Driving down the dusty road toward the Croatian village of Konavle, Ivo Vodopić chirped excitedly at the green sea that flooded the land. The snow-haired winemaker pointed to the the grape varietals outside the car’s windows, listing off long, elegant-sounding wines as he whizzed past the eponymous rivers of grapes. The lush vines’ tendrils stretched themselves toward the sky, basking in the hot May sun. At that moment, the small mountain village seemed like it had been stuck in the same place in time for decades.
Yet, just 25 years ago, the Yugoslav People’s Army occupied this peaceful land. From 1991 to 1992, soldiers plundered, then destroyed, the Konavle villagers’ houses, razing any sign of vegetal life to the ground. For winemakers like Vodopić, the war left them with nothing but ruins, a barren greeting to an optimistic return.
“When we came back to the house, there was no old vineyard,” lamented Vodopić, describing the scene to which he came home after escaping with his family to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. Though they would have to start from scratch, the Vodopić family decided to go back to its roots. “I wanted to continue our family tradition, which was winemaking,” Vodopić said. “I wanted to produce some wines.”
Croatia usually isn’t on the tip of people’s tongues when listing countries in the Mediterranean known for their world-class wines. Perhaps it’s because locals and tourists consume almost all of the country’s supply. The other reason might be the nation’s political history: Up until the Croatian War of Independence, this former Yugoslav state’s communist government tethered its wine industry to a restrictive production model that inhibited the development of, well, good wine.
Before the breakout of the all-too-recent war, only a handful of state-run winemakers were allowed to produce wine. Under this self-undermining law, vineyard owners had to sell their grapes to these wineries by the kilo, at a price set annually by the government. Despite the widespread popularity of the drink, as a result of these policies winemaking simply did not make money. Instead, winemaking was practiced predominantly as a secondary job, with the slight benefit for vineyard owners of making under-the-table wine for family imbibing.
But, more importantly, the quality of commercial wine, in comparison to now, was considered by many to be less optimal on the whole because of poor attention to quality control, and shady practices like irrigation to increase the weight, and therefore cost, of the grapes.
“They wanted larger yields,” said Zoran Pejović, the owner of Paradox Wine Bar in Split. “So when you have mass production of grapes, you don’t — I don’t know — do any green harvest, you don’t control your yield. Obviously the quality of grapes was not going to be as good.”
Winemaking was a family tradition in Konavle. The vineyard in the Vodopić family went back generations, passed down from son to son. Ivo Vodopić’s wife, Kate Vodopić, also grew up with the winemaking tradition. But under the Yugoslav government, explained Pejovic of Paradox, “they were wine growers, not winemakers.”
Occupation of regions during the war forced vintners like Vodopić to flee for their safety and caused the demise of many vineyards. The cultivation of grapes in certain regions of the country halted. Soldiers occupied towns, shelled houses, and burned villages, forcing families like the Vodopić’s to escape to western Croatia for their safety.
If you’re from a family of winemakers, you go back to being a winemaker.
“Many people lost their loved ones. Their houses were destroyed, their memories were destroyed,” said Ivo Banac, professor emeritus at Yale and Dubrovnik native, as he described the war’s effect on the region. “I have many relatives in Konavle, for example, who did not preserve their photographs, various certificates, marriage licenses.”
On returning, however, there was only one thing left to do: grow grapes again.
“If you’re from a family of winemakers, you go back to being a winemaker,” said Pejović. “It’s their life and their heritage, and most of the people still don’t think in economic sense about wine,” he continued. “It’s what they do–what they work for, live for.”
Croatia soon saw its own wine renaissance. Small vintners began producing their own vino, cultivating individual brand identities. No longer focusing on simply producing the most kilos of grapes, their focus shifted to taste. The revitalized vineyard owners have begun selling their wine directly to restaurants. The tourism industry, once booming in the nearby city of Dubrovnik, slowly revived, and local vintners jumped at the opportunity to provide tours, tastings and bottles of their exclusive batches.
“Since the year 2000, the number of private producers doubled,” said Silvio Simon, a professor of viticulture and agriculture at the University of Zagreb. “And you can see a constant year-on- year growth. In beginning, there was about 700 producers. In 2015, the number was around 1800.”
The rapid growth of the Croatian wine industry can be attributed to a long history of wine in the region, but also to the new technology that was introduced following the war. One benefit of starting from scratch was the ease of incorporating new technology. Machines measuring the pressure of wine and for crushing grapes were now available to even the middle-class producers.
“That’s the difference between making wine now,” Vodopić said, citing a laundry list of now-kitschy old habits that went out the door after the war, including “not using the feet of young girls!”
On top of new technology, Croatian winemakers are also latching on to the latest trends. Vodopić has clued into foreigners’ love of everything organic. Now in Konavle, he says, “they’re even starting to use organic manure!”
The country’s wine quality could go glass to glass with other critically acclaimed wine regions on the international scale. Dušan Jelić, founder of the digital marketing group Wines of the Balkans, has high praise for Croatian wines in particular. His personal favorite: Plavac Mali. “It has everything I expect in wine,” he said. “Power, poise, delicacy, harmony, can accompany any kind of food, particularly meat, cheeses.” But, he added, “It requires responsible drinking, because if Plavac is good after one glass, you can feel fire in your ears.”
In addition to its revival as a Balkan tradition, people are once again cultivating the family-owned vineyards. Every September through October, family and friends flood into the vineyard to help pick the grapes. Vodopić is tending his vineyard to become something that he will be able to pass onto his son, as his father did to him.
“I don’t think there’s any segment of Croatian industry that’s developed as much as the wine industry in the last ten years,” said Jelić. “We are having more and more wineries that can compete with wineries from around the world. And we have people who can understand wine, and who are ready to dedicate their lives to wine.”
Today, tasting the offerings of Croatia’s unique grape varietals still requires a special voyage. You won’t find Malvasija Dubrovačka on many (if any) highbrow New York menus, and Croatian wines are barely exported even within the Balkan states. While some bottles go home with adventurous tourists who venture outside Dubrovnik’s old city walls for a vineyard tour, most vintners sell directly to local restaurants. Foreign importers have been left disappointed when small vineyard owners simply could not meet the high volume and low cost they desired. As such, the crisp, clean blanket of floral notes in Croatian wine is a well-earned experience one must seek out. But it’s worth the effort.
“We don’t have quantity,” Vodopić explained, noting that his reach is quite small compared with the mass production of his country’s commercial wineries. “But we have quality.”