Meet les enfants terribles of Croatian winemaking

Meet les enfants terribles of Croatian winemaking
Trapan is one of a growing number of wineries started by young winemakers.
By Nicholas Watson in Prague May 27, 2016

News in April that Croatia now has over 40,000 winemakers was a rebuke to those who predicted dire consequences for the country’s wine industry after it joined the EU in 2013. Encouragingly, winemaking in Croatia today is also becoming a young person’s game.

That the Croatian wine industry is finally emerging from a long shadow of decline is not in doubt. Viticulture in Croatia dates back about 2,500 years and by the end of the 19th century there were more than 100,000 hectares under cultivation. But the 20th century wasn’t kind to the industry, with a combination of wars and communism destroying vast swathes of the vineyards and associated infrastructure, and interrupting any progress in terms of technology and improving quality.

Yet according to a recent survey by the Croatian Bureau of Statistics, there were 41,188 winemakers operating in Croatia in 2015, with their vineyards covering 20,885 hectares of land. That’s a significant improvement from 20 years ago, but still a far cry from its heyday. “Croatia 100 years ago had 10, 20 times more vineyards than today, but the problems in history with communism and war really slowed us. France, Italy have spent the last 1,000 years steadily progressing,” says 36-year-old Slaven Jelicic of the Galic winery in the Kutyvo area of inland Croatia.

Still, most agree that the past two decades since the country’s independence from Yugoslavia have seen the beginnings of a renaissance in Croatian winemaking, which is all the more remarkable given the general industrial decline and economic gloom that have been a feature of the country. Vineyards have got back on their feet, some with the help of EU money, and, crucially, more young people are breathing new life into an industry whose small family-run operations had focused primarily on cheap plonk for the local market.

Many of the young, emerging winemakers either got into the business because their family owned some small vineyards or they studied oenology at university, a common enough course within the country’s agriculture faculties. But rather than stick with the tried and tested, their greater worldliness has helped them strike out on their own. “All of the young winemakers in Croatia have spent some time abroad and that has to affect you; you cannot just go and do the same old thing after you’ve seen what they’re doing in Australia and New Zealand,” says Rikard Petric, a 31-year-old who heads up the Stina winery on the island of Brac.

Petric was tempted straight out of college into a project by entrepreneur Jako Andabak to rebuild viticulture on the island off the Adriatic coast, which included getting rid of everything from the old cooperative winery except for some exterior walls of the building, and introducing new equipment, new vines, new people (“we have one of the youngest staffs in all of Croatia”) and a “new philosophy”.

Philosophy is a word commonly used by today’s new generation of winemakers, something perhaps taken to its apogee by Darko Petrovic, the resident philosopher at Alen Bibic’s BIBICh Winery in Dalmatia. Inspired by Bela Hamvas, a Hungarian writer, philosopher and social critic famous for his short book “The Philosophy of Wine”, Petrovic dismisses the “traders that peddle their wine knowledge about the 1,350 wine components” and urges wine-drinkers to look beyond the physical parameters of wine to embrace its ‘soul’, which he says Bibic is dedicated to bringing out.

Anthony Bourdain, the American chef and author, certainly agrees. “That’s God talking,” he says on tasting one of Bibic’s red Zinfandel relatives, Plavina and Lasin, that are unique to Bibic’s home of Skradin. “Why, oh why, is there so much amazing wine in this country?”

This push to try something new stands out in what is still today a very conservative Catholic nation. Bruno Trapan, another 36-year-old winemaker who got his first start on his grandfather’s small vineyard as a child, cheerfully admits that since he planted his first vineyard on the east coast of Istria in 2006 it’s been a steep learning curve. “I don’t always know what I am doing with the wine, but my talent is just to go with it,” says Trapan, who is known for successfully experimenting with grape assortment and wine-making techniques.

However, he says that a combination of help from older winemakers, collaboration with younger ones and above all his vaulting ambition to produce something very special from the red Istrian earth has enabled his winery to grow to cover 12 hectares and produce a range of top-class wines that are now exported as far afield as the US and Japan. “A Swedish person best described it to me as: ‘you didn’t choose the wine, the wine chose you’,” he says.

Flying oenologist

A key help for these young winemakers has been the establishment of projects like VinoLab – a consultancy set up by Jelicic for wineries that offers advice on everything “from grape to bottle”; from the chemical and microbiological analysis of grapes and soil, to advice on wine production and branding. “I became a ‘flying oenologist’ for more than 20 wineries all over Croatia and one in Slovenia in Maribor,” says Jelicic. “After all this traveling and work and meeting so many different people, I felt ready to settle at [Galic] winery.”

On arriving in 2008, Jelicic set about turning the low-quality Grasevina wine with residual sugar, a late harvest nose and golden colour into a modern, fruity fresh white that could be enjoyed by visitors during the hot summer in just one to two years because, like many Croatian wineries, most of the production is sold to tourists. This is mostly because the typically small production volumes mean Croatian wines aren’t cheap, making it hard for them to compete on the international wine market.

As such, the tourism sector is crucial for the further development of Croatia’s wine industry because, as most winemakers will tell you, it doesn’t matter if you have the world’s best wine if there is no one there to drink it. However, as many complain, there are still not the number and quality of hotels and restaurants in many of Croatia’s wine-making regions that you can find in places like Tuscany or Piedmont in next-door Italy, meaning more help is needed from the state.

“We need to invest more time and money in the promotion of Croatian premium wines, many of them coming from quite new wineries and often young winemakers. Most people I encounter still haven't had a chance to taste Croatian wines. I often feel like Croatia is terra incognita in this respect, therefore I organised the first CROwine festival in February in Prague where visitors were pleasantly surprised with what they experienced,” says Alida Ban Pavlovic, owner of Croatian Point, a Prague-based company established for the purpose of promoting and distributing Croatian premium products and services. “But it doesn't stop at wine; after that follows Croatian delicatessen and the always attractive potential for Croatian tourism.”

So even with all their entrepreneurial passion and ambition, Croatia’s young winemakers still bump up against the shortcomings of their political culture and sclerotic economy. “My idea is that the best winemakers from Slavonia, from Istria, from Dalmatia come together and create a special winemakers’ group who can make a difference, who can go in front of the government and local government and say: ‘we have done great things for 20 years, now you should now do something for us’,” Jelicic says.