The Hanging Vineyards of Dingač and Postup (part 1: Grgic etc)

The Hanging Vineyards of  Dingač and Postup (part 1: Grgic etc)
The Dingač at its best: steep slopes, old vines, tons of sunshine right at the coast.

We arrive by ferry on one end of the island of Korčula and are picked up by Marija Mrgudic and her son Boris, who drive us to the ferry dock at the other end of the island. This is a sneak preview only—we’re leaving the island immediately for Orebic, on the mainland, and will return to Korčula in a day or two. Orebic is a waterfront town on the edge of the Pelješac peninsula, where the renowned wine producing areas of Dingač and Postup cling precariously to hillside terraces overlooking the Adriatic. In terms of prestige, Dingač and Postup are the Napa and Sonoma of Croatia. Marija Mrgudic and her brother Niko Bura and their families are a leading wine producer in the area, under the name Bura Estate Winery. Boris is in his twenties, and does marketing and PR for the winery while also working in marketing for a local hotel group. He spends his weekend driving us through vineyards, crisscrossing the Pelješac, and talking with us about the growing private wine industry and rampant experimentation in the region, notably with plavac mali’s cousin, zinfandel.

(Quick digression on pronunciation: The letter ‘c’ in these Croatian place names tends to be pronounced ‘ch’ or sometimes ‘tz’. Very approximately: ‘ding-gotch’, ‘or-uh-bitch’, ‘kor-chula’, ‘pell-yuh-shotz’.)

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Our Lady of Angels Cemetery.

Our Lady of Angels
First thing in the morning, Marija and her spicy friend Anita, a lawyer and artist, take us up the hill above our waterfront hotel to the 15th-century Monastery of Our Lady of Angels, which offers one of the best views of Korčula, across the water, but also tells us much of the history of Orebic and the families here. This was a shipping town, and the houses along the waterfront belonged to the ship owners and captains, and still have in their front gardens some of the exotic specimens of plants brought back from their travels in the early 20th century. Back during the Venetian empire, when Korčula was controlled by Venice and Orebic was part of the Dubrovnik state, priests and others would use the hillside monastery to observe goings on in Korčula and send smoke-signal reports by relay to Dubrovnik. Outside the monastery is a captain’s cemetery, where local sea captains and other townspeople were buried after there was no more space in the cloister. In the cloister, bodies were buried “standing up,” to conserve space—the stones over their graves are about 2-1/2 feet square. Also there is the gravestone of one of Marija and Niko’s earliest ancestors in this region, from the seventeenth century. Etched into the gravetop stone is an outline of the pointed spade used even back then to plant grapevines in the rocky soil.

The Dingač and Postup Vineyards

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The Dingač vineyard…
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…and the Postup vineyard.

We drive with Boris through the vineyards on gravel roads almost as precipitous as those on Hvar. There are about 1000ha of vines on the Peljesac peninsula, with about 60ha in Postup and maybe 75 in Dingač—much of the balance is in the valley, which produces table-wine grapes. The vineyards in Dingač (shown top, descending to the Adriatic) and Postup (shown below) are all built on terraces, some only one or two plants wide. The slope is so steep here that, when working certain terraces, the soil tiller has to be roped to the axle of a truck on the road above to keep it from tumbling down the vineyards. The producer Bura owns just over 2 hectares of vineyards. Their plants yield up to 1kg of fruit per vine on the slopes, but higher up, under harsher conditions, the vines will yield an average of only a half kilo per vine.

These hillsides used to be worked with donkeys who would haul grapes over the top of the mountain to the winery in pannier baskets, making maybe three trips a day. Likewise, they would haul the wine back over the mountain to the port of Trstenik for shipping to Europe. In the 1970s, a rock-walled tunnel, like the one on Hvar, was cut through the mountain, making the journey to the winery much easier by truck. (Also check out the wines made by the Dingač Winery in our wine shop.)

The Famous Grgić

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Label of the Grgić Plavac Mali.

On a promontory at the mouth of the incredibly beautiful, tiny port of Trstenik stands the Grgić winery and the home of winemaker Kresimir Vuckovic. Miljenko Grgić, a vanguard California wine maker and head of the exclusive Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford since 1977, famously returned to his Croatian roots in the mid-90s, and opened a winery here. (Note the tiny difference in the Croatian “Grgić” and the American “Grgich” spelling of his name.) We drop in very briefly and taste:

POSIP 2005, made from grapes bought from Korčula, cold fermented, with 3 months in new French oak. On the nose there is pear and pineapple. The light oak on the nose turns more prominent on the palate, with white fruit flavors and a shortish pineapple finish. This is clearly an international style wine.

PLAVAC MALI 2004. A fairly intense raisin and herbal plum nose leads to flavors of plums, blueberries, tobacco, and subtle oak, with a medium-length plum and tobacco finish. Neither is available in the U.S.

Eating Local
For lunch Boris drives us into the valley to the tiny town of Kuna, where the Antunovic family runs an agriturismo, where they raise donkeys, sheep, fruits and vegetables, and produce their own prosciutto. This is evident in the Antunovic restaurant, found by stepping into a narrow pedestrian alley and up a few stone steps. It’s a wonderful, dark stone room with beamed ceilings hung with prosciuttos, bacon, and a pig foot here and there.

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Interior of the Antunovic Restaurant in Kuna.

The fresh red roses on each table flanked with benches are family produced as well. We’re offered the traditional tiny glass of grappa with herbs as we walk in—also Antunovic production, along with the dried figs, crystalline with natural sugar, that we eat with the grappa. (We later buy a package of these, strung on string with bay leaves, to take home.) The white wine with lunch is a local variety made from rukatac or marastina, two names for the same grape. It’s soft and pleasant, especially with the rustic homemade food. First we’re presented with plates of home-cured anchovies, and a platter of pickled onions, home-cured olives, prosciutto, cheese, and thick, dense bread. Then there’s a local stew variation from this area of the Pelješac, called pikatic—basically lamb liver and intestine in a heavy, meaty gravy—delicious, but as we discover later, not for the weak of stomach. We also have grilled beefsteak over roasted potatoes and vegetables with a simple plavac mali. And for dessert, with a local sheep cheese that is steeped as a wheel in olive oil, we try a good quality plavac mali (not available in the States):

VEDRAN KIRIDZIJA DINGAC 2004: a medium-extract red that smells of the herbs on the local hillsides, pine, and a light, sweet oak; medium-bodied, plum, blueberry, and herbs on the palate, and a medium length.

Tasting at Matusko
We drive ten minutes to Potomje, at the inland end of the tunnel. This is the location of the still-operating large cooperative winery where growers were obliged to take their grapes during communism. Just down the lane are Matusko and Bura Estate. Matusko is a much larger producer than Bura, at 500,000 liters of total production, and has a shop and cellar where tours can come and taste. Mato Matusko is Marija’s cousin and looks like a movie star cowboy. He is president of a group of eight or so Dingač producers who are trying to create a wine consortium and tourist trail. As for the grapes, Matusko buys from partner-growers according to the position of their vineyards and the quality of the fruit. He provides pesticides, etc., to his partners, but says that the leading producers are heading toward organic farming in anticipation of Croatia’s EU membership. In his cellar, we taste three of his Dingač wines, from 2005, 2003, and 2001. The 2005 is not yet bottled, but promises to be excellent. I find a clean grapey aroma, still-strong acid and tannin with a soft sweet oak on the palate, sumptuous black fruit, and a long and plummy cocoa finish. The 2003 has a brandy/raisin aroma, pleasingly full extract, deep plum on the palate, and the same dusky cocoa-plum finish. Again, the oak is sweet and subtle. The 2001 sits in a barrel at the side of the tasting room. Mato has reserved this for himself, and for good reason—it’s rich and syrupy like aged balsamic. None are available in the States.

Text and photos by Katherine Camargo, DWS / kcamargo@verizon.net