Facing the blue, blue Adriatic Sea, the sun-drenched limestone karst slopes of the Pelješac peninsula are a sight to see: tumble-down white stones and jagged outcrops lie interspersed with olive trees, drought-stricken Mediterranean scrub brush (rosemary, thyme, oregano, curry-plant) and perilously-perched and un-trellised vineyards.
Welcome to Dingač (“Ding-gahch”), the most prestigious of all Croatia’s wine regions, where Croatia’s most revered – and eponymously-named – wine is made from Plavac Mali, Croatia’s most-cultivated red grape variety.
Croatia – especially the coastal region and islands – has a cultural history that for centuries has revolved around the traditions of viticulture and wine-drinking. Historical records indicate that grapes were cultivated in the area as early as a few centuries before Christ. Wine jugs (amphora), goblets and coins adorned with grape motifs excavated in the region reveal the integral importance of wine in daily ancient life. The earliest written mention of the Plavac Mali grape was in 1821.
Today, Plavac Mali vines of a hundred or more years old can still be found scattered throughout the region.
In 1961 Dingač became Croatia’s first recognized appellation with “Protected Geographical Origin” (followed in 1967 by a neighboring area, Postup).
Dingač is a small, dangerously steep area of vineyards interspersed on the south-facing slopes of Pelješac, a long, mountainous peninsula that stretches almost 40 miles (63 km) into the Adriatic Sea just north of the historic walled city, Dubrovnik, in the Southern Dalmatia wine region.
The vineyards are only accessible via a single-lane, unlit tunnel excavated in 1973. While driving through it, I found myself praying against earthquakes. But that’s another story…
While an exact size of the Dingač appellation is uncertain due to the fragmented way the vineyards are planted, it is estimated that the total area under vine is no larger than 200 acres (80 hectares), with most individual plots consisting of just a couple acres each scattered across the mountainside.
Dingač – the wine – is made from the primary native red grape of the region, Plavac Mali, a grape that resulted from a spontaneous crossing of Crljenak Kaštelanski (Zinfandel) and Dobričić.
With the vines positioned at 20-34 degree angles toward in the hot Mediterranean sun, Plavac Mali from the Dingač slopes achieves extreme ripeness from direct sunlight, as well as light reflected off the white stones and sparkling sea. The extreme light, heat and summer drought conditions frequently cause the berries to shriveled and raisin.
Wines from these intensely sweet, prime grapes can be big and luxurious, delivering dark, dried-fruit flavors on an off-dry to dry, tannic, full-bodied and often alcoholic frame. These are among some of the most expensive cult wines in Croatia.
The Dingač Winery
While some of the most highly regarded Dingač wines are made by small, family-owned wineries (e.g. Bura; Miličić), the biggest and best-known winery in the area is Vinarija Dingač, a cooperative owned by Badel 1862 that produces about half a million liters of wine a year.
The large winery can be seen just to the left of the entrance of the Dingač tunnel. Its line-up includes five Plavac Mali wines: the basic “Plavac”, the young, fruity and off-dry “Pelješac”, “Postup”, “Dingač”, and “Dingač Kolekcija”. These labels are commonly – and sometimes affectionately – referred to as the “donkey” wines.
In the old days, local vineyard workers would utilize horses and donkeys to tend the vineyards on the Dingač slopes, as well as to cart the grapes to Potomje, the town on the opposite side of the mountain where the Vinarija Dingač stands today. While beasts of burden are no longer used to harvest grapes at Dingač, the donkey is still a common sight: on the labels of Vinarija Dingač wines.
Last Sunday, Easter 2010, I treated myself to a bottle of Vinarija Dingač “Kolokcija | 04”, the winery’s rarest and most expensive bottling. The “04” designates the year in which the wine was bottled; the vintage was 2002, meaning the wine was aged in barrel for two years. My bottle was numbered #821 of 16,100 bottles (500 ml size) produced.
Medium garnet in color, the wine was translucent and beautiful in appearance – like a ruby that has collected the light of an orange setting sun.
Even more striking was the nose: the wine cast off aromas like a series of veils shed by a beautiful princess: aromas of dried fig, rosehip preserves, plum and carob were lifted on a cloud of menthol vapor that carried hints of licorice, wet iron, old wood, and sweet Mediterranean spices. So refined, elegant and pretty -I was in love and couldn’t stop sniffing its perfume. Even more amazing, I could detect the aromas leaping from the glass from half a meter away.
On the palate the wine delivered an interesting array of sensations: elegant yet rustic, sweet yet savory, it tasted of dried dark fruits, cured meat, and licorice bark couched in a mineral-driven frame with soft, smooth tannins. The long finish left a Port-like sweetness (the wine is dry) that was completely and utterly delicious.
At 13.5% alcohol, the donkey delivers the goods. Very impressive!
Pair with aged hard cheeses and a few very special friends.
Text and photos by Cliff Rames (except where indicated)