A Waltz through Wines of Croatia History: It’s Dingač, Dummy


Text by Cliff Rames, © 2011

{Note: This is the follow-up installment of a two-part post. Click here for Part 1.}

It was around the summer of ’91 when things really became interesting. The virtual seeds that were sown in my conceptual vineyard the year before took root and began their climb toward the sun.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Back in Croatia, I went to visit relatives on one of the thousand-plus islands that are sprinkled like seashells up and down the Dalmatian coast.

(photo courtesy of http://www.yachtingincroatia.com)

One afternoon over lunch, the subject of wine came up, which led to a debate about the merits of my uncle Zoran’s (aka “Bugi”) homemade wine (it was drinkable when mixed with water, in a traditional Dalmatian mix called “bevanda”).

Finally, Uncle Bugi told me about a wine named Dingač and urged me to try it.

“Ding-gatch”, I said. “What’s that?”

Bugi didn’t know the specifics. He just heard it was good.

Later I learned that Dingač is a wine made from indigenous Plavac Mali grapes that thrive on the parched limestone slopes of a geographically-protected vineyard area (called Dingač) on the Pelješac peninsula of southern Dalmatia.

Dingač (photo by Cliff Rames)

Bugi told me that the 1985 vintage (he heard) was excellent, the “best of the decade”. He also happened to know where I could get a case of it. Perhaps it was or wasn’t a great vintage, I didn’t really know then. But I wasn’t taking any chances.

The next day I bought the case and as many bottles of the ‘85 I could find in the local shops (in those years, the US dollar went a long way). Excited and willing to “share the love” (and unaware of the pros and cons of cellaring a wine), I immediately opened most of the bottles during lunches at friends’ and relatives’ houses (which was quite a treat for them, as store bought wine was then – and still is for many folks today – a luxury item reserved for special occasions).

the '85 Dingač (photo by Cliff Rames)

As the wine was poured and tasted, I sat back and studied the reactions. Would they appreciate the same sense of wonder and happiness that these wines brought me? Or was I crazy?

Invariably, and with great satisfaction, the answer would arrive to the sound of trumpets as the eyes of those gathered around the table sparked with twinkles of revelation and delight. Lips smacked; faces smiled; heads nodded with approval; bottles stood empty. The Dingač delivered.

Uncle "Bugi" (photo by Cliff Rames)

At this point I affirmed the previous notion that I was on to something. Anything that could bring so much happiness at once to a diverse group of people (grumpy and preoccupied relatives included) needed to be investigated, studied and pursued deeper and further.

And so it came to pass. My fate as a Wines of Croatia groupie was sealed. Or more appropriately, the vines in this remarkable vineyard flowered and bore fruit.

Plavac Mali (photo by Cliff Rames)

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the Laguna and Dingač experiences (followed by equally rewarding waltzes with many other wines) ultimately set in motion the wheels that would take me down the path to becoming a sommelier. But that’s another story….

In case you’re wondering, I managed to save two bottles of that 1985 Dingač, which I eventually brought home to New Jersey. Unfortunately, one of the two remaining bottles was later dropped and broken by my mother when she was cleaning the cellar of our family home. I still recall the horror at the sight of the green glass shards and purple blood on the floor. I will never forget how enticing it smelled. For a fleeting moment I envisioned myself down on the floor, lapping it up like a thirsty puppy.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

The second bottle is safely tucked away in my makeshift wine cellar, its donkey label dirty with age but still the beautiful reminder of a happy memory.

As for the wine inside, it probably didn’t survive the years before I knew anything about the fundamentals of proper wine storage. But it doesn’t matter. I will probably never open it to find out. There are memories inside, and I want them to remain suspended in that now iconic bottle forever. The recollection of drinking the 1985 Dingač with friends and family all those years ago is far more pleasurable and powerful than the burning urge to temporarily satisfy my curiosity – and forever remove that mythological wine from existence. So, the decision was made: we will grow old together.

No worry. There are so many other bottles worth opening, new experiences to be lived, fresh memories to be made. It is in this belief that the Wines of Croatia adventure begins.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

What lies ahead are so many glories, the siren-call of so many bottles with labels embossed with exotic names like Pošip, Babić, Malvazija Istriana, Dubrovačka Malvasija, Debit, Teran, Škrlet, Zelenac, Frankovka, Graševina, Maraština, Žlahtina, Grk, Gegić, Lasina, Plavac Mali, Crljenak Kaštelanski, Portugizac, Kujundžuša….

Wines from places with difficult-to-pronounce names like Hvar, Plesivica, Postup, Korčula, Kutjevo, Ilok, Krk, Zagorje, Moslavina, Primošten, Baranja, Istria, Međimurje, Cavcat….

And of course, there’s always the donkey of Dingač, my lifelong companion (other current Dingač producers include Kiridžija, Saints Hills, Matuško, Bura-Mokalo, Skaramuča, Madirazza, Kirigjija, and Miličić).

Skaramuča Dingač w/ Adriatic squid roasted in its own ink (photo by Cliff Rames)

 Wine is truly enchanting; its mystery, mythology, tradition, romance, and allure are irresistible and powerful. I am under its spell (as perhaps are many of you, too). And damn it, I want it to stay that way for a long time to come.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

I hope you enjoy wandering through the Wines of Croatia “vineyard”. Take in all the sites. Touch the soil. Breathe in the air. Caress the vines and leaves. Sample the berries. Taste (in moderation and responsibly of course) as many of the wines you can afford to purchase yourself. Or smuggle back in suitcases. Or convince others to give you.

You never know, you just might discover that special bottle or two that will change your life.

4 thoughts on “A Waltz through Wines of Croatia History: It’s Dingač, Dummy

  • This is a tryly great piece of writing Cliff! It brings about my fond memories of tasting Dingač for the first time as an underage kid. My father Draško and my grandfather Milivoje enjoyed it and directly or indirectly I heard so many awesome stories about it. Ultimately when Frano Miloš produced his first Stagnum I knew that Plavac Mali is a world class grape! The pride of Dalmatia, of Croatia and of the Balkans! Cheers! Thanks for this piece, it is so gracious when a gentle vinous soul start waxing lyrical… God Bless you Cliff! In vino veritas!

    • Thank you, Dusan, for your kind words. It really is the wonder of wine, all the stories…everyone has at least one. I mean, that’s why we love wine, because there was a day when it opened our eyes to the beauty of what this world can give, of life….It means a lot to me that you recognized yourself in my little story. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Maybe you should tell your story too…. 🙂 Happy Easter!! With warm regards, Cliff

  • Thanks for sharing your love of wine so eloquently. I think I know what you mean, in your description of studying reactions. Cheers for all your good work presenting Croatian wines and the people who make them – because of this blog, Croatia is creeping its way on to my “must-visit-these-wine-regions” list. I’ll ring you up when I get around to it 🙂

    Bernard

    • Thank you, Bernard. It is my pleasure to be of service and share these stories. Please do let us know if you decide to travel to Croatia – would be happy to offer some region/winery visit recommendations. Best, Cliff

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