Plavac Mali: The Jewel of Dalmatia

By Matthew Drazick Halip, Guest Blogger

On a recent, chilly spring evening, I was sitting at my desk, pen poised over paper, contemplating an open bottle of Plavac Mali red wine. With every sip, memories of my visit to Grgić winery in Croatia flashed inside my head: the perfume of lavender fields and saltwater; the sound of the crashing waves at Trstenik Beach; and the faces of the two kindly women who introduced me to the bottle that began my love affair with wine.

(photo courtesy of http://www.limun.hr)

That introduction came four years ago, when my cousin and I commandeered a relative’s car and went zipping across the grape-vine covered hillsides of the Pelješac peninsula, a 40-mile long finger of land that points out into the Adriatic Sea in southern Dalmatia.

(map courtesy of http://www.find-croatia.com)

We were on a mission to find “the Man”, Mike Grgich. Or least to visit his “other” winery.

Grgic Winery (photo courtesy of http://www.palmspringslife.com)

Above us, the golden sun glistened in the afternoon sky, illuminating the jagged white limestone that ringed the coastline, briefly giving way to the calm cove and smooth pebble enclave that is Trstenik beach.

Suddenly I was overtaken by a feeling of serenity. The sights before me – the sparkling Adriatic Sea, olive trees, wild-herb covered hills, and emerald vineyards clinging to the steep slopes – took my breath away. This was no longer the Motor City. What was unfolding before me was something akin to a fairytale landscape.

(photo courtesy of pixdaus.com)

The anticipation of the day’s event had butterflies fluttering inside my stomach, sending ripples of excitement throughout my body. After a quick stop to gaze out from another of the many scenic roadside lookouts, I turned to my cousin, Romana Prepolec, and asked her when we would be heading to the winery. Smiling, she simply said (in her charming Croatian accent), “We can go whenever you’re ready.”

The drive to the Grgić winery was short (nothing is too far away on the sparsely-populated Pelješac peninsula), but just long enough for my excitement to make me impatient. But soon enough, just after another curve in the winding road, a white sign with painted words appeared, indicating that we had arrived at the historic winery.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

A gravel driveway lead up to a simple white building that was tucked into a small grove of pine trees. Just beyond the trees, descending down toward the sea, chartreuse-colored Plavac Mali vines thrived in scattered clusters, clinging to a tumble of rock and wild herb-strewn slopes. Hanging from them were conical bunches of purple and burgundy berries, ripening in the hot sun.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

“Dobro došli u vinariji Grgić” two women casually welcomed us as we walked inside the tasting room of the iconic winery.

My cousin returned the Croatian greeting as I tried to absorb the majestic nature of this place where an international winemaking star calls his second (or “first”?) home.

Mike Grgich (photo courtesy of Grgich Hills Winery)

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, of Grgich Hills Winery in Napa Valley, grew up in this part of Croatia, drinking wine his father made from native Plavac Mali grapes. After emigrating to the United States, Mike Grgich went on to achieve international recognition, after the Chardonnay he made for Chateau Montelena won the now-famous Paris tasting of 1976.

Many years later, Mike returned to his Croatian homeland, and in 1995 he established Grgić Vina on this very spot where I stood – ready to begin tasting the Grgić Plavac Mali that the two nice women poured for me.

The crimson colored wine shimmered in the sunlight as I swirled the juice inside my glass. Plum and black cherry aromas rose up and caressed my nose, awakening my senses with each inhale. Romana raised her glass and said “Živjeli” (in the traditional Croatian salute for “Cheers”) as we clinked our glasses together. My mouth began to water at the prospect of the first sip.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

At once I could tell the wine was hearty: Ripe flavors of dried and stewed fruit, Mediterranean herbs and spices, and a touch of oak coated my palate. The combination of flavors had my taste buds abuzz with delight, eager for the next sip.

The afternoon drifted away in a wash of wine, good conversation, and a short tour of the winery property (the grape press that Mike used to make the Chardonnay that won the Paris tasting is now on display at the winery). Finally, my cousin and I left the winery with a prized bottle in hand, a smile on our purple lips, and daydreams of a return trip to this beautiful site.

Plavac Mali vines near Grgic Winery (photo by Cliff Rames)

While I am still waiting to take that trip back to Grgić winery to relive the glory of tasting Plavac Mali in its native home, I will have to be content with opening a bottle of Grgić Plavac Mali every once in a while to taste, smile, and dream….

For me, Plavac Mali is more then just a wine. It’s an unforgettable memory, a unique experience, a special feeling that that makes the hair on my arms stand up when I think of it touching my lips.

Plavac Mali (photo by Cliff Rames)

This Croatian grape with the funny name spilled the dark ink of juice with which I began to record my lifelong story of wine tasting – setting the bar high as I taste my way through the world of wine, from Alicante Bouschet all the way to Žlahtina.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Grgić 2007 Plavac Mali (Pelješac Peninsula, Southern Dalmatia, Croatia)
Deep ruby color tinged with garnet. Distinctive aromas of muddled plum skins, mission fig, black cherry, and dried cranberries, with hints of Mediterranean herbs, sea salt and powdered limestone, and infused with sweet oak notes of chocolate and cafe au lait. On the palate, the wine is a contradiction of rusticity and elegance: bold, somewhat course tannins give a rugged frame to a mouth feel that seems smooth, rich and lush all at once. Super ripe black fruits, dried fig, spice, anise and mocha notes coat the palate and linger on the finish. The wine feels slightly overripe, and with 15,1% alcohol, it is powerful and a bit aggressive at the moment. But bright acidity provides the vibrancy to give it lift and freshness, and the warm alcohol glow yields to the sun-baked flavors. Still young, the wine would benefit from a few years’ cellar time – or 1-2 hours in the decanter prior to serving. -C.R.  (Imported by Vinum USA: http://www.vinumusa.com/)

Matthew Drazick Halip is a Croatian-American food & wine blogger, student and sports aficionado from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He current resides in Greensboro, North Carolina. His blog is called Motor City Munchies: http://motorcitymunchies.blogspot.com/ 


Winemaking on Hvar: From Ancient Greece Until Now (Part I)

 

 

 

 

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Text by Ivana Krstulović Carić, dipl.ing.agr.

Edited by Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia

Photos by Ivana Krstulović Carić (unless otherwise noted)

 

Since the arrival of Greek colonists in 385 B.C., the Dalmatian island of Hvar, Croatia has endured many changes. Rulers, empires and foreign armies have come and gone. Today the marks and scars of these events remain a part of the island’s cultural-historical identity and economic position in the region, and the ethnic composition of the island reflects the genetic patchwork left behind by the influx of settlers over time.

But one thing remains virtually unchanged. This is a tale about the continuity of winegrowing and winemaking on Hvar, which has survived the many rises and falls caused by wars, social unrest, vineyard scourges, and economic hardship.   

In the beginning, From the Aegian island of Paros the Greeks brought grapevines and planted them in the fields of Stari Grad, thus establishing the island’s first vineyards.  The Greeks then divided the fields of Stari Grad*, also known as Ager (originally named Chora) into 73 equal parcels and allocated them to the local settlers.  

The fields of Stari Grad
One year after their arrival, a conflict between the Greek settlers and the local Illyrian tribes broke out. With the help of Dionysius I of Syracuse’s fleet (winner in the war against Carthage and ruler of Sicily), the Greeks were able to defeat the Illyrians and strengthen their hold on the island. 

According to Roman historian, Appian, the Illyrian mainland tribes considered wine from Hvar a valuable commodity. Clay amphora bearing the seal of Pharos, which were recently excavated near the Neretva River in southern Dalmatia, affirms the importance of wine in the cultural-historic lifestyle of the region.

Greek amfora

During the time of Demetrius of Hvar, a great soldier and confidant to Queen Teuta of Illyria, Hvar returned to Illyrian rule. 

In the 2nd century B.C. the Romans conquered Hvar and brought with them the methods to improve the local production of wine. The Romans built many villae rusticae in the fields of Stari Grad and elsewhere on the island, where the owners would reside for the greater part of the year. 

Remains of villae rusticae at Kupinovnik, Stari Grad fields, Hvar (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

During this time, in the city of Salona, the capital of the Roman region of Dalmatia, a Christian group was founded and guided by Domnius of Antioch (better known locally as Saint Duje). Since Hvar was a major port between Salona and major cities of the Mediterranean, the teachings of the Christian Gospel quickly spread among the islanders, an influence that remains today.

Roman ruins at Salona, Croatia (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

After the fall of Salona (7th century A.D.), some of the city resident fled to the islands, subsequently followed by the Slavic tribe, the Croats. The Croats soon adopted the traditions and winemaking skills that would sustain the continuity of grape cultivation and wine production until the present day.

During the Middle Ages, Hvar was subjected to a revolving door of rulers: the Neretvans*, Croatian kings, Byzantine, Hungarian, Croatian-Hungarian kings, and finally the Venetian Republic all took their turns. 

Despite all the turmoil, vine cultivation and winemaking endured and continued to be the backbone of the local economy. In the Middle Ages, two-thirds of arable land was owned by the Hvar Commune, and the remaining third belonged to royalty and the Church. 

Stari Grad fields

Public lands were offered for rent to the workers, royalty and the Church. Strict rules governed the division of property and the payment of land rent. Grape growers were required to pay 1/6 of the yield to the royalty and the Church. Discontent led to unrest, and under the leadership of Matija Ivanić, a civil uprising (1510-1514) broke out. The mission: to secure equality between the common folk and the royalty.

The uprising was followed by a period of Turkish incursions. The Turks raze the towns of Hvar, Stari Grad and Vrboska. Turkish invasions all along the coast led to demographic changes, as a large number of Croats from the Neretva region and the Makarska coast fled to Hvar in search of safety.

Hvar eventually came under control of the Venetians and continued to develop – despite ups and downs – as an economic center of Dalmatia. Wine exports were the leading source of revenue, although Hvar was also well known for its production and export of dried figs, olive oil, almonds, carob and other Mediterranean produce.

Photo by Peter Higgins, http://www.Art.com

In the time leading up to the mid-19th century, Hvar was again subject to periodic regime change, coming under control of the Austrians and subsequently the French (beginning of the 19th century). It also came under attack by the British and Russians, during which time commerce was interrupted and the local economy stagnated.

Austria again gained control of Hvar in the middle of the 19th century. As a result, Hvar gained access to new markets in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which boosted the importance and production of wine.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the scourges of phylloxera, peronospera (downy mildew) and oidium (powdery mildew), devastated and ruined the vineyards of France and Western Europe. Wine from Dalmatia suddenly came under higher demand, prompting the residents of Hvar to expand their vineyard holdings to 5,750 hectares. With the increased production and revenues, many wine-growers enlarged their homes and converted the ground floors into wine cellars. The future suddenly seemed bright, and Hvar enjoyed newfound prosperity.

Grapevine under attack by Phylloxera

To minimize the power of and offset any threat from the buyers and traders, many of the smaller local wine growers decided to organize themselves into the first island cooperatives. One such cooperative, Svirče *, remains today.

photo by Cliff Rames

But the unfortunate cycles of history soon took a turn, and the economic boon turned into catastrophe. The Wine Clause, a mandate that allowed Austria to import cheaper wines from Italy, forced a drastic and devastating 350-500% decrease in the price of Hvar’s wines.

If that were not enough, the vineyards of Dalmatia – including Hvar – were also attacked by peronospera and oidium, followed in 1909 by the ravaging effects of phylloxera. The glory days of viticulture on Hvar seemed to die a slow death, leaving the population without the means to earn a living, and the local economy teetered on the verge of collapse.

A record of these dark days is still visible, engraved in 1901 in a stone panel on the chapel in the village of Ivan Dolac*, which says:

In honor of the Mother of God, this Church was built by Ivan Carić of the late Juraj.  Since 1852 oidium and peronospera have ruined the grapes. These were hard times.  Root pests came from Zadar, and the vines whithered.  In fear we await our doom.  My People! Devastated by this affront from God, heed the Virgin Mother Mary.  And may God protect us from these three evils.

 (To be continued…)

Link to original article in Croatian: http://www.supermarketi.info/index.php?mod=intervju&interId=11

www.winesofcroatia.com

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