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

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The Donkey Delivers: Dingač Plavac Mali “Kolekcija 04”

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.

Dingač 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.   

 

History

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.

Old vine Plavac Mali at Dingač

Today, Plavac Mali vines of a hundred or more years old can still be found scattered throughout the region.

 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.

photo courtesy of http://www.BlueDanubeWine.com

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…

The Dingač Tunnel

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. 

The Wine

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.

Plavac Mali vines in September

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.

Vinarija Dingač

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.

 

The Donkey

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.

“Kolekcija 04”  

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.

While “Kolokcija | 04” is not imported in the US, the other wines in Vinarija Dingač’s line-up are. You can find them via www.BlueDanubeWine.com (west coast) and http://oenocentric.com/ (east coast).

Text and photos by Cliff Rames (except where indicated)

Related Posts:

https://winesofcroatia.wordpress.com/2009/12/21/a-taste-of-dalmatia-%E2%80%93-without-leaving-home/

https://winesofcroatia.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/wine-chocolate-can-bura-dingac-find-true-love-this-valentines-day/

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The 1985 Dingač

Tasting Plešivica: From Above & Below (Part 2 – Tomac)

Tomislav Tomac is an intense fellow. A trained enologist, he oversees the winery with his father, Zvonimir, and lovely wife, Martina. From our first handshake forward his restrained passion, precise sense of purpose, and deep devotion to achieving authenticity in his wine captured my imagination.

Tomac Winery

The Tomac family has been making wine in Plešivica for over 200 years, riding the currents of history through good and bad times, to emerge – somewhat ironically – as a pioneering force of traditional winemaking in the present-day Croatian wine scene.

With 5.5 hectares of vineyards, and production of 40,000 bottles a year, Tomac is a relatively small producer. Yet his ambitions loom large, inciting curiosity and respect among some, and raising brows among others. It was in this spirit that he recently decided to discontinue production of his much-loved basic Chardonnay (the Chardonnay Premier will continue to be produced only in the best vintage years) to make room for a new and completely different wine (more on that in a moment) that may not have as wide an appeal.

Traditional Oak Casks

Listening to Tomislav explain why he doesn’t own a single stainless steel tank (he ferments most of his wines in giant oak casks in the traditional manner), and how he uses only native yeasts, and how his vineyards harbor an array (over 4,000 vines) of ancient indigenous grape varieties from the Plešivica wine region, I couldn’t help but notice how he rarely stops moving and fussing about, his eyes frequently darting around the room, his presence marked by a sort of heightened awareness and kinetic energy that seemed to be infused with a mix of excitement, anxiety, annoyance and impatience.

But I was about to learn, on the contrary, just how patient he is.

While best known in Croatia for sparkling wines (“Millennium”, “Tomac Classic” “Tom” and “Rosé”), and excellent white wines (Chardonnay Premier, Graševina, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc), the wine I came to taste wasn’t in any vat, barrel, or bottle – it wasn’t even in the winery. Few people outside the family had ever tasted it. News of its existence was hushed and shrouded in mystery. This wine, the first ever of its type produced by Tomac, was buried in the ground in the yard.

Tasting Room, Tomac Winery

But I would have to wait to find out more. The perfect hosts that they are, Tomislav and Martina insisted that I eat lunch with them first: delicious roast veal that was until recently (I was told) happily grazing on grasses in the neighbor’s field. There were potatoes and vegetables from the family garden. Bread freshly baked by a relative. Locally-made cheese. And of course a fine selection of wines made from grapes that grow just up the hill from where we were sitting.

The Slow Food movement is nothing new in Plešivica: it is a traditional way of life.

In between chewing and chatting, we tasted the core Tomac line-up: the “Classic” sparkling wine and Sauvignon Blanc served as perfect aperitifs, the Classic showing yeasty apple and citrus notes, and the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc delivering a fruity (mango and peach), mineral quality with a subtle note of yellow flowers. The 2008 Riesling (fermented in wood) was fragrant with unusual aromas of strawberry and banana and a haunting note of spice – nutmeg, perhaps.

The 2005 Chardonnay Premier Sur Lie was perfect with the milky veal and roasted potatoes, offering a creamy pear and butterscotch profile couched in a rich, buttery texture kept lively by zesty acidity.

Eager with anticipation I stopped chewing and nodded a smile when Tomislav finally said, with a sudden gleam in his eye, the magic words: “Would you like to try the Amfora?”

Again I was reminded that there are no stainless steel tanks at the Tomac winery, just giant oak vats and an assortment of small barrels and casks.  And starting with the 2007 vintage,  six clay amphora (“amfora”) fermentation vessels joined the ranks.  Tomislav and his father had traveled to the Republic of Georgia, where they met with the makers of these antiquated pieces of winemaking history, and shipped six of them back to Croatia. Inside these vessels, now buried in the ground just beyond the winery parking lot, approximately 20,000 liters of Tomac Amfora wine waited to emerge from its dark seclusion.

Tomislav & the Amphora

Tomislav disappeared from the room for a few minutes and came back with an unlabeled, clear bottle, filled with beautiful amber-colored nectar. I felt nervous and honored to behold it at last. My mouth was watering.

“Here it is; still a little young”, he said rather sheepishly. “We’ll bottle it in a few weeks.”

Tomac Amfora is made using winemaking methods that date back 5,000 years – and recently made famous by Josko Gravner (a good friend of the Tomac family).  The must is fermented for 6 months in hand-made clay amphora buried underground.  During the first four weeks of fermentation, the must is stirred on a daily basis to ensure maximum skin contact and extraction.  After four weeks the amphora are sealed and no further human intervention occurs until 6 months later, when the wine is moved into oak barrels, where it will spend another 1.5 years.

Wine at rest, Tomac cellar

The wine Tomislav poured into my glass was the first result of that wait. Made primarily from Chardonnay (50%), Amfora also includes a field blend of grape varieties that are traditional in the Plešivica region: Graševina, Roter Veltliner, Plavec žuti, Sylvaner, Neuburger, Kraljevina and štajerska Belina.

Unusually beautiful in color and aroma, the Amfora offered a seductive bouquet of primary and tertiary aromas that were all at once alluring, haunting and comforting: warm winter spices, caramel, wet terra cotta, orange blossoms, ripe pear and apple, and a distinctive Sherry-like oxidative note. On the palate it was zesty and dry with a powerful acidity that strips the palate clean with every sip. Yet I didn’t find the wine to be astringent; in fact, it was soft – almost oily – on the finish, with a long spiced orange, stewed apple, and almond aftertaste.

Photo curtesy of http://www.jutarnji.hr

Like its historical pedigree implies, the Tomac Amfora is a wine for the ages. I expect that this wine will last for decades in the bottle and become richer, more seductive, complex and beautiful with age. Shouldn’t we all be so lucky?

Ah yes, how sweet it is to be around at that moment when the old becomes new again; when something beautiful that was forgotten is found again; when traditional ways suddenly seem “cool” to modern minds. I left Tomac winery feeling happy and excited about the future of wine in Croatia, and as I drove away I remembered that old quote from Victor Hugo: “God made only water, but man made wine.”

Divers in the Adriatic Sea sometimes find old amphora vessels that the Romans once used for wine. Elsewhere in our day, arguments brew over the merits of screw caps versus corks, plastic versus glass versus bag-in-the-box, and French versus American versus Hungarian or Slavonian oak (let’s not mention oak chips). Through all of this, as the centuries pass us by, one thing stands true: great wine happens when that perfect balance is struck between nature giving us her best efforts, and the winemaker knowing when to intercede and – most importantly – when to back-off and wait.

The Tomac 2007 Amfora is a charming example of when that happens. Great job, guys.

Note: The Tomac 2007 Amfora will make one of its first public appearances at the upcoming Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival in Zagreb, Croatia on February 12 & 13, 2010. More info here: http://zagrebwinegourmet.com/

Text and Photos by Cliff Rames (except where noted), www.WinesofCroatia.com

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