Website: Suha Punta Winery
Country Location: Croatia
Ancient stone-walled boxes known as ‘tirada’ protect low-yielding babić vines on Dalmatia’s windy coast, and a revered enology professor makes exceptional long lived wines that are redefining the region.
The people. The Gracin winery in Primošten was founded in 2000, by Leo Gracin and his father, Ante. In 2006 the Gracins formed a partnership with longtime friends Ivan Ratkovic and Lado Skorin, forming the Suha Punta company. It’s all very small-scale: Two vineyards in Bucavac and one in Šljinovac bring the total holdings of Suha Punta to 4.3 hectares. The winery is in what used to be Lado’s family home.
Wine comes into being through farming, art and craft, but Leo, who holds a Ph.D in enology, is first and foremost a scientist. We think of Leo, a professor of enology at the University of Zagreb, as a teacher who is obsessed with making great wine.
He understands—and continues to study—at an exceptionally fine level what is going on biologically in the vineyards as well as during fermentation and élevage. Although his connection with Primošten is originally familial, Leo has chosen to make wine here because he believes in its uniqueness, and potential for producing special wine.
Probably the most knowledgeable enologist in Croatia, a disciplined experimenter driven to find and exalt the truth of his unique plot of earth, Leo’s mission is to help forge the next generation of his country’s winemakers. Through his consulting firm, Vinolab, Leo continually serves as advisor to many established Croatian winemakers. Many top graduates from the University of Zagreb’s enology program join Vinolab to learn how to make wine with him on Suha Punta, the “windy cape” of Dalmatia.
The appellation. The culture, climate and landscape of Primošten are so distinct that the vineyards there have been officially nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sixty kilometers west of Split and 25 kilometers east of Šibenik, and at roughly 30 hectares the smallest appellation in Croatia, the islet of Primošten peers over the rocky coastline of Dalmatia, uniquely exposed to the elements: continual sun, marine atmosphere, stony soil, ferocious winds.
During Turkish invasions of 1542, the islet was protected by walls and towers that exist to this day, and by a drawbridge which offered the sole form of access to the mainland. When the Turks retreated, the drawbridge was replaced by a causeway, and in 1564 the settlement was named Primošten after the Croatia verb “premostiti” (“to span”).
These days the most assertive attacks come not from armies, but from winds so fierce that a unique technology was developed in defense: tirada, six-meter-square stone-walled boxes which block the gales and support the small head-trained vines. Tirada take about 500 hours and $3,600 to produce, by the few people who know how, using stones dug out of the vineyards’ nutrient-poor soil. Vines grown inside tirada yield suitable grapes only after four seasons.
When grape-growing began here, workers dug up stone just to uncover enough soil for roots to take hold. All that rock had to be put somewhere, and so what was initially an inconvenience became the source for functional beauty: the tirada themselves. The work is raw, difficult and pure. A picture of winegrowing in the Bucevac appellation of Primošten hangs at the United Nations as an ode to human labor.
But the vines may work even harder than their human caretakers. Cretaceous limestone and Dolomite soil anchor tough old vines, with generally low vineyard density sometimes dipping to 3,000 vines per hectare so yields per hectare are very low. The winds cool the sun-smacked grapes, but also serve to discourage pests (thereby reducing the need for pesticides and other chemical treatments) and blow the less hardy fruit clear off the vines, diminishing yield, driving more nutrients into fewer grapes, and concentrating sugars to offset the grapes’ high natural acidity.
In the vineyard. The environment is ideally suited to babić, an indigenous varietal (as well as common Croatian surname!) that is ancient cousin to Zinfandel -- which itself is originally Croatian. A tough sort, naturally high in acidity, babić benefits from the warming effect of the Adriatic and the stones’ ability to retain heat generated by almost ceaseless sun, it thrives in these near drought conditions. (Leo likes to see one good summer rain in the middle of the growing season, but that’s about all the water it needs.) Cooled only by the winds, the hardy grape produces wine that is fresh but quite ‘sauvage’. The environmental factors conspire to make enologically correct wine that does not require adjustments in the vineyards.
Gracin’s stumpy, pugnacious babić vines grow the way babić has here for centuries: in land that appears as a checkerboard of stone, called “stone lace” by the locals.
In Bucavac, the best known site for babić, each vine yields only a kilogram or so of grapes. Vines are trained goblet-style, head-trained with no wires or other support. Two or three canes per vine give four to seven clusters, producing between a half and one-and-a-half kilos of grapes. But the lesser quality portion of the regular harvest is lost during the “jugo” and “bura” winds. A pre-selection of sorts. Yield restriction is fundamental to quality wine. In Primošten this happens automatically, Without green harvest or intensive pruning the yields per plant and hectare are extremely low.
To augment the paltry dividend from Suha Punta, Gracin buys between 30 and 50 percent of their grapes for the Tirada wine, and roughly 70 percent for the Gracin. (Even after that, the average annual production is around 11,000 liters.) This is primo purchased fruit, most of it from Primošten vineyards that are up to 50 years old: You don’t want to sell to Leo unless you really know what you’re doing. He is brutally critical of almost every vineyard he enters, especially his own, and that’s because he is unconditionally committed to producing wines capable of long aging.
In the cellar. Leo does a lot with a little. His approach to vinification is openminded and diverse, though exceedingly gentle. He works with both indigenous and cultured yeasts. Wines are slowly fermented and aged in combinations of stainless steel tanks and both Slavonian and French barriques, with light filtration. These varied techniques yield a number of expressions derivative of the varietal and vintage, from which the wines emerge properly structured, balanced and full of character.
What little apparent new wood is detectable upon release is dwarfed by the character of the maturing wine within 5 years of the vintage.
But even earlier on, the most thrilling aspect of the wines themselves is a powerful sense of the sea. This is “friškina”, as unmistakeable an imprint of Dalmatia’s coast as “garrigue” is of southern France. “Friškina” is the inimitable whole picture of water, salt, fish and plant life that the ocean provides, and in a wine can whisper or scream depending on the producer.
Gracin’s “friškina” is a subtle but concentrated element, and provides a cooling effect on the ripe, potent babić. In the glass the wines merge a robust, even Zinfandel-like character with distinctly bracing lines of flavor and acidity that could come from nowhere else on Earth.
Joe Appel — Soul of Wine