Tucked between Montenegro to the north and Greece to the south is the Mediterranean country of Albania. Despite its current lack of fame on the global wine stage, Albania is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world. It’s believed that wine production in Albania began in the Bronze Age, around 3,000 years ago.
Since then, a long period of Ottoman rule, two World Wars, and an oppressive communist regime—that effectively isolated the country from the rest of the world until the early 1990s—crippled Albania’s wine industry. At points during this history, wine production plummeted. Much of the wine that was produced in the country during communist rule was high-volume and low-quality.
Now, over 30 years since the fall of the country’s dictatorship, Albania’s wine industry is on the precipice of global recognition. According to Dashamir Elezi, a sommelier and the president of the Albanian Sommelier Association, many of the country’s producers have studied winemaking in nearby countries like Italy, Greece, France, and Germany, which has influenced the style of wines made from both international and indigenous grapes.
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Production is also growing. Between 2000 and 2016, grape production in Albania jumped over 250 percent. In 2022, the country produced 3.03 million liters of wine, 46.4 percent of which was exported, mostly to other European countries, according to Albania’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Exports to the United States have been sporadic and centered in Texas and Michigan, but are expected to increase in the coming years.
As Albania’s wine industry continues to grow, some of the country’s producers hope to reach a wider audience through tourism. “The increase in tourism is a good sign, as tourists’ mentality is to consume locally and discover the local culture, especially food and wine,” says Ermira Çobo, the eldest daughter of the Çobo family, owners of Çobo Winery in Berat. Industry leaders are also on a mission to educate more consumers about Albanian wine. “The most important thing is for people to understand that these are Mediterranean wines,” says Bujar Yuri Tukuli, the Albanian wine ambassador and founder of Dita Vera, an Albanian wine importer in Irving, Texas.
This is an exciting time for Albania, one that will set the standard for what Albanian wine looks like for generations to come. “The next 10, 15, 20 years are about finding the real gems [of terroir and native grape varieties], and those real gems will be determined by who has the best intuition, where the wine becomes the most expressive,” says Tukuli.
Key Wine Regions
Though Albania is a relatively small country, it boasts a wide range of grape-growing conditions. “The beautiful thing about wines from Albania is that they should not be misunderstood,” says Tukuli. “They’re 100 percent central Mediterranean wines when influenced by the Adriatic or Ionian seas, and they’re 100 percent continental wines if you’re on the border with Greece and Macedonia with influence from the Ohrid and Prespa natural lakes and the inner highlands.”
Currently, Albania doesn’t have any geographically designated wine regions, but the country’s wine production areas can be categorized into northern, central, and southern regions. However, these regions are not specified, and some experts break them down differently.
In the mountainous northern region of Albania, elevations can reach 1,000 meters in some areas. These high elevations, combined with cooling continental winds and well-drained, mineral-rich soils, result in high-acid wines, often made from the grape Kallmet. The northeast of the country has a moderately dry climate, which lessens disease pressure and largely negates the need for frequent spraying. Some parts of northeastern Albania are even home to ungrafted vines, including the white Cerruja and red Dibrak.
Central Albania, which is dominated by a landscape of rolling hills that reach heights of up to 450 meters, is famed for its diverse soils, including quartzite, clay, sandstone, and more. Generous sun exposure helps to ripen both black and white Shesh, which are the dominant varieties grown in this part of the country.
Environmentally savvy producers in this region are using biodiversity in their vineyards to develop more sustainable growing practices. “Since a good part of [this area is] planted with vineyards and olive trees, usually the residents also use [their land] for pastures for domestic animals and raising bees,” says Elezi. “This has an extremely good effect on their enrichment with organic fertilizer and on the purity of the terrain and microclimate.”
In the southeastern corner of Albania, vineyards can reach 800 meters and tend to be protected from strong winds from the west by mountain ranges. Here, wineries like Korça 2000 are growing the white grape Debina, known for its pronounced acidity. Slightly to the west, in central-southern Albania near the city of Berat, white Pulës grapes make both floral wines as well as raki, a pomace brandy. The savory Vlosh can be found in southwest Albania around the city of Vlorë.
Key Native Grape Varieties
Some producers in Albania, like Kantina Ilir, located in Elbasan, are focusing on international varieties, including Merlot, Chardonnay, and even Gewürztraminer. But many agree that Albania’s indigenous grapes hold the most potential for the country’s wine industry. “The second-worst thing we did after communism was bringing in a lot of grape varieties from Italy and from France,” says Tukuli. “The most important and most exciting thing that pretty much all winemakers are agreeing on is the fact that they need to focus on native grape varieties.” There are now 107 Vitis vinifera cultivars grown in the country, but a few are particularly prevalent in Albanian vineyards.
Albania grows both red and white Shesh, which are the country’s most widely cultivated grapes. Red Shesh, or Shesh i Zi, is known for producing dark ruby-colored wines with generous tannins that lend themselves well to aging. They tend to be full-bodied with notes of dark fruit like blueberry and blackberry. White Shesh, also known as Shesh i Bardhë, generally boasts a golden color and yields wines with notes of citrus and white flowers on the nose. Both the red and white varieties are mainly grown in northern and central Albania. “When taking small yields, it can [produce] extremely good products,” says Irdi Lushi, who earned the title of best Albanian sommelier of 2019 from the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale and the Albanian Sommelier Association.
Kallmet also comes in both red and white varieties, but the red is more widely planted. It can mainly be found in the northwest of the country, where strong winds largely negate the need for pesticides. The red variety boasts marked acidity and smooth tannins, which make these wines good candidates for oak aging. Kallmet is also grown in Hungary, where it’s called Kadarka, as well as Bulgaria, where it’s referred to as Gamza.
In the southwest of Albania, the red grape Vlosh is a particularly notable variety. Tukuli compares Vlosh to Italian Rossese (also known as Tibouren in France) or even Trepat from Catalunya. “The wines will not have a lot of color, but nonetheless, you’ll have this light ruby, garnet [color],” says Tukuli. “The wines will be some of the lightest in all of Albania, but they do pack a lot of intensity, especially because of the soils. This is the oldest part of Albania where the soils are oceanic metamorphic rocks dating to the Middle Jurassic.” Vlosh can produce a savory wine with notes of just-ripe wild Mediterranean red berries, black olives, and dried herbs, and they tend to be fresh and easy-drinking. “[These wines] are quite outstanding,” adds Tukuli.
Berat, a UNESCO world heritage site located in central-southern Albania, is also home to Pulës or Puls, a white variety. This white wine is best known for its aromas of white flowers, a long finish, and pronounced acidity. “The acidity can be a little overwhelming in the first year … but after one to two years, [Puls becomes] a very nice, balanced wine,” says Lushi.
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Samantha is a writer and editor focusing on food, wine, and culture. Her work has been featured in VinePair, Food52, Thrillist, and more. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @samseating.