Balkan Wine Travels (Part III)
Although not so large in territory (just half of that of Bulgaria), Croatia has wine regions notably differing in terms of terroir characteristics, varieties grown, and wines produced. Generally, the country can be divided in four distinct wine parts: Slavonia and Danube (on the North-East, between the rivers of Danube and Sava); Croatian Uplands (on the North-West, around Zagreb city and the borders with Slovenia and Hungary); Istria and Kvarner (comprising of Istria peninsula and the area northwest of Zadar city towards Rijeka); and Dalmatia (on the South-East).
Our tour begins in the region of Slavonia and its wine capital – Kutjevo. The valley north of Požega, where the small town of Kutjevo is situated, was called Vallis Aurea (the Golden Valley) by the ancient Romans for a reason. In the 13th century, the monks of the Cistercian Order built the oldest wine cellar here, which is operational even today. Then the Ottoman Turks conquered these lands for some 150 years, before the Habsburg Empire took the reign over the area until the World War I. In more recent times the territory was part of Yugoslavia. But irrespectively of who were the rulers of the region, the wine and the vineyards remained its true ensign. Today, the tiny Kutjevo with population of barely 5,000 people has about 40 wineries. Our final destination for the day is one of them, Vinarija Sontacchi, which offers also accommodation.
The family winery is among the smallest in Kutjevo and is located in the very downtown. We meet first the “guardian” of the winery, the dachshund Spačko, as well as the immense slabstone sculpture in the shape of a wine bottle (the biggest in the world, as we are told by our hosts).
The owners – the brothers Antun and Krunoslav Sontacchi – invite us for a wine tasting in the cellar, after we leave our luggage in the neat and commodious rooms of the guest house. We start the tasting with the local pride – the white variety Graševina, also known as Italian Riesling and Laški Riesling (in Slovenia). Although it is grown and well known even in Bulgaria (mostly due to the famous Euxinograde wines), it is the region of Slavonia where this variety has gained a real flagship status.
We learn more about the winery as we taste the wines of vintage 2014. Its story begins in the early 20th century, when the Italian immigrant Tomaso Sontacchi was hired as an agronomist, and later on as a superior, of the winery of the Croatian nobleman Zdenko Turković in Kutjevo, which was one of the largest and most famous in Europe at that time. The son of Tomaso got in the profession too and during the period between the two world wars managed to sell wine to some of the best restaurants in Zagreb. He also managed to pass his love to the vines and wine on his son and grandson. The current owners, Antun and Krunoslav, are fifth generation Sontacchi. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, helped by their father, they restored the family vineyards and established their winery in the place of a former stable. We should mention here that besides the wine, Kutjevo is very popular with its Lipizzaner horses, bred locally since the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
After the white Graševina we turn to the red wines – Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. Despite the fact that the region is traditionally renowned for white wines, some two thirds of the winery’s 2.5 hectares are planted with red varieties: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Blauer Portugieser. The white varieties, along with the Graševina, are represented by Müller-Thurgau as well, which is known here by the name of Rizvanac. The vineyards are grown in conformity with the nature and are not treated with any chemicals and pesticides. The wine is produced in entirely traditional way and the winery’s capacity is no greater than 40,000 liters.
Unnoticeably we get to the last and most famous of Sontacchi’s wines – Kitokret. There is a legend about this wine, which says that it is made from an old recipe, preserved through the ages. A glass of this wine can heal all illnesses, while another one can raise unexpected strengths and desire for love. Our hosts Antun and Kruno list a number of convincing examples that this is not just a legend. The most impressive one is about a former Croatian president who entered into the elections as an outsider, but after visiting Kutjevo and taking a few bottles of Kitokret, won the competition to a big surprise for his rivals. After so many undisputable evidences, it is more than natural that we leave the winery on the next day with several bottles of this magical wine. We will let you know about its effects right after we have had of it more than two glasses. :-)
Our next day in Kutjevo begins in a hammering mode with visits to the largest two wineries in the area. The owner of the first one, Mr. Vlado Krauthaker, came into the town right after he completed his education in agronomy and oenology. And he remained here for good. Initially he worked in the large wine-producing factory of PPK Kutjevo (the socialist-type agro complex), but after the political changes and breakup of Yugoslavia he started his own winemaking business. As usual, the beginning was hard with only 1 hectare of vineyards, no personnel and no markets. But he was driven inside by his infinite love to the profession and the ambition to prove not only his own abilities but also (and mostly) the merits of this truly blessed by the Nature region.
Persistently and focusing on the quality of the wines, the Krauthaker winery grew manifold with time. Currently it produces some 650,000 bottles of wine per year. That is why the ‘old’ building we are heading towards now is used only for ageing of the wines, as well as for wine tastings. The main vinification is performed in the new and modernly equipped winery, located in the industrial zone of Kutjevo.
At the front door we meet one of the winemakers of Krauthaker, who (typically for the people of his profession) turns out to be a very entertaining and pleasant company. While he shows us the compartments of the wine cellar, dug deeper underground and stacked with wooden barrels (all from Slavonian oak), he doesn’t stop telling us about the vineyards and the wines. We are simply surprised to learn that the overall 100 ha of own and rented from the local cooperative vineyards include the impressive diversity of 38 grape varieties. According to the winemaker, it takes at least 10 years to judge objectively whether given grape variety is really suitable for the particular terroir and can be vinified in a quality manner.
Hence, more than half of the varieties are grown experimentally, while the local pride Graševina takes the main share of all vineyards, with 2/3 of their area. The other white varieties, which the winery currently vinifies, are Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and Traminer. The red varieties, subject to high-quality vinification at Krauthaker, are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. The vineyards are cultivated entirely ecologically, with no use of chemicals. Even the agricultural machinery is replaced here with traditional horse traction. Winery’s philosophy is that wine is produced mostly by the Nature in the vineyards, and the humans can only assist this process with their devoted efforts. The great number of prestigious awards for Krauthaker from many national and international wine contests confirms in a convincing manner the validity of this philosophy.
The final destination of our trip in this region is the legendary Kutjevo winery. It is quite distinguishing as compared to all other wineries here especially for its huge size and production capacity – a legacy from its long and rich history. With its 7,500 ha of own land, where various crops are grown, Kutjevo d.d. closely resembles the socialist-type of agricultural and food-processing complexes (which existed in Bulgaria too). As we learn from our hosts, such was the fate of the centuries old wine cellar in the years after the World War II and before the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Unlike in Bulgaria, however, where the former big agro complexes were liquidated and their assets sold for peanuts, after the political changes the Croatian authorities simply privatized the entire complex as an operational enterprise. Thus, the old PKK Kutjevo was acquired by Mr. Enver Moralić, a multimillionaire of Bosnian origin, who made his fortunes from trade in oil during the 1970s. This privatization turned successful and currently the Kutjevo d.d. winery produces some 5-6 million liters of wine per year, 80% of which is from the Graševina variety. About 1/3 of the annual quantity of wine produced is exported to the countries in Eastern and Western Europe, Russia, China, Japan, the USA, and others. The winery is very proud of the fact that its production comprises nearly half of the overall wine export of Croatia.
Despite of its enormous capacity and actual output, the product list of Kutjevo d.d. includes also a premium class of wines, which are regular contenders in wine contests, such as Decanter, and often win medals.
For us, as tempted wine tourists, the greatest attraction of Kutjevo d.d. is the oldest wine cellar in Croatia, which is situated within boundaries of the complex. This cellar was built in the 13th century by the monks of the Cistercian Order. And it’s a must-see site, indeed. After we pass quickly through the production zone of the winery complex (where we come across some really huge wooden barrels, which are in a process of restoration in the moment), we enter the underground brick-vaulted eight-century-old wine cellar.
The monks have probably known well how to build such premises, as everything that we see now has passed the test of time in a very remarkable way. The thick layer of noble mold on the walls just adds to the feeling of belonging to an epoch long bygone. The only novel things around are the electrical installation and the museum collection, dedicated to the history of winegrowing in Kutjevo over the ages. The ‘wine archive’ of Kutjevo d.d., which is the oldest and richest on the territory of Croatia, is also kept in here. Its filling up began in the end of the 19th century, but in the time of the World War II was unfortunately devastated. The oldest exhibits now date back to 1946.
A big stone-made table, standing in the middle of the cellar, keeps probably the raciest legend about the local wine. This legend has it that once upon a visit of the Empress Maria Theresia of Austria in the neighboring castle, she received an invitation to enjoy a glass of wine in the old cellar from Baron Franz von der Trenck (or Franjo Trenk, as known by the Croats). The Baron was the creator and commander of the legendary Pandurs army unit, which was undefeated for its time. Franjo Trenk gave the Empress a glass of wine with added aphrodisiac-herbs, and ordered no one to bother their rendezvous until they are still in the cellar. This unusual love date lasted for a whole week. After Trenk and Maria Theresia left the cellar, the workers found on one of the walls 60 notches of one kind and 70 notches of another – looking pretty much like tracking records of the intimate intercourses they have allegedly had. The workers also found a hollow in the table and suspected it was again a result from the lust between Maria Theresia and Baron Trenk. It is believed since then, that the stone-made table has magical powers: anyone who puts a hand on it would adopt at least a bit of the sexual strength of the Empress and the Baron, and would have her/his innermost love desires coming true. :-)
Enthused by our pleasant stay in Kutjevo and the wonder-working local wine, we take the road west to the Mediterranean wine regions of Croatia.
To be continued...
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