Dalmatian Sun and Wine : A Sunny Landscape, Bounteous Grapes, and a Newfound Freedom Make the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia the Perfect Place to Explore Some Excellent Yet-to-Be-Discovered Wines

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"It has a marvelous color." That was the beginning of my crash course on wine--and Croatian wines in particular. "Just hold the glass against a white background like your sleeve and notice how dark or pale it is," explained Ed McCarthy, coauthor with his wife, Mary Ewing-Mulligan, of Wine for Dummies.

As the only travel writer on a trip with wine enthusiasts, wine critics, and wine journalists, I just sat and listened, soaking in the unexpected education on all things wine-related--barrels, fermentation, corks, vintage, viscosity, color (as mentioned), and, of course, grapes. I honestly can't remember what wine was being discussed, and it doesn't really matter. But after a week of seeing Croatia through the eyes of several wine authorities, I came away with a deeper appreciation for both the wine and the country.

Though I had traveled in southeastern Europe before, this was my first trip to Croatia, so I needed a primer on the country's history and geography, as well as wine. A quick look at any regional map will confirm that its boomerang shape (some say crescent or flying bird) is a testament to regional struggles. But it was not always so oddly shaped. A thousand years ago it was round--encompassing modern-day Bosnia--prompting some staunch patriots to say, however politically incorrect, that Bosnia is the "heart of Croatia."

As I studied a Croatian map, I quickly spotted a couple more geographical curiosities--a narrow stretch of Dalmatian coast at Neum conceded to Bosnia creates its only access to the sea, and Dubrovnik sits at the very southern tip of the country on a narrow strip of land that lies only a few miles over the mountains from Bosnia.

Some historians say the whole Balkan mess started back in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo when several Balkan kingdoms joined forces against the Turks but lost, ironically turning the battlefield into a sacred Serbian site. Even though the Turks won that day, the death of their leader and having to deal with invaders from the East delayed their return for 150 years, at which time the Ottoman Empire engulfed the entire region.

The end of World War II saw the creation of a "united Yugoslavia" under Tito, but the six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia) retained their identity, and seminal animosities continued due to different religions and ethnicities. According to Albanian writer IsmaOl KadarA, the author of Three Elegies for Kosovo [see "Poet of Freedom," page 287], Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic began his demonic siege of modern-day Kosovo and the other former Yugoslav republics as some demented six hundredth anniversary of the defeat in 1389. From my point of view, the only positive result of that action was the subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia as Croatia and other republics quickly declared independence.

Croatia's geography dictates three climates--Mediterranean, mountainous, and continental. The horizontal top half of the boomerang, where Zagreb is situated, is "on the Continent," with cold winters and warm summers. The edge of the vertical bottom half of the boomerang forms the thin Dalmatian coast, while the country's mountainous region lies a few miles inland.

It is said that 80 percent of the Dalmatian coast of Croatia is or will be dependent on tourism for its survival. An informed person would also add wine to that equation. With near-Mediterranean sunshine and warm temperatures, much of the coast there is perfect for wine production. In fact, the area experiences a double ripening effect--the direct sun from the south and southwest, as well as the sun's reflection off the Adriatic.

Peninsula of wine

Nowhere does this equation work better than on Croatia's Peljesac Peninsula, which branches off from the mainland an hour's drive north of Dubrovnik. At a fork in the road at Mali Ston, we detoured onto the forty- mile-long peninsula, whose sunny southern slopes are perfect for viticulture. …