Uncorking the Western Balkans quality wine export market – an industry expert perspective

Q&A with industry experts

Frédéric Julia, International Wine Marketing Expert at Verthémis International, shares his perspectives and expertise on how the right investments, branding and capacity development, could help the Western Balkans economies add bottled wines to their export basket.

Q: What do you find unique about Western Balkan wine market trends that could help foster growth and competitiveness?

Wine production in the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo[1], Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia – accounts for less than 2% of the wine produced globally yet it is definitely in high demand on international markets. 2021 marked a record for wine exports by volume increasing by 4.4 percent compared with 2020, and in value by 15.5 percent to reach USD 34.4 billion. These increases are being driven by sales of bottled wine which are starting to overtake those of wine produced in bulk, a trend that is driven by a fantastic quality improvement over the years, in addition to very competitive price positioning.

Q: How can countries in this region increase their market share and better position themselves as wine nations?

The Western Balkan wine regions are well-placed to become dynamic players in the global arena for their strong wine heritage, favourable climatic conditions and exceptional terroir. They are also well-placed geographically to compete internationally. With 200 indigenous grape varieties, some of which are already producing world-class premium wines, there is potential to bring new excitement to the wine world, seducing consumer palates and catching the eyes of international buyers, as well as developing wine tourist packages that also build on the regions other assets, including its rich culture and outdoor recreational activities.

Over the last decade, in each Balkan wine region, a lot of new producers, which include large companies and numerous family entities, have entered the wine industry, providing a fresh air of dynamism and innovation. There is also an increase in quality as the vision of Western Balkan wine production as being mostly dedicated to the production of mass-produced cheap wine is now fading away in favour of bottled wines which are now the main product.

Q: What are the main challenges?

Each Western Balkan Wine region only has a small area dedicated to vineyards and while there is a strong historical wine heritage including museums, artifacts, and monuments, as yet there is not a clearly defined shared narrative or an effective wine and food tourism marketing strategy. This limits visibility and misses the opportunity to promote the unique specificities of the Balkan wine regions regarding landscape, terroir and climate. Many wine growers are still focused on producing wines with international grape varieties rather than local ones to give them a competitive advantage.

Investment in wine technology has started and state-of-the-art wineries are burgeoning all over the Western Balkan regions. These include ‘garage’ and ‘family’ wineries which can lack the technical capacity needed for quality modern winemaking. As a result, wine quality from one producer to another could vary a lot which can confuse the consumer and may not meet international standards.

Q: What are the next steps to enhance the global reputation of the Western Balkan wine regions?

Working with the EBRD and FAO on an initiative to build and promote the bottled wine sector, we have developed a strategic marketing plan. The plan is supported by eleven concrete activities that focus on building capacity and expertise, particularly in quality production and promoting the wines through an awareness campaign.

From a technical perspective, the regions need to cultivate reliable domestic vine nurseries and adopt best practices in winemaking to enhance grape and wine excellence and for environmental stewardship. We are also going to create a Western Balkan Wines Traceability Seal to enhance trust for both domestic and export markets. In addition to training and extension services, we also need to support business excellence and leadership by assisting the entire industry to move toward quality production through institutional and financial support to producers engaged in premium wine production.

In terms of awareness, we need to develop wine tourism and wine education programmes for professionals and consumers and create a story that emphasizes the uniqueness and attractiveness of the Balkan wine regions. This requires organizations at the regional level to have consistent and coherent marketing so that they gain visibility all around the world while building on their specificities.

Q: During your visits to the area, what are your impressions from meetings with the regional wine producers?

I have been visiting the region since 2018 with my most recent visit in 2023. During this time I have witnessed the fantastic progress made by the regional producers, not only in wine quality but also in expressing the uniqueness of their local terroir, their indigenous grape varieties, and the production of wines that will bring new excitement to the wine world. Investments in quality improvement have been tremendous and lots of producers have reached international standards. Regularity in quality production and visibility on the international markets are the next steps toward a successful future.

Find out more about the EBRD and FAO project to diversify agrifood exports in the Western Balkans:
The EBRD and FAO give quality wines of the Western Balkans a boost – Agtivate

[1] References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999)


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