Island Traditionalists and a Mainland Maverick Wines of Dalmatia

By Penny Mincho, Austin Branch

The world’s largest yacht, the Eclipse, lies at anchor off shore while Tom Cruise and his entourage push their way through the crush of tourists. Nearby, patrons in the Hula Beach Club recall the time Beyoncé showed off her baby bump while making an unexpected visit. Where is this? Monaco? St. Barts? Mustique? No, the island of Hvar, off the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Don’t write this island off your bucket list because when the summer season ends, what are left are an empty main square, quiet beaches, fields of lavender, and some of the best wine in the Adriatic. Even if you do arrive in the summer, as one wine pundit put it, “Thankfully, where the wine grows is not where the tourists go”… and grapes have been cultivated on Hvar for over 2000 years.

The most celebrated name to know on Hvar is Zlatan Plenković who is the force behind his winery Zlatan Otok, located on the central south coast of the island in the tiny village of Sveta Nedjelja. Besides regularly winning international awards for his Zlatan Plavac Grand Cru and his Pošip, Plenković received the inaugural Milan Ozic Award for his services to Croatian wine at the 2012 Dalmacija Wine Expo. His grapes are picked manually and he does not use any chemicals for spraying.

The small island of Vis, jutting out into the Adriatic, is notable for two reasons.  It has an interesting military history and is the only island with a marked “wine route.” Many abandoned military buildings remain from World War II when the Yugoslav resistance movement under Josip Tito used the island as a hideout and from the occupation by the Yugoslav Partisans. Vis was also the home for a small airfield for Allied bombers and used after the War as a naval base of the Yugoslav People’s Army.

The wine route, called “Vinski Puti,” leads around the island in a loop. Bugava(or Vugava), the most famous wine in Vis, is made from the variety of white grapes of the same name and is recognizable for its sweet taste and rich fullness. Plavac Mali is the predominant red wine. The wineries on the island are small and there is a cooperative, PZ Podšpilje, owned by 140 families. 

The last of the four main wine making islands of central Dalmatia, Brač, is the largest. During the summer months tourists flock to the island’s white beaches formed the erosion of the famous white limestone and marble quarried from the time of Diocletian to modern times. All four islands are accessible by car ferry from Split.

Sitting right on the waterfront in the town of Bol is the winery PZ Bol. The harbor siting was for easy loading of its wine traveling to France during the phylloxera epidemic. They produce Plavac Mali, and their Brač Island version of Pošip. Baković is another winery on Brač whose Plavac Mali is getting attention. Located on the south side of the island in the village of Murvica, the winery’s grapes get similar exposure to that of Dingač on the Pelješac Peninsula to whose wines the Baković Plavac Mali is often compared.

Far north, up the Dalmatian coast and virtually under the Istrian Peninsula is Pag Island, now connected to the mainland via a bridge. The southwestern end of the island is low and has been the site of salt production since Roman times. The northern end is steep and high, with rocky karst ledges on which sheep and goats pasture. Lovely beaches bustling with nightlife during the summer season ring the island, and Europeans “in the know” have built summer homes along the promenades of the waterfront villages. In the interior of the island, in protected fertile valleys, vegetables, fruits, olives, and grapes are grown.

At the northern end of Pag, on a hill in the middle of a pine forest near the town of Novalja sits Boškinac Winery with its boutique hotel and gourmet restaurant. Run by Boris and Mirela Šuljić, the six plus hectare vineyard established in 2000 pays homage to the Šuljić-Boškinac family’s ten generations of wine making.  While their nicely oaked cabernet-merlot blend has been winning awards as one of the top reds of Croatia, the winery is most proud of their cultivation of the local white grape, gegić, which was on the verge of extinction. This grape appears in a blend with chardonnay and sauvignon blanc in their Boškinac Grand Cuvée, as well as the sole varietal in their regular Gegić bottling. The hot sun of the island imparts the Gegić with an alcohol content of between 13 and 14.7%, which is balanced by notes of citrus and spice. Boškinac also produces a grappa and a sweet Croatian wine called Prošek.

Pag Island is known for more than its wine and beaches. The powerful winter wind, the Bura, carries the salty spray from the Adriatic onto the grass and Dalmatian sage on its rocky hillsides. The grazing sheep produce a high butterfat tangy milk, which is made into the island’s famous cheese Paški Sir. Gligora Dairy, one of the island’s largest cheese makers is a cooperative of over 250 local farmers. It makes over 50 tons of its award-winning Paški Sir a year, much of which it exports internationally. The dairy also produces Kozlar, a semi-hard goat cheese, and Kolan, a hard cow’s milk cheese.

The coastal mainland of Dalmatia has a long tradition of wine making, but the meeting of warring armies over the centuries resulting in destruction of the vineyards and the thinning of populations has made it a tricky endeavor. Also, after the phylloxera epidemic, many vineyards were not replanted. This is especially true of Northern Dalmatia containing the towns of Zadar, Šibenik, Skradin, and Split.  It is important to note that the Croatian War for Independence left a wide swath of destruction in this area with many land mines still being unearthed today.

Bulk producers, such as Vinoplod and Dalmacija Vino, are located near the larger cities producing large quantities of table wine. One important exception is Alen Bibich, one of the finest winemakers in Dalmatia. His winery is in the small village of Plastovo, just 10 km north of the city of Skradin (and not too far from Krka National Park with its marvelous series of waterfalls). Bibich has been called a visionary for his use of local, near extinct varietals to make high quality wines. He blends these with international varietals to produce award-winning wines. As one wine writer notes, “His wines are very different from normal Croatian wines.” He was one of the first Croatian winemakers to export his wine to the US. Now almost two thirds of his production crosses the Atlantic. Although Bibich comes from a 500-year family tradition of wine making, sadly most of the vineyards had to be replanted in the 1990s due to their destruction during fighting in the recent war.

There are many more vineyards and many more outstanding winemakers in Dalmatia than I have mentioned in this two-part article. Cliff Rames, sommelier, wine educator, and passionate promoter of Croatian wines notes that they “are artisanal products often handmade by families who have have been working the vineyards for centuries. Many Croatian wines are made from locally indigenous grapes that grow nowhere else in the world.  They have character and authenticity.”  So raise a glass of wonderful Croatian wine, and say ”Živjeli,” which is Croatian for “Cheers.”