”
“So what? I drink wine during Ramadan. So I drink it, my faith does allow it…”
When Suleyman doesn’t drop the issue, the famously short-tempered Marko literally pins him to the wall. Trapped, the Sultan’s only solution is this:
Цар се маша руком у џепове,
Он извади стотину дуката,
Па и даје Краљевићу Марку:
“Иди, Марко те се напиј вина.”
Car se maše rukom u džepove
On izvadi stotinu dukata
Pa ih daje Kraljeviću Marku:
”Idi, Marko, te se napij vina!”
The Tsar (Sultan) fumbles in his pockets,
And produces one hundred gold ducats
Hurriedly he gives them to Prince Marko:
“Go, Marko, drink your fill of wine!”
The epics also reflect how Serbs saw wine. Bunjak & Topić analyzed the poems collected by Vuk Karadžić, and found wine is described as rujno (ruddy, rosy) 66 times, ladno (cold) 49 times, crveno (red), mrko (dark), crvenika (reddish). The epithet common in lyrical and old urban folk songs, rumeno, only appears twice in Vuk’s anthology, indicating its more recent nascence. Of our folk songs, very few of them are what we’d call drinking songs (frankly, any song is a drinking song to us); this particular genre of song entered our repertoire via (you guessed it) Austria-Hungary. A favourite example is the students’ drinking song, “Kad čujem tambure”
“Kad čujem tambure, ja skočim na bure
Poručim litru dve, i pijem do zore!
Haj, ca, vinca-ca, vinca rumena-ha-ha!”
“When I hear the tambure playing, I leap onto a barrel,
I order a litre or two and drink until dawn!
Hey, tsa, little wine, little rosy wi-i-ine!”
In true folk songs, wine occasionally makes an appearance, but the vineyard is a very popular setting for all sorts of shenanigans, as alluded to in the song, “Obraše se vinogradi”:
“Grlismo se, ljubismo se ko golubi mladi.
Kol’ko smo se mi voleli znaju vinogradi!”
“Oh how we embraced, oh how we kissed, just like young doves.
Just how much we loved each other, well… the vineyards know!”
Fittingly, the vineyard is associated with love, whether it is flirting with a passerby in “Kopa Cura Vinograd”, daydreaming about that special someone in “Haj, berem grozđe”, or even taking a stand on an unwanted sexual advance in “Vino piju Age Sarajlije”. The vine’s habit of twisting and clinging is a frequent allegory to the embrace of lovers, even in the children’s song “Savila se Bela Loza Vinova”. The vineyard is offered in place of a bride by an overprotective father, in the song “Oj, Coko, Coko” “Tatko lojze dava, mene ne me dava!” – “Father would rather give his vineyard, before he gives you me!”
The song “Lojze se reže” is a traditional ‘table song’ (pesma za trpezom) sung at weddings in the Aleksandrovac župa wine growing region, and it charts the cycle of vineyard work and wine making in parallel with courtship and marriage:
“Lojze se reže, grojze se bere
Grojze se melja, svadba se sprema
Vino se pije, šta ćeš milije!
Crn konac crn gajtan, lepša cura no dragan!”
“The vines are being pruned, the grapes picked
The grapes have been pressed, a wedding is being prepared
The wine is being drunk, what more can we ask for!
Black thread, black braid, the bride is prettier than her beloved!”
Wine is so deeply ingrained in Serbian traditional culture that it is considered as important as water and fire, in terms of its symbolic and mystical power. Its practical and ritual use is ubiquitous across regions and occasions. It is one of our more underrated cultural ambassadors to the world. It is meant to heal, unite, protect – but most importantly, it is meant to be enjoyed. As Hungarian philosopher Bela Hamvaš beautifully put it:
“Zakon pijenja je isti kao i zakon ljubavi: bilo kada, bilo gde, bilo kako”
“The rule for drinking wine is the same as the rule for love: whenever, wherever, however”.
– Bela Hamvaš, FIlozofija Vina
FOR FURTHER READING
Bunjak, Petar. Miroslav Topić. (2012) Attributes of Wine in Serbian Decasyllabic Folk Poetry. Literaria Humanitas 16: 47 – 54
Čajkanović, Veselin, and Vojislav Đ�urić�. (1994) Rečnik Srpskih Narodnih Verovanja o Biljkama. Srpska Književna Zadruga.
Hamvaš, Bela. transl. Sasa Babić. (2008) Filozofija Vina. Tardis, Belgrade,
Kulišić, ŠŒ, and P. Ž. Petrović N. Pantelić. (1970) Srpski Mitološki Rečnik. Nolit, Beograd.
Matica Dalmatinska (1865) Narodne Pjesme. Demarki-Ružiero, Zadar
Mladenova, Olga. (1998) Grapes and Wine in the Balkans: an Ethno-Linguistic Study. Harrassowitz Verlag
Nedeljković, Mile. (1990) Godišnji Običaji u Srba. Belgrade, Vuk Karadžić
Pantelić, Nikola. (1960) Pivnice – Poljane: Wine Grower’s Temporary Settlements. Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu vol. 22-23. Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade
Pelagić, Vasa (1941) Stvarni Narodni Učitelj. Beograd, T. Jovanović & Vujić Publishers.
Vladić�-Krstić, Bratislava. (1999) Narodni Život i Kultura Srba u Istočnoj Hercegovini. Etnografski Muzej u Beogradu.
Voćar. “STARE SORTE VINOVE LOZE.” Voćarstvo Srbija, (2015) vocarstvo.rs/saveti/vinogradarstvoo/341-stare-sorte-vinove-loze.