Marko Polos Hometown, and the Wine He May Have Drunk

Marko Polo's Hometown, and the Wine He May Have Drunk
Approaching Korčula by Ferry.

After gazing longingly for two days at the picturesque walled town of Korčula across the water from our hotel balcony, we finally hop on the ferry and head back to the island with Boris. He has arranged for his former boss, at Marco Polo Tours in Korčula town, to give us a tour of the old city. This charming, professorial man in a houndstooth jacket clearly loves his native city. He leads us up the steps to the old walled city—steps that used to be a drawbridge over the moat. On the outside of the city gate is a relief of St Mark’s lion—the lion of Venice. For some 400 years, until about 1800, Korčula was a part of the Venetian empire, at the same time that Orebic, across the water, was the farthest outpost of the Dubrovnik Republic. Just inside the main gate is the early Renaissance St. Mark’s Cathedral, with more lions guarding the portal, and two Tintorettos, among other treasures, inside. As we walk through town, we’re told that the streets were laid out in a fishbone pattern in order to control the passage of hot and cold breezes through the city. Marko Polo’s house

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The ruins of Marko Polo’s house on Korčula .

is a picturesque ruin at the end of a passage overhung by mandarin trees and flowering bushes, but there are carefully numbered stones lying in a pile inside the foundations, awaiting the coming restoration and museumification. The ruins are so evocative that I find myself hoping they don’t restore it too completely. We climb the lookout tower attached to the house that once gave a view of this region’s extensive and highly profitable shipping traffic, as well as wargoing ships that were financed as business investments. Now we see only a giant white cruise ship anchored to the north.

The P.Z. Pošip Cooperative
From Korčula, we drive inland and meet enologist Janko Jovanov at the side of the road overlooking Čara (“char-a”). Čara is both a town and a designated wine region on Korčula. We look down into a narrow valley and see an industrial-looking winery and some 130 grape-growing plots. This is the cooperative producer P.Z. Pošip, which makes about 500,000 bottles a year. The grape plots (growing the indigenous pošip grape) are farmed by their 130-odd growers, who are issued guidelines by the government and annual spraying and maintenance plans by the winery. The result is individual plots of differing qualities. The best fruit, not more than 10% of the harvest, is selected for 20,000-30,000 bottles of the premium Marko Polo Pošip, which is produced only in years when grape quality is sufficient.

We descend to the vineyards and talk about the history of posip production here. Before the phylloxera disaster in the late 1800s, there were 4000ha of grapes growing on Korčula, of more than fifty different grape varieties, and production was about 70% red wine. Now there are fewer than 400ha, of eleven varieties, and the production is 70% white wine. Janko tells us of mass emigrations of Korčulans after phylloxera wiped out grape growing on the island, with the result that there are now communities of Korčulans as far away as Australia and Brazil.

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The Adriatic Sea and a Sea of Pošip.

The pošip grape was once the predominant white variety in the general area. Now it’s almost exclusively grown on Korčula, although it is being planted on the islands of Brač and Hvar in an effort to regain its prominence as a quality white grape.Still, Janko says it is difficult to get reliable pošip cuttings for grafting without providing the plants for the cuttings themselves—the grape is just not common enough to be able to buy plants. Before lunch, we drive to the other end of this small valley to Smokvica (“little fig”), which is the second designated village for pošip production here. On the other end of the island, the white wine called Grk is produced from the grape of the same name, but we won’t taste this until we’re in Dubrovnik.

Food to Return For
Our second outstanding lunch in two days is at Mate in the town of Pupnat. It is another small restaurant in a stone room with a wood fireplace, where our hostess is the sister of our wonderful tour guide in Korčula town. We’re served an antipasti platter of two homemade cheeses, home-cured bacon and prosciutto, grilled eggplant, a brilliant eggplant spread with capers and spinach in it, homemade bread in slice and braid form, olives—plus an omelet of ham and wild asparagus. (As this thin, slightly bitter, intensely asparagussy asparagus is one of my favorite things, this makes me rapturously happy.) By now Aldo and I are full and fearful of upsetting our still-delicate stomachs, but out come three brilliant handmade pastas. One is ravioli stuffed with local goat cheese; one is quill pasta with whole shrimp and a light tomato cream sauce; and the last is my favorite: quill pasta with wild fennel and spiced with a whole chile. This is not all: Our hostess’s husband arrives and prepares the coals and grate in the fireplace to grill lamb basted with a fig leaf dipped in olive oil. Finally, dessert arrives, and it is no small thing. These treats are sublimely different from what we’re used to. There’s a granita of rosemary and local juniper and possibly a little lemon juice that I vow to try to re-create at home; light fried twists of dough dusted with powdered sugar that tastes of orange-flower water; a walnut-and-carrot cake with a two-inch-tall center layer of whipped cheese that has a slight banana flavor; and a granular and not-too-sweet chocolate almond torte accented with a little hot red pepper.

We taste three wines from P.Z. Pošip, of which only the Marko Polo is available in the States.

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The Vineyards of the PZ Čara with the Winery in the Distance.

RUKATAC 2005 is a regional wine labeled “Korčula Wine Region,” made from the marastina grape local to Korčula and the Peljesac. It has light pear and melon on the nose, with slight mineral; light-bodied with only medium acidity, it has a pleasant citrus flavor, but is fairly simple. Naturally, it’s quite enjoyable with the local food we’re eating.

POŠIP ČARA 2005: This is the entry-level posip, but we find that posip has enough personality that even a basic wine well-made from it has a lot to offer. Again, there is a light pear/melon aroma; medium acidity and body; and on the palate a creamy citrus, pear, and melon flavor. There has been no ML, but the wine was matured in large neutral barrels for 2-1/2 months on the lees. It’s a very pleasant wine with good balance.

MARKO POLO POŠIP 2005 This has light citrus and vanilla, and ripe pear on the nose; the body is medium-full, with fairly intense pear on the palate, and a medium-long bitter-almond finish. (This underwent a 3-4 hour maceration, no ML, neutral oak.)

Later, sitting at the hotel with Boris, Marija, and Anita, we talk about the experimentation underway in the Pelješac. Marija and a partner in Dubrovnik are investing in a new planting scheme, reclaiming some old terraces that are now overgrown, and planting a few hectares to zinfandel to see what it will do in its native land. As the family is already pioneering cabernet in the Pelješac, this doesn’t seem like too bad an idea, even if it is a marketing move. The agricultural university in Zagreb has also reacted to the zinfandel discovery, by slowly cultivating crljenak, the genealogical parent grape of zinfandel, primitivo, and plavac mali. From all we’ve heard, it seems that most Croatian producers value their indigenous grape heritage even as plans are underway to experiment and grow the wine industry going forward.