Historically, politics and wine make a bad pairing—and the combination certainly hasn’t favored the survival of indigenous grape varieties. Think of the vinepulling and planting schemes around the world that largely promoted high yields or courted commercial trends. Communism, in some countries, presented a different challenge: populations migrated to the cities or left altogether, viticulture languished, and vine varieties dwindled to a select few. The Sansigot grape, traditionally grown on the island of Krk just off the Croatian coastline, was one of Communism’s casualties until Ivica Dobrinčić of Šipun winery set about reviving the diversity of grapes that once grew on the island.
Sansigot is a black variety that, before the 1950s, made up about 20 percent of black grapes growing on Krk. It has also grown on the tiny island of Susak to the southwest, where it is described as yielding “deeply colored, full-bodied wines” (Robinson, et al, Wine Grapes). On Krk, Sipun and one other winery make a varietal Sansigot that is light-bodied, with a delicate floral aroma and low tannins—a difference Ivica attributes to the separate location and new winemaking technology.
During Communism, industrialization was the national priority, with the result that people moved to the cities to work, or emigrated. The few who remained in rural areas continued to make wine or sell harvests to the cooperative wineries, but even this died out without a market to support production.
As Ivica explains, “Due to this situation some grape varieties completely disappeared, only Žlahtina survived in a greater quantity. There were no agricultural incentives from the government so people continued being employed in foreign countries. More [Croatians] were living and working outside of Croatia than within, especially those from the islands.”
By 1997, when Ivica returned to Krk from Zagreb, where he had studied viticulture, rural communities were revitalizing and the government was once again investing
in them. As Ivica set about formalizing and expanding the family business in viticulture, other young people were returning to the islands and to traditional livelihoods, as well as beginning a tourism industry. Ivica’s father had grown Sansigot on Krk, and Ivica knew of other native varieties, such as Vrbić, Brajdica, Kamenina, Debejan, and the grape known variously as Susac, Bašćan, or Pravi Par, that still hid in long-unworked vineyards, family plots, and backyard gardens. Today, in addition to growing Žlahtina and Sansigot, he is propagating twenty other varieties for reintroduction, and has high expectations for Vrbić as the next to reach the market. “It is interesting to offer the marketplace something that only exists here, originally from this area, which has been used and produced for hundreds of years,” Ivica says.
Šipun winery is based in the medieval coastal town of Vrbnik, with half of its vineyard in the valley just to the west, and the other half in hillside sites, where the bura, the brisk north wind that scours the island, keeps fungus from the grapes. In these rocky hillside vineyards, grapes ripen well, for full-bodied wines with higher alcohol. In the valley, iron oxide tints the soils red, and wines are generally fresh and light, with less alcohol, body, and acidity.
Ivica is optimistic about the future of his hometown, citing its lack of development as a plus. “Vrbnik today has preserved ancient architecture, superb wine and gastronomic products, history and culture. Winemakers here produce wine using traditional methods in combination with technological improvements to make the best quality wine possible.” Ivica himself is part of this new wave of winemakers who look back to traditional grapes and methods as well as ahead to technology to introduce new possibilities. Indeed, as he propagates historic varieties to one side of Vrbnik, 32 meters beneath the water on the other side, he matures a thousand bottles of sparkling wine from Žlahtina and Sansigot in a cage that will be raised in two to three years to see what has developed. Not one to take an opportunity for granted, Ivica will continue to experiment with history and technology, with politics finally on his side.