“From wine what sudden friendship springs!” – John Gay
We started the day in the seaside city of Trogir, Croatia on a quest to find Zinfandel’s ancestral home. By the day’s end, we’d not only savored many splendid glasses of wine, we’d also acquired a greater appreciation of Croatian culture while broadening our circle of international friends. Our wine tasting tour in Split and Kaštela was brilliantly crafted by Alan Mandic at Secret Dalmatia, whose personal network of friends passionate about Croatia made it all possible.
We instantly clicked with our guide, Srdjan, who picked us up in his white Lada 4×4, that he’d playfully introduced as ‘the vineyard car.’ Events later in the day would vindicate the car’s namesake.
Srdjan, who has a Master’s degree in Hospitality, studied at Cornell University for a time, resulting in impeccable English. As we drove, he explained how he previously transported his bandmates and their instruments in the ‘vineyard car.’ Now, it was used to drive his international guests on tours of Croatian wine country.
Our first stop was the Klub Gurmuna i Hedonista wine bar in Split, owned by Igor, a jovial host who had perfected his English in Florida while playing basketball there for several years. Igor’s wine bar, not far from Diocletian’s fourth-century palace, had an intimate setting with stone walls, twisted iron accents, and shelves of colorful wine labels. A model sailboat and a guitar adorned the bookshelves, hinting at Igor’s other passions. Wooden trays laden with sun-dried tomatoes, spicy bell peppers and cubes of dry cheese awaited us on the table.
Igor tied on his apron, bringing out a bottle of his 2010 Fango label Pošip. Pošip is a white wine, similar to Viognier, grown on the island of Korčula. We appreciated the wine’s brilliant straw color, citrus notes, and crisp finish. The trio of finger foods, sourced from local establishments, perfectly balanced out the Fango.
Next on the flight of wines was the 2010 Paradox, a Merlot also hailing from Korčula. Korčula is known for its white wines, hence the red Merlot’s aptly-chosen name. The wine had a charcoal ruby color and a velvety finish.
As we swirled, sipped and savored the wine, we listened as the duo shared insightful anecdotes on Croatian history and culture. Srdjan’s family had inherited land from his grandmother that would be ideal for growing grapes, be it not for the landmines that still lurk there from the Homeland War of the early 1990s. He was uncertain when or if the land would be demined.
Igor shared more upbeat memories of times when his grandmother and friends crushed grapes with their feet. One celebrated grape crusher was a neighborhood basketball player who wore size 15 shoes.
The pièce de résistance of the afternoon at Klub Gurmuna i Hedonista was the Vinoleto, a blend of red wine, liqueur and spices made by Igor’s friend on Korčula. As we sipped it, cozy, fireside holiday gatherings came to mind. No wonder Igor had dubbed it the “crowd pleaser.” It was exemplary.
With a full itinerary still ahead, we reluctantly bid farewell to Igor. We hope to return someday and partake in Igor’s and Srdjan’s more in-depth tasting program, which consists of a flight of wines from four of Croatia’s wine-growing regions: Dalmatia, Istria, the Central Region and Slavonia.
After leaving Split and passing by 1,700 year-old aqueducts and rugged limestone hills, we were welcomed by bright yellow mimosa flowers at the Putalj Winery in the town of Kaštela.
Kaštela is where Zinfandel’s ancestor, Crljenak Kaštelanski, was ultimately discovered in 2000. Croatian immigrants to the United States had long suspected that California Zinfandel grapes were related to the ones they left behind in the old country. Many say that celebrated Croatian-American winemaker Mike Grgich should be credited with helping to conclusively prove Zinfandel’s roots in Croatia.
Anton, the proprietor of Putalj Winery, greeted us, whisking us off to a tasting room where we sampled a 2012 Rosé Zinfandel, a 2012 Plavac Mali, and a 2012 Crljenak Kaštelanski, straight from the aluminum fermentation tanks. (Plavac Mali is a blend between Crljenak Kaštelanski and Dobričić grapes.)
The Rosé Zinfandel (less sweet than a White Zinfandel) was light, crisp and fruity. The Plavac Mali, in addition to lacking astringency, had a very distinguishable buttery flavor and a smooth finish. The Crljenak Kaštelanski, or Zinfandel, was outstanding! If it had that much finesse while still in its youth, we can only imagine what it’ll be like in a few more years.
Next door to the fermentation room was Anton’s cozy cellar, where we were treated to feta cheese, a fresh baguette, sardines, Anton’s homemade olive oil, and a bottle of 2011 Crljenak Kaštelanski. Given Anton’s knack at hosting, we were surprised to hear that we were some of his first guests. We were also fascinated to learn how Anton had gotten into the wine business. His grandfather had dabbled in winemaking on a small scale and his parents were farmers. As a result, Anton had inherited land and began investing in wine-making equipment.
Before the golden hour was over, Anton and Srdjan were eager to take us to the vineyards that Anton’s family had been tending for nearly a century. We again piled into Srdjan’s Lada, traversing bumpy limestone hills, and arriving at Anton’s vines, which were just starting to show signs of springtime reawakening. The setting was stunning: a panoramic view of Split, the Adriatic, and partially-planted vineyards.
Anton pointed to a petite white church off in the distance, explaining that documentation was housed inside attesting to Zinfandel’s 1,000 year-old origins in the area.
“Zinfandel was born here,” Anton said proudly.
Someday, on the cusp of harvest, we will make a return visit and see the vines fully awakened.
For our third and final stop, we paralleled the sparkling Adriatic, arriving at a tasting room/restaurant called Vagabundo. An antique grape-hauling wagon stood guard outside.
A timeless image of our host, Jakša Bedalov, hung on the brick wall in the entryway. In it, Jakša sits at a bistro-style café table, enjoying a glass of wine in a scene almost identical to the one we’d just savored. We would later learn that Jakša’s family has been growing grapes on those vineyards for more than 700 years. More than half of his vineyards can only be accessed by hand.
Upon our entry, Jakša handed us glasses of Trešnjevaca (cherry brandy) as an aperitif, and led us to comfortable, barrel-style chairs. Then, he slowly unveiled his amazing four-course dinner offerings.
The first course consisted of a delightful white wine called a Maraština, which was paired with a Sea Bass Salad. The sea bass was marinated in a delicate blend of orange and lemon juice, olive oil, and Tabasco sauce, and garnished with a prawn and capers. It was served on a bed of endive lettuce. We were pleased to learn that Jakša’s wines are all organic.
I was impressed by Jakša’s penchant for wining and dining guests, so as he transitioned from kitchen to table, I asked him where he learned the art of gastronomy.
“It is a hobby for me. I approach food and wine with soul and love.”
For the second course, we were treated to a bottle of Kaštelanski Opol, which is a mélange of Zinfandel and other varietals. This Rosé wine was accompanied by Zinfandel Risotto, Spinach-Zucchini Risotto, and a Mixed Green Salad with a Vinaigrette. Though I will someday try to duplicate Jakša’s risotto in our own kitchen, I’m not certain I’ll be able to even come close. Simply put, it was divine. What a perfect offering to serve in the ancestral home of Zinfandel!
The third course was comprised of a 2010 Crljenak Kaštelanski, wisely paired with a Tuna in Pašticada Sauce. Pašticada is a traditional Dalmatian dish that is often served at weddings and other important feasts. The sauce usually accompanies beef, but Jakša revised the recipe, knowing my ‘selectarian’ meat preferences. Polenta rounded off the course, and the dishes were garnished with rosemary and parsley, harvested from Jakša’s own garden. We appreciated hearing that the tuna was caught in a sustainable fashion. Jakša rounded out the third course with a unique and vibrant wine, a 2009 Plavac Mali. It was a brilliant Meritage of Plavac Mali, Crljenak Kaštelanski, and Dobricic grapes.
By this time, uncertain I could indulge in any more hedonistic undertakings, Jakša surprised us with a light, sweet dessert: sugared almonds, cashews, and dried cranberries and papaya. A 2006 Tequila Kaštela finished off the course.
As with the other two taste experiences of the day, we’d love to return to Jakša’s. We can only imagine how beautiful it would be to savor his splendid offerings on Vagabundo’s terrace overlooking the Adriatic.
Our wine-tasting experience was provided by Secret Dalmatia, a small business that specializes in crafting unique, custom-tailored Croatia tours. We admire Secret Dalmatia’s aim to educate and expose visitors to Croatia’s cultural and natural heritage, while preserving and promoting it.
Hvala / many thanks to Alan Mandic, the founder of Secret Dalmatia for hosting us for this day’s activities. While planning the day, Alan was attentive to my dietary restrictions as a gluten-intolerant diner and ‘selectarian.’ Without him, we never would’ve found these special establishments. We’d also like to thank our guide, Srdjan, and our hosts, Igor, Anton and Jakša. They were quick-to-laugh, attentive and patient, while exuding a contagious passion for their businesses and homeland. They provided us with the exact type of cultural, educational and off-the-beaten path experience that we seek when exploring a new destination.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. My husband, Shawn, created the video footage.