In search of Zinfandel’s Croatian roots: Crljenak Kaštelanski

Marion Podolski is an artist and a blogger at Go Hvar. She and her husband Zdravko helped organize some of our producer visits while we were in Dalmatia last April. With her permission, we are re-publishing this article, originally posted on her blog.

Kaštela is a combination of seven small towns that lie along the coast between Split and Trogir. It’s a lovely location, surrounded by vineyards and olive groves under the high mountain range of Kozjak. This used to be a popular resort for beach holidays, in the days before Split airport was built and recent travelers have tended to drive straight through here. But Kaštela looks to be coming into its own again, as the certified home of America’s Zinfandel. Crljenak wine tours, anyone? Can be combined with Game of Thrones filming locations in Kaštel Gomilica, as well as Klis fortress and Split itself!

Crljenak Kastelanski

Following the Dalmacija Wine Expo, we set out with a group of wine enthusiasts to visit the original vines, meet with local producers, and of course, taste the wines! With us were Frank Dietrich and his team from Blue Danube Wines, a major importer of Croatian wines to the U.S.A., sommelier Cliff Rames from New York, wine evangelist and author of Wines of Croatia, and Californian wine blogger Marcy Gordon. Our local experts and tireless tour leaders were gourmet chef Čedo Kovačević, and Fani Tomaš of Krolo winery. Fine company indeed!

As this was to be a tour of the Crljenak Kaštelanski growing area, I was surprised to find us setting off first over the mountains and inland towards Sinj. It all made sense, though, when we arrived at Krolo winery in Strmendolac, near Trilj in the Cetina valley. Winemaker Dražen Krolo originally comes from Kaštela, and he’s planted Crljenak in this lovely valley, probably the furthest from the sea these vines are grown!

Krolo Winery map

From the winery terrace we had a view of the vineyards around the valley. Unfortunately, on this rainy April day, we’re not tempted to walk far, just enough for some quick photos and back to the shelter of the winery where we get down to the serious business of the day – tasting the wines! In addition to their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot wines, they also produce both a rosé and a red from Crljenak Kaštelanski. At this inland location, the Crljenak produces a lovely pale rosé, only left on the skins for a mere 10 minutes as this is a very dark grape! Light summer fruit and wild rose – beautiful! The red Crljenak is dark purple /ruby with aromatic mediterranean herbs and violets – very yummy! It’s lighter than coastal-grown Crljenaks, which is not surprising, given the hills around here. A Crljenak for every taste!

After a wonderful lunch with the Krolo family, it’s back to Kaštela on the coast and meet up with Jakša Bedalov for a trip to his vineyards way up high on the slopes of Kozjak. Winewagons take us up a very steep and exciting dirt road to the highest Crljenak vineyards, some 400 metres (1300ft) above the sea. Glorious, breathtaking views over the Kaštela region and out towards the islands. There’s a vineyard tasting room and terrace, and in summer Jakša takes tours up there to eat and drink, and enjoy the spectacular scenery. For us on a fairly grey drizzly day in April, he had a welcoming selection of rakijas and snacks. The main meal, and he is a fantastic cook, will come later in the day back at his seafront winery restaurant.

Back down at sea level, we head off to visit the Biblical Garden Stomorija. This turns out to be a lovely peaceful Botanical garden, featuring local plants and a special presentation of all the grape varieties grown in the area, including Crljenak, plus many of its relatives and clones such as Primitivo and Zinfandel. This early in the season, there’s not much so difference apparent in the growth. I’m also fascinated by a line of ancient trees by the medieval church, which are propped up on walls, and there’s a beautiful little stone carving in the drainage channel.

Folowing our peaceful interlude in the Biblical garden, we made our pilgrimage to Ivica Radunić’s vineyard to visit the original 9 vines that were identified in 2001 as genetically identical to American Zinfandel. The search for the origins of Zinfandel had pointed at Croatia for years, with so many near misses, that it just had to be around the Dalmatian coast somewhere. And finally, positive confirmation! From just a few vines in this very vineyard in Kaštela, plus a few more from Omiš, they verified that Zinfandel is the same as Crljenak Kaštelanski, a.k.a. Tribidrag or Pribidrag in other parts of Dalmatia.

So why so are there so few vines of this greatly successful American varietal remaining in its native Croatia? It’s been almost completely displaced by its even more successful offspring with Dobričić, known as Plavac mali. In fact many of the local red or black grape varieties in Dalmatia share the heritage of Crljenak. The rows of vines in the Biblical garden are pretty much all close family members.

list of grapes

Cleaning off our boots after trekking through his vineyard, it was time to visit Ivica Radunić’s traditional konoba in the old town. Where most wineries these days are all ceramic tile and stainless steel, this one has the character of a cave, with original stone walls and old barrels. We tasted some of his wines, full-bodied traditional reds, including a Crljenak. We also enjoyed a selection of rakijas, including my personal favourite, a rose rakija! Sadly not for sale.

Leaving tradition behind, we moved on to Neven Vuina’s winery to try his wines, along with a very tasty selection of snacks and homemade confections. He also makes a rosé and a red from Crljenak. The rosé is light and dry with a hint of rosehips, the red has spice and red fruit, very promising! It was all wonderful, but the big hit for many of us was the sugared orange and lemon peel. Recipes were exchanged!

Our last port of call in this superb day out in Kaštela was a return to Jakša Bedalov’s restaurant, where the table was set for dinner, and all the winemakers joined us. It was a chance to try the different Crljenak wines with food, and to talk with the producers. Jakša is indeed a fine cook (and sommelier, incidentally) and I was particularly chuffed that he thought to produce a special veggie version for me. A great day out, and many thanks to everyone involved. I shall be looking for more Crljenak wines in the future!

And finally, I understand that pronunciation of Crljenak Kaštelanski (Tsril-Yeh-nak Kash-tell-an-skee) is a big concern for English speakers. Don’t let that put you off from drinking the wine! It’s a big red, although more restrained than American Zinfandel in the fruit, owing to the different terroir and the European winemaking tradition. Interest in Zinfandel’s Croatian ancestry is increasing, along with availability of the wine in Croatia, and hopefully soon also in California!

Useful links

Bedalov winery
Krolo winery
Vuina winery on facebook
Kaštela parks – Biblical garden Stomorija
Wines of Croatia – Zinfandel in Croatia: A Sort of Homecoming
Blue Danube Wines
Balancana – Zinfandel and Kaštela wine tour
Zinfandel.org