Croatia is more than sunshine and coastline- even though one of my favorite days on the road was swimming under the walls of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. It’s more than lazy afternoons and long coffee breaks in a crisp autumn breeze–which we’ve had at the local Caffe Splendid in Jelsa. Caught in the beneficial crossroads of seaside breezes and Mediterranean-esque sun, Croatia can boast a healthy viticulture that prizes itself on the Dalmatian Coast for its Plavac Mali wine.
Wine Industry in Croatia
After a crazed 3 months of backpacking around Europe, Neil and I chose Hvar Island as our last major stop before heading home via London, England. This island, famed as the sunniest place in the Adriatic, has several small towns and history with ties as far back as Ancient Greece. Hvar Town is the hotspot for yachts and marina fun. Stari Grad is the oldest town in all of Croatia. And in the little town of Jelsa, Neil and I settled into a community just starting to relax after the hectic tourist season. Cafes and restaurants are closing one by one for winter. Residents schedule construction on their properties before the cold winter winds arrive. But just east of town, the Tomic Winery is always open for tastings.
We arrived at 11am with our friend, Frank who identifies himself as “just another Kiwi” even though he has close familiar ties to the island. On any given day, he can see multiple cousins walking around and this morning his mother sat two restaurants away, chatting with her friends. Jelsa is a small town with few secrets, as we’ve been told. So after the first few days biking around town, we noticed that the locals were a little more inclined to say hello to us as we struggled up the hill out of town with our backpacks full of groceries.
On the way to the winery, Frank arranged a friend to drive us to the hilltop where Tomic Winery was located. At Tomic, two employees welcomed us and invited us around the property. I’ve been to a good number of vineyards over the years. So it was nice to see something different: the young grapes macerating in steel tanks. What looked like small berries danced on the surface as the reddish, black slurry bubbled gently in ten 10,000 liter drums. After wine tasting in Spain, Germany, Argentina, Greece, and the US, this was the first time we could actually see the wine “cooking”.
Plavac Mali is translated to mean “little blue one”, referring to the grape that grows in the region. At Tomic, we learned that two Plavac grapes thrive here. The bigger grapes (the regular Plavac) grow more plentifully and have a mild sweetness while the little grape (Plavac Mali) has a more intense flavor and therefore is more coveted for wine making. Generally, the wine is compared to Zinfandel.
Wine Tasting at Jelsa
The tasting cellar at the Tomic Winery was without a doubt the highlight of the tour. A collection of Tomic wine sits on a table constructed of marble from Brac Island, dating back to the time of the Caesars. Pillars imported from Macedonia support the walls. Rough rock cut locally juts from the stone masonry. Candles burn in a candelabra and colorful plates of snacks wait beside tall stemware. Our guide Cvjetko, told us that the winery has been in production for 15 years but in reality, the owner comes from a long line of vintners. It’s in his blood and therefore he likes to jest that he’s been a winemaker for 150 years. We had met Andro Tomic the day before in the town square on our way to teach some local kindergarteners. Frank translated for us and we found Andro to to be a pleasant, unassuming man.
We began with Beleca and Plavac table wines. With a thin viscosity and light bouquet, both are red wines for casual afternoon and simple tapas-style eating. A few bottles split between friends would be enough to warm the heart and finish off a nice evening on the Adriatic coast. Each bottle’s pricing begins at 65 Kuna (US$12) and are worth the investment if you can find them. Frank jested that we could break the market in New York for Tomic since they currently only distribute in Chicago and in limited supply to Canada. We’ll see if we can pull some stings when we return to NY next month.
The most enjoyable wine of the lineup was the famed Plavac Mali itself. Considered a high quality wine, the Plavac Mali 2007 was a great year according to the staff and as soon as I got my nose in the glass, I could tell it packed a strong punch. Weighing in at 14.3%, this wine has enough clout to withstand heavy winter meals. Osso Bucco and roasted lamb come to mind. While Plavac is gentle and drinkable, Plavac Mali is more forward with a robust bouquet of blueberry and sassafras. As I sipped this wine, I was glad for the fresh bread with sunflower seeds and the gorgonzola cheese. This wine is meant for long dinners and deep conversation. Our friend said his family’s Plavac Mali grapes are bought by the winery as is the case for many families around the island. You can almost taste how this wine is a “small batch” wine, grown on an island that blogger Paul Bradbury from Total-Hvar has called paradise.
Neil and I would like to thank Sebastijan Tomic for his generous gift and our tour. While the bottle of Plavac Mali should be relished on a special occasion, I think it will accompany tonight’s dinner on our balcony overlooking the cove. If you’ve never been to Croatia, come! From the walking tours of Old Town Dubrovnik to Marco Polo’s “supposed” birth place in Korcula, this country on the Adriatic Sea is something very special. Happy travels!