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Tikveš Winery: Libations in Macedonia 

Tikveš Winery has a history to be proud of and a diverse portfolio of wines to match. Celebrating its 135th anniversary this year, it seemed like high time we spoke with the iconic company, which is the largest in its region and an industry leader in Macedonian vinification.

The ancient kingdom of Macedonia arose far back in 808 BC, its kings ruling over their dynasty until it became a Roman province in 146 BC. Its rich culture lived on through many evolutions, and even today, certain aspects remain. For example, the modern Republic of North Macedonia still features a full, bursting sun shining on both its flag and emblem, much like the Vergina Sun of the ancient kingdom. It also still enjoys wine. We spoke with Svetozar Janevski, Tikveš Winery’s President. Founded in 1885, Tikveš is not only highly accomplished and established in its industry – it is the oldest winery in the country. 2020 marks its 135th anniversary, so we spoke with Svetozar to learn its story. 

Svetozar is just as in love with the romantic, classical origins of Macedonia as we are, as is Tikveš as a whole: “We feel that Tikveš has a unique set of values upon which it builds its position vis-à-vis our competitors. We find these values ​​in many things, starting with the long tradition of Tikveš, rooted in the centuries-old history of wine production in North Macedonia’s largest wine region of the same name, which dates back to the time of the Roman Empire.” 

North Macedonia’s long-standing involvement with wine is thanks in part to its warm climate. “A major advantage of Tikveš comes from the unique combination of climate and soil, suitable for growing quality grapes that produce highly aromatic authentic varieties, such as ‘vranec or ‘temjanika,” Svetozar explained. “It is also suitable for international varieties of grapes that, when grown in this region receive unique features and make unique blends.” 

Happily, North Macedonia is also renowned for a diverse range of dairy products, which when combined with wines could make for a blissful sunny afternoon. Cuisine in the country represents a collection of influences – primarily Mediterranean and Middle Eastern, but also including elements of Italian, German and Hungarian palettes. As well as wine, it also has a local beverage, rakija: a native variety of fruit brandy.

All in all, this sounds idyllic, and yet when it comes to wine tourism, North Macedonia is not the well-trodden soil of California or the South of France. Svetozar sees this as a positive: “We find it advantageous, in comparison to producers from already known world wine regions, that our country is still a mystical wine country that is yet to be discovered by wine enthusiasts, and the next big surprises are yet to come.”

Within this wine culture, Tikveš Winery holds no small place – it is a central cog in the country’s vinification machine. As Svetozar told us, “As the largest and most innovative winery in the region, Tikveš is the driving force of the Macedonian winemaking industry.” The company’s portfolio includes over 50 varieties of wine, ranging from everyday to premium. Most of the company’s wines are sold under the ‘Tikveš’ brand, including its traditional wines and heritage beverages, but its premium terroir wines are sold under a different brand: ‘Tikveš Châteaux & Domaines’. Between these two brands, the company processes up to 25 million kilograms of grapes, which leads to the production of around 18 million litres of wine a year. To create this huge output, Tikveš owns over 1000 high-quality barrique and oak casks, and has a total fermentation and storage capacity of 416,000 hectolitres.

Producing wine in these volumes, it is no surprise that Tikveš is a major contributor to local agriculture: “Tikveš has a substantial footprint on the local grape production. The winery has more than 1,000 hectares of its own vineyards and cooperates with over 2,000 individual grape growers.” There is a close relationship between Tikveš and the growers it works with: for example, in support of these suppliers, the company has developed a training program to ensure that the grapes they produce are always at a high standard. “This implies constant communication and collaboration with them throughout the year, with our field oenologists giving tips on growing grapes and providing continuous education, resulting in better quality yields.” 

Naturally, 135 years has seen Tikveš go through innumerable changes, but the most significant change in its modern history occurred in 2003 when the winery was acquired by the major Macedonian company, the M6 investment Group. Under M6, Tikveš received over €40 million in investments, including new facilities and state-of-the-art technology for the best viticulture practices. Tikveš sells 40% of its wines locally and is one of the market leaders in the Balkan countries, but overall, it exports to 30 markets worldwide. Much of this international interest spiked after M6’s investment: importers from the EU, USA, UK and China began approaching the winery, and today, an amazing 40% of North Macedonia’s wine exports are accounted for by Tikveš. These exports are receiving positive critical acclaim. Tikveš’ wines win an average of 60 medals a year, including a platinum medal at Decanter – the largest wine contest in the world.

Tikveš is constantly at work to make sure it maintains and improves upon its reputation. To do so means a keen focus on two areas: predicting the market, and the knowledge of its staff. Between these two areas, Tikveš can attempt to pursue that all-important balance between sales and quality. Tikveš‘ oenologists develop their experience and knowledge by visiting wine regions in Europe, the United States, and by working in wineries in South Africa and New Zealand. “We have an excellent team of winemakers and we are also assisted by the fact that one of the world’s most famous wine consultants – Philippe Cambie works with us. His tips and direction have a profound impact on all of our production, from the way we grow grapes to the creation of our wines. The unique blends of traditional and international varieties, which are trademarks of Cambie, are also some of our most rewarded and demanded wines, which clearly shows that knowledge, experience and creativity are highly valued in the wine world.” 

Tikveš is serious in its commitment to the training of its staff. You cannot produce top-tier wines without an educated and informed team, and the winery has made some serious investments to this effect. In 2019, it established a Wine Educator training school that provides WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) courses to its staff, and also to wine enthusiasts and external audiences that work in the related industries. In November 2018, the company even purchased a winery in France – the Château de Gourdonfound in France’s Rhone Valley – with a view to learning from its award-winning processes: “Tikveš has never hidden the desire to learn, compare and compete with the best, which are, of course, French wines,” Svetozar told us. The acquisition was also a strategic move to position Tikveš in the European wine industry, as well as a development opportunity. The company hopes to further boost the recognition that it feels this winery deserves: “We are convinced that wine enthusiasts around the world have yet to discover the qualities and enjoyment in the Château de Gourdon wines. We have serious plans for the development of the property.” 

Of course, all of this knowledge is meaningless without the other half of the puzzle – awareness of the market’s movements. “The key challenge in the wine business is to determine the vision, i.e. the strategy to be followed for long-term development. This is a very complex task because the decisions you make today regarding grape production will determine the direction of wine production in the next 30 or even 50 years. Due to this, it is important to keep up with the current trends, but also network with the ‘players’ who determine what wine will be preferred in the next 10 or 20 years.” 

Wine consumption is predicted to increase in Asia, America and Europe over the next decade, which is fantastic news for Tikveš. There are shifts in preferences, though: for example, lighter, smoother wines with a lower alcohol content seem to be on the rise. In responding to this trend, but doing so to a high standard, Tikveš can keep chasing that perfect balance of acclaim and sales. However, the country as a whole is not doing this to the extent it could, and this has Svetozar concerned for the industry: “As a country, only about one third of Macedonian wine exported belongs to the higher price segment, while the rest is sold as bulk and at extremely low prices. This irretrievably brings our wine and viticulture industry to a standstill. Everyone that is familiar with this industry is decisive that North Macedonia can produce top quality wines. However, for this potential to be realised, it is necessary for the country to set a new strategy for development of the industry, following the positive experiences of countries such as Chile, Argentina, New Zealand. Investments in further modernising of the grape production must be seriously increased so that production costs can be reduced.”  

Moving forwards, Tikveš aims to keep investing funds in its processes, and well as pushing to double its international export reach. It feels optimistic about the future, despite challenges – particularly as North Macedonia stands on the cusp of membership with the EU. “The integration of our country into the European Union will certainly bring a number of benefits and will encourage economic development, including the domestic wine industry. More specifically, we expect that it will have a positive impact on the export of Macedonian wine, especially in EU countries, but also beyond.”

“Of course, this is not the only benefit. The integration of the country into the EU brings additional guarantees in terms of respecting the highest standards of production and practically unlimited possibilities for sale on the vast common market of the Union.” Membership in a supportive network is extremely desirable for any country looking to grow in strength on the global stage, and membership with the EU should hopefully, as Svetozar predicts, be a great boon to North Macedonia. A country with a rich history and generous natural resources, North Macedonia has much to offer, and can finally offer this to the full if it receives the investment and support it requires. Companies such as Tikveš Winery show what could be possible, and as the EU further allows this entrepreneurial hard work and ingenuity to thrive, we look forward to seeing what both Tikveš and North Macedonia’s wine industry as a whole are able to produce. After all, no matter our local strengths and talents, we are always stronger together than apart.