Eager beaver that I am, I decided to hop on a 5:55 a.m. flight to Dubrovnik, so as not to miss a beat. My tour guides for the day picked me up at 7 a.m. and suggested that perhaps it was a better hour for a coffee than to hit the wine trails. No need to feign agreement here as I had just come off of a wine trip through Istria and thought maybe my own system could use a break from the fruit of the vine, at least for an hour or so.
We headed to the small coastal town of Cavtat. This was my first introduction to Dalmatia and everything about this charming little town was just that. We stepped out of the car and the first thing that hit me was the heady perfume hanging in the air, my senses instantly intoxicated. Looking around I couldn’t understand it, I saw plenty of flowers planted in the ground and window boxes, but I knew it wasn’t these geraniums and other colorful annuals perfuming the air with what smelled to me like jasmine or maybe honeysuckle. I learned later that the aromas were coming from the blossoms of the orange trees which grow all over Dalmatia.
We walked on through the quiet streets of this old coastal town. My father-and-son tour guides, Luka and Ljubo, just so happened to be local history buffs and I learned much about the architecture, history and important historical figures here in Cavtat as we walked down the winding pedestrian path through town.
This path winds lazily along the coastline of the cove, and I couldn’t resist the urge to dip my feet into the sea. We meandered over to a coffee bar and sipped on a macchiato before we would head into the off-the-beaten-path wine country that lies nearby in the region of Konavle. The cluster of coffee bars were all populated by locals at this hour, mostly men sipping on their coffees and reading the paper or conversing with their friends. They casually slip in and out of these local establishments, warmly greeting everybody they pass. In the time we spent sipping our coffee, we were joined by three different men, each stopping just for a few moments to say hello, catch up and move on.
From here we headed into rural Konavle, the region which borders Dubrovnik to the south.
First stop was at the big, industrial looking winery Dubrovački Podrumi. This winery is situated in a long valley protected from the sea by mountains on either side. The winery was originally built in 1877. With Božo, head of winery operations, we tasted first the Malvasija Dubrovačka (locally referred to as simply Malvasija). It’s is a different grape than the Malvazija Istarska that from Istria that I’ve become more familiar with. The flavors of the two different types of Malvasija/Malvazija don’t actually strike me as being such a far cry from one another, with similar flavors of peach and melon lurking in each. Here it’s a bit lemony, with some floral tones taking hold too. The main difference I notice between the two varietals from the two different regions is the mouthfeel. Here it’s more oily and fat, softer in acidity.
Artwork depicting the winemaking process adorns the walls of the large tasting rooms at Dubrovacka Podrumi in Konavle, Croatia.
We also tried a handful of other wines, all reds, including Zinfandel (Crnjelak) and a few international varietals before hitting the road. Dubrovački Podrumi is a very solid producer making some nice wines from international varietals at a reasonable enough price point.
We packed back into the car and headed off to see another producer, Marinović. A true “garage” winery, Marinović actually has quite a bit of land under vine, but no fancy winery or tasting room. Instead, it was a real treat to be led into his dining room to taste with his family. He’s producing just a few wines, and I couldn’t believe how much I liked them, each a very good complement to his homemade pršut (prosciutto), which had an intense, smoky flavor. A close family, everybody came out to say hello and join us, spanning three generations. We were treated to a concert on the lirica by the youngest member of the family. And great grandfather, a living legend in town, treated us to a robust recital of a local blessing, something he would have given in the regional costume, in the past when he was called upon to do so for local weddings or for a new vintage of wine. Despite his 83 years his eyes still sparkle like those of a little boy.
After leaving the Marinović home, we drove up winding roads through the beautiful mountains, stopping at last at a gathering of ancient looking stone buildings where we were greeted by our next host, Vlaho. This is where we were to have lunch, though it didn’t resemble a restaurant but rather the countryside property that someone might head to for a weekend escape. After walking around and visiting with Vlaho, I was treated to one of the most majestic vistas I’ve ever had the privilege to gaze out from.
This place had no signage to alert passers-by of the delicacies that lie within, and everything here was prepared by our host himself. We feasted on his creations, including salami, cheese, rakija (domestic brandies made from various herbs and fruits), and bread. Then, for the meal, we had slow roasted pork and vegetables cooked under the peka (a cast iron lidded pot which is filled with fish, meat or vegetables and buried in a trough under the ash of a live fire). He is currently the local champion of the regional cooking contest specialized in the preparation a regional cabbage dish called zelena menestra, and he brought out a huge platter of that to try as well. It was one of the most heavenly preparations of an otherwise pretty utilitarian vegetable that I have ever tried.
Later, as the festivities got underway, the guys in our group broke out into song, singing local songs (it would be the first time of many) as a guitar was pulled out of the corner. Then a few more songs, followed (naturally) by dancing. We were drinking Malvasija from one of the local wineries we had just visited and also spring water captured an hour before, and it was at times hard to believe we were in the twenty-first century. We enjoyed this afternoon in the ancient-feeling stone building with only a small makeshift kitchen and an outdoor cooking area, and I could only imagine how many people before had done exactly the same thing. I later learned that our host (and chef, and entertainer) Vlaho is a local war hero. During the time of the war he bravely made a daily trip under fire in his own armored vehicle so he could drive bread and water to others who were in peril and need of supplies.
Easier to find in this area is another restaurant, much more conventional but fascinating in its own right. It’s called Konavoski Dvori and was originally run by my own tour guide, Luka. This restaurant, nestled against the river Ljuta has been harnessing the river’s power for a number of years. The hydropower is used to grind flour from corn and to irrigate the gardens. Everything is still fully operational, including the original stone mill which the traditionally dressed employees will demonstrate for you. They also farm their own trout from a well located right on the terrace.
Before we were to board the boat to the island of Lopud where we were to make our base camp, we visited one more winery.
“I planned to retire at 60 and now that I’m 70 I’m working more than ever,” owner Andro Crvik cheerfully laments on this perfectly sunny afternoon, before turning our winery visit over to his son, Petar, so he can go work in the vineyards.
Crvik Winery is located in Konavle near the village of Čilipi and is definitely worth a visit. They started making wine since 1994, when they were using only the local grapes Maraština and Plavac. They’ve since expanded the plantings to include Malvasija, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as well. Petar, or Pero as he’s also called, has now taken over the bulk of the duties as winemaker and has shown that he’s open to experimenting, in terms of the wines and even the labels, which they’ve been adapted to create more visibility in the market.
We had the chance to taste a handful of the wines, from young fresh barrel samples to some incredibly interesting bottles from the archives, including a bottle of 2007 Malvasija which picked up all the flinty mineral tones of an aged Mosel Riesling. The 2003 from the archives (of which fourteen bottles remain) was reminiscent of both crème brulee and a Moscatel Sherry. Delicious. The fact that their wines have been able to stand the test of time is perhaps indication enough that these guys know what they’re doing.
It was time to hit the road again, and we headed to port where we made for the short sea voyage, joined by a few more visitors. Off to dinner and a relaxed evening on the island of Lopud, part of the Elefati Island chain…