I like a good wine. I prefer reds to whites, Italian and Chilean vintages to French and Australian ones but won't turn down a good California wine when it is offered. Since we've been in Albania I've discovered that there are some very good wines being produced in this part of the world. I had heard about Croatian (whites) and Macedonian wines and loved them upon trying them but who knew that Hungary, Romania, and Montenegro also had award winning wineries. (I've included links to some of my favorite discoveries above). And don't forget about Italy; from Sicily in the south to the Piedmont region of the north and everywhere in between, Italian wines are reliably good. A quick look at the map would make one think that Albania should be on par with these neighboring countries when it comes to producing very drinkable wine. After all, the climate and geography are very similar to these great wine making countries. Unfortunately, and I learned the hard way, this isn't necessarily the case.
Having traveled in Italy where house table wines are always a safe and very drinkable option when dining in restaurants, early in our Albanian tenure we started ordering carafes of house wine in restaurants. We quickly discovered this was a bad choice since more often than not the wine was too acidic, harsh, and most unpleasant to the palate. And talk about sulfates. The day after consuming a single glass of these Albanian red wines I would wake up feeling like a partying college co-ed on a Sunday morning. Determined to find an Albanian wine we liked, we took to buying bottles in the local markets. Some were moderately better but not great. I began to suspect the problem was not in the wine production but rather in the storage --many times I've seen it sitting in cases outside in the blazing Mediterranean sun or in other non, temperature controlled environments-- and we opened more than one bottle that could have easily been confused for vinegar. And then there was the wine whose cork exploded off the bottle as though it was champagne. And no, it was neither champagne nor any other beverage that was supposed to be carbonated. Cleaning that chunky red mess off of our kitchen wall all but put an end to my drinking of Albanian wine. But just when I was about to give up, I made a rather pleasant discovery.
On a recent weekend a group of people from our Embassy ventured out to the village of Kallmet in northern Albania to attend a wine tasting at Kantina Kallmeti. I wasn't sure what to expect; Albania's winery industry is small and developing with most people growing their own grapes and making their own wine for their own personal consumption. (We've been gifted with numerous label-less bottles of home vintages including the one that exploded). Only a few wineries have larger scale productions and as far as I knew, Kantina Kallmeti wasn't one of them. And, given the back story of my Albanian wine experiences to date, I wasn't overly hopeful.
But I should have been. What Kantina Kallmeti lacked on the outside, it was a typical Albanian structure made of concrete and ribar set alongside a winding side road north of Lezhe, it more than made up for on the inside. The building was immaculate with the winery portion of the business separate from their other endeavors. (This being Albania, they also produce olive oil and grape raki). The winery owner proudly showed us the stainless steel storage tanks and oak casks, both of which had been imported from Italy and discussed their production plan for increasingly their productivity each year. All of the equipment was shiny and appeared new despite the fact that the winery has been in business since 2007. (Young by worldly wine making standards but experienced by Albanian ones). After talking about the source of the grapes and the lengthy process involved in making the three varieties of wine they produce (a white, red, and a reserve red), we got to the fun part of the day, taste testing the wine. The white was surprisingly good, the red was more than drinkable but the reserve was very very good. I'll admit, since the bottle was unlabeled (the vintage is so new that labels are still being printed) my previous experiences with similar bottles made me skeptical. I dare say that this wine was the best Albanian wine I've drank. It was so good in fact, that despite the cases of wine we already own and are desperately trying to get rid of before our move, we bought more. An entire case to be exact. Yes, we liked it that much.