Discovering the Indigenous Grapes of Dalmatia with the International Press

I was delighted to accept an invitation to join a 30-strong international wine press trip to Brac, Hvar and Imotski in discovering the Indigenous Grapes of Dalmatia.

Foto: digitaljournal.com

When I first moved into my house in Jelsa on Hvar 12 years ago, an older gentleman with an impressive beard knocked on my door and welcomed me to the neighbourhood with an even more impressive bottle of rose, explaining in flawless French that he was the next door neighbour. It took me more than six years to realise he was one of Croatia’s most celebrated winemakers, the legend that is Andro Tomic.

For years, I did not realise that Hvar had any decent wines, contenting myself with the table wines in restaurants which rarely impressed, and indeed I had never come across any of the varieties on the labels before, so wine was not something I paid attention to until I started researching material for my guidebook to the island of Hvar. At that point, I realised I had been missing something…

Nothing has surprised – or pleased – me more than the progress of the Croatian wine scene in recent years. From a virtual unknown, Croatia has become known as one of the most exciting wine regions in the world, powered by its extraordinary range of more than 130 indigenous grape varieties. After years on Hvar, I had become accustomed to Bogdanusa, Prc, Kuc and Plavac Mali, some of which only grow on Hvar, but I was more than a little ignorant about the wine scene further afield.

So I was delighted to accept an invitation to join a 30-strong international wine press trip to Brac, Hvar and Imotski ahead of the Zagreb Vinocom fair last week, which gave me a chance to explore further in the company of wine experts from some 18 countries, as far away as Indonesia, Russia, America and Israel. And the two things that struck me on the short three-day tour were the potential of the indigenous varieties in a global market and the exciting things happening on vineyards all over Croatia.

Take the island of Brac, for example. Once literally covered in grapes, today there are only three professional winemakers, two of which have only been in the business for five years, but what progress they have made. The adorable young Senjkovic couple, Sasa and Magdalena, are perhaps the best symbol of the youthful energy of the Dalmatian revolution, and they have produced an exciting range of wines, including their most recent addition – a sparkling Kuc – to establish themselves as one of the leading producers in the region in a short space of time.

Their success has been mirrored by the Jako Vino project in Bol, with their range of Stina wines. An agreement to take over the oldest wine cooperative in Dalmatia on the Bol waterfront has been followed by serious investment in the winery and new vineyards, with early results far exceeding expectations, and both wineries clearly impressed their international hosts.

Foto: digitaljournal.com

A short catamaran ride to Jelsa on the island of Hvar brought the group to the impressive Romanesque cellars of my neighbour, Mr. Tomic. Hvar has a 2400-year wine history dating back to the Ancient Greeks in 384 BC, and the island’s winemakers have made much progress since 2010 and the formation of the 13-strong Hvar Wine Association. Association president Ivana Krstulovic Caric was on hand to welcome the group and guide them through a selected tasting of the indigenous varieties of the island.

In recent years, Hvar’s wines have reached new markets as far away as California, China, Singapore and Russia, and their international credentials have been enhanced by a string of awards, such as Zlatan Orok Posip 2010 being awarded best wine in the region by Decanter, Caric’s Bogdanusa winning silver at BIWC Sofia, and PZ Svirce’s Ivan Dolac Barrique earning organic gold two years running at Mundus Vini in Germany.

Foto: digitaljournal.com

While Hvar and Brac are well-established wine destinations, the final leg to the Dalmatian hinterland destination of Imotski provided the biggest surprise. Powered by the innovative ways of the Grabovac family, the wines of Imotski are slowly becoming known for their quality as opposed to quantity in the past. Here is the region with the second biggest winery in former Yugoslavia, and Imota produced no less than 20 million litres a year in its socialist heyday.

While the kujundzusa white grape is still dominant, serious experimentation is underway, and with exciting results. Grabovac has produced Dalmatia’s first commercial sparkling wine, an excellent blend of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, while it has also introduced other international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in addition to local varieties of Kujunszusa, Posip, Zilavka, Vranac and Trnjak.

Foto: digitaljournal.com

Three days on the road, three very different wine destinations, and 30 international journalists headed back to Zagreb more than a little excited by what they had seen.

The Croatian wine scene is changing – and quickly – with one thing for sure: the quality is only going one way. So why not take a little time on your next trip to Croatia to take a closer look at the local wineries with their unpronouncable grape varieties – you may well discover an absolute gem.