Food and Wine on the Road to Dubrovnik

Food and Wine on the Road to Dubrovnik
Ancient fortifications built to protect Ston where the Peljesac peninsula connects with the main land.

Marija and Anita pick us up in the morning for our drive to Dubrovnik, the last coastal destination on our journey. On the way out of Orebic, we stop at the old Riviera Hotel to pick up some rootstock for Marija. The old hotel, which looks like a Communist-era castle but is probably earlier, has been bought by a man from Texas and his Croatian wife. They’ll remodel it into ten or eleven luxury suites, and there is already a winery in the cellar, where we taste a very promising pošip from a tank that will be blended with the same wine matured in barrels. Next to the hotel they’ve planted zinfandel vines, which will begin producing in another four years or so.

A little later as we drive through the countryside we stop unannounced at Frano Milos’s winery, where we hurriedly taste three wines while he waits for an American tour to arrive. Frano is a curly-headed artist, perhaps in his early forties, and very charismatic—as testified by the magazine articles posted in his tasting room, showing him in GQ-esque poses. His work also decorates these walls, giving the tasting room a pleasant, personalized touch. Clearly a visit here is meant to be a well rounded sensory experience. But the wines I’ve seen so highly praised in Croatian wine publications deliver less than expected. Frano seems to be embracing a wine style from the time of his grandfather that strikes me as anachronistic in light of the clean, scientifically driven wines that are possible now. (These wines are now available in the U.S. from Blue Danube Wine Company.)

MILOS PLAVAC 2004 has medium-intensity red fruit on the nose, along with slight beef broth. It has light to medium body and medium tannin, with flavors of red cherries, very slight brett, and dry leaves. A wild, rustic wine that should be fruitier and less dusty.

STAGNUM 2004: 100% plavac mali. The wine has a bit of bottle stink that will blow off, but also an odd aroma of canned peas that I’d expect in a much older wine. In the mouth it shows a medium body, subdued fruit, and a long dried tobacco finish.

STAGNUM 2005 dessert wine (grapes unknown to me): This is lightly sweet, with dill and wild herbs on the nose, and more herbs on the palate. Very pleasant.

Lunch in the Shadow of Europe’s Great Wall

We continue driving and reach the town of Ston, which sits next to Mali Ston (Little Ston) at the narrowest part of the hinge where the Pelješac peninsula connects to the mainland. Starting in the 1300s, the Dubrovnik Republic constructed a great wall 5.5 kilometers long that trails over the hill between Ston and Mali Ston, punctuated by lookout points and forts. The longest such fortification in Europe, it was built to protect Ston, which has produced salt since Roman times, and whose salt revenues were an important contribution to the coffers of the republic. We stop only long enough to peek at the modern salt pans as we drive through Ston toward our lunch destination in Mali Ston. This diminutive Ston has an outsized reputation for seafood and shellfish, situated as it is at the end of the bay inlet, where the water is lightly salty and highly mineral.

The art of eating mussels by removing the “key”.

We eat lunch on the waterfront outside Taverna Bota Sare, which used to be a salt storage cellar; it is two stories tall inside, with a barrel ceiling. We have a singular meal of fresh local shellfish. One dish consists of large blue mussels; clams; fawn-brown mussels that are imported from Bosnia, 30 km away over the hill, as it’s illegal for ecological reasons to obtain them from the bay; and a mollusk described to us as a Noah’s Ark: the bivalve is shaped like the hull of a ship, and one needs to remove a “key,” a small, fin-shaped piece of shell that sits between the two main shells and projects into the muscle of the creature inside. Once the key is removed, the shell can be pried open easily with the fingers using the keyhole. This mixed mollusk dish is served in a white wine and garlic sauce, with a dish of just the brown mussels (my favorite) served alongside in a lightly creamy tomato broth. We mop it all up with thick, slightly crunchy semolina bread. We drink the local marastina wine and talk about klapa, the typical group vocal music of the Dalmatian coast that is accompanied by bass, guitars, and mandolins, among other instruments. The music playing in the restaurant is a klapa rendition of one of the most popular Croatian singers, Oliver. Other good groups are Ragusa and Maestral, but Marija and Anita each have friends and acquaintances who sing in local groups.

After lunch we wind through construction on the tiny local highway that snakes around the edges of coastal mountains and is the only road to Dubrovnik. (Construction delays give us more time to gaze contentedly at the little islands off the coast.)

On the road to Dubrovnik with view on islands in the Adriatic Sea.

We enter the city via the spindly white Tudmana bridge high above Gruz bay and not so high above a gigantic white cruise ship docked outside the tiny old harbor. After settling in at our hotel, we head into the old city by bus. Our first impression is that this historic treasure reminds us of New York’s South Street Seaport in August: shuffling tour groups “following the sign,” and a uniformity of vendors selling mid-quality jewelry in classic or historically inspired designs to appeal to the seniors piling off cruise ships. Things are looking up after a bottle of Enjingi graševina (welschriesling) at Arsenal Taverna, which overlooks the old harbor and the modern hotels and fancy houses on the hillside outside the old city walls. We love the wine’s funky minerality and surprising delicacy. This is a good place to sample Croatian wines or see late-night musical groups, and the food is pleasant but average. We’ll return to the old city tomorrow in search of hidden gems and the life of the city away from the main drag.