I will always remember the first moment I tasted an element in a wine that was not wine. The Goundrey 1992 Reserve Shiraz tasted like black pepper -so much like black pepper in fact, that I thought someone had actually ground it in over the bottle. From that moment on, I had clarity. All of a sudden I knew what I was looking for, and finally believed all the wine-rhubarb out there. Next was asparagus in a Taltarni Sauvignon Blanc. Then lychees in Hugel Gewurztraminer. To this day, I still discover new flavours in wine, and am constantly amazed by what these winemaking masters can do with a humble grape.
So you can imagine my disappointment when I arrived in Croatia – a land of perfect sunshine in summer (12 hours per day!), mild winters, the Sirocco to blow away the frost in Autumn, the rocky and free draining limestone soil, the history of conquerors from master-wine-making races – and yet, a severe dearth in spectacular, or even consistent wine.
But then, there was a moment in Orsan Restaurant, when I held before me a glass of Grgic Posip.
It was slightly viscous, and swirled in the glass in slow-motion. The colour was vibrant, but not the urine-like yellow of all the other wines I had drunk over the previous week – no, it was tinged with green, like a peridot. And in the heat, pears, lemon blossom and vanilla kept on lifting their way out of the glass. Finally, a Croatian wine breakthrough!
Milkenko Grgic has made wine for Robert Mondavi, and was responsible for shocking the French into the realization that there were other countries in the world that could produce a reasonable drop in a blind tasting known as the “Judgement of Paris” which was later the subject of the film “bottle shock”. He produced the 1973 Montelena Chardonnay (the film concentrated on the other wine, the Stag’s Leap, which was named best red.)
He started his own vineyard, Grgich Hills in California shortly after (Calling himself Mike, and adding the h on his surname so English speakers would pronounce it properly), which to this day has a cult following. In 1996 he also set up shop back in Croatia, just above the sleepy and beautiful seaside hamlet of Trstenik and is finally bringing the words “Croatia” and “good wine” back together in a sentence.
Trstenik can be found on the Peljesac peninsular, about an hour past Mali Ston. After drinking his Posip, and being unable to find it in the surrounding wine shops (I did find it in Dubrovnik Old Town eventually), I badgered my husband and other members of our party to check out where it came from. This turned into what was probably the best day trip for our holiday, because we also picked up Korcula island (where the Posip is actually grown) and Orebic.
The peninsular is almost an island – only joined to the mainland by a kilometre or so land bridge, itself stretching 60-odd kilometres further into the Adriatic, almost touching the picturesque islands of Korcula and Mljet (very famous in its own right for the national park. I didn’t make it there, but have heard it is the prettiest island off Croatia). The entry is bordered by scrubby ranges, which soon part to reveal a central valley filled with green green green, particularly good past Janjina.
The vines begin suddenly, and I almost missed them – no structured rows and trellising here. The area is almost entirely cultivated as bush vines – lucky to have a spike to help the bent and gnarled plants remain upright, let alone a wire to hold the leaves up. They tumble over limestone terraces, and even the road. I was able to taste the grapes – already sweet despite the harvest being at least a month off. It’s been a hot summer this year. Olives and small vegetable plots are the only other planned vegetation, and similarly to the cascading and windswept native scrub, they shamble every which way, beautiful in their chaos.
The valley finally found its way to the sea, and we wound our way towards Trstenik. As it was only 10 am, we decided to visit Orebic and Korcula first. I’ve spoken about Korcula already – a bewitching island with so much more to see than I could in the time. Alone it required at least a full day, maybe two. Orebic would be a good holiday base – nearly halfway between Dubrovnik and Split, close to the Serbian border, and sitting on a strip of bleached stone shores and aqua water.
We visited Grgic on the way home, chirping like excited crickets when we saw the dreamy sign with a label like an art deco landscape. Grgic vines are stacked in neat rows all admiring the view, which at that moment was so glaringly full of colour I have had to turn down the saturation in the photos so you will believe they are real. A boat bobbed in the little cove and we nearly toppled off the wrong side of a hairpin bend while taking it all in.
In Australia, vineyards are geometric sweeping plains in softly undulating terrain. In France, vineyards are pristine and perfectly manicured, accompanying chateaux and ornate wrought iron gates. In Italy they are quaint irregular plots surrounded in fields of different shades of green and gold like a patchwork quilt. But here, the vineyards really are something else.
We stumbled in at 5:10 and lucky enough to find the tail end of the last (or so the cellar manager thought) tasters of the day. Croatian hospitality forced her to do what we knew she didn’t want to, and she graciously abided us.
The Posip we tasted again, even though we had met its acquaintance many times already in various restaurants. We were also pleasantly surprised by the Plavac – a deep, red, violet-nosed and tar-berry filled wine, apparently related to Californian Zinfandel (and Italian Primitivo). We bought both, and also a bottle of the Grgich Hills Californian Fume Blanc (also good). The Posip has made it home to Dubai with me, and it sits here, along with a recent vintage of the Montelena Chardonnay that I found in Dubai Duty free on the way home. I wonder if they can still do it without Grgic at the helm…?
The Grgic Winery is located just above Trstenic – there is a large sign on the road, and it is easily found while winding your way down to the tiny village. There are restaurants in the village – next time we might stop for lunch. It is open from 10am to 5pm and tastings are free (but please buy a bottle – it’s really great stuff)
From Orebic you can take a ferry to Korcula – they leave about every 30 minutes (less over lunchtime), and there is also a car ferry and some fairly cheap taxi boats available.
For further reading on the wine, check this out: Wines of Croatia