The only place on Earth where you can drink a glass of chilled ceruja is at Uka Farm, a biodynamic vineyard and restaurant near Tirana airport. The idiosyncratic grape climbs the mulberry trees near the shores of Lake Ulëz in northern Albania, and is harvested only once every few years.
Albania may not be known for its wine, but that is slowly changing, as winemakers such as Flori Uka, who purchases the entire ceruja harvest, start to make a name for themselves.
The Adriatic country was almost entirely off-limits to foreigners until 1991, and under forced collectivisation (from the 1950s) only produced two wines: red and white. Today, it is seeing a renaissance of its dozen or so native grapes in 30 innovative wineries.
Under the shadow of Berat’s Disney-like Unesco-listed castle, Muharram Çobo has been growing rare Albanian grapes since 1994. Despite being vintners of old, Çobo’s forefathers were prohibited from making wine during the communist era: he’s making up for lost time by experimenting with several 100-bottle “micro-fermentations” each year. From a single lonely vine, Çobo has revived Puls i Bardhë, another tree-climbing grape. It sips like an olfactory firebomb of tannic citrus, and pairs well with indigenous Berat olives, which he serves with cellar dégustations. After sampling his 12-day-old sparkling rosé, we crack a bottle of Shendevere, a mouth-poppingly good méthode champenoise, which is as good as anything I’ve tasted.
There is still a brand issue here, though. Flori Uka says: “When I took Uka Farm wine to local restaurants they said, ‘Oh, it’s Albanian, so we’ll pay you €2 a bottle’. Each year Albania produces only a million bottles for a country of three million – we import €50m of Italian wine instead.” But with this new generation of winemakers, that may not be the case for much longer.
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