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Tasting Croatia’s finest wines

Boats provide the ideal environment to meet people. Their rolling decks, the fresh salt air and the warm rays of the sun relax all temperaments. After all The Love Boat was set on one – not a bus or a train.

Not affected by the limited sleep we had the night before, Hugh, a fellow Aussie working as a photographer in New York, struck up a conversation with the girl next to him, as we sailed on a Jadrolinija ferry towards the Croatian Island of Vis, population 3,500. Something about the way she sat with her coffee and cigarette – the staples of any Croatian girl’s diet – had struck an aesthetic chord within him and he fumbled in his case for the correct camera and lens to record her look.

Vis was to be the last stop on our ten-day take-no-prisoners tour through the local vineyards.

For me Croatia has always meant Dalmatia, the country’s southern coastline. It has numerous appeals – an unpracticed atmosphere, the unperturbed attitude of the locals, summer after-beach parties, excellent coffee and seafood – but gliding on the sea about five kilometers from land, Dalmatia’s main attraction becomes obvious – the untouched tranquility. On one side more than a thousand islands, many uninhabited, float like green olives touched with erratic marks of creamy limestone upon the blue Adriatic Sea; on the other side the rocky coastal wall of the monstrous Dinaric Mountain Range glows purple in the afternoon sun. The clear waters are always warm and the sun shines incessantly in a cloudless sky. For an all-over tan, nothing beats the million hidden coves along the coastline to which bronze, buff and sometimes too hairy-bottomed-and-backed bodies flock to dot the water’s edge.

But we wanted to experience the full spectrum of Croatian wine and cuisine so our trip included northern, Continental Croatia as well, and I must admit I was rendered speechless by its charms – not surprising since my mouth was usually full of first-rate wine and food.

Storm-surges of competing empires eroded Croatia into its present form and left their influences on bordering regions as they receded. They gave Croatia, a small country of about four and a half million people, a remarkable variation of traditions. As the Austrians and the Hungarians ruled the north for many years, the wine, along with other cultural manifestations, was styled towards their northern European tastes.

We were firstly shown the wineries of the rich Pozeske Kotline (Pozega Valley), in Slavonia, which is famous mainly for its Grasevina (Welschriesling), being 70% of the crop. The Romans, who called it the Vallis Aurea (Golden Valley), were the first to perceive the wine-producing potential of the valley’s sunny, south facing slopes. Its latitude happens to be the same as other great wine producing regions such as Piedmont, Cotes du Rhone and Bordeaux. The combined production now totals some 200,000 liters of wine; arguably the best drop produced by the Krauthaker Winery, winner of a gold medal at last year’s Chardonnay du Monde.

Corbanac, a shepherd’s stew of lamb, pork and venison with spices, chili, and hot and sweet peppers, accompanied by zimnica (pickled condiments), was easily my favorite epicurean pleasure from the valley.

Next we visited the auburn quilt of farms stretched out on the undulating hills of Medjimurje; consuming Moslavac – of which Napoleon was a fan – a young, fresh dry white wine, and Zeleni Silvancac (Sylvaner), a white wine softer in color, bouquet and palate, as well as food, such as Meso s Tiblice (dried pork with white fat), Turos (cottage cheese with garlic and peppers) and duck confit, that would have made Rudolf Steiner, the great-grandfather of organic farming, born in the area, proud.

We then flew from Zagreb, Croatia’s capital of busy people-crammed trams, tree-lined avenues, flower-filled parks and painted palaces, to Dubrovnik.

The differences between the north and the south were dramatically magnified by the quick 45-minute flight. The sunlight, pastel in Zagreb’s autumn skies, in the south became blindingly white, and the temperature rose about 15 degrees.

After spending much of summer indoors escaping the heat and tourists the locals had emerged to relax, people-watch and gossip at the numerous small restaurants, cafes and bars, which give the town a feeling of comfort and familiarity and left us feeling as though we had been invited into an old friend’s living room. Within solid walls, which have protected it for centuries from maritime depredations, the town, sitting proudly upon its rocky outcrop, is narrow flagged streets, tall orange-tiled houses, Baroque palaces, churches and monasteries – George Bernard Shaw best described Dubrovnik in 1929 when he said that those who seek paradise on Earth must visit.

After leaving Dubrovnik, we drove up the Peljesac Peninsular, passed vineyards that dive at 70 degrees directly into the Adriatic, to Korcula Island, birth-place of Marco Polo, and then island-hopped our way north by ferry.

By a remarkable coincidence Neda, the girl Hugh was now photographing on the Vis ferry, was a nanny working for the owner of Bar Sedam, the nightspot in which we partied during our first night in Zagreb more than a week ago.  It was only fitting that our trip had turned full circle like this. Croatia is a country of close associations, not only between people, but also between people, their history and land.

As we bobbed across the sea a fantastic historical vista opened before us – Salona, the ruins of a first century Roman city; Diocletian’s retirement palace, built at the beginning of the fourth century, now the heart of the old town of Split; Klis fortress, the frontline between the Ottoman and Venetian Empires for more than one hundred years; the quarries on Brac, source for the White House’s marble; Omis, home of the Hajduk pirates who loved to attacked the treasure-laden Venetian galleys; Trogir, the former refuge for Hungarian royalty as Budapest was being ravaged by Mongols; and in the far-far-distance, Korcula. These edifices – the flotsam and jetsam of the numerous conquerors that have washed across this area – provide connections to thousands of years of history, in which anyone with a European or Central Asian heritage has a stake.

Beside these still-inhabited ruins, clinging to the small patches of fertile soil, are farms owned and worked by nearly every Dalmatian family. This contact with the land gives all an intimate appreciation of their food. This familiarity relates to the wine as well. Wine is not just the latest fashionable product, as it may be in Australia or California. It has always been created here, since the Greeks first planted vines more than 2,500 years ago; it’s intertwined in the legends, literature and lifestyle of the country.

I’m intrigued that history is not an abstract concept in Croatia. The locals are touching it, working it and re-forming it everyday.

As the ferry docked at the pier of Vis town, Hugh and I jumped down to the car level to start-up our Vespas which, when combined with ferries, are definitely the best way to see the islands of Dalmatia. They can transport you to the beach in morning, the cafes in the afternoon and nightclubs at night on any of the islands. This day the scooters were going to carry us to Nic and Valerie Roki’s winery in the middle of Vis.

Hugh and I raced our Vespas through the valley that cuts through the center of the island. Vespa is Italian for wasp, but our scooters sounded more like over-grown mosquitoes with their high-pitched drones, which seemed attractive to the other insects meeting a swift death against the visors of our helmets. We turned into the dusty track of the winery and were greeted by gray bearded Nic at the stoop.

Nic migrated to Australia in 1960, where he met Valerie, a Maltese girl. After the birth of their son in Perth, Western Australia, the family returned to Vis in the mid-1970s to work Nic’s family’s land. Though he’s Croatian, when he speaks English the years he spent Down Under are still evident. Now, as well as producing 60,000 liters from their ten hectares of vines, Nic and Valerie attract visitors to the vineyard with gourmet food, including prsut (cured ham), sheep’s cheese, viska pogaca (a pie with salted sardines) and meat or fish baked in a peka (cast iron dome) with vegetables served in a relaxed atmosphere.

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