Wines of Croatia Part II

Part II: Island Traditionalists and a Mainland Maverick
Wines of Dalmatia

By Penny Mincho

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 list of places to visit, 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 wine grapes have been growing on Hvar for over 2000 years.

The most celebrated name to know on the island of Hvar is Zlatan Plenković who is the force behind his winery Zlatan Otok. 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 winery is located on the central south coast of the island in the tiny village of Sveta Nedjelja. The grapes are picked manually and there are absolutely no chemicals used for spraying.Another winemaker on the island garnering international attention, especially for his Sveti Klement Plavac Mali, is Andro Tomić, whose “Wine Studio” is located in the center of the town of Jelsa. The main cooperative on the island, SvirčePZ, established over 80 years ago, became its own company in 1999. Its Ivan Dolan Barrique, a plavac mali barrel–aged red grown in the village of that name, won two gold medals at the 2012 Mundus Vini Biofach in Germany, a competition for organic wines. The winery Vinar Hvar, run by the Carić family for six generations, works a vineyard still called by its Roman name, “Ager Pharensis,” which has been producing grapes since the time of the Greeks. Today, that vineyard is a UNESCO World Heritage site on which grow bogdanjuša, kuč, maraština and pošip grapes. The family grows plavac mali in nearby vineyards. There are many other notable wineries on the island, and there are few wines that aren’t worth drinking.

Korčula Town Tower

The nearby island of Korčula is best known for its white wines, praised as long ago as 22 centuries by the Greek writer Athenaeus. Greek wine jugs and coins, Roman amphora, ancient presses, vine motifs on the Slavic tombs, and the town statue dating from 1214 which laid out the rules to protect the vineyards, attest to the continuous wine-growing tradition on the island. The communist Yugoslav government established collectives centered around the villages of Čara and Smokvica for growing large quantities of white wine. Today the most successful white wine varietal is pošip. The best known producer is Pošip Čara, which started as a Yugoslav collective, was privatized as part of Croatian wine conglomerate Dalamacijavino, and has now split off to produce about 300,000 bottles a year. Aged in steel, with several hundred liters aged in oak barriques added for a touch of oak, the resulting wine is dry and golden with an alcohol content of about 14%. Jedinstvo PZ, located in the village of Smokvica, was the other large collective and its Pošip wines are beginning to garner attention. Fewer tourists flock to Korčula than to Hvar, but most will be making their way to Korčula Town to visit the purported birthplace of Marco Polo. While his actual birthplace is up for debate, what is generally accepted is that Marco Polo was taken prisoner by the Genoese in the naval battle between the Venetian and Genovese states which took place off the coast of Korčula. Once captured and taken to a Genoese prison, Marco Polo wrote his book about his travels to China.

The small island of Vis, jutting out into the Adriatic, is notable for two reasons.  It has a very interesting military history and it is the only island that has an established and marked “wine route” to guide visitors to its small wineries. Many abandoned military buildings remain from WW II when the Yugoslav resistance movement under Josip Tito used the island as a hideout, from the occupation by the Yugoslav Partisans, from the use as a small airfield for Allied bombers, and from its use after the war as a naval base of the Yugoslav People’s Army. The wine route, called “Vinski Puti” (translated “wine path”) leads around the island in a loop. Bugava(also called Vugava) is the most famous wine in Vis. it 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, called PZ Podšpilje, owned by 140 families, which was never state owned.

13th Century Carving of the Grape Harvest

The last of the four main winemaking islands of central Dalmatia, Brač, is the largest. During the summer months tourists flock to the island’s beaches, arriving on the direct ferry from Split. The white beaches are a result of the eroding famous white limestone and marble, quarried from the time of Diocletian to modern times. Sitting right on the waterfront in the town of Bol is the winery PZ Bol. The harbor side 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 the island 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 critics compare the Baković Plavac Mali. The islands of Korčula and Hvar, as well as Vis and Brač are all reachable by car ferry from Split.

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 the island, near the town of Novalja, on a hill in the middle of a pine forest and next to an olive grove, sits Boškinac Winery, with its boutique hotel and gourmet restaurant. Run by husband and wife Boris and Mirela Šuljić, the six and a half hectare vineyard established in 2000 pays homage to the Šuljić-Boškinac family’s ten generations of winemaking.  While their nicely oaked cabernet-merlot blend has been winning awards as one of the top red wines 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 Pag 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 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 the rocky hillsides of the island. 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, and 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. In tiny Pag Town, built in the 15th century, a lace museum is housed in the former ducal palace. Generations of island women have produced intricate lace patterns to adorn their clothes and household items. Over time, they established a school of lace making which exists today. As you stroll the narrow lanes of the town, women sit outside their doorways making their lace, with examples of their finished products displayed for sale on a nearby chair or table.

Krka Park Waterfalls

The coastal mainland of Dalmatia has a long tradition of winemaking, 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 are located near the larger cities producing large quantities of table wine. Vinoplod and Dalmacija Vino are two such producers. One important exception is winemaker Alen Bibich, often cited as 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. Alen 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. Bibich comes from a 500-year family tradition of winemaking, but sadly most of the vineyards had to be replanted in the 1990s due to their destruction during fighting in the recent war.

One local grape, debit, which came to Dalmatia from Turkey via Puglia, is used in several of Bibich’s white wines: a sparkling of “méthode champenoise,” the R5 Riserva blend of debit, maraština, pošip, chardonnay, and pinot gris; a single vineyard debit called Lučica; and a dessert wine called Ambra. The high altitude exposes the vineyards to the sea breezes which cool down the grapes, which combined with the minerality of the terrain preserves the acidity and freshness in the white wines.

Boškinac Gegic - Back of Bottle

The Bibich R6 Riserva,13% alcohol, blends the native red varietals of babić, plavina, and lasin, and is aged for a year in oak. The Sangreal Shiraz, as well as the Mantra and G6 (both grenache), all aged in French oak, are his single varietal red wines. Tastings in the Bibich cellar with wines paired with food prepared by Alen’s wife Vesna is a delightful experience and can be arranged for visitors.

The Croatian War of Independence severely impacted the southern part of Dalmatia as well, especially the region of Konavle. The Yugoslav Army mounted an offensive on the city of Dubrovnik and marched right across this once important agricultural and vinicultural area, flattening the area with tanks, dispersing the occupants, and leaving land mines behind. Replanting is taking place and wines are being made, but it will take many years for production to reach pre-war levels. Several prominent California vintners are taking part in an effort to replace the land mines left from the War of Croatian Independence with grapevines, working with “Roots of Peace,” a San Francisco-based organization. Mike Grgich, founder of Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley, and his nephew and winemaker, Ivo Jeramaz, were instrumental in focusing on Croatia as the place to start.

 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 Croatia Wines notes that “Croatian wines 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.”

Pag Island Lace Maker and Wares