The Craft of Kiridžija and Matković

Over a summer, two travelers drink their way through the wines of Mediterranean Europe

K Cellar
In Kiridžija’s cellars

While there is a great deal of large-scale wine production going on in Potomoje on the Pelješac peninsula, there are also a number of small producers who are crafting excellent wines on their own terms. They’re not easy to find and if you were to ask us where they were, we’d most likely have to point you to the first place we asked a person who knew a person who knew a person that eventually led to the homes and cellars of Kiridžija and Matković. Both of them are tucked away in homes where you’d never suspect that some fantastic wine making was taking place.

K Bottles
Kiridžija’s wines

We started with Kiridžija. He has been making wine for the last 12 years, which is right in line with most of the region, as that was the time when the former Yugoslavia fell apart and they were able to start producing on their own again. In his 300 year-old home, he produces small quantities of both Plavac and Dingač. Let us reiterate that these are actually the same grape, but grown in very different regions of the peninsula. His 2004 Plavac at 12.6% alcohol retails for about $5 and has a nice, rich nose that had mint, berry, and tobacco aromas. The body was very pleasing as well with a buttery finish that really reigns in the sharp, dry tones that can be common in lesser Plavac vintages. The 2006 Dingač, with a rather hefty 16.4% alcohol, is so deep and flavorful that it is dangerous. Aged in Hungarian oak, the body is succulent and you really want to keep it on your palate as long as you can. Over the oak there also emerges some nicely subtle, sweet berry flavors.
For now, Kiridžija is enjoying his wine and exports part of his very small production to a very lucky Switzerland. As for what the future holds, that is a bit more uncertain because, like a great many wine makers in this region, he has two children who aren’t going to pick up the craft and one who is too young to start, but might down the road, only time will tell. Whatever the case ends up being, we hope that these wines will continue to be made.

M Taste
Tasting Matković’s Plavac

Then there is Petar Matković, whose family started making wine in 1536. He is from the 14th generation of wine makers! Sure, there have been some starts and stops in there due to such things as Communism, but the tradition continued regardless. Currently, they sell a great deal of their grapes to the local cooperative, but they also keep a small portion to produce 3,000 bottles of Dingač and 15,000 bottles of Plavac. Currently, they pick from 30,000 vines, but have planted some new vines in the Dingač region that they’ll start harvesting soon.

M Bottles
Matković’s wines

We tasted the 2004 Dingač which had a great, soft nose of tobacco aromas and a smooth finish. It was a bit light on fruit aromas and flavors, which is most likely attributed to the oak flavors taking over from the six months it spent in French oak. We then also tried the 2004 Plavac which had quite a bit more fruit than the Dingač, yet had more of the deep, frothy nose that we’ve become accustomed to in the the Dingač. But overall, a very quiet, subtle, and easy to drink Plavac.
While they are producing rather different wines, these two producers are craftsmen and we included them in the same article, because their approach is the same: small production, based on a love of the grape.

Miličić: A Hobby Goes Big

Over a summer, two travelers drink their way through the wines of Mediterranean Europe

Pavo Miličić had a long career working on the sea. He eventually made his way up the ranks to being a captain and worked in the cruise industry for some time. Despite traveling the world, winemaking was in his blood though. Like many in the Pelješac region, his family were growing wine previous to WWII when they stopped due to the new Communist regime not allowing any private wine production.
planTwenty years ago, Pavo started to try his hand at the grape again. Time passed and what started as a hobby quickly grew in to a company that produces about 300,000 bottles a year now. The production level of his winery has gotten so large that a year ago he formally quit his seafaring job to focus solely on his wines and built a new, larger facility that could produce upwards of 500,000 bottles. For all appearances, he seems to be handling the transition in stride and showed us around despite being deep in the middle of construction.

We tasted everything straight from the barrels as many of his wines are still in the process of aging for the new year. His 2006 Plavac has a very good tobacco nose with a hint of berries. You can really taste and smell the oak in it, but at the same time, it’s quite deep and flavorful. The 2006 was a step deeper than the Plavac with even more tobacco and a nice smooth finish.
tasteTo close out our tastes we had both the 2004 and the 2005 Dingac. The 2004 was just about to be bottled and has aged excellently. The nose is nice and earthy. The body has undertones of chocolate and pepper to it. Pavo says that he’s going to age it a bit more in the bottle and once it goes on sale, we’re sure it will be a hit. The 2005 is also bound to be popular and seems to be aging itself in to a very complex wine. While it’s far from being bottled, there are some lovely cinnamon and spice aromas in the nose. The body and smooth and light from start to finish and just as you’re getting the last taste of it, a great tickle of pepper hits your palate. Tying all this together are smooth and luxurious butter tones that really mark the wine as a future winner.

Pavo is headed in some great directions with his wines and it will he’ll be an interesting Croat to follow in the years to come.

Two-Donkey Matuško

Over a summer, two travelers drink their way through the wines of Mediterranean Europe

To distinguish themselves from their very close neighbor, the Dingač winery, Matuško has been putting two donkeys on their label to make them distinct from the one donkey that Dingač uses. The differences aren’t label-deep though, as Matuško is a much smaller winery, producing 500,000 bottles a year that are sourced mainly from their own vines that are nine hectares in size.

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Their winery is very friendly and set up to receive tour groups who can get a tasting of all 11 wines that they produce. Additionally, there is a downstairs tasting room with old farming implements and salutes to the donkeys that are no longer needed to carry the grapes over the mountain from the Dingač vineyards now that the Dingač Tunnel exists.

barrelsWe were told by our host that while we may see donkeys in the region still, they are strictly for the purposes of tourists and then their lives are much easier now. We selected several wines for tasting from their lineup and started with the 2006 Rukatac. This is light white wine, which is also called Maraština in areas such as Konavle, further south from Pelješac. It is a bit different from the typical Maraština though in that it’s a bit less fruity. The nose is still light and there is a slight ‘waffle’ quality to it which is quite pleasing.

While Pošip is only grown on Korčula (where Matuško sources their grapes) we decided to see what they did with those grapes. In the 2004 that we tasted, we found the nose to be more delicate than standard Pošip with a crème dessert aspect to it. The body was a bit noisier than other Pošips though and didn’t have a clear makeup to it. The finish however, was quite smooth.

When starting on the reds, we tried the 2005 Plavac Mali. The wine is rather light at 12.2% alcohol, but the nose is sweet and very tasty. These characteristics carry through to the body and then the finish that despite being a very dry wine makes for a tasty, smooth finish.

Matuško, like Dingač winery, makes a Dingač wine. Theirs is quite different from the Dingač Winery one, which is a characteristic we commonly found in how different all these Dingač were based on just a slight change to their growing angle on the slope of the mountain. The 2004 vintage that we tried was very good and a very distinct wine. There were peach aromas and even a hint of tomato to the nose. Another aroma in there we couldn’t really place a name on other than to say ‘chutney’. But overall, everything, from the nose to the body to the finish was vastly different from other Plavac and other Dingač that we’d had. To describe this wine would really not do it justice, as every person will get a different flavor from it.

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Overall, Matuško puts out a good selection of wines that are very representative of Potomje where they are located and of the Pelješac region in general.

One-Donkey Dingač

Over a summer, two travelers drink their way through the wines of Mediterranean Europe

There is a bit of confusion surrounding the wine producer, Dingač on the Pelješac Peninsula in Croatia. The issue primarily revolves around the fact that the major wine region in Pelješac is called Dingač and that this is also the name of this company. This in by itself wouldn’t be so bad except that several other winemakers in the area also make a wine which is called Dingač, because their wines are made from the high-quality grapes of this region. So, to clear this up once and for all, the wine producer, Dingač, is what’s left from the cooperative that was built there in 1982 for wine production in what was then, Yugoslavia, and the one that features a donkey logo in its wine labels.

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The cooperative had been actively producing wines before then, since about 1960. Today, they still function in a similar fashion wherein they buy the grapes from small, local farmers for large-scale wine production to the tune of 1.5 million liters a year. The big difference between now and before the fall of communism is that grape growers now have the choice of whether they want to sell their grapes to the cooperative or not.

In the end, this maybe doesn’t clear up the confusion, since one of the wines that the Dingač company produces is also called Dingač, to differentiate it from the other wines they produce from grapes grown in their vineyards not located in the dingač region, such as their Postup or Plavac.

bottleDuring our visit we tried four of their wines. There was the 2004 Plavac at 11.6% alcohol. It had a very dry body with a dry nose that had a hint of blackberry to it. Then there was the 2004 Pelješac with 11.9% alcohol. It had a similar nose to the Plavac, but the body was lighter with sharp berry tones that were a bit tart.

We then moved on to the “quality” level wines which are the mid-range wines. The 2004 Postup, made from grapes of a region to the north of Dingač, had a lovely mint and licorice nose to it, at 14.2% alcohol. There wre stronger fruits in the body, as well as a great smoothness to it. The finish was quite dry as we’ve found to be similar in other Postups.

We finished with their namesake, the Dingač. The 2004 has 14.1% alcohol and that extra heat to the wine goes a long way to making it a deeper wine. The nose has similar berry aromas like the other wines we tasted, but also has a good deal of tobacco. The body is very smooth and that texture pulls all the way through the taste and in to the finish. Overall, this wine has a much stronger earthiness to it than a standard Plavac (Dingač is made from Plavac grapes) and there is a leafy quality to the wine that you can both smell and taste.

Dingač, a Very Unique Wine-Growing Region in Southern Dalmatia

Over a summer, two travelers drink their way through the wines of Mediterranean Europe

Pelješac is a 65km long peninsula in Southern Dalmatia, about an hour north of Dubrovnik, which produces some of the best wines in Croatia. The majority of them are produced from the red Plavac Mali grapes grown in a thin strip of land of only 2km in the Southwestern side of the peninsula, known as the Dingač region.

above

Dingač comprises the lower half of a steep mountain that runs along the sea by the village of Potomje on the other side of the mountain. For centuries, the people of Potomje and the surrounding villages had to travel on donkeys, horses or mules to tend to the vineyards in the Dingač slope, on the other side of the mountain. They also had to bring their yearly harvest by those same beasts of burden to Potomje, to crush and age the grapes. Naturally, this was a very labor intensive process, so in the early 1970’s all the wine growing families in the area decided to pool their money and order the construction of a tunnel through the mountain. This tunnel, which was finished in 1973, made life a lot easier for the Dingač wine growing, although the vineyards in the region still need to be tended by hand due to the inclination and sheer ruggedness of the land.

tunnel

This is an area that is always sunny, even when in Potomje, on the other side of the mountain, it’s snowing as happens every couple of years, and thus it produces high quality grapes with a very deep and distinctive taste. Also, depending on the position of the vineyards on the slope, the inclination, how they face the sun or how close they are to the sea, they can produce grapes with quite a different taste in spite of literally growing next to each other.

vines

In Peješac, everybody’s family seems to have been sailors and winegrowers, and thus vineyards cover the whole peninsula. bottleHowever, only a few of the winegrowers actually produce wine for sale, with most of them selling their grapes to the local cooperatives and making only a small amount for their own family and friends to consume. This is something that most families in Pelješac have been doing for centuries, until communist Yugoslavia was created and they were banned from producing wine even in small amounts for the household. With the end of Yugoslavia nearly two decades ago, wine production is quickly growing in the area again and old vineyards that withered away are coming back to life.

The biggest winery in the area is the Dingač cooperative, which currently produces half a million liters of wine a year. It produces four types of red Plavac Mali wines: Plavac, Pelješac, Postup and, of course, Dingač. Despite these all being from the same grape varietal, the plavac mali, it is only the Dingač that comes from the grapes on the other side of this half a kilometer tunnel through the mountain.

Miljas – A Family Rebuilds

Over a summer, two travelers drink their way through the wines of Mediterranean Europe.

sign

The home of the Miljas family was built in 1897 when the great-grandfather of the family began to produce wines in the Konavle Region at the southern-most tip of Croatia. With the invention of Yugoslavia, their winemaking stopped as they had to feed their grapes in to the general collective for wine production and could not produce it themselves. As Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia, they again began to produce, but only to be forced to abandon their homes when the Yugoslav Army rolled in to the area for a lengthy occupation. While their vines didn’t immediately suffer any damage, the fact that they couldn’t tend to them caused a great deal of harm to the old vines and they were forced to replant nearly all of their vines. Thankfully, they did not have to contend with landmine removal as a great many winemakers in the area of Slavonia did, which greatly sped up the process of replanting. Today, they are growing again and producing good quality wines from the region.

Like most wineries in Konavle, they were very hard to find and are actually in a small village, which as it turns out is two kilometers from one village, four from another, and maybe eight or maybe seven from another. Suffice to say, we ended up circling for a bit before finding the house where they do their production. Located in the floor of the valley that is Konavle, the vines stretch out in all directions from their home. Some are theirs, some are their neighbors, but one trait you see again and again is that these are mostly all young vines. This might be why in their current production of 16,000 a year, 70% white wines as these come across with great fruity flavors, despite the young age of the vines. The Maraština (also called Rukatac in other areas) was very bright with piquant citrus tones to both the nose and the body. In a competition for the region, it had won the gold medal in its class in 2003.

We also tasted the 2005 Plavac that they make which despite being a bit young, they were still enthusiastic about letting us taste. It will need a bit more time in the barrel though, as the nose hasn’t fully worked itself out. The body was quite good and the oak had set up well with it. In another six months, it would be interesting to taste the wine to see how it takes to a bit more oak and glass, as it holds a great deal of promise, because the 2004 from the bottle is a very solid, dry example of the wine that makes for a good drink.

Like many places we’ve been visiting during this trip, it’s very encouraging to see an old family business come back to life and start again with what they do best.

miljas

Large Production at Dubrovački Podrumi

Over a summer, two travelers drink their way through the wines of Mediterranean Europe.

The Konavle region is at the most southern point of Croatia, even further south than Dubrovnik, bordering Montenegro. Historically, it was the region that produced all of the food for what was the Ragusan Republic and is present-day Dubrovnik. These days, the fields are covered with a great many grapevines and a lot of that feeds in to Dubrovački Podrumi, which is a very large wine producer in Gruda, a small town at the southern end of Konavle.

Upon first glance, the building is anything but welcoming. The concrete construction that echoes the “aesthetic” of Socialist construction is menacing. There is no business name out front and we had to look for the tell-tale signs of new bottles on palettes to know we were in the right place. With some rather awkward Croatian, we talked to a worker who was leaving for lunch and were guided around to the other side of the building where they’ve built a very pleasant tasting room, but without any signs pointing you there. Upon entering, we could see why the signs were scarce, since it was very apparent that they were set up for large tour buses to come through on scheduled trips. Only two people on a wine tasting quest were something of an anomaly. Regardless, they were very hospitable, found someone in the office who had the best English, and took us in for a tasting.bottle1

Dubrovački Podrumi produces a wide range of wines and they let us taste several of them. We first started with their basic table wines. The 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon was a light wine at 12.3% alcohol that had subtle fruit tones and licorice flavors that kicked back in to a smooth finish. The 2004 Plavac at 12.5% alcohol was very dry, but had a light, delicate nose that was surprising given the quality level of the wine. These were both below six euros a bottle, so it’s easy to see how they’re regarded as basic, everyday wines given the price.
bottle2Our host then pulled out two of their higher-cost wines that started at 22 euros a bottle. The 2004 Trajectum was very good. The nose had a bit of rose to it which made the body difficult to describe, despite it being made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. A little bit of berry, a touch of mint, and a slight earthiness are the words that came to mind for this wine. Very tasty, but it would be a big departure for the normal Cab drinker, although some might really enjoy that.

The other wine we tasted of this level was the 2004 Merlotina. Straight out of the bottle, it was phenomenal. The nose had great plums tones to it as well as an aroma that, for lack of a better word should be described as delicate cake. Through the body, you could almost taste the earthy stones from which the vines grow. It is comprised of 100% Merlot and is at least on a par if not higher quality than most Merlots we’ve had in California.

Visiting Crvik Winery

Over a summer, two travelers drink their way through the wines of Mediterranean Europe.

vines

Čilipi is a small town in Croatia near Dubrovnik and it’s not known to many foreigners as being anything other than home to the airport for Dubrovnik. But, just over a hill or two, in a village of Čilipi called, Komaji is the family winery of Crvik.

It’s a nice, out of the way setting that is very much off the beaten path and takes some searching to find. There, in a little vale, Crvik grows their two hectares of vines amongst a very forested area that is a sharp contrast to the rugged grey rocks that are a dominant part of the Damatian Coast of Croatia. Like most wineries, they also source grapes from the Konavle region as well to meet their 100,000 liter a year production. All of this is barrel-aged in oak from Slavonia, the top, eastern-most region of Croatia.bottles

Like most wineries in the region, the breakup of Yugoslavia was very tragic for them. They lost all their old vines because they were unable to tend to them and had to replant everything again upon returning home after the war. Thus, all of their wines are from new vines, but that doesn’t mean they’re lacking in any depth. The Plavac that we tasted had a bit of chocolate to the nose with a strawberry finish. It also wasn’t as dry as a typical Plavac. Their two white wines, Maraština (also called Rukatac in other regions) and Malvasija both had great fruit and sweetness to them. The Maraština was bright and crisp, with a hint of grapefruit that led in to a fruity finish. The Malvasija was a quite a bit more fruity and had a deep body, which was to be expected given that it was just a semi-dry wine.

In addition to these, they also have a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which we unfortunately couldn’t taste. But, given the backdrop of having to start from the ground up just 10 years ago, this small group is turning out some good wines.

The First Release of Perafita

Over a summer two travelers drink their way through the wines of Mediterranean Europe.

vines
While staying in Catalonia, we set out from Figueres to make a day trip to Cadaqués. Due to misunderstanding of roundabout, we ended up on the isolated northern beaches of Roses, but managed to eventually twist and turn our way back to the right road. This delay ended up being incredibly lucky as it had us driving over the top of a hill where the vineyards of Perafita are located. We entered the winery at the exact right time to visit while they were having their grand release day for their very first wines: Perafita 2005, Cadac 2004, Muscatel 2006, and Garnatxa 2006.
cadacThe Perafita and Cadac were both reds. Perafita was the lighter of the two, even though it had an alcohol content at 14.5%. You could really taste the Merlot and Garnatxa in the blend as the Cabernet Sauvignon seemed to be propping those two up more than the other way round. It also had strong oak flavors to it that came through very well. The Cadac was much deeper and approached a more standard California alcohol level of 15% in an area where most wines are around 12%. It had already aged well, despite coming from rather new vines that were planted in 2001. Given another year in the bottle, it will most likely develop an even deeper body to it that will carry the 64% Cabernet Sauvignon of the wine very, very well. It will be interesting to see how the Garnatxa that makes up the rest of the wine will blend with the Cab over time and if the spicy perfume in the nose will increase or fade.

The most interesting element to these two reds is that it seemed like you could taste the sea in them. This would seem obvious given that you can see the Costa Brava from their hills and it took several tastes to really believe that this was true. But, according to the owner’s son, Rafel Martín Faixó, we were not the first people to notice this.

In addition to these reds, we also tasted their two sweet wines: Muscatel and Garnatxa. Both of these were very good, very deep and flavorful. The Muscatel was the stand out of these two with wonderful flavors that swirled around the palate and had a great, smooth finish.
rafaDespite being inadvertent party crashers to the event, we were treated very well and saw that this was indeed a family-run business with Rafa, Carme, and their three children: Ester, Georgina, and Rafel all taking part in the event and very happy to talk passionately about their wines at great length. We found this ironic given that the winery originally started as a hobby to provide wines for their family restaurant in Cadaqués. Over the years, this has eventually grown to the size it is today and located in a grand house that was first mentioned in historical documents in 1387. We were just happy in our driving mistake which led us to the premiere of these wines and yes, we did eventually find our way to Cadaqués.

An Extensive Tasting at Espelt

Over a summer, two travelers drink their way through the wines of Mediterranean Europe

taste

Given the setting, Espelt is a young winery that was founded in 2000 on a family property in Vilajuïga in northeastern Catalonia, led by the eldest daughter Anna Espelt who studied enology in the US. In spite of being a traditional, family-run business, it is a cutting edge winery with experimental vine growing techniques and labels designed by Mariscal (famous for having designed the mascot of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics). With this in mind, it’s not surprising that in only five releases it has become the biggest winery in the area (the D.O. Empordà) with the largest vineyards. The vast majority of those vineyards are located inside two natural parks in the area, producing mostly local varietals, such as Carinyena (Carignane) and Garnatxa (Granache). In the natural park of the rugged Cap de Creus, the easternmost cape of Spain, Espelt has reintroduced vines planted in the traditional terraces of dry stones. This area had been a historical wine-producing region until the phylloxera plague destroyed all of it in the late 1800’s and since that point the land was left barren.
terresWe had the chance to taste almost the whole range of Espelt wines in their store in Vilajuïga, which includes four whites, two rosés, four reds, four sweets and two caves (Catalan champagne). Being red lovers, our absolute favorite was the upscale Comabruna, a blend of Syrah, Carinyena and Marselan. Produced from grapes that are not sourced and grown only on the Espelt estate, Comabruna is a very deep and smooth wine that has a wonderful plushness free of any sharp tannins. For those that don’t want to spend 20€ on a bottle, another suggestion is Terres Negres (Black Lands), a blend of 30% Merlot and 70% Cabernet. With a similar finish than Comabruna but a lighter nose and overall body, Terres Negres at 12€ is possibly a better value wine with a lovely taste.

Of the whites that we tasted, one that stood out for us, was Quinze Roures (15 Oaks), a blend of white garnatxa and macabeo. This wine has earned a good degree of fame for being served in what is reputed to be the best restaurant in the world, El Bulli. It tasted a lot like a California Sauvignon Blanc with the slightly sweet, but more tannic finish of a Pinot Grigio.
vinesWe ended our visit with a taste of Espelt’s famous sweet wines, Solivent (muscatel) and Airam (garnatxa) that also have cheaper “young” versions simply called Moscatell jove and Garnatxa jove (jove being the Catalan word for young). Both very enjoyable sweet wines, Solivent having a very smooth taste that gives you a hint of green olives, and Airam with its light Garnatxa flavors presenting extremely round, caramel tones.