A Day at Katunar, on Krk Island

A Day at Katunar, on Krk Island
Panoramic view of the city of Krk on the island of Krk.

The next morning, we set off for the island of Krk, driven by Antonella. Driving east toward Rijeka, we pass Tuscan-looking hill towns and a public forest at the side of the small, local highway, which Antonella tells us is a truffle forest where locals go to try their luck. There is a controversy about continuing public access to the forest, which the truffle hunters consider their right. At Rijeka, we need to take a sharp right turn and head south, but first, we need to get past Mt. Ucka. There’s a tunnel through the mountain, but we decide to go over it, and head upward at a steep angle along switchback curves, past tiny, five-house towns, through the forest. We stop as the road starts to slope downward again, to look out over the Adriatic toward Krk to the south and Rijeka below us (shown), situated in the dog’s-leg turn where Istria becomes the Kvarner region of northern coastline, mercilessly blown in winter by the bura, Croatia’s version of the mistral winds. First we drive through the resort villas of Opatija, playing a game of “if I were in the market for a luxurious Adriatic home…”–then it’s industrial Rijeka, and, very soon, the bridge onto Krk.

Welcome to Krk

The northern tip of the island, where the bridge is, is all but completely bald–scoured by the bura. We drive the road down the middle of the island and stop somewhere about halfway, on the side that faces the mainland, at the winery of Anton Katunar, where we’ll stay the night in the winery guest room.

Anton Katunar is robust and outgoing, happy to spend the day showing us around, disappearing every so often to tend to some aspect of his business that continues around him. Tomorrow there will be a group of 300 tourists at the winery for a tasting lunch, and the big group presentation rooms need to be arranged. Indeed, there are large facilities for group visits here, both inside, with a view of the vast valley vineyards, and on a large roofed terrace outdoors. Tour groups are a way of life for many Croatian wine makers.

Behind the winery in the valley are 10 ha of vineyards planted in slightly iron soil. Anton tells us the island used to have four or five thousand hectares of vines but is now down to about 200 ha. He himself is expanding as part of a Croatian government incentive program to plant 15,000 ha more grapes, half in the coastal region, in the next two years. Anton has found a south-facing limestone vineyard in the south of the island. On his computer, he shows us aerial maps of the vineyard that show completely white on top of the hills due to all the white rocks lying on the surface, then mixed tan and white on the slopes, then dark green in the valley. He shifts the map to the top of the hill and zooms in to show us odd-shaped patches of tan/green among the stark white where people, doubtless over years, have laboriously cleared the rocks to make the land usable. Rocks seem to be a theme here: All over the central part of the island where we are, between Vrbnik and Krk town, we see massive rubbles of stones lying naturally on the landscape as if dumped there by the truckload. Where people want to graze sheep–without letting them wander in flocks along the road–or grow olive trees, they’ve cleared small patches of land by shifting the rocks to wide-based piles with more formal stone walls built on top, leaving small pools of dusky green grass between wide, six-foot-high rock borders. Anton also shows us an aerial overlay showing ownership of the land. Many hundreds of people own tiny strips of the hillside, sometimes in pieces only 100m by 30m, because of the way the land is subdivided between each child in a family, down through generations. Anton has had to track down hundreds of people to acquire his parcel, some of them no longer living in Croatia.

Sitting down for lunch with Anton Katunar on right.

Anton produces 80% žlahtina (he makes 150,000 liters out of a total 900,000 on all of Krk) but he’s developing his red line based on syrah and grenache. We go to an attractive underground tasting room lined with bottles, where we’re served lunch during our tasting of his line–a brilliant spaghetti with small, tender, sweet scampi and a few tomatoes and a lot of olive oil of Anton’s own production, full-flavored and spicy. The pasta really plays up his entry-level žlahtina. Then we proceed to a large platter of grilled seafood and vegetables–langoustines with the heads and claws on and saltwater still in the shells, large squid with thick bodies, roasted red and yellow peppers, eggplant that has soaked up the amazing olive oil like a sponge. Then there’s local sheep and cow cheese, of which I favor a rustic parmigiana-like piece with nice rennet crystals in it. It’s beautiful with the overripe melon of Anton’s chardonnay (not available in the States). Wines available in the US are:

ŽLAHTINA 2005: Medium-low acid (less than 5%), medium body with a floral nose and white fruit on the palate. It’s very round but hasn’t undergone malo, slightly mineral and slightly oily in an appealing way. It’s a simple wine, but it truly shines with the seafood.

“ANTON” 2005: 85% syrah plus three indigenous varieties (debejan, brajdica, sansigot) matured in large old Slavonian oak barrels: This has a black-fruit nose with medium acidity, body, and tannin and very nice fruit with medium extract. It’s is a nice fruit-forward style of wine that’s more accessible and immediately pleasant than many of the other reds we’ve tasted.

“ANTON” Reserva 2004: 50% grenache, 5% syrah, plus the three local varieties above, with one year in oak and one year in bottle. The tannin and acid are already mellow, and the wine shows medium-intensity black plums, blueberries, nutmeg, fresh oak, and a berry-spice finish. It’s a well made wine of only medium length, but it’s a pleasant fruit-forward style, and it drinks perfectly now.

After lunch, Anton explains to us a bit about the famous origin-of-zinfandel research. Crljenak (churl-yen-ack) is the local grape that started it all. According to Anton, crljenak is identical to zinfandel and primitivo, and stepfather to plavac mali, with an indigenous grape as the other half of the parentage. We find that everyone we ask has their own interpretation of the zinfandel-plavac mali relationship. Meanwhile, the same local Croatian scientist who was studying the crljenak grape, and who helped American Carol Meredith on her DNA research tour in Croatia, is now studying the origins of zlahtina and other assumed indigenous varieties on Krk. Žlahtina is native only to Krk as far as anyone knows; very little is grown on the mainland but it’s unknown whether it’s grown under another name elsewhere.

The Medieval Town of Vrbnik

After our hours-long lunch, Anton takes us down the street to Vrbnik, where he was born and grew up. Old Vrbnik is perched on a hill overlooking the Adriatic channel between Krk island and the mainland.

Typical scene in the Old Town of Vrbnik.

As we walk up the hill to the old town, now occupied in large part by weekenders from elsewhere, we encounter one of the local priests, whom Anton knows. This is a treat, as we’re brought into the rectory and shown a massive book hand-lettered in Glagolitic script (an early relative of Cyrillic) that was finished in 1462, a decade or so after Gutenberg first started printing. Sections begin with figural display caps showing a biblical figure rendered in red, blue, and green ink, plus liquid gold. (I can’t believe I’m touching something this old.) We continue up the hill, through tiny passages that let through only people or motorbikes or the mini-tractors used here that are no larger than a ride-on mower but shaped exactly like tractors. The agate stones of the streets are worn so smooth after centuries that crosshatching was incised into them maybe twenty years ago for renewed traction.

Then we go across the island to Krk city, where Anton lives now. He shows us the various Roman gates of the city, some of which are underground at the site of what is currently a subterranean bar/café. We have dinner with Anton’s son, Tony, and the owner of the harborside restaurant we’re in: platters of local sliced cheese, olives, tuna, sardines in salt and in vinegar, octopus salad, and pizza-dough bread–plus Anton’s žlahtina, and his “Anton” syrah blend with the roasted island lamb on a bed of roasted peppers, potatoes, and carrots. On the way home a jolly Anton careens at 100kph along the winding country roads, freely using the oncoming lane to soften particular curves, and slowing only slightly for a flock of 15 sheep who scurry out of the way, bells dingling. In the pitch-black countryside at our winery room, we watch a lightning display, then retire in preparation for a long drive to Split tomorrow.