“Work hard, play harder” is a favorite slogan of mine. And while winter is not as intensely laborious as harvest time, winegrowers must occasionally brave the harsh winter days and work in the vineyard. Winter is the time for pruning the vines to prepare them for new growth in the spring. Often this means runny noses, frozen hands, and lots of dead vine stalks to haul away to the compost or firewood stacks.
But all is not sober and back-breaking among the vines. Each year on a certain day the time comes to cease work, pause to give thanks, pay homage to the vineyard, and celebrate another successful harvest and the promise of a new growing year. The day is known as the Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa. Celebrated each winter on January 22nd (Roman Catholic Church), St. Vincent’s Day marks the mid-point between the onset of dormancy and bud-break in the vine’s growing cycle.
Born in Spain in the 3rd century and later martyred, St. Vincent is the patron saint of wine-growers and winemakers. The story behind how he became the patron saint of vintners is rooted in legend and has many versions. One prominent explanation focuses on the French pronunciation of the name Vincent, which is “Vin-sang” and translates into “wine blood”. It should be noted that when grapevines are pruned, they often bleed sap – or vine blood – from the cuts.
But my favorite version of the story is the one that stars a hungry donkey.
I love donkeys. They are quirky, stubborn, unpredictable, sassy, lovable creatures. Their often-contradictory nature – stoic yet highly emotional, hard-working yet lazy, loyal yet defying) makes them the butt of many jokes, fodder for comical stories, and sometimes the stuff of folklore and legend (e.g. the famous Donkey of Dingac). In short, they are magnificent creatures.
As the story goes, one day Saint Vincent was wandering the countryside with his donkey when he encountered some workers in a vineyard. While Vincent chatted with the workers, the donkey entertained himself by eating all the young shoots off a nearby grapevine, reducing the limbs to stubs.
Later that year at harvest, the workers noticed that the vine that had been nibbled down by the donkey produced more abundant and healthier fruit than the rest of the vineyard.
And so it was revealed that grapevines – which can grow many meters long if not cut back – should be pruned in winter to ensure that the plant’s energy is directed more towards producing fruit than growing and sustaining shoots. Today pruning is a standard vineyard practice – a meticulous and painstaking task that keeps many skilled vineyard workers busy each winter.
But come St. Vincent’s Day, the clippers and shears are put down, and the celebrations begin!
In Croatia, the Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa is celebrated in all wine growing regions and is called “Vincelovo”, “Vincekovo”, or “Vinceška”, depending where you are in the country.
This year public festivals are scheduled to be held at Kutjevo in the Slavonia wine-growing region (“Kutjevačko Vincelovo”); in Zagorje at Bolfan Vinski Vrhwinery (“Vincekovo”); and in the Baranja region at Vinarija Josić (“Vinceška”).
A typical St. Vincent’s celebration in Croatia consists of religious services, a blessing of the vineyards, a lighting of bonfires, live folk music performances and dancing, regional culinary specialties cooked over open fires, and of course plenty of local wine!
So here’s wishing you all a happy Feast of Saint Vincent of Saragossa. And if you are celebrating, don’t forget to raise a glass to Saint Vincent and our old friend, the Donkey!
Two weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of attending – for the first time – the 2011 North American Wine Bloggers Conference (#wbc11), which was held July 22-24 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Coming along for the ride in the hope of finding love was a tote full of Croatian wines, some of which were samples kindly provided by importers (Blue Danube Wine Company, Vinum USA, and Oenocentric), and others from my personal collection. My hope was to share them at some point with my fellow bloggers and winos – or anyone else who wanted to learn about and taste them.
But where? When? I was just a conference attendee, not a sponsor or part of the official program, upon which I consciously did not want to intrude.
To make a long story short, on the last afternoon of the conference (Saturday) Fred Dexheimer MS and I hatched the idea to invite folks up to his room after the evening’s program of activities concluded for an “unofficial” Croatian wine tasting – or as it came to be known, the #afterafterparty.
At 3:45 pm the first tweet went out: “#wbc11 peeps – come join us tonight! Pouring Croatian wines with @FredDexMS…room 606 after 10. The Plavac calls! BYG.”
Then at 8:09 pm: “Native grape jamboree: Plavac! Crljenak! Malvasia Istriana! Posip! Babic! Teran. #Croatiacrawl tonight! After 10, rm 606. #wbc11”. Followed by: “The Donkey calls! Plavac Mali & friends! ##WBC11 peeps come say hi: rm 606 after 10. #Croatiacrawl”.
The rest we left to the mysterious ripples of Twitter and the magic of social networking….
A huge THANK YOU to everyone who heard the Donkey call, retweeted my tweets, spread the word, and showed-up for our little impromptu tasting. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect so many people. Room 606 was bursting at the seams! And the Croatian wine – as Fred tweeted at 11:09pm – “flowed like water”!
Unfortunately, my small allotment of bottles was quickly consumed by many a curious blogger. But not before I had the chance to meet some very special people, folks of all ages who appreciate wines that are perhaps a little different, a bit tongue-twisting to pronounce, sometimes a little funky, but always authentic and interesting.
An extra special thanks to Richard Jennings, who made a valiant effort (despite the growing crush of a crowd) to listen to my descriptions of each wine and record notes. You can read his excellent blog post about the #wbc11 conference HERE, which included these very sweet words: “I did see a Twitter invite, however, for a Croatian wine tasting happening upstairs in someone’s room, from Cliff Rames, who has retweeted my few blog posts about Croatian wines (attracting large numbers of viewers to those posts), so I decided to check that out before heading back to my hotel. I’m glad I did. I got to meet Cliff…and tasted there several of the most interesting wines I tried all weekend.”
A special thanks also to Eric Asimov, Chief Wine Critic for the New York Times, who also stopped by and asked me to choose just two wines for him to taste. As it happened, at that moment I was pouring the Krajančić 2009 Pošip Intrada and Korta Katarina 2006 Plavac Mali, which were fine choices in any event.
As any true professional would, Mr. Asimov quietly tasted the two selections, politely thanked me, then wandered off to enjoy the company and energy of the Room 606 crowd.
OMG! He showed up! Perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps out of genuine interest….Only Eric knows. But let us hope that one day he wanders over again to taste a bit more and – just maybe – that important day will arrive when Croatian wines appear in The New York Times Wednesday wine column.
For those of you who came out to Room 606 that evening, and for those of you curious about the wines, here is the list of what was served:
1. Krajančić 2009 Pošip “Intrada” – Korčula island, Southern Dalmatia
8. Korta Katarina 2008 Plavac Mali – Pelješac, Southern Dalmatia
9. Zlatan Otok 2008 Crljenak Kaštelanski – Makarska, Southern Dalmatia (corked; removed from line-up)
10. Saints Hills 2008 Plavac Mali Dingač, Sv. Lucia Vineyard – Pelješac, Southern Dalmatia
There may have been a few others, but at some point during the crush of the evening I lost track of the bottles and surrendered any illusion of a systematic tasting. As a dear experienced drinking friend of mine often says, “One tastes like two, two tastes like three, and after three, it’s away all boats.”
And so it was. Until around 1 am – when a nice security officer from the hotel asked us to move to the hotel lobby or break it up. We were too much for Room 606 and apparently for its neighbors too….
All-in-all, it was a wonderful conference – the highlight of which was (for me) the #afterafterparty in Room 606, where for just a little while Croatian wines were the center of attention, making new friends and (hopefully) a few happy memories for those of you who were so kind to come. Thank you again!
One last thanks goes to Fred Dexheimer MS, who is always a source of inspiration. I never cease to be amazed by the man’s energy. It was Fred who was the occupant of the now legendary Room 606 in the Omni Hotel, Charlottesville, and who generously offered the place for the first-ever (albeit unofficial) #croatiacrawl at #wbc11.
Thank you, Fred, for your ongoing support and encouragement. You rock, dude!
If anyone is interested in writing about Croatian wines for your blog, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Živjeli!” (“Cheers!”, in Croatian). I hope to see you all again at next year’s conference in Portland, Oregon. #wbc12 – the best is yet to come!
Editor’s Note: With this report, Robert Parker’s influential “Wine Advocate” journal has published its first-ever review of a selection of wines from Croatia. The report and subsequent scores were written and posted by Neal Martin of www.wine-journal.com and www.erobertparker.com and are reprinted here with permission.
This is Part VI – the final installment – in our series of post from Mr. Martin’s report, presented here for informational purposes. The statements, suggestions and reviews contained herein are purely Mr. Martin’s work and are subject to copyright and may not be republished elsewhere without permission of the author.
Tasting Notes: Sweet Wines
2007 Daruvar Grasevina Izborna Berba Prosusenih Bobica – 88
This Grasevina is a selection of dried berries. It has a tight nose: tangerine, dried honey, white flowers and honeycomb. A viscous entry on the palate, well balanced with dried honey, creme brulee, toffee and apricot, just lacking a little poise and cohesion on the finish but good length. Tasted May 2010.
2009 Krauthaker Grasevina Izborna Berba Prosusenih Bobica – 87
This lacks a little vigour on the nose that is intended to be TBA in style but not pulling it off in terms of purity or complexity. It’s a shame because the palate has an engaging fresh entry with yellow plum, honey, nutmeg and ginger, maintaining that freshness right to the end. Not quite there this time, but one to watch. Tasted May 2010.
2006 Kutjevo Grasevina Izborna Berba Prosusenih Bobica – 89
This has a lovely, well-defined nose which is more Muscat than Grasevina: acacia honey, orange-blossom, quince and almond. The palate has a slight nuttiness on the entry counterpoising the thick honeyed fruit, good weight, just a little cloying towards the finish but I like the purity on the smoky finish. Tasted May 2010
2007 Ilocki Podrumi Traminac Ledena Berba – 85
This Slavonian Gewurztraminer icewine has a lucid golden colour. The nose is fresh and lifted with pineapple, honey, tangerine and lemon zest: good definition. The palate is well defined on the entry, very pure with lychee, pineapple and honey, but loses its way towards the finish, fading far too rapidly. Tasted May 2010.
2008 Mladina Traminac Ledena Berba – ?
Strange fruit salad nose, cloying palate dominated by residual sugar. Undrinkable. Tasted May 2010.
2008 Agrolaguna Muscat Ruza – ?
Weird nose of a Hornby train set: very metallic. That palate is barely drinkable, completely out of balance and volatile. Tasted May 2010.
2007 Bodren Chardonnay TBA – 83
From northwest Croatia, this Chardonnay TBA style wine is rather cloying on the nose: saccharine, unclean with some odd damp moss notes. The palate is better, cleaner and crisper on the honeyed entry but the finish is lacking purity and poise. Tasted May 2010.
2008 Bodren Cuvee Ice Wine – 88
This has a fresh, honeyed nose with acacia, honeysuckle and a touch of quince: good definition and purity. The palate has a honeyed entry with good acidity, nice sense of tension here with quince, peach and marmalade, very fine focus on the finish, not complex but certainly a level above other Croatian ice wines. Tasted May 2010.
2008 Tomac Riesling – 87
This sweet Riesling has a touch of lime, orange peel and butter on the nose. Vibrant grapefruit and mango dominated palate that could do with more harmony, but it has good length and clarity. Fine. Tasted May 2010.
2007 Tomac Amfora – 90
From North Croatia, this Chardonnay (50%) sweetie is blended with local varieties from the Plesivica region. It has a fine minerally nose with limestone, orange-blossom, lychee and gooseberry. Good definition. Ripe on the entry with touches of butterscotch, vanilla pod and frangipane. Very fine and intriguing. Tasted May 2010.
2006 Kabola Amfora – 90
This Malvasia from Istria has a light nose of honey, melted butter and nutmeg, succinct and well defined. A touch of dried honey on the entry, waxy texture, hints of lanolin and hazelnut, leading to weighty, dried fruit, nectarine and smoke tinged finish. Very natural. Excellent. Tasted May 2010.
2008 Clai Sveti Jakov – 89
An Istrian Malvasia with a very intriguing nose of dried honey, yellow flowers, musk and quince. For some reason, it brings to mind a perfume that my grandmother always wore (and nobody under the age of 70.) The palate is medium-bodied with a waxy entry, good acidity, dried fruit, nectarine, a touch of ginger and dried apricot. Nice weight and cohesion. Serve this slightly chilled.
Editor’s Note: With this report, Robert Parker’s influencial “Wine Advocate” journal has published its first-ever review of a selection of wines from Croatia. The report and subsequent scores were written and posted by Neal Martin of www.wine-journal.com and www.erobertparker.com and are reprinted here with permission.
The Wines of Croatia: An Introduction
Apart from a debauched weekend in Prague with vague memories of an absinthe bar and a school-friend’s wedding in Ljubljana when the nuptial solemnity was ruined by a flotilla of Slovenian ‘Gay Pride’ floats manned by hirsute men in latex sailor suits congregating directly outside the church, I have very little experience of Eastern Europe. The nearest I have ventured to Croatia is a highly enjoyable soiree hosted by eRP Forumite Leo Frokic in Westchester last June and even then I collapsed on his kid’s bunk bed with acute jetlag.
Eastern Europe has been ill served by Wine-Journal and one could argue, ill served by wine journalists in general (with one or two notable exceptions.) Let’s not turn a blind eye to the fact that it has not been easy to shake off the tag of a ‘poor man’s’ wine, the kind of cheap-looking bottles you see languishing on the shelves next to the cat food in corner shops, the unpronounceable, vowel-less names and dodgy-sounding grape varieties. Against a funky sounding New Zealand or Chilean wine with a snazzy eye-catching label, I can understand why they may remain unappealing to conservative consumers. But the revolution in Croatia and other Eastern European countries has been underway since the mid-1990s and perhaps it is time we began to take notice.
I noticed that this month, Mark S. posted a few notes on Bulgarian wines and I posted my own Wine-Journal article on some wonderful Hungarian wine back in January. To further redress this imbalance, I will present two reports from countries: Croatia and later on, Slovenia. My feeling is that the Eastern European countries have the potential to become major international players, as wines improve and as perceptions of a more open-minded generation change. I must stress that these reports take an objective approach to the wines of each country. I read too many fawning, patronizing reports whose objective is to pat the ‘underdog’ on the back, instead of pointing out where they may be going right but perhaps more importantly, where they might be going wrong.
This first article looks at the wines of Croatia, inspired by a very well organized generic tasting event organized by the Croatian Chamber of Economy at the Inter-Continental Hotel in London back in May 2010. As far as I am aware, the country’s wines have not been covered in detail in The Wine Advocate, so in this case, allow me to present a potted history, the basic geography and the main grape varieties.
Croatia’s viticultural heritage stretches back over 2,500 years, after the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus commanded vast swathes of land from Germany down to the Danube to be turned over to vineyards. Although there was a short interregnum in regions occupied by the Ottoman Empire, viticulture continued over many centuries with an emphasis on European varietals. After diseases decimated the vines in the 19th century, these varietals tended to be replaced with those from German and Austria, swayed by the ruling Habsburg family.
In the 20th century, the trend was more towards French varieties, although Istrian and Dalmatian varieties survived the ravages of disease and today, sixty indigenous varietals remain, the most important of which I have outlined below. There are presently 33,000-hectares under vine in Croatia, equally split between continental and coastal regions, home to 800 wineries producing wines of controlled origin.
The Croatian wine industry really started to gel and modernize in the so-called “Wine Spring” in the mid-1990s, a period that witnessed a new generation of winemakers such as Gianfranco Kozlovic, Andro Tomic and Davor Zdjelarevic enter the limelight.
The coastal region consists of Istria, Hrvatsko primorje and Dalmatia, the latter warmer due to its proximity to the Adriatic and therefore producing generally riper, simpler, more alcoholic wines.
Continental Croatia comprises of four wine regions: Danube Region, Slavonia, Central Croatia and North-Western Croatia. The climate is generally one of cold winters and hot summers. Western regions planted with aromatic varieties such as Muscat and Riesling whilst Eastern regions err towards Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Grasevina, with a strong emphasis on white wines (approximately 90%.) These are extremely broad generalizations and of course, the Croatian viticultural landscape is far more complex than I have described here.
White Grape Varieties
Grasevina – this is most successfully cultivated in the sub-regions of Baranja and Ilok next to the Danube and Kutjevo in central Slavonia. It was rather abused under socialist regimes since it can be a high yielding variety and its synonyms, Welschriesling and Laski Rizling, meant that consumers misconstrued the grape variety to be an inferior Riesling, when it is nothing of the sort. Recently there has been a reassessment of Grasevina, a grape that can produce excellent quality in the right micro-climate and in the hands of a conscientious winemaker. Its wines can be aromatic, green apple and citrus aromas in cooler climes, exotic and floral in warmer.
Malvasia Istriana – recent ampelographical studies have indicated that Malvasia Istriana is only very loosely related to the Mediterranean Malvasias. It is a sweet grape variety whose naturally high yielding nature demands control in the vineyard. It generally produces aromas of nectarine and peach and occasional minerally accents, particularly toward the western coast, whilst southern Istrian Malvasias can be more exotic. Look out for bottles labelled “IQ”, an indication of quality and traditional values designated by the Association of Istrian Winegrowers.
Posip – an increasingly popular indigenous variety that is a hybrid of bratkovina and zlatarica from Korcula. It is an adaptable grape variety and whilst most of it is fermented in stainless steel, some is being matured on their lees in barrel.
Chardonnay – widely grown over Croatia, though particularly respected in Slavonia.
(Also Riesling, Zlahtina, Sauvignon Bijeli (Sauvignon Blanc) and Traminac (Gewurztraminer), Debit, Grk (a perfect grape variety for Scrabble players), Skrlet, Vugava and Kujundzusa.
Red Grape Varieties
Plavac Mali – known as the “king of the Croatian red wines” and can be found under “fantasy names” named after geographical origin such as Postup and Ivan Dolac. It is very adaptable to Mediterranean climates and poor soils. It can be prone to over-crop so quality can vary, though generally it produces high alcohol wines up to 16 percent and high levels of residual sugar. It can produce rich, heady aromas of baked fruit and prune.
Babic – this indigenous variety needs a poor soil and can retain the acidity well. It can obtain vegetal notes in its youth and needs to achieve full physiological ripeness and therefore, high alcohol levels. Much is aged in barriques.
Teran – this indigenous variety was more prevalent in the 19th century. It can easily achieve high acidity levels up to 10g/L and tends towards aromas of ripe blackberries with vegetal accents.
(Also Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Frankovka, Pinot Crni (Pinot Noir), Plavina.. Plus we must mention Mr. Zinfandel…Crljenak Kastelanski.)
After it was discovered that Croatia is the ancestral homeland of Zinfandel, we have now learned that Chardonnay – the most popular white grape variety in the world – has roots in Croatia. What a great time for wine…!
In an article entitled, “A Banned Variety was the Mother of Several Major Wine Grapes”, which was published in the science journal, Biology Letters, a group of scientists revealed the results of DNA profiling: the two parent grapes of Chardonnay are finally known, and one of them is Croatian. Chardonnay is in fact a cross between the French variety Pinot Noir and an indigenous Croatian variety, Štajerska Belina.
Štajerska Belina – or Gouais Blanc, as the French call it – used to be one of the most common grapes in the Middle Ages, spreading from France over central and all the way to Eastern Europe.
Despite its formerly ubiquitous presence, global experts generally agree that Štajerska Belina originally comes from Croatia.
Historically, Štajerska Belina (Gouais Blanc) was considered a inferior variety that was mainly planted by farmers and peasants. In France, Gouais Blanc was typically planted in the flatlands for peasant consumption, while the nobility grew the grapes of the Pinot family in the highlands.
Because of its poor quality, Štajerska Belina was eventually banned and became extinct in France. In Croatia it can be found in the vineyards of the northwest and central parts of the country, but it is rarely bottled as a single-varietal wine and is mostly consumed locally as a homemade blended table wine.
The Croatian origin of Chardonnay is further evidence of the region’s contribution to the development of modern day viticulture. For the second time since the Zinfandel discovery, a Croatian indigenous variety has entered the lexicon of the international wine community. Isn’t that fantastic?
While Štajerska Belina is not as highly esteemed as Zinfandel, its contribution to the world of wine cannot be denied.
It is interesting that Gouais Blanc (or Štajerska Belina, one of countless synonyms) crossed with Pinot Noir to produce not just one of the world’s most important grape varieties, Chardonnay, but others as well. Crossings of the same two grapes also spawned such notable varieties as Gamay (the famous grape of Beaujolais), Aligote, Auxerrois, Franc Noir, and Melon.
We could say these grape varieties are all different children of the same parents. Interestingly enough, the children are both red and white varietals. For instance, white Chardonnay and red Gamay. It’s the same as with puppies – when the parents are of different colours, the pups are white, black and mixed.
Today Croatian winemakers can introduce their Chardonnays to the world with more courage – after all, it is partly Croatian.
Even though Chardonnay has been present in our vineyards for many decades, its quality was never worthy of the best international wines like the ones from Burgundy’s Montrachet or California’s Napa Valley.
Yet in the last ten years we have witnessed the arrival of names like Krauthaker Rosenberg, Kutjevo de Gotho Aureus, and Korak Sur Lie – Croatian Chardonnays that can stand next to the best wines without any hesitation.
Chardonnay likes poor soil and limestone, conditions that are not common in the Continental wine-growing region of Croatia. Unfortunately, in Dalmatia – where there is plenty of limestone – the climate is too hot for Chardonnay.
However, the Istria regional of Coastal Croatia offers some hope, with Matošević winery leading the way that other new faces on the block have started to follow. Two examples are Meneghetti and Saints Hills (who blends Chardonnay with Malvazija).
An Excellent Croatian Chardonnay:
Meneghetti Bijelo 2007
To be fair, Meneghetti Bijelo is not a pure Chardonnay but is a blended wine – probably with Pinot Gris and Malvasia (the producer does not mention the blend components on the label). However, the Chardonnay character totally overpowers the other possible varieties in the blend. Its style is reminiscent of the popular Collio from the Italian Friulli region or the neighboring Slovenian Brda region, areas which have climates and soils similar to Istria. Some of the best Chardonnays in the world (Silvio Jermann) also come from that region.
The aroma is intense, steady, rich and very sophisticated. Abundant aromas of the yeast are mixed with dried fruit, vanilla and traces of citrus fruits. Hints of wood are still strongly present, so it is best to wait two years before consumption to allow for the wood to integrate. The taste is extraordinary, full and lively at the same time, with ideal acids, lightly creamy, markedly mineral, with exceptionally long and lasting aftertaste. This wine is similar to the previous vintage, but it is richer and more harmonious, with – and this is very important and too rare in Croatian Chardonnays – a potential for long-lasting ageing.
Photos by Ivana Krstulović Carić (unless otherwise noted)
While the diseases and pests that attacked Hvar’s vineyards and wrecked the island’s economy were eventually conquered, viticulture as a way of life never fully recovered to its previous level of importance. Total vineyard acreage fell by over 2,000 hectares to 3,500 hectares under vine. The economic and social impact would be felt for decades to come, resulting in a further decline in production as many residents of the islands (including Hvar) abandoned their vineyards and homes to go abroad to seek work and a means of steady income.
However, a local family, led by Niko Duboković Nadalini – a powerful ship and land owner, winemaker and the mayor of Jelsa – spearheaded an effort to restore the vineyards of Hvar. They introduced modern method of grafting grapes onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks and shared the technology with local wine growers. Their winery in Zavala* earned numerous world-class wine awards in those times.
Yet after the nationalization* initiatives of the early 20th century, their winery was abandoned. Today most of their vineyards are overgrown with pine trees and macchia*, although certain sections have recently been replanted with young vines by local winemaking families, such as the Carić family in Zavala and Zlatan Plenković.
World War I brought the Italian occupation of Hvar, during which time the Croatian language and culture were suppressed. Soon thereafter Hvar was absorbed into the newly-founded Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, which later became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
The Great Depression (1929-1932) had an obviously negative impact on wine production, and many winemakers and co-operatives, because of large debts, imploded and ceased to exist. As a result, the local population set off on another large exodus to distant countries such as the USA, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia, where they hoped to find new lives and jobs.
Today you can still find living witnesses of this hard time. My grandmother, Danica, still recalls her mother’s sad sighs while she was baking bread. “A board of bread, one hectoliter of wine”, she would say. This meant that to buy 20kg of flour, one had to sell 100 liters of wine.
Modern mechanization, vehicles and roads were unheard of in these times. In order to reach the vineyards on the south slopes of Hvarske Plaže and the wine cellars of Ivan Dolac, wine-growers were required to climb over steep heights of Vorh Mountain.
It is interesting to note that before the arrival of phylloxera, mostly white indigenous grapes were grown on the south slopes of Hvar: Bogdanuša, Mekuja, Parč, Kurtelaška, Vugava. Only later did Plavac Mali, the most widely-planted red grape in Dalmatia, come to dominate and prevail in the area.
Up until World War II, every town on the south side of the island had its own quay where boats would dock to buy wine. Traders would visit wine sellers, sample the wines and set their prices. The price of wines from Hvarske Plaže was always significantly higher than those from the north side of the island where the grapes were of lower quality and sugar levels.
Transporting the wine from the cellars to the boats was a challenge due to the steep slopes. Donkeys often bore the burden of carting the wine from villages situated far from the sea to the docks. Once at the sea, the traders would fill wooden barrels with the wine and then throw them into the sea, where they were picked up by the boats.
Sometime after World War II, Peroslav Carić (Slavko) noticed a new invention – rubber hoses – while visiting a marketplace, and he purchased some 2000 meters of hose. His idea to use the hose for pumping wine from the seaside stone reservoirs into the barrels was a success, and he soon offered his service to all the villages on the south side of Hvar, as well as a few on the island of Brač.
With the building of the Pitve–Zavala tunnel in the early 1960s, life became easier for the locals, who no longer had to each make wine in their own cellars and then transport it to the buys. Instead they transported the grapes through the tunnel to the big wineries on the north side of Vorh Mountain for processing.
But this progress was not necessarily good news. The large wineries, such as Hvarske Vinarije, Dalmacijavino, and VinoProdukt (today the cooperative Svirče), shifted into quantitative winemaking. Quality diminished but was offset by positive developments regarding modernization and better organization of production, brands and sales.
Thanks to the hard work of Ivo Politeo, Hvar achieved its first wine with Protected Geographical Origin status, “Faros”, which was produced by Dalmacijavino from locally indigenous Plavac Mali grapes from the south slopes of Hvar. This is Croatia’s second wine with protected status, the first being Dingač from Pelješac.
The era of Socialism brought further degradation of quality and the number of acres under vine, due to the disparaging attitude towards agriculture and farmers.
Today it is estimated that there are only 300-500 hectares of vineyards on Hvar, a huge decline from the 5,750 hectares of the mid 19th century. However, a reassessment of current vineyard acreage is underway, which will hopefully provide more precise data about present day viticulture.
When faced with the global economic problems of the present day, we can’t help but wonder what kind of a future awaits us. One thing is clear: we should endeavor to preserve the things most dear to us – our heritage and our vineyards – because crises come and go. Vineyards do not grow overnight.
We must learn from the mistakes of our past. Ironically, the vineyards that my family cultivates today were purchased by Ljubo Carić, my husband’s father, even though the same land was once owned by his father, Juraj Carić. In fact, when widowed with six children, my husband’s grandfather sold all his lands on the prime southern slopes to buy land on the north side of Vorh Mountain, which he thought would be easier to work.
Unfortunately, he lost almost all the value of his investments and savings when the Austrian Crown (currency at the time) was converted to the Yugoslavian Dinar. He never accomplished his dream of growing quality grapes in his new vineyards.
Note: More about the development of wine production on Hvar and the relationships between local winemakers will be covered in subsequent articles. Stay tuned!
Postscript from the editor: On May 31, 2010, the winemakers of Hvar joined together to establish their own representative association (“udruga”). Elected to be president of the Association of Hvar Winemakers is Mr. Andro Tomić of Bastijana winery in Jelsa. Marija Gabelić was chosen as vice president, and the author of this article, Ivana Krstulović Carić, will serve as secretary. The association’s mission will be to promote Hvar as a wine destination, revitalize abandoned vineyards, and protect & promote native grape varieties.
* Key to Terms in the Article:
Stari Grad: the “old town” on Hvar, also known as Pharos.
Neretvans: Citizens of the Principality of Neretva (7th century). Neretva is a river valley and its surrounding delta area in south Dalmatia, Croatia.
Svirče, Sveta Nedilja, Jelsa, Vrboska, Stari Grad, Hvar, Zavala: Towns on the island of Hvar.
Hvarske Plaže or Plaže: a sub-appellation on the island of Hvar – considered the best on the island. Translated as “Hvar’s Beaches” or simply “Beaches”. The name came from the fact that the vineyards are located on slope above gravel beaches of Hvar’s south shore.
Nationalization: The act of seizing land or other private property and converting it into public ownership, as occurred during the communist years when Croatia was part of former Yugoslavia.
Macchia: Scrub land biome in the Mediterranean region.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.