Interview with Ms. Caroline Gilby MW, wine expert for Central and Southeastern Europe
Caroline Gilby Master of Wine is one of the most famous names on the global wine scene. She is the author of several books on wine and wine regions, and her articles regularly appear in reputable international media. As the Vranec Ambassador, she is extremely well versed in the development of the North Macedonian wine scene, and in an interview with Terroir.mk, she explains the trends of the Western markets and gives guidelines for where the wines of the Balkans should move, and what basic predispositions should have autochthonous varieties from Balkan vineyards.
As the most famous and respected wine expert for Central and Southeastern Europe, can you tell us how long you have been researching the wines of the Balkan Peninsula and what attracted you to these vineyards?
I started as a wine buyer in 1988 for a large chain of wine shops, pubs and hotels. At that point Eastern Europe was big business in the UK, but not glamorous, so as junior member of the buying team that was my first buying responsibility. Bulgaria and Yugoslavia were the Balkan part of my patch. As I continued to follow the region, I’ve seen a complete revolution and huge changes from that era to today, and it’s been an endlessly fascinating journey. Always something new to discover.
Can you locate the common components that bind the Balkans as a unique wine region in contrast to the rest world's famous ones?
One of the most intriguing aspects of the region’s story is how each country has emerged from the previous era in its own way – shaped by different cultures, climates and landscapes. But all the countries shared an experience of wine being collectivised and wine quality suffering, then having to relearn the links between land, grapevines and people. It’s also fascinating to see the re-emergence of local varieties as flagships – different for each country of course.
As a Vranec Ambassador and a resident of the UK, one of the world's key wine markets, do you think that the wines of the Vranec grape variety are stylistically clear enough for the European market, and what would be your suggestions to bring the style closer to the European and then to the US consumer?
I think there’s a need to match wine styles to the target audience because preferences do vary by country. The brighter, fresher, less oaky styles are likely to be more appreciated in markets like the UK, whereas I know from an event I did in Denmark that Scandinavians love the bigger richer styles. In general, I do think there is widespread consciousness and increasing concern about high levels of alcohol and oak in wines so that is a trend to keep an eye on. I should also mention the increasing importance of sustainability and environmental awareness, and that has to involve joined up thinking from the vineyard all the way to packaging and dealing with waste. Silly heavy glass bottles is just one visible symbol of this and there’s a strong reaction against these in western markets.
We often hear that wines are created in the vineyard. Do you think that after the technological investments of Macedonian wineries, it is time for them to return more intensively to the vineyards and redesign their vines listening to nature?
I think place is incredibly important in today’s wines. It’s the one way you can add value once the winemaking is sorted ( only so much reduced yield and new oak you can use before it makes wines worse, not better). And place is the one thing that is unique to your country so wines that express place are going to be incredibly useful in connecting people to North Macedonia, rather than anywhere else that has modern winemaking equipment.
Do you think that the development of the domestic wine scene, through wine salons, wine education of local consumers, wine fairs, and so on, is important in the promotion of Macedonian wines on world markets, and where do you find the link?
A domestic wine scene that is proud of its own production is definitely helpful to the wine industry and that does require events and education to show people why they should drink good quality wine. I think export will always also be important for North Macedonia so taking part in global wine fairs and events has to happen too. But it’s no good just paying for a stand and turning up – you have to do PR and marketing, and maybe events like masterclasses that can be an extra education and communication tool too.
I'm not going to ask you which Balkan black grape variety is close to your heart, but I'm interested in which three black grape varieties you can single out as flagship of Southeastern Europe, and why?
That’s a tricky one – so much to choose from. Vranec obviously! But a flagship grape has to be capable of high quality, able to reflect a sense of place and age-worthy, and widely enough planted to be available to the industry to work with and consumers to drink. I think Blaufränkisch under its various guises of Kékfrankos, Borgonja, Frankovka, Modra Frankinja and Burgund Mare fits the bill – some amazing wines now it gets treated with respect. I’m also Mavrud Ambassador so that has to be on the list for Bulgaria.
I hope you have heard that the Vranec Selection by Concours Mondial de Brussels competition is being prepared, do you think it is a good choice to promote the variety and the countries related to it, so maybe is it a good idea for other international wine competitions to follow this idea?
I think anything that helps raise the profile of the grape is a good idea and competitions can be a great way of encouraging quality. And a tool for producers to learn what to do better if they don’t do so well.
Wine promotion is a rather complex project, are the Balkans on the right track, and where are the Macedonian producers, the authorities, in that segment, should they more intensively promote cooperation with foreign wine experts like you, can you give us a personal positive story with some country?
It’s been good to hear recently about plans to co-operate across the region, and I hope that there will be some substance behind this. I think the Balkan wine countries together can be a strong story in a big wine world as most of the countries are too small to make an impact alone. I think you need all the voices you can get on your side and if they are respected outsiders then it always holds more weight than local voices that may be seen as patriotic above all else. I’d just like to mention one example that I think has made a difference: I’ve worked with Hungary on many activities in the UK over the last 6 years. This has included an annual Furmint February trade tasting, various additional masterclasses, smaller themed tastings and wine dinners, press trips, articles and two Decanter supplements. And last year the UK became the number one export market for bottled Hungarian wines – not saying the two are directly linked but you can draw your own conclusions.