Negotin Cellars

The Negotin region is situated in the east of Serbia, in a plain surrounded by the Miroč, Crni Vrh, and Deli Jovan mountains on one side, and the Danube and Timok rivers on the other. This creates a highly specific climate characterized by a continental nature, with exceptionally warm summers and cold winters.

Negotin Cellars represent enclaves of wine cellars in the Negotin region in Serbia, around the villages of Rajac, Rogljevo, Štubik, and Smedovac. These settlements consist of stone houses where wines were crafted and preserved. These stone dwellings are commonly referred to as cellars.

Negotin Cellars

Canyons and caves in the region have also contributed to maintaining a reputation for mystery. These natural wonders served as refuge for many outlaws or “hajduks”, as the region was known during Ottoman rule. Additionally, the rich gold deposits around the Pek River attracted adventurers throughout history. Unfortunately, despite its natural and cultural wealth, the inaccessibility of eastern Serbia makes it one of the least explored and underdeveloped regions in the country. Economic challenges have been exacerbated by the collapse of many state-owned companies since the 1990s and the prolonged crisis of the Bor copper mine, one of the largest in Europe. As a result, many locals have left eastern Serbia to find employment in Germany, Austria, and France, leaving many of its beautiful villages nearly deserted.

Vine cultivation in the vicinity of Negotin dates back to the Roman era, from the 3rd century, as indicated by archaeological evidence and a colossal mosaic of the wine god Dionysus discovered in Romuliana (Gamzigrad). During that period, vine cultivation was a primary source of income in this area. The Slavs also embraced vine cultivation, making this branch of agriculture vital in medieval Serbia. Almost all settlements in the Krajina region had vineyards, with the largest areas of vineyards belonging to the fields of the villages of Tamnica, Rajac, Rogljevo, Smedovac, Veljkovo, and Brusnik.

The Negotin vineyard covers approximately 1000 hectares of vineyards. Among the indigenous and old varieties cultivated here are Bagrina, Začinak, Prokupac, Smederevka, and Black Tamjanika. Bagrina produces white wine with a golden-yellow color and a distinctive bouquet. Today, this ancient grape variety has been replaced by Riesling, Sauvignon, Semillon, and Chardonnay. Zacinak is a grape variety used for dyeing. What makes Negotin unique is the Black Tamjanika variety, whose quality and yields surpass other vineyards.

One of the most impressive displays of Serbian folk architecture is the cellars—a complex of several dozen wine cellars built in the early 19th century. Cellars were constructed in settlements or outside them, where there was no risk of contamination from atmospheric precipitation, floods, or sediments. Built of stone, often hewn or bonded, with walls thick often over 60 centimeters, these cellars are partially buried in the ground to preserve a constant air temperature. The term “pivnica” denotes the old Serbian word for a cellar (“podrum” a Turkish loanword), designed for storing wine, and partly buried in the ground to maintain a constant air temperature. They typically have a rectangular shape, and these magnificent limestone structures were built when several hundred residents improved their situation after the phylloxera epidemic destroyed European wine production. The Negotin vineyards were spared thanks to the dry, sandy soil in the surrounding area. While many cellars are now abandoned, some still offer the opportunity to taste local wines and specialties, and even spend the night.

Another must-see is the very atmospheric local cemetery in Rajac with its stubby gravestones adorned with ancient intricate motifs, dating back to the Vinča culture, as confirmed by numerous archaeological findings.

After a survey of the old part of the Rajac cemetery in 2011, around 1500 tombstones were documented, and photo documentation was collected. In the same year, the technical documentation was started, covering 200 objects. Alongside the technical survey, historical-ethnographic documentation was collected for 300 tombstones. According to current data, tombstones in the Rajac cemetery can be placed in the period from the second half of the 18th to the first half of the 20th century.

“Old Cemetery in Rajac Cellars,” Republic Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments, Belgrade

These unique monuments were crafted by the same artisans, stonemasons from southern Serbia, who are also responsible for the appearance of the oldest buildings, namely the cellars. There is a theory that the residents of Rajac were not buried near the villages where they lived but next to the hill where they kept wine. This speaks volumes about the importance of wine in the lives and deaths of the people of that time and place. The cemetery contains hundreds of Serbian tombstones from the second half of the 18th and 19th centuries, depicting Svarog’s cross (swastika) and Svarog’s circle as a solar symbol. The tombstones are exceptionally well-decorated, mostly in the form of columns, with many columns topped with stone caps. It is interesting to note the similarity of some decorations, especially Svarog’s crosses, with the ornaments on stećaks.

The Negotin cellars are candidates for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Other candidates from Serbia include the Manasija Monastery, the fortress of Bač, Caričin grad, and Smederevo fortress.

Photos by Mladen Nikolić, 2023.