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Legendary Southern Dalmatian Coast Wines

Legendary Southern Dalmatian Coast Wines

Day-One Red Wine Buying

It’s mid-afternoon on our first day in Croatia and we just checked in to our rental apartment in Split. Job one is to make plans for dinner: Anne will shop in the grocery store downstairs for basic supplies and something we can make for dinner. I’ll choose a couple bottles of red wine. I agreed to this plan knowing that I knew next to nothing about Croatian wines. What I did know was that I had some quick catch up homework to do.

Lessons Learned

I also quickly realized Croatia labels are not in English. When I see a bottle of Argentine wine labeled “Malbec,” I know what to expect. But what does a Croatian wine labelled “Bogdanuša” or “Grk” tell me about the likelihood of whether the wine inside the bottle will go well with dinner tonight? 
I would soon be staring at shelves of bottles whose labels were covered with mysterious foreign words. And I needed to come up with an intelligent red wine choice before dinner. So I grabbed our two Croatia guidebooks and found the pages about the wines of the nearby area.Rocky limestone mountains come right down to the sea, leaving little space for vineyards

Hooked on the Hyper Local

Grapes that were grown and made into wine very close to where we’re eating is the goal. We learned long ago that wherever we are, we eat better when we order local food specialties in restaurants or try our hand at local recipes in the kitchen. Waiters are happy to bring us a bottle of something very local that goes well with what we ordered. The locals have been producing both the food and the wine from the same soil for centuries . Of course they go deliciously together.

Learning to Speak Southern

So with google and the guidebooks, I focussed on the wines produced right here on the southern end of Croatia’s west coast and on those islands I could see from our eighth floor balcony.
It’s hard to grow grapes in Croatia. Land for expansive Bordeaux-like vineyards just doesn’t exist. The abundant mountains force winemakers to the scarce valleys or the narrow ribbon of limestone where the sea and the rocky mountains start. Winemakers who choose to farm near the shore have miles of shoreline to choose from. Croatia is the size of South Carolina, but including all the islands, has more shoreline than California.

The Southern Dalmatian Coast is great for sailing, but the landscape doesn’t make planting grapes easy.

Protecting the Regional Traditions

Next I learned that Croatia has their own wine naming protection system similar to France and Italy’s AOC and DOC with the acronyms ZOI or KZP, but this system does little more than divide the country into 12 wine-growing geographical areas. The ZOI, instead of being an indicator of a wine’s quality, points primarily to the area where the grapes originated. I did, however discover that for dinner tonight, I wanted a wine from the ZOI named, “Srednja I Južna Dalmacija” (Central and Southern Dalmatia) rather than from one of the other eleven. So I’ll look for that designation on the label next to the words “Zaštićena Oznaka Izvornosti” or “Kontrolirano Zemljopisno Podrijetlo

Making My First Purchase

Next, the dominant red wine grape grown in nearby vineyards and islands is Plavac Mali, a descendent of the indigenous zinfandel. While Anne was shopping for dinner, I scoured the unreadable names on wine labels for a wine made in the Central and Southern Dalmatia ZOI from this grape. I found a bottle that featured the word, “Plavac”. It was 37 Croatian Kuna or $5.77 and it met my two criteria, so we carried it home.

This label is in serious need of a decoder ring.

When Anne saw me make a face at the first taste, she lost hope that this would be the perfect complement to our first Croatian dinner. As much as I wanted to like it, the most picturesque description I could come up with for it was that something was missing. The color was weak, the hot alcohol hit was abrupt, and there was a sourness in the slight taste of red berries.

Going Back for More

It’s not the grape’s fault, I take some of the blame for going with the first bottle I saw with familiar words on it and I paid too little for it. So before tomorrow’s dinner, I determined to do a bit more research on Southern Dalmatian wines and loosen up the wallet a bit and see if I get a more agreeable taste.

Cliff’s Notes for Dalmatian Wine Buying Newbies

I armed myself with more research and written notes:

  1. If only the grape is highlighted on the label (such as Plavic Mali) that is an indication that the wine inside is not going to be as good as when a subregion within the ZOI is highlighted (if only I had learned that before my first trip down the wine aisle).
    This is because a consortium of winegrowers in a smaller subregion agree to winegrowing and vinification practices that are aligned with that area’s soil, climate, and grape varietal(s).
  2. Some, not all, wine labels highlight one of the three quality classifications, “STOLNO” for table wine, “KVALITETNO” for mid-level, and “VRHUNSKO” for top-level. The bottle I bought the first night for $5.77 was designated Kvalitetno. These designations are sometimes in the fine print on the back label and difficult to find. I think it would be wiser to move up from kvalitetno to vrhunsko wines for my next purchase.
  3. Within the Central and Southern Dalmatian ZOI, there are two tiny subregions producing red wines named Postup and Dingač. Both Postup and Dingač are on the south facing slope of the Pelješac penninsula and meet the high standards of the Vrhunsko or top-level classification. Each of these two subregions has around 15 winemakers working about 150 acres.
  4. Useful Croatian red wine label words
      •  suho – dry
      •  crno – black (meaning the wine is red)
      •  bijelo – white (meaning the wine is white)
      •  Hrvatske – Croatia
      •  vinogorje – vineyard
      •  Hvar, Brac, Korčula, Peljesac – three nearby islands and a peninsula

Some labels like this (empty) bottle of Plavac Mali have very helpful English translations.

Some Improvement on the Second Swing

So on the second trip to our grocery store’s wine section I selected a Postup and a Dingač both made from plavac mali grapes.

Each were about $15, classified with the Vrhunsko quality rating, and compared to what I’m accustomed to, I’d rate both of them at about a B-.

Both are bold reds; the Dingač seemed bitter and the Postup more chalky. I wouldn’t say either was pleasant. But with a steak or hearty winter stew, either would make a fine evening’s companion.

 

 

I Like a Little Story With My Wine

This winemaker, who is also a great spinner of wine stories, makes it easy to spend an afternoon tasting and buying in his cellar.

But there’s more to wine than the flavor. I like that after only about 20 years of a market economy, Croatia’s new generation of winemakers, though they are staying with the ancient indigenous grapes, are beginning to win international competitions, and the quality and finesse of their wines are getting better. And the fanciful stories I heard from some of the winemakers reflect the authenticity of the craft. I could sit and sip a wine all day as long as the winemaker is telling the ancestral legends that go along with it.This winemaker, who is also a great spinner of wine stories, makes it easy to spend an afternoon tasting and buying in his cellar.

Fairies Arrive Dancing During the Night 

One legend involves a tiny pond surrounded on all sides by hills just north of the village of Smokvica on the cigar shaped island of Korcula. Unlike the other ponds in the area, this one never dries out in the heat of the summer because of the dancing night fairies protecting the pond. According to the legend of the Vilin Dol (Valley of the Fairies) one morning, a villager named Jakov and his mule found a beautiful fairy who had fallen asleep after an exhausting night of dancing. Knowing that fairies cannot survive in sunlight, Jakov cut some branches and made a little shelter to shade her sensitive skin. To reward him for saving her, she gave him two bags of gold coins instructing him to open the bags only when he arrived back home in Smokvica.

On the way there, overcome with his desire to see the coins, he opened the bags and found only dried leaves. At home, when he related the story to his wife, she shook the now empty bags of leaves and a few gold coins fell out. She gave him a thorough tongue lashing for letting his curiosity get the best of him.

Cousins of our apartment host, Boris, grew the grapes and made this wine on the nearby island of Korčula.

A Passion for Passing on the Traditions

Stories like these repeated by winemakers and re-enacted by the real girls of Smokvica for centuries are part of a culture bent on refining the wine produced from the same varieties of grapes and soil and that their grandfathers worked. These coastal Croatian winemakers have no interest in reproducing what moderns have come to expect from Italian, French or New World wine. Their strong and enduring passion is to honor the ancestral traditions handed down to them by drawing all the best from the grapes that thrive on the scarce workable soil by the sea,.

Three kisses make great grapes

On these hillside terraces, villagers have been producing admirable wines for centuries.

Southern Dalmatian coast winemakers like to explain that their grapes get kissed three times by the sun – directly by the sunlight overhead, by the light bouncing off the near-white limestone vineyard floors, and by the sparkling diamond-like reflections from the adjacent Adriatic Sea. And I’m happy to continue enjoying the smells and tastes of this unique and ancient land, expanding my experience with the foods and wines and listening to more winemakers’ stories.

A Tiny Island in the Adriatic

A Tiny Island in the Adriatic

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
We’re looking ahead to Spring – Aix en Provence for the Easter Festival.

Since our first glimpse of Trogir, as we came in for a landing (yes on a prop plane – how often does that happen?!) at the Split airport, we’ve wanted to explore this intriguing barely-an-island. Just steps from the mainland, it’s connected by a couple of short bridges, then further bridged to a larger island, Ciovo.
It’s an easy 30 minute drive from Split, our home for two months, and like all of the places we’ve visited this Covid-changed fall, it looks much different, with just a few locals out and about, than the Youtube videos we’ve watched, when each square, promenade or bridge is jammed with people. Imagine standing in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, or in the middle of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, alone, just taking it in at your leisure…it’s a pleasure!
We choose a couple of pastries at the first bakery we pass, then settle in with our cappuccinos at a main-square cafe, enjoying the view of Trogir’s showpiece – the Cathedral of St. Lawrence. That gorgeous bell tower alone took 200 years to build – the entire edifice was built from the 13th to 17th centuries. Gothic arches on the first level, then Venetian Gothic (a taste of what we’ll continue to spy along the twisting lanes of the interior)  topped by Renaissance – an architectural lesson in stone.
Across from the cathedral is the 15th century St. Sebastian’s church, topped by the town clock, added in the Renaissance era. Beside the church, the Town Loggia hides behind cafe umbrellas.
The town hall anchors another side of the plaza, inviting a peek into its Gothic courtyard. One of the many Venetian-style wells on this coast, this one is carved with the winged lion of St. Mark, the symbol of the Venetian Republic, which ruled the area in the 1400s. On the walls are coats of arms of noble families of the era.
Tiny though the island is, we have no trouble filling a day with wandering its maze of marble streets, enclosed by sturdy medieval walls. From small details to intricate carvings, our eyes dart from one intriguing sight to another. We pass an elegant entry into a palace courtyard, now a vacation rental and keep looking up to take in the Venetian gothic windows scattered through the lanes. Not many places are serving meals in the off-season, but after walking across a bridge to Ciovo island to appreciate the views of Trogir, we return and find a picturesque spot by the old fish market, with our always-a-prerequisite view! Any self-respecting Dalmation Coast town MUST have it’s Riva (seaside promenade) and Trogir’s is wide and welcoming,

popular with young and old. A bulwark of a fortress, Kamerlengo Castle, another Venetian addition, anchors one end.Turn right at the fortress, and a soccer field fills the space between it and a later tower, St. Marks. This must be the most fabulously located soccer field in the world!
As the sun sets, we take in the views from one end of the Riva to the other, and take a final stroll inside the walls. The ancient town hall twinkles with fairy lights, and we stop for one more look before driving back to Split. Yes, we filled the whole day with the delights of tiny Trogir!

Plan B – Not bad at all!

Plan B – Not bad at all!

Plan A: Sell our US home in 2020, move to our much-loved apartment in Aix-en-Provence
Covid derailed that plan for sure – no Americans can enter France since March! So where to live now that all of our belongings are in storage after the sale of our home? We’ve got to live SOMEWHERE – but where?
Plan B: Fly to the ONE European country allowing Americans to enter – Croatia! So here we are, in a wonderful 8th floor apartment in Split, chosen for its view of the sea as well as required comforts for an extended stay. Split is Croatia’s second largest city, after the capital, Zagreb, and is located on the gorgeous Dalmatian coast, facing Italy. 
For those who may be interested in spending time in this beautiful country, here are the ABC’s:
There are specific requirements for entering Croatia as an American: proof of lodging, and a 14 day quarantine, unless you present a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours of landing in the country. Of course we chose the test route, although we continue keeping to ourselves, as we did when living in Virginia. Finding a facility that promises a 48 hour turn-around was a challenge – and since we were not symptomatic, but were getting the test for travel, costly as well! We chose My Doctor’s Pharmacy, not far from our northern Virginia home, and took our self-administered tests 2 days before our entry into Croatia, driving to the rear of the pharmacy and following the instructions of the pharmacist who handed us the tests.
Before traveling, we made sure to print out transit requirements for Germany, since that was our route – Washington-Munich-Split, in case we were asked to show permission to transit. We also printed out the Croatia entry requirements, and receipt and appointment verification for our PCR tests.
Our entry requirements were confirmed at check-in in Washington. Before landing in Germany entry forms were handed out to all to be completed – we asked if we needed them as we were transiting. The flight attendant did not know, and said to fill them out to be safe. As it turned out there was no need for the forms – we walked off the transatlantic flight and directly to our gate for the Split flight. No questions were asked as we boarded.
When we arrived in Split we went through passport control, and at that time were asked from where we originated, where we had been living, for the address of our lodging (although we had been told we would need a receipt proving payment for lodging, that was not requested), how long we were staying, and test results – well, the emailed results had not yet arrived! The kind and helpful agent asked for our phone numbers and emails, apologized and said we’d have to quarantine until we received the (negative!) results, and we said no problem. He gave us a phone number to call – a health agent for the Dalmatia region – with the results. Once the negative results were confirmed, we would be taken off of the list of people who would be checked on to make sure they are quarantining for the required 14 days.
We called an Uber to take us to the apartment, met our host, Boris, elevatored up to the 8th floor, and were immediately drawn to the view – isn’t it spectacular? We certainly wouldn’t mind self-isolating here while waiting for our test results! We asked Boris if he would make that call for us when we received the results, and he did so when they arrived within an hour or two.
We were free! So walked downstairs to a nearby market, bought a few supplies, and made a pasta dinner to enjoy on the balcony, toasting the sunset and our safe arrival – hooray for Plan B!
Coming up – the ancient center of Split, island visits, and more, as we revel in the beauty of daily life in Croatia.