Wines of Hvar Radovan Marčić
In order to understand the gastronomy of Hvar island, one must by all means get familiar with the island’s wines. The wine tale of Hvar is intriguing, has plenty of twists and turns and is, without any doubt, very interesting to food and wine connoisseurs.
Historically, it’s intertwined with and absolutely inseparable from the food tale. Wine-growing tradition most definitely began with the Greek colonization of the island, as shown today by the archaeological evidence of the ancient wine-drinking culture. From then on, the wine tale of Hvar, especially the chapter about the past few centuries which are easier to investigate, tells us about numerous ups and downs. Wine grapes have definitely dominated the island’s agriculture from ancient times. Just like they still do.
Similar to other parts of Dalmatia, wine-growing on the island flourished in the last two decades of the 19th century when a great misfortune struck Italy and France with the phylloxera epidemic destroying most of the vineyards. At the time, Hvar was the most prolific producer of grapes and wine and could easily be compared with the most famous wine regions of Europe. Those were the most fruitful years for local agriculture in terms of export and trade. So far unmatched! It was the time of growth for wine cellars, shipbuilding, sea transport, crafts in general and trade in particular. And then, as the vineyards in Western Europe recovered from the plague, everything suddenly stopped. All of a sudden there was less and less demand for the local wine and the devastating epidemic soon swept the island.
Everything collapsed and wine production rapidly dropped, shortly reaching the level from just a few decades before the big boom. But Hvar winemakers resorted to the wine-growing tradition of their fathers and grandfathers, focusing on grapes and wine cellars more than they did on the market. As if one blow was not enough, there came another. This time, though, political rather than economic.
In the late 1940s the political leaders of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia made a disastrous decision, the consequences of which were quite similar to the ones caused by the epidemic. Grape growers could only produce wine for their own needs while giving the rest of the grapes to a cooperative. There was a time when they used to pluck out the vines that were not so rich with grapes, especially the indigenous varieties, and planted the richer ones, influenced by the doomed Russian collectivism and megalomania which measured success only in terms of quantity. There was more than enough wine, but the quality was poor and it did not serve much purpose to grape growers. A decade later they were allowed to sell wine again so, little by little, they started growing those varieties from which they could make better wine.
Almost every village on the island had its own agricultural cooperative at that time. Only one of them is still working. The others are either gone or waiting for a buyer who will bring it back to life. Following the Armageddon-like privatization process at the beginning of the 1990s (when Croatia became independent), and a shorter period of stagnation, the wine tale is gaining momentum. The number of vineyards with indigenous varieties is growing, primarily those with plavac mali, and winemakers are becoming increasingly competitive when it comes to quality. Land is being cleared to make new vineyards. The average size of island vineyards is up to one hectare and only rarely reaches the maximum of 10 hectares.
However, there are many new vineyards on the island, even on the southern slopes which are most suitable, but very steep and therefore hard to cultivate. There has not been this many new vineyards (as in the past ten years) ever since the end of the 19th century.
The island’s biggest winemaker Zlatan Plenkovic from Sveta Nedelja (Zlatan otok winery) whose only competitor in terms of quantity is the still existing cooperative, PZ Svirce, found the land for new vineyards on the mainland instead of the island. New vineyards were planted in the western part of the coastal area of Makarska. In terms of quantity, these two producers are followed by Bastijana Winery in Jelsa, owned by the island’s most popular winemaker Andro Tomic, Vino Hvar Winery in Svirce, owned by Caric brothers, and the winery owned by the ambitious Plancic who has been, for the past twenty or so years, producing in the former cooperative in Vrbanj. The best wines of Hvar come from smaller wineries such as Dubokovic in Jelsa or Vujnovic brothers in Sucuraj. They are followed by Luviji winery from Hvar, Huljic from Jelsa, Marijan from Pitve, Pinjata from Vrboska, Pavino from Stari Grad and Tudor from Milna. The quality of wine has improved so much that Pave Petric Pavino and Ivo Dubokovic decided to make completely natural biodynamic wines, taking a risk which has so far paid off, especially in 2014 which was not the best year for grapes.
When it comes to grape varieties, the dominant one is the most valued Dalmatian red variety mali plavac. Besides mali plavac, another red grape variety called dernekuša (indigenous to Hvar) has been cultivated on the island for a very long time. Three white grape indigenous varieties are bogdanuša, parc, and mehuja. Parc has long been neglected. It is the main variety of the eastern part of the island (in the past the dominant one in vineyards of Bogomolje). Vujovic brothers are now trying to use parc they had planted in vineyards close to Sucuraj to make high quality wine. The other white varieties cultivated on the island and in various parts of Dalmatia are pošip and maraština. There is also kuc, which has a long tradition, too. Winemakers have recently started to grow „international“ varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, but not significantly, as if they use them only to experiment and blend these varieties with the ones indigenous to the island. Due to favorable circumstances, every now and then a new brand emerges, because no matter how small their production is, there are still numerous winemakers who believe they can market their products and compete with the island’s best. At the end of summer 2014 there was a local wine festival in Dol and around 30 winemakers presented their wines. Thanks to their tradition and quality which constantly improves the island’s wines have a prominent place in the overall gastronomy of the island.