Serbia's wine producers hit hard by coronavirus lockdown

IRIG, Serbia, April 9 (Reuters) - In the Kovacevic winery in the town of Irig, on the sloping hills of northern Serbia’s Fruska Gora region, workers have been busy this week bottling wine that will not be sold until after the coronavirus outbreak ends.

In Belgrade, a restaurateur who serves Kovacevic wines sits alone in an empty dining room. Across the country, cafes, restaurants and bars remain shut after the government last month introduced a state of emergency to stop the virus which has so far killed 65 people and infected 2,666.

“We are still working, preparing wines, bottling them as if all this will end tomorrow,” Miroslav Kovacevic, a portly, third-generation winemaker, told Reuters in Irig, referring to the pandemic.

With 20% annual growth in exports, Serbia’s wines had been identified by the government as a way to boost a national economy which, before the pandemic, was set to grow by 4%.

But the lockdown brought wine sales and exports to a near halt, Kovacevic said. “This is a big blow. We will book a loss of around 1 million euros.”

In 2018, Serbia’s 360 wineries produced 29 million litres of wine. Total revenues from wine exports amounted to 17 million euros ($18 million).

Overall, agriculture in the EU membership candidate country accounts for 7% of its gross domestic product and exports constitute more than one-fifth of all Serbia’s sales abroad.

In Belgrade, Le Teniza, a normally busy restaurant, was eerily empty. Its owner, Aleksandar Ilic, said some restaurateurs have shut their businesses and many will do so later in the year.

“It’s not very nice to speak about economics when people are dying ... but tomorrow awaits us, many people will go bankrupt, many have no liquidity,” he told Reuters.

To help economic recovery, the government has offered 5.1 billion euros ($5.5 billion) in loans, subsidies and payments to businesses and individuals.

Veljko Jovanovic, head of the agriculture sector of the national Chamber of Commerce, said winemakers and other small and medium-sized agricultural producers are hoping the outbreak will end soon.

“Maintaining liquidity ... is a problem that will affect the wine sector,” Jovanovic told Reuters, because most wine companies are small. (Aditional reporting by Fedja Grulovic; Editing by Giles Elgood)