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Tasting Croatia’s finest wines

The end of genocidal conflict in the Balkans and Croatia’s continuing liberalization since its emergence from beneath the communist state of Yugoslavia have produced changes throughout its society.  These changes are very evident in Croatia’s winemaking industry.

No longer able to rely on selling their product to large state-owned wineries for the production of bulk table wine – wine usually served in cafes as either gemist (wine and sparkling mineral water) or bavanda (wine and water) – viticultralists are learning to rely on their own initiatives and are attempting to break into the boutique wine business. Yugoslavia never adopted the strict collectivization of other communist countries so vineyards have always remained in the hands of their traditional owners. Growers have always worked their own land and now they are learning how to produce and market their own wine.

Vis’ own rebirth parallels that of the wines produced upon its shores. It was the first island liberated from the Nazis by Tito’s partisans during World War II and was his base of operations for the remainder of the war. An outline of an airstrip from this period, used by damaged Allied aircraft if they could not make it back to their bases in Italy after raids into Yugoslavia, runs through Nic’s backyard. Interestingly, Winston Churchill’s personal representative to Tito was Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean, whose exploits during and after the war, including many on Vis, were Ian Fleming’s inspiration for James Bond, Agent 007.

Following the war a large army base remained on the island. For security only relatives of villagers could visit Vis until the army left in 1989. The island was, therefore, saved from unsympathetic attempts to attract tourists. It is now trying to use tourism to complement its local industries without letting visitors ride rough shot over the serenity of the island. Its unpolluted waters and abundant sunshine are natural magnets for the yachtsmen of the Adriatic Sea and divers from around the world.

Dalmatia is famous for its production of red wine – Plavac.

Plavac and the other wines of Coastal Croatia, of which Dalmatia is a part, are big and brassy (mmmmm… just how us Aussies like them) when compared to the finer, more acidic wines from the cooler Continental Croatia. This is due to the hot Mediterranean climate of the region. The summer sun is so harsh that to prevent it from scorching the ground, rocks are often piled around the vines to reflect the heat and help the soil retain its limited moisture. Dalmatian wines usually contain 13% to 16% alcohol, while those from the north have a 10% to 12% alcoholic content.

As we watched the sun set across the valley from his porch, sipping on a glass of his 2000 vintage, I asked Nic why he was not exporting to America. In his considered manner he replied there are two reasons. Firstly, the romantic image of Croatian families working their small plots of land has created less romantic ramifications for the wine industry as it is difficult for serious viticulturalists to buy land to assemble an estate large enough to produce exportable volumes of wine.

Secondly, in Coastal Croatia, there are many microclimates because the valleys are small and the soils varied, making it is difficult to grow quantities of similar quality grapes. He said that 80% of their wine was sold at their four vinotekas (wine stores), three on the island and one in Zagreb, leaving little to send overseas.

It was not always like this. Croatia previously had grown more than four times the present 40,000 hectares of vines, exporting wine to all of Europe to high praise. Then phylloxera struck. By the start of the 20th Century the vineyards were destroyed and many destitute Croats migrated to the US, Canada, Australia or South America. Numerous expatriates, such as Mike Grgic in California, now make wine in their adopted homelands, many deciding never to return to the old fields.

It is possible to buy Plavac in larger wine stores in the United States and Australia. But most people do not think of Croatia as a class wine producing country. But what a misconception!  More than 700 registered wines and at least a dozen premium varietals are made in Croatia. Dalmatia, for example, has a winemaking tradition closely resembling that of the Italians, as the Roman and Venetian Empires and the Italian Republic have at various times, controlled it. The Plavac Mali (small blue) grape is the same as the Sangiovese used in Tuscany, as well as being related to the Zinfindel used in California. The dialect on Vis has many Italian words.

Some of the Plavac tasted was almost brown in color and so tanniny that I thought my face would implode, while others fell flat, but the good Plavac, with its balance of pepper and berries, was like drinking a New World Shiraz. Plavac improves with cellaring for up to for seven years. Other great Plavac is made at the Mlicic Winery on the Peljesac Peninsular and the Zlatan Otok Winery on the island of Hvar.

Local cuisine also has an Italian flavor. The fresh seafood is often grilled on small barbeques and drizzled in olive oil, garlic and herbs, just prior to being served with a salad or sautéed blitva (marigold). The risottos are also mouthwatering, made with mixed shellfish, scampi or cuttlefish and squid ink.

Vis’ indigenous white wine grape is Bugava – issuing a full-bodied, very dry wine. It is similar to Posip, produced on Korcula, and apparently linked to the Viognier and Furmint varieties. As well as Nic, Antonio Lipanovic makes a good drop and Korculansko Vinogorje in the town of Cara is known for its Posip.

Many other growers are now experimenting with grapes not typical to Croatia, but Nic is a traditionalist, content to refine local wines, seeing no reason to plant foreign vines. He has though recently had a crack at late harvest wines. His dedication meant that last year he was able to finally bottle more top quality wine (vrhunsko vino) than table wine.
Croatians imbibed another Italian habit – their penchant for grape-skin spirit. Into rakija, their version of grappa, Croats throw a hundred different flavoring ingredients, such as herbs, carob, walnuts, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, honey or blackberries. Their thirsts not being slaked by these, other fruits are also utilized spirit-sources; plums make sljivavica and pears, kruskavac.

On top of all else, Croatia is inexpensive. With Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal adopting the Euro, the greenback is more elastic in Croatia than any other southern European country; the best wines are all under $15 in the local stores.

After a quick barbeque, Hugh and I clambered on the Vespas as the clouds parted and the waxing moon cast its blue-silver light across the valley to light our way. We had decided that dessert for the night was to be a slice of Rozata, a baked custard flan, with a glass of Prosek, a port-like red dessert wine, beneath the date palms in the 16th Century Gariboldi gardens of Goran Pecarevic’s restaurant, Villa Kaliopa, in Vis Town. It ended up being the perfect denouement for the vacation. The next day, after a swim and with the Croatian toast “May God grant you as many years as there are drops of wine” still in our ears, we ferried it back to Split for the flight to the US.

Shane Braddock runs Lifejacket Adventures, water-based tours by yacht, fishing boat and kayak that explore Croatia’s Adriatic Coast.

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