Seaside Tasting Room of the Zlatan Plenkovic Estate on Hvar. (Photo courtesy Leith Steel)
A vineyard assistant named Nevin drives us the four hours south from Krk to Split in the rain, where we slog to the catamaran that will take us to Jelsa, on the north side of Hvar island, in 90 minutes. Jelsa is a gorgeous town with a riviera look—there’s obviously plenty of money here, at least in tourist season.
We’re on Hvar to visit the single winery in all of Croatia, called Zlatan Otok, that produces a Grand Cru wine. Zlatan Plenkovic, the owner, is not available to us, but his son Marin (who is finishing his studies to take up a position at the winery) takes good care of us for the twenty-odd hours we’re here. He drives us from Jelsa over the top of the island to the south side, where the winery is, via a single-lane tunnel with rough rock walls carved through the mountaintop. Marin pauses about 100 meters into the tunnel and points to a room off to the side where stainless-steel tanks are visible through the doorway—they store some of their white wine here without need for refrigeration (because of the cold rock). When they need the wine, they simply pump it out through hoses connected to a tank truck parked outside the tunnel. Come to think of it, those tanks must have been constructed inside the rock room, as they wouldn’t fit through the door!
The Plenkovic vineyards hovering above the town Sv. Nedjelja.
The roadway is precipitous, with switchback curves and not a guardrail in sight. At one point we encounter a Range Rover (what folly!) that has to back up so we don’t slip off the one-and-a-half-lane road, onto the roof of a house, trying to pass it. We have a brief tour of the winery, then settle at the family house and pension lodgings three minutes away. The family is building a small tourist empire here, in this quiet, rural town Sveta Nedjelja which is isolated by the mountain looming above and by the lack of a direct road from here to fashionable Hvar city down the coast. In addition to the pension, the Plenkovic family have built a quite nice restaurant below the house on the waterfront, with a small marina attached, but have battled the winter waves each year, which wreak havoc on the underwater pilings and the restaurant windows.
Tasting Croatia’s Only Grand Cru
We sit around the family table with stoneworkers who are building a terrace in front of the house, and taste wine over supper of salad, sauteed mushrooms, roasted eggplant and octopus, and blood sausage, with a not-too-sweet walnut spice cake for dessert.
The vineyards on the Southern slope towards the Adriatic Sea.
Zlatan makes a couple of whites from bogdanusa and posip grapes, of which the Otok Hvar is now being imported to the U.S. for the first time. It’s the plavac mali, the red grape that predominates in southern coastal Croatia and is closely related to zinfandel, that goes into Croatia’s grand cru. We taste the three Zlatan Plavacs side by side. The “Barrique” and the “Grand Cru” are available in our wine shop.
ZLATAN PLAVAC 2005 is 100% plavac mali matured in 5000-liter neutral barrels. It has a black cherry aroma and only medium tannin and extract, with flavors also of black cherries, blood, dry leaves/tobacco, and a tobacco finish. (This is great with the homemade spiced blood sausage we’re eating.)
ZLATAN PLAVAC Barrique 2004 spends 18-24 months in barrique. It has pronounced oak on the nose, laid over plums, blueberries, and slight tar; fairly intense flavors of black cherries, plums, dry tobacco, and new oak. A well made wine good for sipping now, or hold for two to three years. Fantastic with parmigiano.
ZLATAN PLAVAC Grand Cru 2003 spends the same 18-24 months in barrique as the wine above, but the best juice is selected for this wine. The difference is higher extract, more fruit on the nose, and a mild, sweet oak; incredible deep black fruit on the palate, much more depth, subtler oak than the barrique wine, and better integrated, with excellent balance. This will develop nicely for eight to ten years.
Up the Mountain to Vineyards and a Monastery
In the morning, it’s still raining off and on. Marin drives us up the hillside behind the winery on loose stone tracks that are just wide enough for the Jeep. The rocks around us are a hard conglomerate of sharp white stones glued together with iron-red silt. The thick red soil where the grapes grow is “made” by feeding the conglomerated stone through a rock grinder that breaks it down. The vineyards here are all plavac mali, but it’s unclear whether they belong to Zlatan or to one of the growers he buys from. He buys all the grapes produced between the winery below us and a point about 4km to the west, toward Hvar town. Marin tells us all the growers are organic. Ultimately the best juice ends up in the grand cru wine.
Hidden and overgrown: the ruins of an Augustine Monastery.
We’re at the very top of the steep vineyards, just beneath the rocky mountaintop, so we hike just a little farther up to a cave where there’s a tiny Augustine monastery dating to the 1500s. The mouth of the cave is huge. Just where the opening begins, there is a retaining wall with a stone staircase leading up through a gate to a level terrace. In the center of this yard there’s a well with a wooden cover, a cross, and an empty and dilapidated stone hut that now has grafitti inside from hikers and campers. On the right is a chapel which is still used at least once each year, when there’s an Easter procession up the hill through the vineyards with a statue of Christ on the cross. Up a few steps to one side of the cave is a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and up steps to the other side one can go to the back of the cave, behind the shrubbery surrounding the monastery. There’s a large chamber that Marin says once led through the mountain to two different destinations, but the access point is now purposely blocked with boulders.
After lunch we head to Hvar city, a lovely resort town that we don’t have time to see because we’re catching a ferry to Korcula. It has finally stopped raining, and we sit in the cushioned outdoor lounge in front of one of the new boutique hotels drinking Cuba Libres and espresso until the boat arrives.